AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Heads should roll at University of Alaska Press

Craig Medred

OPINION: "The Storms of Denali" ought to blow somebody right out of a job at the University of Alaska Press. Not because it's a bad book. The reviews say it's OK. But because the University of Alaska Press seems to have forgotten the second word in its title: Alaska.

In a state chock-a-block full of writers and would-be-writers, the University of ALASKA press has decided to start publishing the works of Seattle authors. Better yet, it appears to have also farmed out the promotional work -- the good old PR effort -- to another Seattle outfit.

The girls at Girl Friday Productions are probably wonderful girls. It is OK to call them "girls" when the name of their company is Girl Friday, isn't it? But no matter how wonderful these girls might be, there are no shortage of women -- young ones, old ones, pretty ones, bold ones -- capable of doing PR who actually LIVE in Alaska.

Or maybe the whole "Alaska hire” idea is just for welders and oil-field workers. If you've been in Alaska long, you known about the never-ending debates over Alaska hire. The Legislature seems to be always beating the oil industry about the head with the subject. There is this belief the oil industry hires too many non-residents who come to Alaska to grab what they can get and get out.

It's an old story. It dates back to the Gold Rush days. Alaska, for most people, isn't the friendliest place in the winter. It's dark and brutally cold, at least in the Interior. Elsewhere, it's dark and buried in so much snow it seems all a man does in the winter is shovel or snowshoe to pack the stuff down. That would be southern Alaska. Along coastal Alaska, it's dark and hurricane windy at times when it's not cold or snowy or raining to turn the snow into slush almost too heavy to shovel.

Despite this, there are people who "winter over" as they say. Some of them actually like Alaska in the winter. They like to ski. They like to run snowmachines or dog sleds. They often even like the fact the "sunbirds" or "snowbirds" or whatever you call those summer-only people flee south at the first hint of “Termination Dust” high on the mountains. It's peaceful in Alaska in the winter. And don't tell the cowards who leave in fear of the dark and cold that you can go places in Alaska in winter a lot easier than in summer. If you really want to explore Alaska's wilderness, the time to do it is during what Jack London called the "white silence." The “long, long, long white silence,” a writer more accustomed to the hustle and bustle and modern day creature comforts might add.

The mere thought of the silence drives some people south. Good riddance. Unfortunately, their retreat is not good for business. People living in Seattle don't buy much in Alaska. If you're running a supermarket or gas station, it's nice to see the influx of summer tourists, but it takes year-round residents to keep you afloat. Some of those residents, believe it or not, happen to be writers or wannabe writers. Trust me on this; I regularly hear from the latter wanting to know how to get their book published.

The University of Alaska Press, probably the state's largest publishing house, has now gone and slapped them all in the face with this from the girls at Girl Friday:

I’m pleased to announce the new novel from Seattle writer and expert climber Nick O’Connell. The Storms of Denali (July; University of Alaska Press) follows two lifelong friends and die hard climbers on a treacherous journey up Alaska's famed Denali, the highest and coldest peak in North America. Though Wyn and John have known each other for decades, their paths have diverged: John has a wife and son at home while Wyn has reached fame (and infamy) as a climber but in the meantime given everything up for the sport and become a climber with nothing to lose, a quality which makes him both inspiring and dangerous as a climbing partner. When Wyn comes back in town to convince John to attempt a new route up Denali (a peak the two men tried and failed to ascend years before), John is unable to resist the siren call of the sport he loves, but at what cost?

The "I" there, as in "I'm," is Andrea Dunlop, who is happy to proclaim on the Girl Friday website that she "began her career at Random House in New York, where she worked as a publicist for Doubleday. During her time there she worked on campaigns for such bestselling authors as John Grisham, E. Lynn Harris, Linda Fairstein, Tina Brown, and" yadda, yadda, yadda.

Apparently, no matter how much Alaskans might be of the "we don't care how they do it Outside" school, the University of Alaska Press is of a school that cares very much how they do it Outside. They care so much they let some woman Outside announce one of their latest publications -- a book made up by a guy in Seattle.

I don't know O'Connell. He's probably a nice fellow. That's the Seattle norm, right? He appears to have a descent climbing resume. Why it matters, I don't know. He wrote a novel. It's fiction. He made it up. Not to harp too much on the goofy but sometimes insightful observations or our former Gov. Sarah Palin, but O'Connell could be some kid down in his parents' basement typing away. There could, in fact, be some kid in a parents' basement in Alaska typing away right now on the next great American novel right now.

Find that kid. Get him some help. Get his or her book published.

This what the University of A-L-A-S-K-A Press is supposed to be doing. I'm sorry if I sound like some sort of chauvinist Alaskan pig here. I know a lot of people Outside read this website. So maybe I should apologize, but I am a chauvinistic Alaskan pig. In Alaska, we help each other because there ain't nobody else going to help us. There aren't any publishing houses in New York combing the 49th state for writers who've penned novels set on the slopes of Mount Rainier.

Speaking of which, why didn't O'Connell just set his book on the slopes there and find a Seattle publisher? Rainier isn't all that different from Mount McKinley, except, of course, you can call the latter "Denali" and traffic in the trendy name. But it's really still McKinley. Then again, we're dealing with fiction here, so O'Connell can call the mountain any damn thing he wants.

And I can call the University of Alaska Press anything I want. I should use a four- or six-letter word for the description, but I won't. That would be wrong.

I will say this instead. I attended the University of Alaska, Fairbanks -- out of which the University of Alaska Press is based. I got a degree in journalism there. The year was 1975. I spent nearly all the rest of my adult life, winters included, here in Alaska. Some of it in Fairbanks. Some of it in Juneau. A good bit of it in Anchorage. I did a bit of writing. I don't claim that any of it ever amounted to much, but it did put me in touch with some amazing writers, some truly amazing writers.

One of them, a woman by the name of Debbie McKinney who used to work for the Anchorage Daily News, is in the process of finishing a book about a guy named Dan Bigley who should be dead, but isn't. A grizzly bear ripped his face off. He was miraculously saved by others. His face was rebuilt by doctors, but he was left blind and disfigured. Some people couldn't bear to look at him in the weeks after the mauling. His girlfriend ignored the horror of his appearance and stood by him. He healed. He went through rehab. They got married. He came back to Alaska to take a job. They started a family. Bigley was honored in 2008 as Alaskan of the Year.

McKinney describes the book she's been working on with Bigley as a "love story." I've read parts. I'd describe it "as the basis for a first-rate made for TV movie." Needless to say, the University of Alaska Press won't be publishing it. Apparently, it's too busy courting authors from Outside.

As a graduate of the University of Alaska, I'm tempted to say I'm embarrassed, but I don't really get embarrassed by the bad behavior of others, I get … well … best not to use the word. Those who know me know what I get. The rest of you can probably figure out from the tone of this column. I can, however, say this.

The University of A-L-A-S-K-A Press needs its act cleaned up. It needs to be reminded where it is located. The best way to send that message is for someone's head to roll. Yes that sounds positively medieval, but it works. Let the "Storms of Denali" sweep someone out onto the streets of Fairbanks to look for a new job. When they're gone, I have a tip for the replacement:

There's a woman in Alaska named Sheila Toomey. She's the best crime writer Alaska ever knew. I know; I've met some crime writers from New York and Los Angeles and some other big cities, so I'm calibrated. Toomey is arguably one of the best crime writers America never knew. She's not doing much now. She has a wealth of Alaska history and drama stored away in her head. Track her down. Put her feet to a fire. And get her to write a novel. I can guarantee you she won't need to resort to the trick of setting the scene on Mount McKinley (oh, I'm sorry, "Denali") to keep the pace moving.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com