April 2014

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An Interview with Rachel Weaver

Interview by Claudia Savage

Rachel Weaver's debut novel, Point of Direction, about a fearless climber, Anna, and fisherman, Kyle, who fall in love and attempt to solidify their relationship by becoming caretakers of a remote lighthouse, is the unlikeliest of love stories. Set against the rugged landscape of coastal Alaska, Weaver makes you feel the thick rain, the never-ending wind, the possibility of bears, and then marries it with multiple mysteries you'll be desperate to solve. It is the kind of book you won't be able to put down except to put another log on the fire.

Rachel and I met in a writing class in the late 1990s in Boulder, Colorado, and wrote and shared work on and off for almost a decade. While we were both initially poets, Rachel's time spent in Alaska during the winter helped her make the transition to fiction. Point of Direction is filled with characters as personable, rugged, and intense as she is, and you'll find yourself wanting to have a beer with each and every one of them. Her tightly crafted sentences and riveting plot got her noticed by the American Booksellers Association -- she is one of their Indies Introduce Debut Authors picks for Spring 2014. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Blue Mesa Review. She represented Naropa University, where she received her MFA, in the Harcourt Brace Best New Voices in American Fiction contest for 2006, 2007, and 2008.

In this interview, we talk about Alaskan women, the appeal of physical suffering, and why Point of Direction is an unusual love story.

Your process for writing the book was pretty unusual, definitely not the typical computer at a café or, even, longhand in the living room. How and where was Point of Direction composed?

I began to write fiction while I was working seasonally for the Forest Service in Alaska. I spent years and years wanting to write a novel, but always felt unsure how to start. Somewhere in the middle of the second winter I spent in Alaska, I decided I had to do something to escape the rain and dark and so I finally launched into the world of fiction. I became addicted. I wrote all the time, huddled up against my woodstove, or to the loud roar of the generator that provided power to the cabin I was living in, or at the library where the electricity was free. In the spring when I started working again for the Forest Service, I carried a stack of unlined loose paper folded in half in the top of my backpack. I wrote longhand while I waited for the floatplane that would drop me off to run bird surveys or in my tent at night in the diffuse light of the Alaskan summer. I wrote in dark cabins late at night with a headlamp while working on bear projects or in tree stands while waiting for the bears to show up. When I got back to my cabin outside of town, I'd type in all that I'd written and edit it as I went along. This is still my process -- longhand first and then a full edit as I type it into my computer.

Unlike some novelists who dream up their characters and situations, or spend years doing research for their topics, you actually lived a lot of your book as a biologist for the Forest Service in Alaska. What drew you to Alaska and what kept you there?

When I was twenty-six years old, I was living in Colorado working in the sub-basement of a chemistry lab. I had previously lived and worked at the Teton Science School where I taught river ecology from canoes, and worked as a field assistant to a wildlife biologist who surgically planted paper thin, remote tracking devices in the fatty tissue, just under the skin, of yellow-bellied marmots. I'd crewed on a fifty-two-foot sailboat in the Mediterranean and spent a summer clearing trails with a chainsaw in New Hampshire. I was paying my school loans with much more ease than I had previously, but chemistry in the basement was boring. On a whim, I interviewed for a job as a sea kayak guide in Alaska. I'd never seen Alaska or a sea kayak. I told the guy I had good balance. For some reason he hired me. Once I moved to Alaska, I fell in love with the landscape, with the raw beauty and undisturbed way of things. I was caught by how powerful I felt within it, as well as how powerless.

The Alaska you describe in the novel is the kind of place where the notion of physical labor as a means of redemption feels possible. Most of the characters fish and hunt and build their own boats. Can you talk about the appeal of this type of life? What do you feel is gained by having to fish for your food or chop wood for fuel and cooking?

My parents lived in a cabin without running water or electricity in northern Michigan when I was born. My dad hunted for food and my mom had a chicken coop and a huge garden. My parents eventually chose to live in town, but that subsistence way of life was stitched into the fabric of their shared history. I always liked to hear the stories of the mean rooster or the day my dad shot all the heads off the broccoli in the garden because he was so sick of eating it. When I moved to Alaska, it made sense to me on some cellular level to fish for food, to can what was abundant in the summer so that it would last all winter, to spend days and days hauling and chopping wood to heat the house once the weather closed in. I found the way those activities tied my life to the turning of each year deeply satisfying.

In keeping with that idea, one of the most startling aspects of the book is how much Anna suffers physically and how unfazed the community seems by this. Her suffering seems a rite of passage to becoming "Alaskan" when she was an outsider. Were there real stories that informed this aspect of the book?

I came to Alaska as an outsider and so I see it through that lens. The first summer I worked for the Forest Service, it was forty degrees and raining for almost five months straight. I hiked every day as part of a field crew, bushwhacking through the tangled forest, alternately soaking from the outside in from rain or from the inside out from sweat. There were a lot of bugs. I camped in wet tents and slept in wet sleeping bags after long strenuous days under a heavy pack along with the rest of the field crew. I shivered at some point almost every day. I learned that to be physically uncomfortable was okay. Everyone else was in the same situation and it rarely came up in conversation. It was part of what the life I wanted required, which I knew to some extent from my years of athletics, but had never actually tested to that extreme. It was quite freeing, actually, in that as I learned to tolerate physical discomfort on a whole new scale, I gained the confidence I needed to address some of the emotional discomforts of my life. Now that you point it out, I suppose I set this path for Anna as well.

One of the biggest characters in Point of Direction was the weather. As a reader you really feel the wind, the fierce rain, the harsh ice, and sea. And, yet, many of the characters seem to find meaning in being outside all the time.

Yes, it is a place where life is lived as much outside as it is inside. There is wood to cut and fish to catch and places to explore that take your breath away. If you waited for good weather, you would never do any of those things. Also, there is something about being out in the crazy wind and rain that makes you feel very alive. I think many people who are drawn to places like Alaska are seeking that type of interaction with the landscape.

The book takes place right before the ubiquity of cell phones and Internet connections, and the world you create feels like its interdependency would be untouched by technology anyway. There is an ease in the way people speak to each other, a kind of openness and honesty that makes every interaction, even the short ones, vibrate with sincerity. Is the notion of community and connection something you strive to elucidate through your fiction?

Yes, I was struck by how different life is in small town Alaska. Before moving there, I had lived in small towns but always had the ability to drive away if I wanted to. In southeast Alaska, the towns are severed from each other in a way that is not possible in the lower forty-eight, or "down south" as it's called. There are no roads connecting the islands, the ferries come through a couple times a week, there is one northbound jet and one southbound jet a day. There are many days when the jets can't land in the winter due to weather. Other towns can be reached by water, but it is often too treacherous a trip in the size skiff most people have. Not to mention, all of these options of getting out of town are expensive. This level of isolation creates a different type of community, which I worked to portray in the book.

One of the first things I noticed when reading your book was that unlike many stories involving young women, Anna doesn't really interact with many people her own age besides her boyfriend, Kyle. In fact, the most significant relationships seem to come from those with older men and women, specifically in a mentorship role. Were these types of relationships important to you as a young woman in Alaska?

I created this situation for Anna because she feels so isolated from others her age. She has experienced something that has aged her in a way most people in their twenties have yet to experience. She is drawn to Kyle because, at first, he seems able to cut through that isolation in a way most people her age cannot. She feels kinship to older men and women because they have lived life long enough that they appreciate, or perhaps recognize, the depths of where she's been because they have been there in their own way as well. Also, in a small community, intergenerational friendships are more the norm than they are in big cities where you can find whole bars full of people your own age.

There are several love stories that happen in Point of Direction, but the most obvious one, between Anna and Kyle, seems an aside to Anna forgiving and finding love for herself. This upends both literary adventure genres that shy away from love stories, and traditional girl-meets-boy, girl-is-defined-by-boy's-love genres. Anna's transformation is self-created and mature. Did you set out to create a book where the lead female character healed herself? What barriers were you trying to dispel with a character who can fish, chop wood, and climb as well, if not better, than the men in the book?

Alaska is full of women who are as competent and capable as the men around them. Anna is an honest example of many women I met while there. I knew from the outset that I wanted Anna to heal herself, but really struggled with what she or Kyle or both of them would have to sacrifice in order for her to do that. It became a practice for me in examining relationships -- how they work and how they break, the ways in which people create room for each other within a relationship or don't, and the myriad of ways emotional distance between two individuals can be either beneficial or detrimental.

The other amazing thing about the book is how you evoke a consistent sense of claustrophobia for poor Anna. She is trapped by nightmares, ice, lighthouses, her relationship, the weather, and her past. How did you create this tone for her?

Poor Anna! I gave her so much to overcome. Many of the early drafts of this book were in past tense, but I found later that the immediacy of present tense worked better. Through the use of present tense, I could create a bit of claustrophobia in the reader as well, which mirrored Anna's. It seemed a way to pull the reader into the story further than past tense was allowing.

Nicole Krauss once said, "It was very important to me NOT to write what some people call a 'poet's novel' -- something driven largely by the momentum of language. I wanted a plot. I wanted characters that sounded like real people. I still wanted to use everything I'd learned writing poetry, but to a totally different effect." Point of Direction feels like a compromise of these ideas. The plot has incredible momentum, but there is such lyricism and beauty in the sentences that it is obvious you were once a poet. Can you talk a bit about the difficulties and joys of novel writing for you and how poetry has served you as a fiction writer? Was writing a novel liberating after poetry?

I've always been a voracious reader. When I decided I wanted to write books, I knew exactly the type of book I wanted to write and I knew I had to study poetry first. For five years I hacked around in the world of poetry, learning from the actual poets I was in classes and writing groups with. I studied the pacing of phrases and the sounds of one word against the next and hoped it would carry over into the book I planned to write someday. I agree with Nicole Krauss. I wanted to learn how to plot and develop characters. I wanted the lyrical language to support and give depth to a good story, not get in the way of it. This turned out to be harder than I imagined. The language flowed out of me -- a complicated, well-woven plot did not. I don't think it was until the second to last draft of this book that I actually learned how to plot. It wasn't until my agent started to give up on the book because the plot did not have enough depth that I finally found the last bit of juice I needed to let go and let things happen.

Finally, lighthouses figure prominently as a form of metaphor for many works of fiction, often very positively, but it is rare to see them utilized like you have as a place of secrets and danger. How did you come up with this idea and how does the title figure into it?

When I first viewed Eldred Rock from the deck of the ferry, it honestly seemed to me a place that might be filled with secrets and danger despite the sunny day and flat sea. The picture on the front cover of the book is of Eldred Rock, which I used as the setting for the book under the fictionalized name Hibler Rock. The lighthouse is on a tiny rock in the middle of a deep fjord with snowcapped mountains on either side, as far as you can see. The second time I passed by the lighthouse, it was winter and the wind was howling through the narrow walls of the fjord. This confirmed for me that life at the lighthouse could potentially have a sinister side, as the ferry I was on worked its way through the wind-whipped waves and rain pelted against the hull. As far as the title goes, I think it takes people, women especially, a long time to realize they can be their own point of direction and then beyond that, to trust it. That is essentially what the book is about.