Deb Vanasse sits out on the deck of her home on Hiland Road, casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her hand idly stroking the head of her energetic boxer, McKenzie. Behind her, the valley stretches wide and far, and out in the distance two eagles float across the sky.
Vanasse, an accomplished writer with more than 10 books to her name and co-founder of 49 Alaska Writing Center, moved to Eagle River from Anchorage two years ago with husband Mike Ferency.
Her latest book, “Cold Spell,” will be released Aug. 14 by the University of Alaska Press, though it’s already available through online booksellers.
The work lyrically blends two stories: a mother trying to start over in Alaska and a daughter whose longings threaten to undo them.
Advance reviews have been glowing. According to Booklist, “Cold Spell” both “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds.” It is, Vanasse says simply, the book she’s always wanted to write.
Passion for words
Vanasee, who grew up on the grounds of a mental institution where her father worked in the Midwest, always loved to read and dreamed of becoming a writer. Yet when her college adviser pointed out that writers don’t make an easy living, she pursued a teaching degree.
Her first teaching job was in the Yukon-Kuskokwim town of Nunapitchuk in 1979. Back then, Alaska had a plan where you could retire after 20 years of teaching, she says. It was her goal to put her writing dreams on hold until after retirement.
But life didn’t quite work out that way.
After moves to Bethel, Fairbanks and North Pole, she published her first book, “Distant Enemy,” a young-adult account of the clash of cultures in the Alaska Bush, a few years before her 20-year retirement date.
“I was very fortunate that my first novel was published out of New York in 1997, when I was still teaching,” she says. “I felt like, 'wow, I’m ahead of schedule.'”
The book started as an assignment for a continuing education course. “I had never written a story or any fiction in my life,” she says with a laugh.
After putting her son and daughter to bed, she’d sit down and write. “They always say 'write what you know,' and I knew the village -- but I didn’t know the village,” she says. She ended up writing what turned out to be chapter 14 of “Distant Enemy.”
“The teacher really liked it, but I put it away,” she says. “I was really busy.” It took another education class, 10 years later, before she resurrected that chapter.
“It was a similar assignment, to bring in a story, and I was like, 'I already have one,'” she says. “It was a different teacher and she said, ‘This is really a novel, if you tell what happened before and after.’”
She did just that, and when she finished, the instructor recommended Vanasse send it to her agent in New York, where it was soon picked up by a publisher. “It was ridiculously easy,” Vansee says. “I was lucky. I benefited from the generosity of other writers.”
Vanasse finished writing her first book, “Distant Enemy,” during summer vacation from her teaching job.
“That book and every book since has been about discovery,” she says. “It’s so exciting to find out things you didn’t expect. And when it’s done, to discover how much of the book is really about you, which you also don’t expect.”
Unlike most of Vanasse’s past work, “Cold Spell” is an adult novel. She ended up writing for young adults by chance.
“The woman who told me my story could be a novel wrote for young adults, and her editor edited young adults,” she says. “That was the beginning.”
Vanasee enjoys writing for young-adult audiences, yet she’s always aspired to write the kind of books she loves to read: books that you curl up with in a chair, that cause you to linger and wonder.
Thesis project becomes book
“Cold Spell” took Vanasse more than three years to write as she pursued her master of fine arts degree. “At the time, I had published almost 10 books but didn’t feel as if I had ever really studied creative writing,” she says.
Unable to afford a regular MFA on retirement funds, she formulated her own course of study, and “Cold Spell” was her thesis project.
She threw out lengthy versions of the book and threw out a third draft after she thought she was done. “That wasn’t hard because I could see it getting better,” she says. Once finished, it felt similar to when her children graduated from college.
“I thought, 'If I die tomorrow, it’s okay, this is done,'” she says.
The book highlights emotions and situations from deep inside -- topics such as her relationship with her mother, with religion and with the Alaska wilderness.
Now that “Cold Spell” is finished and the publishing process is over, Vanasse is anxious to begin her next book.
“I have this pent-up energy; the water is building up behind the floodgates,” she says.
Cinthia Ritchie is the editor of the Alaska Star. Used with permission.