With contributions from more than 30 Alaska essayists, journalists and novelists, the new collection “Writing on the Edge” attempts to represent the state from the inside — real stories straight from the mouths, pens and keyboards of its inhabitants.
At least that was the abstract developed by longtime book reviewer David A. James for the collection, which was published last month by Epicenter Press.
“What I kind of wanted to get was sort of this is the Alaska that I’ve encountered in my 33 years up here,” James said in a recent interview with the Anchorage Daily News.
The compilation was spurred by longtime Alaska journalist and writer Lael Morgan, who cold-called James and pitched him on the idea of a book focusing on Alaska literature.
It’s a topic that James is intimately familiar with. Writing Alaska book reviews for the Anchorage Daily News and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner since 2006, James has read and considered tens of thousands of pages of text on the 49th state.
The book features contemporary fiction and nonfiction, with plenty of Alaska adventure. But it also includes urban stories like Mary Kudenov’s vignette of apartment life in Mountain View from “Threadbare” or Rob McCue’s tales of driving a taxi in Fairbanks in the middle of the winter in “One Water.”
“It just sort of puts you in these places where it’s like, this is the everyday Alaska and not just climbing Denali, although that’s in there as well,” James said. “And it’s part of the sense that it can go to just incredible highs and incredible lows, and everything in between.”
James will be signing books during an appearance at Title Wave Books in Anchorage from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday.
We asked James five questions on the book, and his answers cover how he developed the concept and what it expresses about the state and its writers. This conversation has been lightly edited.
ADN: What was Lael Morgan’s impact on the book?
James: This book would not exist without Lael Morgan. She did a lot of the legwork on getting permissions when I was hitting some brick walls. It started with her and it was really one of the last things she did and I’m really indebted to her for this. ... We kind of tossed a few ideas around and this is what eventually came out.
ADN: What was the process for selecting and collecting the works?
James: Once I’ve kind of figured out a game plan ... I just started getting ahold of authors, trying to find pieces that were representative, things that I’d read but not everyone (included) was out of books that I’ve reviewed. But you know, there was just reaching out (to the writers) and I don’t think anyone was less than overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the whole idea. I mean, everybody that I contacted said, “Yeah sure, I’d love to be in it.”
ADN: How long was the process?
James: It stalled out because I started it pre-pandemic, and then the pandemic hit, and that was when I just kind of hit a wall with it. I felt like I was sort of like backing up and questioning “Is this really Alaska?” you know, because it just was such a weird time. And in a way, what brought me back was Molly Rettig’s book “Finding True North,” for which she spent a lengthy time with four longtime Alaskans. That book guided me back to why I fell in love with this place, you know, 30 some years ago. And that’s really when it started moving again.
ADN: How much did the concept of the book change or evolve as you began to collect all of the works?
James: I think it kind of got more serious with time, you know. ... (Author) Rosemary McGuire grew up here and she said, “There’s a lot of beauty and a lot of troubled people.” I used that quote from her at the start that this is a homeland and not a wilderness. And that was something that kind of came to me as I put it together. This really wasn’t a wilderness thing even though there are some wilderness stories. It’s really about the people that live here and what our lives are like in real terms.
ADN: With so many great Alaska writers and works to choose from, how did you know when the book was done?
James: When I took (science writer) Ned Rozell’s two pieces and bookended with it. Ned’s a fantastic science writer. ... Those aren’t so much science pieces as they are cultural pieces that fit the theme of the book. It opened with (a story about) ravens, these scrappy birds that he kind of compared to Alaskans, and closed it with (a scene where) it’s 40 below and you’re putting your kid on the bus. It’s Alaska and you live here. This is your reality.