This is part of Alaska Authors, an occasional series about authors and other literary figures with ties to the 49th state.
Author Stan Jones only spent about four years living on Alaska’s Arctic coast, but it left a lifelong impression. “All the time I was in Kotzebue I thought, this is such an interesting place, such interesting people, such an interesting culture,” he said recently.
Jones, a near-lifelong Alaskan, spun those four years into his Nathan Active detective novel series. Taking place in a town closely modeled on Kotzebue, a community he and his wife maintain close ties with, the setting allows Jones to weave elements of Inupiat and Alaskan life into his books, he said, hopefully making them “fun, interesting, and at least somewhat true to the culture up there.”
Jones was born in Alaska during territorial days when his father was stationed in Anchorage with the Civil Aeronautics Authority (predecessor to the FAA). His parents came from what he described as “some pretty hardscrabble farming country” in Tennessee. When Jones was 2, the family returned there, but with few economic opportunities, eventually came back. By then Jones was 12, and, he said, “Alaska turned into my home.”
After high school, Jones attended Cornell University before transferring to the California Institute of Technology, where he studied computer engineering. One winter day while riding the bus back to school from Los Angeles following Christmas break, Jones met Susan Paul, who was attending another college in Pasadena.
“When we got off the bus, we talked a little bit and I got her phone number. We started dating, and got married in 1970,” he said. “I picked her up in a bus station. Or maybe she picked me up. Who knows?”
Still married 53 years later, and apart from time in Montana while Susan earned her nursing master’s, they have been in Alaska since both finished college.
Jones had hoped to experience Bush Alaska since childhood. He recalls looking at his parents’ photographs of remote locales and wanting to visit them. A private pilot, he followed his father into the FAA, and in 1973 requested a position with the flight service station in Kotzebue. “We provided weather briefings and flight planning services to pilots.”
Jones twice lived in Kotzebue, the second time from 1979 to 1981. During the 1970s he also began doing freelance and public radio journalism. In 1981, then-Anchorage Daily News editor Rosemary Shinohara, who had been Jones’ editor at his high school newspaper, hired him.
During the 1980s, Jones alternated between the Anchorage and Fairbanks papers, covering some of the state’s biggest stories. While in Fairbanks he stumbled onto the shady real estate deal that led to impeachment hearings against then-Gov. Bill Sheffield. He also covered the Exxon Valdez catastrophe.
In the aftermath of the spill, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council was formed, and Jones was impressed with how well it was operated. In 1997, he took a job with the Council as information manager. “I don’t know why exactly,” he said, “but I just decided it was time for a change.” He remained there, eventually becoming director of administration and external affairs, a position he held until retiring in 2013.
In 2009, he helped write “The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster,” which marked the event’s 20th anniversary through personal remembrances. “I did it in conjunction with Sharon Bushell, who’s an incredibly talented oral historian from Homer,” Jones said. He considers himself the secondary author of the book and credits Bushell with doing the lion’s share of the work.
By then, Jones was an established novelist. He published his first Nathan Active mystery, “White Sky, Black Ice,” in 1999. The books are set in Chukchi, a fictitious version of Kotzebue. Jones said he “wanted to be able to fictionalize as needed. If I called it by its real name I’d be locked into the real Kotzebue. I didn’t want that.” Additionally, since he drew on actual people and events for characters and plot developments, he realized, “If I called the place Kotzebue and repeated those stories, even with made-up names, it would hit too close to home.”
Jones next had to invent his lead character. It made no sense for the detective to be white, but it would be difficult for Jones, a white man, to frame the stories through the eyes of a Native character. He resolved the issue by having Active be an Iñupiaq man who had been raised by adoptive white parents in Anchorage.
“He doesn’t know much about his hometown,” Jones said of Active. “He’s kind of rejected it. His mother gave him up for adoption and he resents that. And because of his resentment for his mother, he doesn’t want to know anything about Chukchi.”
Active was “born with the cop gene,” Jones said, and becomes a state trooper. The troopers, “with the customary perversity of bureaucracies everywhere, send him to Chukchi for his first assignment,” Jones continued, “and that’s how the first story starts.”
Despite his initial protests, as the series unfolds over seven books thus far, the reluctant trooper finds his home in Chukchi, marries, and takes the position of director of public safety for the borough.
The stories shift between village life in Chukchi and the vast lands surrounding it, as Active pursues one murder investigation after another. And while the town is a thinly fictionalized Kotzebue, Jones said he’s received good feedback from people he knows there. “Possibly because I’m the only person writing stories about them that are general fiction that people can pick up and read without having to get too serious.”
A couple of characters are patterned on real people, and some have spotted themselves. Jones recalled encountering one longtime friend in an airport who said, “I read your book. Thanks for making me out to be a double murderer.” It was all in good humor. On a more somber occasion, Jones worked the tragic, accidental death of a young Kotzebue child into a story. The boy’s mother, to Jones’ surprise, wanted a copy of the book.
In recent years, Jones and his wife have been wintering near Palm Springs. Jones began roaming around the Coachella Valley with a friend and stumbled on Slab City, the renowned squatter camp with an Alaska connection owing to Chris McCandless’ stay there during his doomed odyssey. Nearby lies the colorful former religious shrine, Salvation Mountain, and also the slowly vanishing Salton Sea. Once a resort for wealthy L.A. residents, it’s now a toxic playa with shuttered and dying businesses. The smell from the poisoned ground sometimes permeates the ritzy community to the north. “I saw that juxtaposition. This artificial paradise of Palm Springs set against this dysfunction down at the other end of the valley. I said man, there’s some raw material here.”
This led to Jones launching a new series set in that region. The first installment, “The Sand Garden,” written with Mary Wasche, comes out in November. He said the title references “the desert where the bodies are buried.”
Jones continues gathering momentum as a writer. With two ongoing mystery series and increasing involvement in Alaska literary events, he’s become a prominent northern voice. He feels he’s still learning the craft, he said, but “I’ve got it more figured out than I did before.”