To hear Melinda Moustakis tell it in her new book "Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories," Alaska doesn't seem very appealing. It is a dark and brutal place, shrouded in dread and violence. The characters, men and women both, are damaged goods, full of guilt and liquor and bad memories, but tinged with strong family ties, compassion and hard-edged humor borne out of a shared sense of survival.
It's almost hard to believe, then, that Moustakis, a diminutive 29-year-old woman with black hair, pale skin and a soft voice, is the one who writes what she called these "Northern Gothic" tales. Moustakis' parents both grew up in Alaska, and Moustakis was born in Fairbanks, where she lived with her parents until moving in the mid-1980s to California.
"Basically, my dad was in the oil industry," Moustakis said, "and (the year we moved) was the year the industry bottomed out, and the only job he could find was in California."
She attended undergrad in California and received her Master's degree from University of California Davis, then completed her PhD at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. "Bear Down, Bear North" was written as her creative dissertation.
Despite her physical separation from the state, Moustakis drank deeply from the Alaska lore told to her by her family. Moustakis returns to Alaska many summers where she spends time fishing the Kenai with her uncle, Sonny Traxinger, and listening to his stories. Alaska provided her with the metaphors and the imagery that she needed for her writing, and became the place that inspired her.
"My grandparents homesteaded in Alaska," she said. "I grew up hearing all these stories. My mom comes from a family of nine. Growing up in California and then visiting Alaska and growing up with this whole family mythology of stories … (Alaska) just seems so much bigger and larger."
She laughed when she compared writing about an Alaska moose with writing about a California gopher. "There's no comparison," she said. In her book, she attempted to bridge the gap between the way tourists perceive Alaska and the way locals view their home state, a perspective she refers to as being a "localist."
"It always helps to be away from a place, to have distance when you're writing, because it helps you focus on the details," Moustakis said. "Alaska's a gorgeous state. But I like to write about that, juxtaposed with the darker undercurrents -- some sense of the truth that's going on behind all that wonder."
And those undercurrents are plenty dark. The setpieces and catalysts for events are uniquely Alaskan -- a fishhook to the eye, a plane crash in the wilderness -- and the book is cut through with Alaska like a well-marbled piece of meat. The gritty frontier violence lurking and sometimes erupting from under the surface of every story evokes writers like Pulitzer Prize winners Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, who tapped their own geographies to isolate characters and allowed them to exist in worlds unique to themselves.
"I really wanted it not to be one of those books where someone just sets a book in Alaska, but it could really be anywhere," Moustakis said. "These people and these stories have to be in Alaska for these things to happen."
Many of the tales in "Bear Down" have been published before, in various literary journals, including the Cimarron Review and the Alaska Quarterly Review, but have been further refined in the new collection. Before the book's release, it won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, a prize given each year to two notable new collections of stories that net the authors a cash prize and a book deal.
The first story in the book, "Trigger," fills less than one page and introduces the reader to the sex and violence and family ties -- ties full of obligation and sympathy -- that pepper the book.
The second story, "The Mannequin in Soldotna," features that aforementioned fishhook to the eye, a hook that gets removed by a doctor on the Kenai Peninsula and stuck into the titular mannequin, sitting in the lobby of the hospital, lures and hooks dangling from every part of its body, serving as a warning to other fishermen.
The story ends -- spoiler alert -- with a woman being flown to a remote location and then shot in the back. If you're a longtime Alaskan, reading the story late at night will send shivers down your spine as it evokes the murders of serial killer Robert Hansen, now colloquially known as the "butcher baker."
In a shining example of how Alaska stories like that of Hansen informed but did not confine Moustakis' writing, she had only a rough approximation of Hansen's story in mind and allowed the rest of the story to take shape on its own.
"I had heard about it, I didn't know his name," Moustakis said when asked if the story was based on Hansen. "I had heard about that happening, years ago -- and it always stayed with me."
Most of the rest of the book's stories take place over the course of decades and follow a rough and tumble extended family of homesteaders and their progeny. The family is tied by blood obligations and by their shared sense of survival in a hardscrabble Alaska landscape. Even the more urban landscapes are populated by oil-boom strip clubs, uninsulated mobile homes, old trucks -- a different kind of wilderness.
Just as the men and women are unequally spared from the emotional damage in the book, so is the physical damage doled equally among the sexes. In a state that many Outside erroneously view as predominantly male, Moustakis turns her attention toward the women and children living in an untamed world. It was a conscious decision on Moustakis' part.
"You read so many stories about the wilderness, and they don't deal with women or children in an intimate way," Moustakis said.
In the midst of all this darkness, there are moments of light and levity. Moustakis said she learned to write dialogue by listening to the fishermen's banter of her uncle and his friends, and one character in the book speaks quite authentically like an Alaska fisherman, full of quips and witticisms. Some of the family relationships are deeply loyal, occasionally to a fault.
"I really tried to balance the light and the dark in the book," Moustakis said, "the hope and the desperation -- that should come across too."
Despite the awareness that her writing is Literature with a capital "L," and her desire that the book be taken seriously -- it's difficult not to take it seriously -- Moustakis said that the real barometer for the book is Alaskan readers.
"Alaskans are the true test of the book," she said. "If I get anything wrong, one of my family members will tell me."
Right now, as the release date for her book approaches, Moustakis isn't taking anything for granted. She's at the beginning of a year in Tacoma, Wash. as a visiting professor at Pacific Lutheran University. For an author who just completed her doctorate, she's accomplished an awful lot.
"Oh, I know how lucky I am," she said about her sudden success. "It was a lot of work. Michigan winters, you get a lot of work done. There's not much else to do."
Wonder how much work she could get done in an Alaska winter.
"Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories" is now available for pre-order. It will be released Sept. 15.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com