Literary ambition: Alaska State Writer looks to promote work of others

FAIRBANKS -- One way to appreciate Frank Soos' work as an English professor and writer is to know what his former students have to say about him.

"Above all, I want to thank Frank Soos for the courage to fly in the dark." said Jennifer Brice, an English professor and author of "The Last Settlers" and "Unlearning to Fly."

"Whatever talent you see in me as a writer today has Frank Soos' fingerprints all over it," said U.S. Army veteran David Abrams, author of "Fobbit," a New York Times "notable book" of 2012.

"Thank you to Frank Soos for making me the writer that I am," said Gerri Brightwell, an English professor and author of "Cold Country."

"When I graduated, Frank implied that he was basically a mentor for life. At least I interpreted it that way, and it's been that way," said Eva Saulitis, a teacher, scientist, poet and the author of "Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas."

Such testimonials reflect the "exemplary professionalism, literary excellence and a commitment to the advancement of literary arts" that led to the selection of Soos as the next Alaska State Writer Laureate.

The Alaska State Council on the Arts added his name this month to an exclusive group that has included John Haines, Sheila Nickerson, Richard Nelson, Anne Hanley, John Straley, Nancy Lord, Peggy Shumaker, Nora Marks Dauenhauer and others.


Lord, who nominated the retired University of Alaska Fairbanks English professor for the award, said the word "generous" kept coming up among those who endorsed the selection of Soos. They saw in him a commitment to quality.

Soos, 64, said he was a "bit of a nag" with some students during his teaching years, but that those with the best work habits could be hard to keep up with.

"A struggling brand new writer, you can give him some useful information in 15 or 20 minutes. But for really good writers who are working on hard problems, it takes a long time to read their manuscripts and decide what you want to say to have useful conversations," he said. "Everybody who teaches at some point realizes this -- the more you ask your students to do, the more you are asking yourself to do to make it worth their while."

He retired from UAF in 2004, but continues to work as a writer, editor and teacher, asking himself to do more. During his two-year term in the honorary position, Soos said, he intends to focus his energy on promoting the work of other Alaska writers.

He and his wife, artist Margo Klass, live on a wooded hillside north of Fairbanks where they pursue unique artistic visions, which are sometimes complementary.

The most obvious difference between the two is height. No one has ever asked Margo to retrieve an item from the top shelf at Safeway. And at 6-feet, 6 inches tall, Soos knows what it means to stand out in a crowd.

"For 30 years I made my living as a teacher, a reluctant public man," Soos has written. "Teaching has its many pleasures. It also has its costs for a shy person. Somehow I knew I could teach in the way that equally shy people know they can go on stage and act."

Both Soos and Klass are meticulous actors. Frank assembles his sentences and paragraphs with as much care as Margo applies to the shoebox-sized containers in which she arranges rocks, twigs, old tools, toys, bits of glass and other objects to fashion "imaginary retreats, destinations of the mind," small sculptures that inspire those who take time to look.

He is a writer who likes to think things over, a trait reinforced by his love of fly fishing, in which you must be willing to cast over and over to a spot where fish are hard to find. Writing well is demanding, even after plenty of practice.

In their book, "Double Moon: Constructions and Conversations," Klass offered the constructions. Soos said that Klass is in her element in a junk store jumble with "coffee cans full of old tools, lost keys, bits or brass or steel that used to be good for something, but nobody quite remembers what."

"In that kind of place, Margo will start picking up the pieces in her hand and putting them together in her head," he wrote. "It is there that disparate junk begins to make sense."

For that collaborative book project, Soos studied Klass' works of art and offered some of his own, responding to each one with word portraits, some abstract, others not. "Pushing and pulling, we considered how image and word worked, how together they more than doubled our intentions, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design," he said.

And still it continues, whether by accident or design.

Soos will not be alone at the banquet Jan. 29 in Juneau to accept the state writer award. Klass is to receive the "individual artist" award at that same event from the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

Her work hangs in museums and galleries, and has been the subject of solo exhibitions and numerous group exhibitions.

For more than 30 years, she has created books by hand, a tradition based on the belief that this element of art is not defined by pixels on a page.

"As an artist, university teacher, workshop instructor and the primary moving force behind the efflorescence of artists' books in Alaska, she has been one of the most exciting additions to the Alaskan art community in our generation," said Fairbanks artist Kes Woodward.


Woodward is friends with both Klass and Soos. He has known Soos for nearly 45 years, back to their days together as undergraduates at Davidson College in North Carolina. In 1986, Soos called Woodward in Fairbanks to ask if he had made a mistake in accepting at job at UAF. "No," Woodward said.

"He's simply the best teacher I've ever known, hands down. I've been in his classes and I've worked with his students at all levels," said Woodward, a retired UAF art professor. "Part of his being a great teacher is his also being a great writer, you can't separate the two," he said.

Soos takes complex ideas and presents them in a compact manner, weighing every word.

"I admit I have lived too much of my life there, running between before and after, wishing and regretting, one and the same," reads a Soos sentence from "Double Moon," 23 words that could spark a college seminar.

His second book of short stories, "Unified Field Theory," received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 1998.

He said he writes and rewrites a sentence imagining that it will be read with care. He knows that does not happen, but in the interest of precision and clarity, it is important to write that way, he said.

"Making a sturdy paragraph is what locks in the reader. You want the paragraph to almost be a little essay in itself. Within that paragraph you may be doing a lot of fooling around with sentence structure and word order," he said.

"Some of that is also designed to disorient the reader, not in a mean hostile way, but to cause the reader to read the sentences with care," he said.


In addition to his fiction, which has appeared in many literary journals, he has published a book of essays and has other works under consideration by publishers, including a book he has described as a "meditation on basketball as played in the Southwest Virginia coal fields of the 1960s, built around his hometown team, the Pocahontas Indians, featuring the writer as an admiring fan and mediocre player."

He was never a big offensive threat, but he could easily dunk the ball and play defense. His parents ran a mom-and-pop store in Pocahontas for 35 years. His mom was known as "Chief."

"My height comes from her side of the family, so she was tall. But she was also forceful. When report cards came out, she'd demand to see the report cards of kids who came in the store, and say, when they deserved it, 'You can do better than this.'"

A friend has said of Soos that he is a "sweet southern gentleman" and an "athlete of a teacher," but his endurance is not just an academic matter.

While he has written of himself, "I am a most moose-like man, tall, gangly, clumsy and slow, above all an animal given to loneliness," that's not completely fair. He likes to ride bicycles, rebuild fly rods and is an accomplished cross-country skier, wielding ski poles nearly 6 feet long that can be a hazard in heavy traffic on the trails. He is not especially fast on skis, but he is observant and he goes for distance, traits that give him something to write about.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.