Lynn D’Urso is the pseudonym for the author of Heartbroke Bay, the first novel by an Alaskan who has published a number of non-fiction books over the last ten years. He is also an award-winning wildlife photographer. I loved Heartbroke Bay, and wrote to the author’s publicist at Berkley (a division of Penguin USA) and asked that she forward the following questions to the author. I received the author’s replies the next day. I can see this novel as a movie, sort of a Once Upon a Time in Alaska. If only Sergio Leone were available…
Why did you decide to publish this, your first novel after a number of non-fiction books, anonymously? I would have preferred to publish Heartbroke Bay under my own name, but for marketing reasons, my contract with the publisher of my most recent non-fiction book prohibited me from publishing anything else under my own name for a year after that book’s release. I had been working on Heartbroke Bay for over a decade and finally felt like it was finished. I suppose I was just too excited to share it with readers to wait.
Your research for Heartbroke Bay must have been laborious. How did that research differ from the research you have done for your nonfiction books? The research for Heartbroke Bay can be broken into several stages. First was researching the actual event the story is based on, which given the standards of journalism at the end of the 19th century was quite a challenge. Even with the help of the staff at the Alaska State Historical Library and archivists from California, Seattle, and Alaska, it took months of effort to untangle the basic facts from a morass of sensationalist tabloid reports generated by the event. Fortunately, I enjoy research and sleuthing through old newspapers and letters even more than I enjoy writing. The hardest part is not getting sidetracked by all of the other great stories one runs across.
The next stage of research was background – what was life actually like during the Alaska Gold Rush? And how did that famed, but relatively short period in the history of the west fit into the larger framework of the world at the time? Everyone knows that tens of thousands of people walked away from their previous lives to storm into the northern wilderness for a shot at sudden riches, but why? Why did people tear their lives up by the roots to fling themselves into the unknown in pursuit of such chimerical chance? As it turned out, what we don’t usually consider when reading or thinking about the Alaskan Gold Rush is that the U.S. was at the tail end of a world-wide depression that started with a financial collapse generated by stock market scams and speculative manipulations not unlike the financial shenanigans that led to the Great Recession of 2008 which so many are still suffering through today. With this in mind, it became much easier for me to imagine the motivation behind the great risks the ‘stampeders’ were willing to take, which in turn provided a realistic foundation for the cast of rather oddball characters that populate Heartbroke Bay. After getting my hands into the guts of the gold rush, however, came the challenge of deciphering what life would have been like for a young woman coming into such a situation from the strait-laced background of Victorian England. From the perspective in the 21st century, it is easy to forget how truly stifling life was for women at the time. Even through the haze of yellow journalism, it was clear that the ‘real’ Hannah the story’s protagonist is based on was a strong, capable woman, but nonetheless, she was required to function within a framework of social strictures that was quite repressive. All in all, the research required to bring life to the fictionalized version of the story presented in Heartbroke Bay differed from the research behind my earlier non-fiction works in that it necessitated digging out a great many more facts regarding what day-to-day life was like at the time.
Another area my research took me into was the mythology of the region’s indigenous people, the Tlingit Indians. Lituya Bay, where Heartbroke Bay is centered, has a long history of terrible earthquakes and destructive tsunamis, which the Tlingit believed to be the work of an angry spirit, or demi-god, named Kah-Lituya, who makes his home under the bay. Kah-Lituya is easily angered, and intolerant of strangers and trespassers. When aroused, he sends a giant brown bear that is his slave to seize the bay in its jaws and shake it. In my attempt to better understand the Tlingit world-view at the end of the 19th century, and create the character of Negook, I relied heavily on the translation of old tales, clan stories, and the writings of early historians. But in end, I must admit that in all likelihood my preconceived Western notions of how the world works probably prevented me from doing so with complete accuracy.
The descriptive language you employ for the land and the characters is awesome. What kind of methods or training did you use to reach beyond the traditional language of a nonfiction writer to develop the style you use in Heartbroke Bay? I love language. Words are brush strokes, each one filling in a small space to create an image across a broader canvas, and I always try to bear in mind the prophet Mark Twain’s admonition to budding writers that “the difference between a good word and the RIGHT word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” A good deal of the research I did for Heartbroke Bay involved reading diaries, letters, and personal journals from the late 1800’s, which in due course introduced a certain archaic flavor to the language in the book. Another factor is the nature of Alaska itself: Beautiful, often harsh, and capable of being by turns both lush and incredibly nurturing,with its abundance of salmon, wildlife, and berries, and brutally demanding, with no room whatsoever for human weakness. To accurately describe it in words requires not the use of a verbose, purple pen overflowing with florid adjectives, but a scalpel with which to slice away everything but what truly is. The earlier drafts of Heartbroke Bay were terribly over-written – almost unreadable – and it wasn’t until I went back again and again and parsed out the unnecessary that it began to read in a way that reflected the simple, harsh, poetic character of the land. And because the character of the land was a governing influence on the character of the people in the story and their actions, this became the most appropriate way to approach them as well.
You mention in the postscript that you thought of this story as a screenplay and/or a novel. Are you writing a screenplay now, or has that now been left by the wayside? Yes, a screen play is still very much in the works. Because the story is so very visual, and takes place for the most part in very limited times and space (a train, a sail boat, and a small, cramped cabin, all set against the backdrop of a stunning landscape ) it seems a natural for film. In addition, my first book, The Blue Bear, is currently being adapted as a theatrical production, and it is my hope that this experience, when combined with that of working in the different styles and disciplines of screenwriting, will serve to improve my literary efforts as well.
Your descriptions throughout the book, but especially in Alaska, as with the scene in which the group sets off across land to escape their entrapment in Lituya Bay, are so vivid that it seems you must have actually been there. Have you climbed that route? How much time have you spent in and around Lituya Bay? Have you spent any winter time there? I’ve lived in Alaska for over forty years and during that time have had the opportunity to spend time in Lituya Bay and along the wild coast where it is located on several occasions. I made my living as a wilderness guide for nearly twenty years, and during that time have climbed, hiked, sailed, and kayaked along almost all of the terrain described in Heartbroke Bay. My previous non-fiction book is framed around a solo 100 mile trek I made a few years ago that began in Lituya Bay, and during the course of which I actually camped near the site where the cabin in the story used to be. After researching and thinking about the story behind Heartbroke Bay for so many years, it was a strange, rather unsettling experience to spend a night on the very ground where the final scenes in the tragedy played out.
How did you research the details of death by hunger and cold? What were your primary sources for those details? The short answer to this is ‘By being hungry and cold.’ I’ve done a lot of wilderness travel, and for a period in my youth lived a lifestyle that sometimes involved frozen boots, cold camps, short rations, and frostbite. And again, working as a wilderness guide in Alaska for two decades also required educating myself about the perils of hypothermia and freezing, and the necessity of food and fire in their treatment. It wasn’t a long reach to translate my personal experience into that of the marooned prospectors.
What exactly happens when one swallows a gold nugget? Would a nugget that size pass through the body? Swallowing a gold nugget would probably have no effect on a human body. Gold is inert, so there would be little or no risk of the terrible side effects that consuming lead or mercury, which are more soluble, would have. The scene in which a starving Hans sneaks a small nugget out of the miners’ gold stash and swallows it represents the folly of assigning what is in fact an artificial value to something that truly has little use, other than being soft, easily worked, and having an attractive color, whereas real value is in those things – like food – that sustain life. During the psychological decay that comes of being isolated, freezing, and slowly starving, the line between what is useful and useless, and between reality and delusion, begins to blur.
Were you able to find any information about the birth or life of Hannah’s child? Hannah’s child is the offspring of my imagination. After writing several non-fiction books, the chance to introduce elements of my own choosing to a story was one of the things that drew me to attempt fiction. In this case, giving Hannah a pregnancy and a child as the result of an illicit love affair provided a way to draw more deeply the line that divides the archetypal Male from the Female, which is, in part, what this story of a single woman marooned among a group of men is about. To be shipwrecked and isolated in such a remote and hard region is difficult, but how much more difficult it must have been to be the only female, in such a place, pursuing work of a sort generally reserved for men, and to then be thrust into a situation where she had not only to take on roles more usually assigned to men, but to deal with the responsibilities of a soon-to-be mother while she makes a choice between life and death! To leave Hannah ‘with child,’ as the phrase was at the time, serves as a metaphor for this Male/Female difference, i.e. her husband quickly comes to regard dealing out death as the best solution to their difficulties, whereas Hannah, in the role of Woman, must also bear the burden of bringing forth a life, while simultaneously making an irreversible decision regarding the life and death of others.
Obviously, there must be very little material upon which to construct a sequel to this novel. Are you working on a new novel, or will you go back to nonfiction? Heartbroke Bay is the first of a trilogy, made possible by the introduction of Hannah’s fictional child. The human race didn’t stop getting itself into dire situations at the end of the Alaska Gold Rush, and the early years of the 20th century left plenty of great material behind to flesh out the life of a child conceived in Heartbroke Bay.
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What a terrific telling of sailing into Lituya Bay – I could actually see the mountains, sky and sea – the entire book was filled with similar finely drawn imagery of land and people – good stuff. Hope for more.
I see the Alaska version of “Cold Mountain.”
…and Clint Eastood directing the movie.