Celebrating the launch of North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey published to acclaim earlier this year, Margot Case sits down with Shannon Huffman Polson to discuss the trickiness of memoir, writing place, and sharing deeply personal stories with the world. Enjoy a conversation around weaving narrative threads together, exploring what is unknown, and what risk is all about.
Margot Case: You have a fiercely adventurous streak to you – flying helicopters, sky diving, running marathons, rafting in the Alaskan Arctic. What about writing is risky, scary, adventurous or daring for you?
Shannon Huffman Polson: I’ve always been better at taking physical risks than risks of the heart and soul until I had my own family. That kind of love is as fiercely vulnerable, as terrifyingly risky, as anything I’ve ever done, and infinitely more beautiful. In many ways, I think the love of my family is what finally gave me the courage to write.
MC: Publishing memoir, especially stories that involve flawed relationships with family, is a nervy business. Why was this very personal story something you wanted to publish, as opposed to getting it off your chest and letting it linger in your desk drawer?
SHP: I needed to do both! A number of people ask about the cathartic nature of writing this kind of story, and my response is that the cathartic writing is what you do in journals or in letters; crafting a memoir is a formal effort that follows that initial cathartic writing.
I’ve thought about North of Hope as my attempt to see if something beautiful could come from something tragic, and I am so glad readers agree with me that it can, and it does. Memoir is at its heart about connection, about sharing our stories so that others know that they are not alone in theirs, especially in those hard secret places our society is so unwilling to face. Patricia Hampl said, “By honoring one’s own life, it’s possible to extend empathy and compassion to others.” I’ve been surprised and grateful to hear the number of different ways readers have connected with North of Hope, which I am hopeful they feel as an extension of compassion.
MC: Were you concerned about upsetting any of your family, burning any bridges, or healing any feuds by publishing this story?
SHP: I didn’t think too much about this while I wrote, because once you decide to write, the story has to be primary. I opted to change some names and identifying details in places it didn’t impact the narrative and I thought would be more appropriate. I did send advance copies to two family members with personal notes about what I hoped to do with the writing of it, but did not reveal any of the book before it was published. One of them won’t read the book; the other told me he thought it was beautifully written.
Ultimately, creating art has to be true first to the art form. In an interview about memoir, Vivian Gornick quotes a novelist she knows as saying she writes as though everyone she is writing about is already dead. I don’t believe writing should be reckless where others are involved, and it should go without saying that any story told is that of the narrator; every story has at least as many angles as it has people who are involved or who observe the story. It was important to me to tell my story as well and as honestly as I could in a way that might illuminate the personal journeys of my readers in some way. This is why I write.
MC: The transformation in this book is facilitated by a journey, both physical and emotional, a study of sacred music and the salvation of faith. Was it easy to settle into one consistent style for these somewhat disparate discussions?
SHP: North of Hope is a braided narrative. The primary storyline tells of my taking the Arctic river trip retracing my father and stepmother’s last journey, a kayak trip on an Arctic river where they were killed by a bear, and weaving in threads of memory from the year after they were killed, memories of growing into adulthood, the themes of love and courage, wilderness and faith, and, of course, music. I made a decision to separate the musical Requiem interludes from the rest of the narrative to pull the Requiem through the story conceptually, but wanted them to be set apart as well, and so chose present tense for the interludes as opposed to the past tense of the narrative on the river. This deliberate separation of style and tense maintains the distinction between the narratives and still permits the shorter Requiem interludes– the concept of a Requiem, its despair and its praise — to engulf and transcend the physical journey.
MC: A good portion of your story is given over to the singing of Mozart’s Requiem, both as an honor to your father and as a healing process for you. Did the music inform your writing?
SHP: It did; it must. I had initially planned to try to write certain sections of North of Hope in a meter mirroring the music, but couldn’t make it work well. In the story I discuss the inspiration from singing the Requiem to take the trip on the river; Mozart died in the middle of composing his Requiem; my father and stepmother died in the midst of their river journey. Both had to have their work finished for them. I did work to tie together the landscape with music in the word choice and texture for both sections about the Requiem and sections about the land, interchanging the words typically used for one subject with descriptions of the other. I also chose the titles for the Requiem interludes to correspond with the place they fall in the narrative of the river journey; those section titles preceding my visit to their final campsite are sections Mozart wrote most of. The section following that final campsite is titled after a section composed mostly by Sussmayr who finished the Requiem Mass for Mozart after he died. The crossover chapter title is my recreation of the day they died. That section is titled Dies Irae.
MC: You explore and rely on your Christian faith throughout your grieving process, but you also look to other faith traditions throughout this narrative. Why was it important for you to include, for example, indigenous Alaskan bear mythology and Jewish mourning rituals?
SHP: Woven into the narrative of the river journey in North of Hope is a journey of exploration when I didn’t find the mourning rituals I craved within my own faith. I looked at Jewish tradition wanting even the simple knowledge of ancient ritual. Ultimately I discovered (and this was part of the writing process) that the weekly sacrament of the Eucharist contained within my faith is the ritual I was looking for, but I hadn’t known how to consider it.
The reason for exploring indigenous beliefs around the bear was different; I wanted to try to understand the animal that had taken two lives I loved in as many different ways as I possibly could, and thought that people who lived on the land in the most integrative way would have the purest understanding, or at least an understanding which would be instructive to me. The process of and inclusion of this research turned out to be very important to me.
SHP: The Julie of the Wolves trilogy was a favorite we just gave to our 9-year old niece, and it occurs to me now that the C.S. Lewis Narnia series and Space trilogy and Little House on the Prairie probably qualify as well. I still remember loving Island of the Blue Dolphins and Swiss Family Robinson, too.
MC: You have two little kids, a dog, a cat and a busy husband. What’s your writing schedule like these days? Do you have a schedule!? How do you balance being a writer (a gig known to require lots of quiet, personal time for thought and reflection) and a mama (a 24-7 tirelessly selfless job)?
SHP: Since our second child was born last December, it has been hard to have much of a schedule, and it’s been hard to get the writing in. I write when I can, when I have a few moments, or during part of an evening. I am looking forward to settling into a fall schedule when I’ll have several mornings a week to write. It’s very gratifying to share North of Hope with the world, but I’m also excited to get traction on my new projects!
MC: Annie Dillard famously wrote Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek chain smoking in a closed room. That always amazed me. When you’re writing about wild places, must you be “out there” to get the writing right? Or are you better off at your desk?
SHP: Both are important. My ideal space would be small and quiet, but have a large window looking out to hills or mountains in the distance. I also need to spend time outside to keep my brain in working order.
SHP: I’m reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways right now. My dad would have loved it: the combination of scholarship, exploration, and thoughtful inquiry would have suited him perfectly. Sharing what we are reading and thinking about from that reading is one of the things I miss the most.
MC: The scene you conjure of the bear attack and death of your father and stepmother is very visceral, beautifully rendered and quite terrifying. How did you craft this scene? Who did you talk to and/or what did you read or watch to prepare yourself?
SHP: I read everything I could find about animal encounters, especially bear, by literary voices, and I include a number of those when I attempt to put together what might have happened. But perhaps because imagining and recreating this scene was so necessary, it came most easily to me of any part of the writing. I’d spent so much time in the hard places around and inside of it, and in many ways the end result of the writing was the goal of the journey more than the physical journey itself. I had to take the raw material of what I knew abut their trip and my experience visiting the final campsite where Dad and Kathy had died to make sense of it, even violent sense, because until I did that it was not possible to move past the brutality into something more beautiful
MC: You wrote a piece recently for Adventure Journal exploring why we’re so terrified of bear attacks in the wilderness when, in fact, our chances of drowning or dying in a car crash are statistically far higher. You suggest that, in part, we’re simply terrified of being prey. Do you think this is reason enough for humans to spend time in wild places – to remind us of our place in the food chain?
SHP: Spending time in wilderness gives us a much needed and increasingly rare perspective on the world and our place in it. I wouldn’t classify it so much as reminding ourselves of our place in the food chain, but rather understanding how all parts of the natural world are connected in fiercely intimate and important ways…and that we are part of that connected world. What happens to one part impacts the whole.
MC: There’s a theory that conservation of wild places starts with a connection to wild places. What would you say to someone who is too afraid or unwilling to visit the Arctic? Why should they care about its conservation?
SHP: We are all connected to the Arctic. I’ve come to understand the Arctic as the world’s heart; every summer a phenomenal influx of life arrives via land, sea and air, and every fall it departs. Millions of migratory birds come to the Arctic to nest and bear their young and then disperse for every other continent on the planet. These migrations include the longest aerial, marine and land migrations in the world: the Arctic tern is recently understood to travel 22,000 miles in its migration to and from the Arctic, the Eastern North Pacific Grey Whales travel 12,400 miles round trip from Baja, California to the Beaufort Sea in Alaska’s Arctic, and the Porcupine caribou travel as far as 3,000 miles a year on their annual migratory circuit. The birds in particular connect the Arctic to literally every other part of the world.
Climate change is another critical connection point; the permafrost of the Arctic is considered a carbon sink, meaning that the frozen ground locks in massive quantities of methane in the decomposing soil and peat. And the Arctic is warming more quickly than any other part of the planet. If this ground melts, which it is on track to do, more carbon will be released into the atmosphere than any amount of human activity could generate. We don’t begin to understand the implications of climate change in the Arctic. Tragically, polar bears are projected to become extinct as the sea ice retreats, but undoubtedly there will be profound impacts on the sea and its life from less ice as well. We cannot escape the connections not only within a given ecosystem but within and around our planet.
Finally, the Arctic is one of our last great wildernesses. It is very much still under threat, threats that continue to evolve as climate change takes hold. Paul Shepard, an environmental historian of the mid-20th century, said that wilderness is part of our psyche, critical to our mental and spiritual health, and I agree. If the arguments of connectivity through avian life and climate change somehow don’t register, our very survival at the deepest level must.
MC: What books did you take to your Alaska cabin this summer?
SHP: I read Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby and finally caught up on Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, a perfect book to read in the northlands.
MC: If you were headed out on a very long and arduous wilderness trip where every ounce counted, what one book would you take with you? (Answering “my ereader!” here does not count.)
SHP: It would depend on where I was traveling! I brought Leaves of Grass to the Arctic in 2009, and on another Arctic trip that same summer my husband and I tore in half an old paperback of Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez and then traded halves (don’t tell Lopez; he intended it to be read in order!)
If I was in the NW states, A River Runs Through It is a nice short read I have in paperback and wouldn’t mind reading several times, and John Fowles The Tree is another short prose work with much to offer on rereading. Poetry is always a good bet, since its density permits exploration over time. Recent favorites are Edward Thomas, Wiman, Transtromer and Neruda.