Heather Lende has contributed essays and commentary to NPR, the New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler. A columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News, she writes obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News and is the author of Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs and the New York Times bestseller If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. Her latest book, Find the Good, was just released today.
Liz Heywood first met Heather Lende more than twenty years ago, at a preschool parents’ meeting, well before Heather had published her first book and before Liz and her husband bought the local bookstore in Haines, Alaska, The Babbling Book. Their lives have intertwined in many ways since then, as lives do in a small town.
Liz: Heather, you put down roots here in Haines many years ago. Do you think a book like Find the Good could have been written had you adopted a more mobile life, or had you settled in a large city? How does living in a small town in Alaska give you a different perspective about finding the good?
Heather: For most of us, living in one place for a long time softens our edges. Like rocks on the beach, all that tumbling around together makes them—and us—smoother. You have to learn to let things slide off you when you live in a small town. You cannot avoid the town’s only second-grade teacher with whom you and your child have had some issues—because you’ll likely see her in the only café in town, where you get coffee on winter mornings. Or at the post office, where we all pick up our mail every day, you’ll definitely bump into the person who ran over you with his truck. (It happened to me.) It’s harder to sustain animosity in the same way you can in a larger place. There’s really no choice but to find the good, at least if you want to be happy.
Liz: This is your third book centered around the community of Haines. How have your experiences here influenced your writing? How is this book different from your others?
Heather: I doubt that I would have ended up becoming the local obituary writer any other place, and when I write about people’s lives, I think a lot about what it means to be part of a community. I find that inspiring on so many levels. Writing obituaries has also made me acutely aware that time is not on my side, and I’d rather spend it positively. And that has influenced this book in particular. Find the Good is different from my other books in that the essence of what I have learned from writing and living in Haines has been distilled. It’s more direct, in a way, and also more universal, in that “find the good” is good advice for anyone, wherever they live.
Liz: At a local reading the other night, you said it’s easier reading to a room of strangers than to a room of locals who all know you and the events and people you write about. How do your family members and friends feel about being the subjects of your books?
Heather: I read somewhere that writing about your life is like an intimate letter to strangers. I understand that. Often I’m able to write what I might be too self-conscious to voice. I write about fairly personal experiences, so there’s that aspect of it—a shyness, almost—when someone I know hears me read. But there’s also a hope that my family, friends, and neighbors will like what I’ve written about “us.” I did give ARCs of Find the Good to my daughters, who can be critical, and was so relieved that they both gave me their blessing. I also gave a copy to my best friend, who is a big reader. She enjoyed it but better yet, her husband, a somewhat grizzled fisherman, borrowed it from her and gave it his highest rating, which makes me glad I wrote the book.
Liz: You obviously approach your life as an optimist, so finding the good might be more natural for you. Do you have any advice for those of us who tend to see the glass as half empty?
Heather: I’m not always sunny. Sometimes I’m paralyzed with fear because of what we are doing to the environment, or when I see little children caught in wars. So what’s a regular person to do? For myself, I go out and pick up trash at the playground, walk a dog for a 93-year-old friend who can’t do it anymore, send the pastor at the last funeral I attended a thank you note telling her what a terrific job she did in a tough situation. (The family of the deceased was estranged and, though they all came, they didn’t sit together.) It’s these little things that add up to a greater kind of good and keep my glass half full. It seems to me doing something for someone else is the best way to turn a bad day into a pretty good one. At the very least, I’ve saved many a sinking day by making a nice meal for a few friends.
Liz: You have a gift for making the ordinary extraordinary in your writing. You write the obituaries of people who are not famous and whose contributions have largely gone unrecognized by the greater public, and yet you find great inspiration in their lives. How is that possible?
Heather: Once I start asking questions of relatives about their loved one’s life, it’s usually hard not to be inspired. Ask someone you thought you knew well how their childhood or choices have shaped their life, and you’re often amazed by the story you hear.
Liz: Though you live in a remote town in Alaska, your sphere of fans and friends is much larger now due to your readers and social media. How has that affected your life here in Haines?
Heather: Not much, surprisingly. A lot of people whom I’ve never met are my “friends” online, and that’s a little odd, but it’s certainly nice to have people from far away reading what I write. On days when cruise ships stop in Haines there are tourists who look me up, and I meet them when I can. Just last week a Mormon missionary let herself into my house while I was in the shower and hollered up the stairs asking if I’d sign a book for her. I told her I’d be happy to as soon as I got dressed. But that was a first.
Heather: I’m of the Margaret Meade School of Philosophy, and it may sound corny, but I believe the only thing that changes the world is a handful of people. So, my family is a good place to begin, and investing time in my children and grandchildren is a fun way to do that. Since I’m lucky enough to be able to do more, I try to contribute to our community. I am on the public library board, volunteer to host a local radio show and for Hospice of Haines, and I’m on the local planning and zoning commission. I sing in a community choir and this winter acted in a community play. All these things help me feel useful and happy and hopefully also help strengthen our town. Also, my “distractions” are what I write about. If I sat home and typed all day I wouldn’t have much to share. I write around the edges of a full life. (Deadlines are my best writing prompt.)
Liz: I know you’re an avid reader, as you order many of your books from my store. Who are some of your favorite Northwest authors? Do you have an all-time favorite Northwest book?
Heather: I love real books with heft and paper pages, so it might make sense that if I had to choose a favorite Northwest book, it would be one about loggers—Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I’ve written obituaries for people who could have been characters in that novel, and at our house we often repeat the Stampers’ motto: “Never give an inch.” My favorite Northwest authors include Ivan Doig—what a legacy he has left us—Annick Smith, and John Straley. I just finished Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, and it and the one I’m reading now, Falling from Horses by Molly Gloss, are both great, too. (I already can think of another ten favorites, but there’s no more room here.) It seems like our part of the world has more than our share of good writers, and I’m sure that has something to do with bookstores like yours, Liz. Thank you.
Visit Heather Lende online at www.heatherlende.com.