When my first novel, The Snow Child, was published, people often asked me if I had done a lot of research during the writing process. In truth, I hadn’t. I discovered several retellings of the Russian Snegurotchka fairy tale, and at one point I interviewed an elderly man who had grown up in Alaska and knew about early farming in the area. But beyond that, the story was informed by my personal experiences and knowledge of my home state.
When people ask me the same question about To the Bright Edge of the World, however, I hardly know where to begin. Both the novel’s storyline and structure are entirely rooted in research. The original inspiration came from Henry T. Allen’s report of his 1885 military expedition up the Copper River. A rare copy of the report came into Fireside Books when I worked there, and it captivated me. How had I never heard of this “Lewis and Clark” of Alaska? The report eventually led me to the Consortium Library in Anchorage, which houses the diaries and papers of one of the members of the expedition. As my research grew, I went online and found websites and digitalized books about everything from Indian War battles to 19th century obstetrics. For years, I pored over old maps, photographs, letters, postcards. And I did something I had never done before – I traveled hundreds, even thousands, of miles wholly for the purpose of research. In 2011, my husband and I floated a remote section of the Copper River so I could see the expedition route firsthand, and in 2015, I spent several days visiting Fort Vancouver in Washington, another important setting in my novel.
But mostly, I read books. Many, many books. And in the process I discovered perhaps the very best perk of being a novelist – a solid excuse to visit more bookstores and buy more books.
At Title Wave Books in Anchorage, I picked up books about 18th century Russian exploration of the Copper River and local folklore and geology. At Hearthside Books in Juneau, I found a copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fascinating Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, and a few blocks away, I visited The Observatory, a quaint and mysterious bookshop full of Alaskan wonders, where I struggled to limit myself to a single armload of books. The owner, Dee Longenbaugh, spent nearly an hour talking with me and showing me information about the Allen expedition.
When visiting Portland and Vancouver, I felt like I had stumbled on a new gold mine. The indie bookstores all had sections dedicated to local subjects and authors. I packed my suitcase full: Vancouver on the Columbia, an Illustrated History and Exploring Fort Vancouver and a used copy of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: Draft Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. With a thrilling title like that, how could I resist?
Nearly half of my library is now occupied by these research books: Inuksuk: Northern Koyukon, Gwich’in & Lower Tanana 1800-1901; Make Prayers to the Raven; The Dancing Fox; Chickaloon Spirit; One Place Across Time; Images of America: Downtown Vancouver.
And then there’s Men of Spirit and Enterprise about the Scots and Orkneymen who worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1800s. I found it in a lovely indie bookshop called Atkinson-Pryce in Biggar, Scotland. The book was written by a historian and museum curator who just happens to live in the small Scottish town.
Having worked many years at Fireside Books here in Alaska, I had taken it for granted. Of course indies have regional sections. There are the poetry collections and mysteries by local authors, the hiking trail and bird identification books, the history books and vacation guides. But as a traveling researcher, I realized just how unique and invaluable this is. These are authors and books that sometimes can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
Now, I seek out the local sections in bookstores, because I know it’s where the treasures are kept.
And it makes me glad to imagine that tucked within the pages of To the Bright Edge of the World are little snippets of these wonderful bookstores I’ve visited over the years.
Eowyn Ivey is the author of The Snow Child and To the Bright Edge of the World. She lives in Alaska with her husband and two daughters.
Eowyn Ivey’s PNBA Award plaque will be presented at a local bookstore, at a soon-to-be-decided date. Watch nwbooklovers.org for the details. Essays from the other winners of the 2017 PNBA Book Award will be published on Tuesdays and Fridays. Enjoy Ivey’s essay from her first PNBA Award (in 2013) here.