Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Baby, the Book, the Long-Term Relationship

by Brian Payton)

They say that publishing a book is like having a baby. I had stumbled across that old chestnut a thousand times before. As a writer — and a nonparent — the oft-repeated phrase held little meaning for me. Then, over the course of a single day, the metaphor suddenly sprang to life.

I remember there being lots of pink balloons. It was my daughter's first birthday — not even 24 hours after we had learned that my wife was pregnant with our second child — when the phone rang with the news of an offer to publish The Wind Is Not a River. I was so overcome with shock and joy, I felt as if I had begun to levitate. You see, we had been told that we couldn't have children (let alone two within a period of 20 months). And then there was the novel. After having watched nearly a dozen years pass since I wrote the first draft, I had begun to wonder if the characters I had created would ever exist beyond my imagination. It was like a double-strike of lightning; twin miracles visited upon us.

The urge to write the story that became The Wind Is Not a River has been with me for a long time. I first became aware of the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands in the early 1980s while I was living in Anchorage. Even as a young teenager, I was astonished that the history of this invasion and subsequent battle are not widely known. In my late teens and early 20s, I found that there had been several histories written about the World War II in Alaska, but could find little in the way of fiction. I've known since then that the events of 1942-1943, in what was then the Territory of Alaska, could serve as an incredible backdrop for a novel.

The details of these events are remarkable in and of themselves. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Dutch Harbor in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Four days later, an invasion force of nearly 2,500 Japanese combat troops seized and held the islands of Attu and Kiska. The inhabitants of Attu — U.S. citizens — were taken prisoner and sent to Japan. The remaining Aleut people, scattered throughout the Aleutian and Pribilof islands, were evacuated by the U.S. military and interned in Southeast Alaska for the duration of the war.

For the next 11 months, U.S. forces sustained an aerial campaign against the Japanese-held positions. Then, for 18 days in May 1943, one of the toughest battles of the war took place to recapture Attu. In proportion to the number of men engaged, it is surpassed only by Iwo Jima as the most costly American battle in the Pacific Theater. It is the only battle fought on American soil, and 500,000 people took part in the conflict. Dozens of ships, hundreds of planes, and an estimated 10,000 lives were lost. Journalists were ordered out of the Territory, military censorship was drum-tight, and most of the campaign was fought beyond view of the civilian press. This is not an invented or alternate history. These events are forgotten footnotes in the history of the Second World War.

For me, these events were the point of departure for a long and interesting journey. When I began work on The Wind Is Not a River, I set out to shine a light into a hidden corner of history and answer some questions. Why were the journalists expelled from the war in Alaska? What was the military trying to hide? What happened to the American and Japanese soldiers? What became of the civilians caught in between? To find out, I travelled to the Aleutian Islands and began my research, prepared to write a definitive, dramatic history of this chapter of the war.

But a funny thing happened along the way to completing that book, something that has happened to writers down through the ages — if you are so lucky. The story began to take on a life of its own. The characters came alive, asserted their hopes, fears, and dreams, and the novel bloomed into something far more beautiful: a personal story of physical and existential survival, a story about the limits of the human spirit and the enduring power of love.

Almost from the start, I felt the weight of responsibility (parental responsibility?) to ensure that these characters had a chance to fulfill their destiny — to live in the hearts and minds of others. I can only describe this feeling in terms that would be familiar to any parent: duty, commitment, and (yes) a kind of love. I had to do everything I could to ensure that my characters had the best chance at life.I had to do everything I could to ensure that my characters had the best chance at life.

The Wind Is Not a River is the story of John and Helen Easley. I had my initial hopes and dreams for their lives, but of course they had their own aspirations that surprised, shocked, and sometimes delighted me. I set out to write a book about the war in Alaska, and I ended up discovering characters who taught me something more. They challenged me to ask myself: How far would you go in search of the truth or to honor a lost loved one? What are you willing to do to survive or risk for the sake of love?

We haven't exactly watched each other grow old, but John and Helen have been in my life long enough to allow me to see their personalities and relationship deepen and mature. So now, for me, the publication of this book feels less like a birth than it does a kind of graduation.

It will be a few more weeks before The Wind Is Not a River is in the hands of readers, but already these characters have introduced me to new friends and acquaintances. These associations have enriched my life. I suppose it's not unlike what will eventually happen with our new baby and her two-year-old sister — soon they will be bringing new friends into our lives and I look forward to that.

Today, I am excited by the knowledge that John and Helen Easley are about to step out into the wider world, on their own terms, and be known by people I may never meet.

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Brian Payton has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. He is the author of Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness, which was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Book Club pick, a Pearl's Pick on NPR, and a National Outdoor Book Awards Book of the Year. The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness and his novel Hail Mary Corner were published to acclaim in Canada. His new book is The Wind Is Not a River. He lives with his family in Vancouver.