Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home
(The Dial Press, 2013)
Leigh Newman is a powerhouse, even when she’s shuffling her schedule to try and meet with you. For this interview, we set a date in Brooklyn, then switched it to midtown Manhattan, then she got that horrible flu and we had to find another time all together. Finally, on an unseasonably warm December morning, we sat down at Angelica Kitchen in the East Village. She was still recovering, but savoring the miso soup and hot tea.
Susan Marque (Rail): You wrote this beautiful modern love column. Was that before you did the book or after?
Leigh Newman: It was before the book. What had happened was I had spent three years working on a novel and at the time I had a lot of time to work on the novel. I was still working, I would work at night to earn money freelance writing, and I would write the book during the day. And then the book did not work. The novel did not work. I went to Yaddo. I was pregnant with my second kid and I was going to keep working on the novel even though I knew it was falling apart. And at some point, I think the second day there, I just thought, I’m not going to do this anymore. I’ve got to do something else. So I started writing memoir pages. People had always told me to write a memoir and I just—you know, nothing ever came of any of those pages. Those were terrible pages. But the idea of writing non-fiction; I had never written it before. We were very—our family was very broke at that time period. That was like 2009. When I came back from Yaddo, I basically basically lost every client I had. I thought, “Oh boy, I better do something. I better do something with this memoir or I better do something.” I’ve got a three-year-old kid, my husband works in an architecture firm, you know. And I called up my agent and I said something like, “I need to get some magazine jobs, can you help me?” And she said, “Why don’t you write a modern love column?” And I said—I mean now, its funny, right; if you want to make money, you don’t go to the Times [laughs]. That’s how we were thinking at the time, you know? “Oh yeah, I’ll make big bucks, you know?” So I wrote one.
Rail: For what, 300 dollars?
Newman: Yeah, I think 250 or whatever. The thing that happened was, and I didn’t know it—I wasn’t steeped in this tradition, I had no understanding of how this works. I just thought it was a neat thing to be in the New York Times. I was excited.
Rail: It was really well written, too. It was really cool.
Newman: Thank you. My phone—I had a BlackBerry at the time—and the minute it came out, I hadn’t thought to tell anyone. I had told no one, I just thought, “Oh this is great, being in the New York Times,” you know? Woo hoo! Then it was just all of these hundreds of emails from people that either read it or were interested in buying a book. They were like, where’s your book? Do you have pages? Do you have a proposal or do you have a novel or do you have—? And it said, “Leigh Newman is working on a novel.” I didn’t even say anything about the memoir. So I said, “I think I will finish the proposal for the memoir,” I think I gave myself eight weeks. And I did. I finished it in eight weeks. Because my baby was born—at that time I was pregnant, my second child was born June 5th, and that was the day I handed in the proposal. I think the modern love piece came out March 25th, and March 25th was like okay, we have to get together 60 incredible pages by June 5th and then I sent it out June 5th. I was like, “Okay, I’m on the way to the hospital, I’m going. Take it or leave it.’
Rail: That’s great.
Newman: Yeah. I loved writing that modern love piece. It was really nice. It was something I had not written, an essay—I had written one non-fiction essay before, for Tin House. And I really liked that essay, but it was a bit different in tone, it was very funny. So I really learned a technique; a way of writing the story and then ending up at a point and thinking of the point at the end. You know, writing yourself into what you want to talk about rather than thinking about what you’re going to talk about and then writing it out, you know? And I remember when that incident happened in Idaho, it was that December, and I remember knowing that—understanding deeply the import. As those events unfolded, and I was running around in the dark and everything with a gun, I remember having a very funny feeling, like almost—and I haven’t had it always—my life has been in lots of danger before, but I’ve only had this feeling once or twice where everything seemed slowed down and I had a very, very heightened awareness feeling that something very big was happening and I didn’t understand it and I wasn’t going to be able to examine it right now. I just had to keep moving, figure out where my husband was, get the gun, get my dad back, figure out where my kid was, and try and deal with all of this. But I knew that it was something very, very big and I should just pay attention and not think about it and I would think about it later. I remember saying that to myself as I was running through the dark by myself and it was so hard to move I was so pregnant.
Newman: So it was really; and I don’t know why, if my agent hadn’t said, “Why don’t you write this modern love column,” I don’t think I would have sat down to do all of that thinking three months later. But I did. It’s very weird and a big kind of hushed feeling, where something big is happening. It’s not obvious though. It seems like its obvious because there are guns involved and lost people, and sub-zero temperatures and all of that. But really in that kind of moment, you’re just like let’s—
Rail: But your dad was sick at that time too, right?
Newman: My dad was sick at that time, I couldn’t afford any kind of analysis or thought. I was just like let’s get through this. Let’s get through this. So we did.
Rail: Did the book start out as kind of a love letter to your dad?
Newman: For sure, for sure. I mean, the first words of that book are all about my dad and those have not deviated. I think I wrote them in February, right before the modern love column and they have not changed a bit. I mean sometimes I’ve moved verbs around or—I tend to be very concerned with the rhythm of language and so I read everything out loud and scan my writing and think about how things work. So I’ll manipulate a lot of things on a sentence level but the overall thrust of them has not changed, I don’t think. Yeah. I’m not the only one who had this great hero Alaskan dad, you know? I know several other girls my age who feel similarly about their father. You know, just very—it’s with you for life. It’s such a serious and wonderful relationship and such a different way of parenting, you know? And of being a kid. It’s pretty great. I wouldn’t change it. I can’t relate to more of an American dad: “Well my dad just read the newspaper and he went to work and he came home.” I mean I try and understand as a writer—you want to be empathetic to everyone. I just—my dad was so fully present, I mean not just in all of the hunting and all of the fishing and the flying but you know, he taught me how to sew. He taught me how to cook. He used to love to make these smoothies so we’d go on these kicks. He goes all of the way with anything; it doesn’t matter. I think for two years we made nothing but smoothies. We had some Hawaiian cookbook and we would make these smoothies and he would write notes. We had to write down reports of how each smoothie tasted and what you had to put in there. You know? Same thing with sewing. He felt that I should learn how to sew.
It was a very intense and very practical minded relationship in the sense that he was always trying to give me life skills. He started running and so he had me running by the time I was in fourth grade. Running 10Ks with him. He got me some shoes, he got me some shorts. In typical fashion, “I’ll meet you at 4:30 outside the house.” And then we just—you’ve got to run three miles honey, you’ve got to run four miles. He made these charts, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] You know? And that was a good skill, to be able to run and run long distances. When you’re in the wilderness it’s a very good skill. And it’s a very good life coping skill.
Rail: That’s fun. How has that influenced how you’ve been raising your kids?
Newman: I think very similarly. You know—when you look back on it, I know that a lot of people have read about these incidences—the many almost-plane accidents and the stuff with the bears. I didn’t even include half of the bear stories. We had so many close calls with bears. All kinds of almost dying experiences. But my take-away from that as a kid was not fear. I remember times when I was scared, but I think I trusted my dad so enormously and I had a child’s belief that this was all going to work out for some reason, even though everything logically seemed to point the other way. I’d grown up with it and so I was familiar with fear. Which is something I just keep thinking about. It’s not that you’re not afraid, it’s that when you’re used to a degree of fear and having to problem solve and act, it’s a lot easier than when you’re not afraid all of the time and all of a sudden you get afraid. You have to manage being afraid. How am I going to or what am I going to do when I’m afraid and I’m panicking?
Rail: It was kind of what you knew.
Newman: It was what I knew.
Rail: It was what you grew up with.
Newman: And my kids; I’m not doing those kinds of things with them. They’re not living in the wilderness and that to some degree is not my choice. You know, I married somebody who does not want to live in the wilderness and who has been very, very clear about it. I tired an experiment called the Idaho Experiment two years ago where I tried to get us out to Idaho and consider living there. And it just did not work. He was not interested at all. And I love him, so I’m going to stay here. But I do try and teach my kids and I do see a difference in my parenting than other people’s parenting. You know, my kids really do a lot themselves. I am not a hovering parent and I make my kids work. We live on the fourth floor of a house and we built our own house and we built all of the furniture in it —mostly I did, honestly—and we have two working fireplaces that we built ourselves—and my kids bring up all of the firewood up to the fourth floor by themselves. They’re three and six, and they have jobs like that. They carry the firewood, they’ve got a basket and they load it up and they bring the firewood upstairs. I’ve taught them how to cook. I taught them how to grow their own vegetables and make their own soups. My five-year-old just grew his own carrots and you know, cooked us all soup. And I try and give them those life skills. Both of them swim the way I was taught, which is kind of hardcore swimming. And they both play violin.
Rail: Oh, that’s awesome.
Newman: They both play well. The idea being to teach them things that would take them all through life, you know? In the same way that I feel like I was given these skills. How to gut a fish, fillet a fish, and cook a fish, and smoke a fish—is a skill that really takes you all through your life. Now it seems more relevant. Ten years ago people were like, “Huh?” Now people are like, “Of course!” We’re going to butcher pigs. But that is a life skill, you know? That you in one way or another will use. Same thing with swimming. When you are a very good deep water, ocean water swimmer, there will come times in your life, all throughout your life that you will be like oh, I can swim that! I can jump off this boat and swim in and do this stuff and it’s fine or I can take care of myself. I want my kids to learn, to be able to take care of themselves in that way, you know? I do take them camping a lot.
Newman: It’s a whole new thing for me. Oregon, Maine, anywhere I can take them. Upstate New York. The idea of going to a camp spot and there being a luxury city there—bathrooms; it’s like a whole new world to me. Sometimes I’ll get very agro and hysterical about it and I’ll be yelling at everyone to get the rain cover on. I get very—I turn into a father. I’m like, “Everybody get this tent up! We’ve got fifteen minutes!” And my husband’s like wait a minute, let’s just take some marshmallows and roast them. And I’m like, “Shut the hell up; who are you?” [Laughs.] “I don’t know about you, I’m not going to die out here in the woods!” And he’s like, “We can just go to a motel.” I’m like, “Oh right!” You know?
Rail: That’s funny.
Newman: We went to Maine to camp and he wouldn’t let me take my hatchet because he was worried about us getting caught in security. And then when we got there, sure enough it was raining now and all of the firewood was wet and I was screaming about the hatchet that I didn’t have—that there was no way to get the good kindling, how were we possibly supposed to put the tent pegs in without the back end of the hatchet, you know? Boy, did I read him the riot act. And then he was just like, “I’m just going to go to the company store and buy some firewood.” I was like “Oh! Oh, there’s a company store?” He was like, “Yeah, like 15 feet over there.” [Laughs.]
Rail: Oh, that’s hilarious.
Newman: No, I definitely come from the school of camping where you bring your shovel and your pick. I think as the kids get older we will get more and more adventuresome. My three-year-old just turned three and he’s just reaching that age. I took him to Alaska last summer for two weeks and he was—was it last summer or the summer before last? Wow, I took him there when he was 18 months. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what I was thinking! It’s hard, hardcore. I spent most of my time just trying to keep him alive, even in Anchorage, which is a populated city. We live on a frigid lake, there was no fence, there were hunting dogs everywhere, firearms everywhere, there were bow and arrows everywhere. I put him in the plane, we had a bunch of misadventures. My dad doesn’t fly anymore because of his heart condition, but we have tons of friends who do and there were some adventures in the plane. I came back exhausted. I think you want to start all of this stuff when they’re six or seven. You don’t want to start it when they’re like 18 months. They don’t need to go out in the bush when they’re 18 months.
Rail: Good to know.
Newman: Haha! File that away. Under your parenting lessons.
Rail: Yeah. Okay, oh, we’re getting through my list without me even asking. How did you decide on the structure for the book? That was one of my questions—
Newman: I don’t really work that way. I’ll tell you what; having a failed novel was a great thing to happen in terms of understanding how long form works. Even though my novel was a completely different structure, it gave me a great sense of what you need—one of the goals I had in this book, and it was right from the beginning, is that if I was going to write a memoir, which I didn’t want to write—I was uncomfortable writing non-fiction, I come from a very private family. Most of the people—I don’t think any of the people who are my friends and my family knows this story. I don’t talk about my life that much and I think that it was a big thing for me. I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t—it was like some big artist enterprise for myself. An emotional enterprise. I never really thought about showing it to people. I was just going to write it and see what happened. But having that failed novel, even though it was different—what I got was this sense of how to manipulate the story over the long term. What are the kinds of things that you had to be thinking about along the way? Really? One thing I had done with the novel was I had been very precious with it. I hadn’t shown anybody anything. I wanted to make it perfect before people saw it and that was a mistake. I’m not into workshops, but I think you need one or two readers to read it.
Rail: How did you pick your readers?
Newman: I think at this point I had my editor and my agent and that was it.
Newman: Yeah, I did not show it to anybody else. And as I wrote it, I just write sentence to sentence. That’s the truth. I wrote sentence to sentence. I write very much on instinct. I feel like when that instinct bell goes off, like “Ding, ding, ding! you’re going the wrong way!” That’s what happened in the novel. I heard it go off one page 100. Ding, ding, ding. And I ignored it. And I went down the wrong way. And I said to myself when you write this memoir, if you hear that bell go off, you stop and you pay attention to it because you just wasted two years of your life because you didn’t listen to your own alarm system. So I made that; that was the only rule. That if the bad move button went off, then I had to stop.
Rail: Who are your favorite authors and inspirations? I mean, you’re reading a lot of books for your work.
Newman: Well I did not get the job at Oprah reviewing books until after I’d sold the book. I was already two years into my book. I’ll be frank—I didn’t start reading much contemporary fiction until about four years ago. I had always read classics. There have been a number of recent books that have devastated me. There’s a book, Edward P. Jones, his work really—it just kills me. But mostly I’ve read fiction. I’d only read one memoir before, even after I’d already started my memoir. And then someone said to me, someone who had gone to the New School Program, Elizabeth Koch—she said, you need to read A Boy’s Life. I said “Okay, I’ve started to write this memoir I better learn something about memoirs.” I read it and I just loved it. I was like, this is the kind of book I’d love to write.
Then I was at my cousin’s house in Wenatchee, Washington. I went out there with my kids and I said I’m writing this book, and she’s a good reader. They have books all over their house. She’s got three kids, they live in Wenatchee, Washington. She said, “Oh, this is one of my favorite books”—it was Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight. I took it and it was as if I fell into a hole of wonder, a dark, dark hole of wonder. I could not put it down. I felt like I had found the key to the kingdom, you know? Because the way that she had approached her unconventional childhood and all of the dangers there in Africa; the animals, the ups and downs of the parents: she had done it with joy, with celebration. I was like, “that is what I want to do!” I didn’t want to structure mine in the way she had; she has these—I don’t know if you’ve gotten to read this book—but every chapter is just little vignettes. There’s not a story structure. I structured mine more like a novel with an arc and hers is just like flash, flash, flash, flash. But they’re all wonderful and they add up to a very powerfully organized story. I wanted to take her emotional atmosphere.
Rail: How did you decide on the title?
Newman: I read that poem when I was 18 years old. It’s a poem that was unpublished. Elizabeth Bishop. She wrote when she was in Brazil. She’d grown up in Nova Scotia in a very wild Northern environment, and she was forced to leave, I think her mother was mentally ill or got sick or something bad happened in her family and she was removed. When she was down in Brazil, she started writing about that childhood life up North and when I read that poem, in college in a poetry class taught by W.S. Di Piero, you couldn’t find that poem anywhere, and he had Xeroxed it and handed it to us. I was like, this is the poem of my life. I had that same feeling I was talking about in Idaho, that sense of magnitude, and I was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do with this poem, but something. And I’m gonna keep it. And then later it’ll come to me what I gotta do.
SUSAN MARQUE is an M.F.A. student at the New School. She is working on a memoir.