Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Interview with Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child

In honor of Eowyn Ivey's literary debut, The Snow Child, which comes comes out via Little, Brown on Tuesday, here's an interview that first ran on my writing blog last fall. Eowyn lives with her family north of Palmer, semi-off-the-grid, and is a life-long Alaskan. She is sooo generous with her time, and sooo very talented, I'm always a bit in awe of her whenever we meet. I know you'll feel the same after reading her words, and will rush out to buy her book - which you can do at Fireside Books in Palmer NOW, or at Eowyn's super-duper launch party from 4-8 p.m. Tuesday at Colony Inn.  She's inviting everybody to celebrate with her so plan on stopping by!

1. You found your agent in an unusual way. Please share!
I was attending the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer several years ago. I know a lot of writers go to conferences hoping to pitch to an editor or an agent, but that wasn’t my goal. I went to learn more about the craft and meet other writers. I was there with my mom, Julie LeMay, who is a poet. Jeff Kleinman from Folio Literary Management was the presenting literary agent, andI was impressed with the titles he represented. But my novel wasn’t finished, and I wouldn’t have signed up to speak with him if my mom hadn’t kept prodding me. What did I have to lose? At least I could get a feel for how the novel might be received if and when I was ready to query agents. I described my concept to Jeff, and he asked to read the first 100 pages. Since I wasn’t there to pitch, I hadn’t even brought my manuscript! Thankfully, I was able to get the pages to him; he read them there at the conference and offered to represent it.
2. From your blurb, The Snow Child appears to have elements of a re-telling, magical realism and historical. What's its genre and how did it get classified?
It’s general fiction.  Although it has a fantastical element and is set in the past, it isn’t a genre novel. You’ll see it described as “literary fiction” by some bookstores and websites, but it’s a label I’m uncomfortable using myself because it seems to be a value claim. “Literary” to me is something that has stood the test of time. But The Snow Child would be shelved in the fiction section of a bookstore or library.
3. You did research prior to writing this book. Talk about how important the research was to your plotting.
The research provided more inspiration than facts. I was working a shift at Fireside Books when I stumbled on a children’s picture book called The Snow Child, illustrated by Alaskan artist Barbara Lavallee. That’s when I first learned of the Snegurochka fairy tale. Right then I knew this was the storyline I had been looking for. As I began writing the novel, I continued to learn more about the fairy tale. I discovered that over the centuries it has been retold in many versions and media– Russian lacquer paintings, Arthur Ransome’s translations. There’s even an opera and a ballet based on the fairy tale. All of this fueled my imagination.
4. How important are beta writers or critique partners to you?
My family is my primary source of writing support. As I wrote each night, I would come downstairs and read sections aloud to my husband and older daughter. At the same time, my mom and I had an ongoing arrangement – each week she would give me a poem and I would give her a chapter. The rule was that, because these were first drafts, we could only say what we liked about them. It was really about having a deadline and encouraging each other. I was also fortunate to have other people who were willing to read finished drafts of it, including my dad, fellow authors and booksellers, and former coworkers from the newspaper business.
5. What authors inspire you with their style? Or, if you had to compare your book to others out there, what are they?
I could write pages and pages about the authors who have inspired me. My writing was born out of my love of reading. When I was a little girl, I devoured books such as Little House in the Big Woods, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, andThe Boxcar Children. As a teenager I read everything from David Eddings to Lois Lowry to Stephen King.  It was in college and later that I discovered authors such as Louise Erdrich, Larry McMurtry, Annie Dillard, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, and Charles Frazier. I am a member of a book club, and we’ve read a lot of classics over the years -- Frankenstein, As I Lay Dying,Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment. I read Austen, Nabokov,  Hemingway, Melville, Joyce, Chekov, Woolf. I also read a lot of modern fiction such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Tinkers, Everything is Illuminated, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, The Ice-Shirt. As a bookseller, I’m in constant contact with the fabulous new books hitting the shelves. I just finished Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, The Detour, and The Marriage Plot. Now I’m reading Pure by Julianna Baggott. As you can see my taste runs from westerns to fantasy, literary fiction to classics. And I would love to think that what I read influences my own writing.
6. What was going out on sub like? How did you fill the waiting?
It is a torturous process, especially having worked in journalism for nearly a decade. I was used to a fast turn over, same-day praise or rejection. In book publishing we’re talking months or even years. But I tried to put that nervous energy to good use. I wrote short stories, I began working on the next novel, and I read a lot.
7. Now that TSC has been on shelves in other countries and is doing well, talk about your expectations for the US debut. What advice have any publishing experts given you?
I don’t think anyone can give me advice on this one. The truth is no one – not the editor, the agent, the publisher, the bookseller, and certainly not the author – can predict how a book is going to do. We all just follow our guts, write and read what we love, and it can be surprising which books hit the bestseller list and which ones never see the light of day. I’m not talking about quality as much as theme and subject and approach. I believe a lot of different factors in society influence what books become well-loved at a certain time. So instead of trying to play that impossible guessing game, I’m just grateful for each email or tweet I get from a reader in Oslo or London or Orlando who has enjoyed it.
When I say 'doing well' I really mean it's a bestseller. Like, in Norway. And also on Oprah's Top 10 list right now.

8. You landed a grant to help fund research for your next novel. Talk about that process, including any tips for grant writing or research you may have learned.
It’s true what they say – try, try again. I’ve applied for grants before and not received them.  I think a few things helped me this time with the Rasmuson Foundation. I had a very concrete project that would clearly help me write my next novel. I had a polished excerpt from the novel in progress. I had improved my resume with short story publications and the acquisition of my novel by Little, Brown & Co. And I had attended a fabulous session at Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Denver that was all about how to write a grant proposal. I highly recommend to anyone who wants to write and publish and apply for grants to attend conferences like these. You can get a tremendous amount of helpful information!
9. Your debut is coming right up. How will you balance publicity for this book with writing on your next?
 We’re planning a book release part in conjunction with Fireside Books at the Inn CafĂ© in Palmer that evening. As for balancing everything, my goal is to enjoy the incredible ride. I write because I love to, and I always find the time when I set my mind to it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find The Snow Child opening new doors for me to publish essays and short stories. But however much writing I do, or don’t do, I know that publicity opportunities for The Snow Child are once-in-a-lifetime -- never again will I have a debut novel.
10. I've heard it said that landing the second contract can be harder than the first. What's your opinion on that?
I have no idea. I guess when I finish my next novel, I’ll find out.

Alaskan fast five

caribou and Mt. McKinley

Do you prefer moose or caribou?
Caribou, but I’ll never turn down a moose.

Dip-netting record? (or gill-netting if that's how you roll)
Only four.  I’m lacking as a dip-netter. Lucky for me, my husband Sam is a natural and fills our permit almost every time he goes out.
Cords of wood it takes you to get through the winter?
Six. And for those who don’t know the measurement, a cord is wood stacked 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long. So about six of those.
Also, Eowyn chops that herself. You should see her arms. (Kidding. Or am I....)
Gallons of water you must haul each week?
300. And we do laundry in town. We used to make do with just 50 gallons at a time, but we recently got a larger holding tank so we’re getting spoiled with hot baths and everything.
Luxury item you can't live without? 
Good coffee with real half-and-half, no sweetener.

Thanks, Eowyn!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Palmer to residents - let's talk

Developing Palmer-area businesses like the Pioneer Square Shopping Center
 was one of four goals the city council approved Tuesday. 

What are your top priorities for Palmer? Drop us a line. The Post is always interesting in communicating with the people of Palmer. So, apparently, is the city council. 

Two of the four priorities selected by the council during a Tuesday night goal-setting session centered on community outreach: improving customer service as well as communications between the city and the community. The other two priorities are recreational opportunities and retail/business development. 

Mayor DeLena Johnson convened the session. The Mat-Su Borough held a similar one in late December. A facilitator helped council members winnow down their favorites by giving each member three votes to put behind the priorities they liked. The top four won out. 

“These are goals,” city manager Doug Griffin told the Post on Wednesday. “Now it’s laid on me and my directors and city employees as a whole to come back with what objectives and action plans we have to implement these goals.”  

Basically, the community outreach piece boils down to the city doing a better job telling taxpayers where their money goes. Much of the city’s business centers on day-to-day operations -- water and sewer, garbage collection, roads. But most taxpayers don’t actually run across a city employee unless something goes wrong. They geta speeding ticket, or get a call from a bill collector for an overdue notice. A few council members reported going to Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce meetings only to be asked just what the city is doing these days, Griffin said.

The retail-boosting piece has been a local priority for years. And the city can use a stronger tax base. But city government walks a fine line when it comes to getting involved with business, said deputy mayor Richard Best. “You want to support your current businesses, you want to encourage growth,” Best said. “On the other hand, some folks don’t want to see big box stores come in.”

Developers have expressed the desire for Palmer to expand its footprint so they can take advantage of city utilities and the resulting lower insurance premiums, Best said. Some citizens want the city to help market the former Carrs building, and the council would like to see it filled, but it’s privately owned by Carr Gottstein Properties. 

“So its their choice to leave it empty or not,” he said. 

The recreation piece, which also includes library services, is a bit tricky too, Griffin noted. The city has no parks and recreation department and just finished a bunch of budget cuts. But the city does have a number of recreational facilities, including the expanding MTA Events Center - completion is now due in March, after initially being promised last fall - and the golf course. A new recreation and trails master plan is nearly done. The goal involves streamlining these resources, Griffin said. 

So what do you think? Are these your priorities for Palmer? The city is all ears. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New children's librarian resorts to sneaky tactics

Photo by Rindi White
Katie Schweisthal is the new children's librarian at Palmer Public Library.

Encouraging reading and library patronage among all ages takes wearing a lot of different hats, from story reader and crafter to party organizer and good listener.

Katie Schweisthal, the new children’s librarian at Palmer Public Library, wears those hats and more in her new role. The most important one, she said, is literacy booster.

“Literacy has always been near to my heart,” she said, adding that her goal is to make reading silly and fun.

Fun, yes, but silly?

That’s the ace up her sleeve, Schweisthal said. Take the concept of rhyming. What could be more boring than doing rhyming drills with a premade list of words? But sitting in a circle with a group of kids and having each come up with a word that rhymes with the one the last person said – in no time the whole circle has dissolved into laughter.

“They kind of forget they’re learning. It may be a kind of sneaky approach to teaching some things,” Schweisthal said.

But if it works and the children are left with positive memories of their time at the library, so much the better.

Schweisthal hails from Minnesota originally and said she’s a “hardcore library kid” who spent a lot of time at her local library. She has a degree in international studies and a second in German studies. The move to Alaska was prompted by a natural restlessness driven in part by her background in international studies. Her boyfriend (now husband) is a teacher and was being courted by the Anchorage School District, she said.

“Neither of us had been here to visit but we wanted an adventure. We took a leap of faith and moved. It turned out to be a great adventure,” she said.

That was six years ago. They originally moved to Anchorage, where Schweisthal worked in the training department of Hope Community Resources, Inc. The couple recently moved out to the Valley and Schweisthal did some substitute teaching around the Valley. She said she was able to sub in some library positions, which helped her get back into the library mode.

When longtime Palmer children’s librarian Candy Kopperud retired in August, Schweisthal stepped into the position.

Following in the footsteps of a well-loved librarian could have been daunting but Schweisthal said Kopperud helped her adjust and encouraged her to make the position her own. She said she’s felt welcomed and supported by library staff and others as she’s taken the reins in the new job.

Schweisthal helped pilot a program for teens over Christmas break that aimed to make the library more fun. Basically, the idea is just providing a teen lounge where they can play games, do homework and just hang out with their friends. It was prompted by the teens themselves, she said.

“They wanted a place where they can be with their friends and not be shushed, not have librarians be on their cases,” she said.

So from 2-4 p.m. in the afternoons, the library meeting room turns into a teen lounge, equipped with a flat-screen television, a Nintendo Wii and some PG-rated games, board games and other items. Laptops can be checked out for group homework – something prohibited in the confines of the regular library, where the rule is one person per laptop.

Schweisthal also coordinates other programs, from the baby lap-sit program for tots under two years old, to the two-year-old and the three-to-five year old reading and crafts groups. She arranges the Foreign Film Society, where foreign films are shown on Fridays at 7 p.m. (this week’s film is “The Protektor”, which Schweisthal said is great) and supervises the lights-out program for middle-schoolers. There, pre-teens pick a book to read, then come to the library one evening a month. The windows are blacked out, the lights are out and the kids read by flashlight, then have a break for discussion, games and food, and then more reading.

In February, she said the library will be kicking off a high-school book club. Schweisthal said she envisions it being more like a typical book club, where the book is read outside the library and then discussed. But ultimately, how the group is structured will be up to the teens that take part, she said.

“I’m really excited to see what they do with it,” she said.

The reading programs are free and open to anyone in the appropriate age group. For more information, check out the “Library events/programs” page at

Schweisthal said her goal is to get kids to feel good about reading and comfortable at the library. 

“I want it to feel like it’s a fun place to come,” she said. “It can just be a place for them to come and be kids and do what they want to do.”

-- Rindi White

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Books, books, books!

Photo found online
Palmer's stacks are much more neatly arranged! 

Bibliophiles, imagine having $40,000 a year to spend on books. Where would you begin?

The Palmer Public Library, the largest and one of the busiest libraries in the Valley, received $40,000 from the City of Palmer during its end-of-year budgeting process to buy books. The library also received a donation of $16,130 from the Palmer Friends of the Library, nearly $11,000 of which will be used for book purchases.

For comparative purposes, Wasilla, which has a smaller library but slightly more patron traffic, allocated $72,000 for books in 2011. About 66 books per hour are checked out in Palmer versus about 73 per hour in Wasilla. 

Beth Skow, library and arena director for the city, does most of the book-buying for the city. Skow said she tries to take a broad approach to buying books. Many of her choices come from recommendations made through state and national library associations, and from Booklist, a magazine and website that offers reviews of thousands of books by American Library Association experts. Each genre has its own websites listing the most popular books – say, in Christian romance or westerns.

“I try not to focus on any one specific genre,” Skow said. “I try to even it out.”

Skow said that money has to cover a lot, from magazine and newspaper subscriptions to movies, audiobooks and books for both the adult and children sections of the library.

Katie Schweisthal, children’s librarian at Palmer Public Library, does the book-buying for the children’s section, Skow said. She wasn’t sure off the top of her head exactly what percentage of her book budget goes toward the children’s section but said she and Schweisthal are in the process of updating the books available there. Some books will be retired in favor of newer titles, she said.

“Weeding,” or combing the stacks for rarely circulated or out-of-date books, is something that happens frequently, Skow said. But one room is off-limits for “weeding” purposes. The Alaskana room, home to hundreds of books about Alaska or written by Alaskans, is a safe refuge for the books that reside there.

Skow said some changes are afoot at the library, aimed at bringing new tech tools to patrons. Using a state library assistance grant, Skow said she bought a large-screen television for the library’s “Foreign Film Society,” which shows foreign films Fridays at 7 p.m. Next up: Protektor, on Jan. 13.

The television will also get pressed into use during the children’s reading programs (for showing song lyrics, primarily), and additional state grant money was used to get new furnishings and decorations for the Baby Lap-Sit and children’s reading programs. A bonus for parents: The library also bought a few puzzles, one of which will be installed near the check-out counter to keep little hands occupied while books are being checked out.

“And we bought a Wii,” Skow said. As part of the library’s effort to encourage teens to visit the library and do constructive things there, they’ll be checking out video games (of the PG variety) and allowing teens to use the Wii in the meeting room. A schedule for Wii use should be appearing soon.

Skow said she’s also working out ways to better use library space. Palmer is taking part in a statewide video conferencing system that will allow patrons to video-chat with doctors or take online classes. But the library needs meeting rooms both for one-on-one doctor visits, for example, and space for group training sessions.

“That’s a big push,” Skow said.

And the children’s section is in need of more space, she said. She plans to expand that area as well. It’s too early to say when, however.

“There’s so much that has to be done before we can even get close to (talking about dates),” she said.

There’s more to come! Skow said she would provide a list of the most popular titles checked out over the last year. The list will be posted when it’s available.

 Next week the Palmer Post will talk to Schweithal, who became Palmer’s new children’s librarian in the fall, about how she captures the attention of the library’s littlest patrons and instills a love of books from an early age. Stay tuned!