Interview with author Carol Estby Dagg

Originally shared 2016 on The Storied Past.

When awards season is just warming up, some books released earlier may slip from memory as the year winds down. One title (from 2016) that merits renewed attention when committees begin their discussions is Sweet Home Alaska, released in February, 2016 and reviewed below this interview.

Carole Estby Dagg is the author of SWEET HOME ALASKA. Her website tag is “Writing About History as Ordinary People Lived It.”  After reading and reviewing this book I had many questions about how this subject and these characters came into her writing life.  Carole responded to my interview questions and explored her approach to writing this entertaining book about obscure Alaskan history.  

SB: Welcome, Carole. You’ve been busy since the release of SWEET HOME ALASKA in February, including a return to Alaska for some launch festivities. You’ve said that research for SWEET HOME ALASKA involved travel. How did that approach apply to this book?

CED: My first trip to Palmer, the site of SWEET HOME ALASKA, was to see the cabin my son bought on the outskirts of town. He drove me around the valley, pointing out a barn that had survived from colony days, and dropped me off at the Palmer Library, where I could take notes from the books of recollections of old-timers who came up with their families as part of the project.

Tigger is my daughter-in-law’s cat,  but Tigger died while I was writing SWEET HOME ALASKA, so I named Terpsichore’s cat in her honor.

SB: Your story begins in Wisconsin during the depression. What are your connections with Wisconsin? Why was it your choice as a setting for Terpsichore’s family origins?

CED: I don’t have a personal connection with Wisconsin, but I wanted my fictional character, Terpsichore Johnson, to start her story in the same state as Laura Ingalls Wilder in her first book, Little House in the Big Woods.  Besides setting up the parallel between Laura and Terpsichore, I could point out the changes between Laura’s ‘big woods’ and the woods sixty years later that had been completely logged over by Terpsichore’s time.

SB: Music is central to this family, far beyond Terpsichore’s name. Musical talent (or a lack of it) is a driving force in her life. Where do you fall in the talent or non/talent continuum when it comes to music, and how did music become such an important element in your characters’ lives?

CED: My mother filled our house with music. We dressed up in her long swirly skirts and beads and danced to her 78 records of gypsy violins. Like Terpsichore’s mother, she was an excellent pianist and her singing in the local USO during WWII introduced her to my dad, who wasn’t musical himself but knew a good thing when he heard it. As I lay in bed at night, I listened to my mother relaxing at the piano with lively ragtime music.

Although they later put music aside to become noted researchers and academics, my two younger sisters were both musically gifted. While still in their teens, one sang with George Shangrow’s Seattle Chamber Singers and the other played violin in the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra.

I did not inherit my mother’s gifts.  I took piano lessons for six years, but learned only enough to appreciate good playing in others. I liked to sing, but in college I was in the chorus that did not require auditions, just enthusiasm.

One of the things I remembered as a kid reading the Little House books was Pa’s fiddle and the words of songs that were popular in Laura’s family. If Terpsichore was to be a twentieth-century pioneer like her hero, Laura Ingalls, her family had to have music too.

SB: Many of the economic recovery programs of the 1930’s are well known. FDR’s Matanuska, Alaska was intended to relocate destitute farm families to a community in Alaska with a plan to provide jobs for others who would help build and maintain that new community. What surprised you most about it?

CED: That I had never heard of it!

SB: Neither had I! You’ve visited there and have family living there now. How does the spirit of the people living there today compare to your characters’ approach to life at that time?

CED: My Alaska friends are not farmers, but they still have the urge to be self-reliant. They have fish camps where they catch and can, freeze, or vacuum pack enough salmon to last their families the rest of the year. They hunt deer and caribou to fill their freezers. They have their own organic vegetable gardens and can whatever they don’t eat in season.

SB: You’ve written about your “immersion” approach to story and character development (Cooking, sewing, and collecting artifacts related to your research).

Are you a natural collector or did this emerge as you launched your writing career.

CED: I wasn’t so much a collector of things (with the exception of books) but of experiences. When I went through my Egyptology phase at about Terpsichore’s age, I talked my father into taking me to a museum where I could see a real mummy in its sarcophagus. As an adult, I climbed on the back of a camel to ride among the great pyramids, crept through King Tut’s tomb, and visited Cairo to see the King Tut treasures.

My immersion approach isn’t about the things themselves, but creating the experience of wearing things, seeing and handling things, and learning skills my characters would have learned. Like Lord Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, I was interested in ‘real history’ of the day-to-day lives of people in other times and places.

SB: Did any of the research or writing for this book reveal potential new stories to tell?

CED: Although I have a banker’s box full of notes I did not use for Sweet Home Alaska, I feel like I’ve skimmed off the best stuff and a sequel would be a let-down. Like changing majors in college, I’m off on a completely different subject now, the Pig War in the San Juan Islands of the mid-1800’s.

SB: Thank you, Carole, for sharing your approach to this book, and your research. I appreciate you taking time from your writing and travels to share your personal stories about SWEET HOME ALASKA. As various organizations consider outstanding middle grade novels for 2016 awards, I certainly expect Sweet Home Alaska to be receiving lots of attention.

Here’s what I wrote about this historical novel on GOODREADS.

This story begins in depression-era Wisconsin but moves quickly to a “big dreams” adventure and challenge in Alaska. From the moment we meet her, Terpsichore (Terp-SICK-uh ree) let’s readers know what she thinks, cares about, and fears. She personifies the pre-teen tension between exuberant confidence and anxious helplessness.

This would pair well with Gayle Rosengren’s WHAT THE MOON SAID, another depression era story with a Wisconsin setting but an entirely different story arc. A discussion of both stories, main characters, and circumstances would open doors to deep understanding of the economic and political realities of America in the 1930s.

Update on this post, as of July, 2019: SWEET HOME ALASKA received awards from Junior Library Guild for the print novel and for the audio book. To learn even more about it, including teaching resources, check this link at TeachingBooks.net.

Value of an editor

Recently my editor wrote about his process while working on Odin’s Promise. In the midst of the many emotions I’ve had during this road to publication of my debut novel, the one emotion that has never wavered is gratitude. Phil’s contribution to this ride began several years ago, long before Odin’s Promise was even written. I sought his professional advice on an entirely different cast of characters telling a very different story, even though it, too, was set in Ytre Arna. His interest, encouragement , and writing suggestions allowed me to believe that I could do something with my memories and research.

That highly professional advice combined with that of others, with additional research, and with my work to develop the craft of writing to create Mari’s and Odin’s story. I knew of his appreciation for Scandinavian culture and history, as well as his work with other middle grade historical novels I admire. I also knew of his wide-ranging expertise as an editor of both fiction and non-fiction text. I took a shot on Odin’s Promise being “entirely new” enough to submit it to Phil.

I’m so grateful that he saw in it, and in me, something worthy of his investment of time and skill.

I don’t know about you, but I read the author notes, acknowledgements and all other “extra” content in books. I view them as the “director’s cut” portion of the book, a backstage peek at the creation process. In every case the authors’ statements about their editors’ contributions have made me eager for the experience. This suggests only a glimpse of the thorough investment Phil makes in his writers, which has made my first novel publishing experience ideal.

From day one his approach has been collaborative, constructive, and inevitably resulted in ODIN’S PROMISE becoming a stronger, better story.

Phil has already read and edited the acknowledgements I wrote for Odin’s Promise, so this isn’t the first time he’ll read my praise and thanks for his role in this book. It bears repeating here: thank you so much, Phil. Or, as they say in Norwegian,

Takk så mye!

Ytre Arna: A Virtual Tour

For a more recent drone’s-eye-view of Ytre Arna, check this short video:

 

Ytre Arna is the little village nestled into the side of one of the mountains surrounding Bergen, Norway. I’ve been lucky enough to visit there and the stories I visited with friends from the “war years” generation. Their stories inspired my research and writing, set in Ytre Arna. My recent web-touring of the Arna region turned up several images to help readers visualize the community while reading.

Arna is a region divided by a large fjord, with Ytre Arna on the banks further from Bergen. “Ytre” means “outer”. On the near side of the fjord are Indra Arna (Inner  Arna) and  Garnes, two much larger communities. The pictures I found are fairly current. Since the war years, housing and population have expanded, but many of the homes, streets, and shops have been there for a hundred years and more.

In the early part of the twentieth century, just before the war years, Ytre Arna was renowned for it’s weaving factories. For generations they produced highly desirable and high quality fabrics for the country and for the world market. Their location on the fjord offered easy access to the ports at Bergen and the sea beyond.

The most exciting discovery I made during my web-cruise was a YouTube video. (Yes, YouTube has something besides cats and TED talks.) It offers a windshield view through the streets of modern Ytre Arna. Many of the homes, business, and other buildings are ones I saw during visits there. Early in the ride you can see the white church and steeple I had in mind while writing rise into view on the left. Take a few minutes and enjoy the ride:

You may wonder why an occupying German army would bother with such a tiny village, especially one whose principal industry was making fabric.  Its location on the fjord is part of the explanation. In addition, the presence of German encampments, the numbers of soldiers, and their expanse into every Norwegian community assured their complete control of the country and its resources. It sent a clear message that, as Star Trek fans would say, “Resistance is futile”.

Germany claimed not to be invading, but to be occupying for the safety, protection, and defense of kindred spirits. They claimed Norway as a sort of “blood kin”; members of the “Aryan Race” who were destined to one day rule the world. They were even met by some Norwegians who welcomed them.

There’s an eerie similarity between what happened then to Norway (and other countries) and to what is happening now in Crimea. As I watch Russian troops land, expand, encourage local support, and insist they are there as protectors I feel as if I’m viewing my research come to life.

Intersecting Thoughts: Fiction and Inspiration

In earlier posts… I addressed the importance of readers making personal connections, engaging with the characters and emotions in a story.

…a question was asked again recently and I found myself exploring more ways this fictional story mirrors my memories, experiences, and family tales. Here’s what I first wrote:

 FAQ: Did you base Mari’s family on your own?

I’m not Norwegian and wasn’t alive during World War II. In most details, my life and family were quite different from Mari’s. But in the most important ways, it was the same. I’m a middle child of four: three girls and one boy. I grew up in more of a “pack” since we were all just a few years apart from each other. There were long periods when my widowed grandma lived with us, and dinner table conversation was our family routine, too. Most important of all, I never doubted that I was loved, that we all were, and that any hard times were survivable.

Now I’m following my own advice to dig deeper. My mother was a “late life” child with a large age gap separating her from her older siblings. She adored them, but they played more of a parental role in her life. She often told stories of growing up feeling a bit lonely, spending time with her grandma and her dog. This question makes me realize that much of Mari’s situation and her worries echo stories my mother told about her childhood. I was never conscious of that while writing.

When the final cover art by Kathleen Spale was released I was thrilled. The image, the color, the mood it evoked all suited the characters and story perfectly. As I compared Mari’s and Odin’s circumstances and relationships to my mom’s, the cover came to mind. My mom’s childhood was spent in the “hollers” of Appalachia, whose ancient hills and valleys weren’t as mountainous as the cover scene.  But it doesn’t take much imagination for me to see her standing on a ridge overlooking the Ohio River with her dog at her side.

Mom began taking art lessons after she retired. Even with years of work her art was more folk than professional, but she developed a personal style and favored certain subjects. Her paintings often featured colors and tones similar to these, and she frequently included young people in outdoor scenes. One of my sisters reminded me of that when I shared the cover art on Facebook.

Kirby Larson, author of DUKE, reflects on unconscious inspirations in her  “Friend Friday” blog post this week. Hers is a lovely tribute to the influence of one of her favorite authors, Jamie Gilson. (You should read her post, truly). When I reread Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars recently I was  surprised to find I had named Mari’s older sister Lise, the same name as the older sister in that powerful story.

Never underestimate the power of memory and inspiration. I nearly did.