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Amazon Asks: Leigh Newman, on Guns, Grizzlies, and Alaska

LeighWriting about her Alaskan childhood wasn't something Leigh Newman had intended. Not until the novel she'd been working on fell apart. "It was a flop novel," she said, and ultimately not fixable.

In something of a panic, she decided to try to craft a narrative about her adventurous, outdoorsy and difficult childhood, to recreate some of the stories she'd tell friends, the ones that would always elicit "you should write about that" responses. But it took that failed novel for her to finally feel ready to revisit those youthful days of soaring across Alaska in her dad's float plane, of remote camping, fly fishing, and hunting. And to write about her parents' divorce, which led to a back-and-forth, half-and-half life: private school in Baltimore with mom; summers and Christmas in Alaska with dad.

"Once I started writing, I couldn't stop," Newman said by phone. "So I knew I was on the right path." She also wrote a fantastic Modern Love column for the New York Times, about duck hunting with her father and husband, the response to which nearly crashed her Blackberry, "And I thought, 'Okay, now I have a book'."

The result, Still Points North--an Amazon biography & memoir Best Books of the Month pick for March--is a beautifully told tale of a gangly little girl who grows up with Jack London as a dad, confronting grizzles and gutting fish and, more than once, nearly drowning. "I grew up with the mistaken assumption that I'd grown up like everyone else," Newman said.

Still Points North is also a clear-eyed look at a broken family, at two people who should not have been together but who managed to provide their daughter with a lush, two-part life: wild and outdoorsy, bookish and refined. Newman ultimately makes peace with some of the previously unresolved details of her parents' split. And despite some rough times, she's grown to appreciate the many wonderful moments she experienced throughout her wildly unconventional childhood.

I asked Newman (who, as deputy editor for Oprah.com, knows a thing or two about books) a few questions about her book, what she's reading now, books that have influenced her life, and more.

Still-poitnsWhat's the elevator pitch for your book?

A love letter to an Alaskan childhood. Also known as: how to surviving grizzlies, stalling planes, raging rapids and a courageous eccentric family that couldn’t quite keep it together.

Describe your book in one sentence? Or two?

Doing stuff on your own is very Alaskan. Doing life all on your own is exhausting… and not very fun.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal.

Favorite 3 books?

As I Lay Dying (Faulkner). Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller). Little House In The Big Woods (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Important book you never read?

Don Quxiote.

Book that changed your life?

A Portrait of A Lady. A woman who choose the wrong life, despite all her freedom.

Book that made you want to become a writer?

Hamlet. I read it really young, on accident. I didn’t what the hell it was. But I liked the sound of it.

LeighFavorite books as a child?

Red Tag Comes Back by Fred Phelger. It’s a story about a salmon. My dad read it to me just about every night.

What's your most memorable author moment?

Having everyone in the world think that the child on the cover of my book was not me at age six, but my six-year-old son.

What talent or superpower would you like to have?

The ability to read the instruction manuals with that come with Blu Ray players.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

A letter from a woman convinced we had gone to summer camp together in the Alaskan wilderness in 1969, before I was born. She described my camo pants, our work detail felling trees and building roads. I liked her so much I thought I was there.

Favorite line?

“Surviving isn’t living and once you’ve brushed up against the two conditions, you can’t pretend it’s not a choice either way.”

What's next for you?

A dog. Leonard, my old friend, died last year. And it’s time to get another big, stinky, shedding, not-very-potty-trained animal in my life.

~~~~~

Finally, I asked Newman about the book's title, which is clearly a commentary on the continued pull of the 49th state on her life. "Still points north" comes from an unpublished poem by Elizabeth Bishop about her longing for the home she left in Nova Scotia.

Dear, my compass
still points north
to wooden houses
and blue eyes,
fairy-tales where
flaxen-headed
younger sons
bring home the goose

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