Call to the Wild

Award-winning author and UM alumnus Seth Kantner sees the West a little differently than the rest of us. That happens when you grow up in an igloo.


Setting up interviews with high-profile authors can often be a hassle. Publishers rarely return calls, publicists protect schedules like Dobermans and, even if you wiggle past the gatekeepers and secure a writer’s cell or hotel room number, the talent can be notoriously difficult to pin down.

Seth Kantner proves a different case entirely. Oh, he’s difficult to reach, but not in any of the typical ways. That’s because Kantner resides in Kotzebue, a remote Alaskan fishing village situated on the northern tip of the Baldwin Peninsula, 26 miles above the Arctic Circle. That’s just 1,479 miles south of the North Pole and 175 miles from the Siberian mainland.

“He has a phone, but I have to warn you: There’s usually a delay of about 2-3 seconds when you speak with him,” explains Emily Cook, director of marketing at Milkweed Editions, Kantner’s publisher. “Whatever you do, resist the urge to ask if you’ve lost him. It just takes a second or two for him to hear your question. Be patient.”

The delay tells only part of the challenge. Kantner, who was raised in an igloo near Kotzebue, only left the area to attend college—first at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and then the University of Montana, where he graduated in 1991 with a journalism degree. Now 43, he works “approximately seven different jobs” in and around Kotzebue, balancing his life as an award-winning writer and a steward of the land.

For instance, he hesitates to set up an interview because, as a commercial fisherman at the end of the summer season, he needs to be on the boat for six hours most days. That way he can sell salmon at the fish dock for 25 cents a pound.

Then there are the classes he teaches inland, at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, which he has to commute to by prop plane. Kantner apologetically balks at another interview time because he has to give a class on how to can and pickle salmon. (And yes, he brought his own salmon, which he caught earlier that day.) He promises to shoot off an e-mail if he makes the return flight, and talk that night when he’s back in Kotzebue. “Call anytime before 3 a.m.,” he writes in a subsequent note.

No rest for the weary—or, in this case, for someone who needs to take advantage of the last days before winter and promote his second book. The two, however, are inextricably linked. Kantner writes about where he lives and how he lives. His debut novel, Ordinary Wolves, tells the story of a white boy raised in a sod igloo in northwest Alaska. The book, which took Kantner 11 years to finish, mirrors the author’s own upbringing, where his father rejected mainstream society in order to live off the land at the edge of the wilderness. Kantner, like the main character in the book, struggled to find his place in the Iñupiaq village, and moved away to bigger cities only to eventually return to his remote home. Ordinary Wolves earned Kantner a 2005 Whiting Award, which annually honors 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

The author’s response to winning what villagers referred to as the “Whiteboy Award”: “Oh, shit.” He fretted the trip to New York City and wore blue jeans with a caribou bloodstain to the reception ceremony.

Kantner writes about the trip to the Big Apple in Shopping for Porcupine, his second book, which was released in June. The memoir compiles 21 first-person essays and personal photographs that chronicle the author’s real-life experiences, from why his father made a pilgrimage to the tundra in 1961 to Kantner’s own decision to raise a family in the wild. “My memory begins under snow,” he writes in one essay, recalling how he came to love and respect such a rugged and challenging terrain.

Shopping for Porcupine covers the same territory as Ordinary Wolves, except now Kantner directs a more forceful tone at some of the political, societal and industrial influences impacting his home. The changes, he says, mirror some of the very influences he once saw in Montana. The Indy wanted to talk to Kantner about those influences, as well as his new book, in advance of his Aug. 25 appearance at Fact & Fiction.

“Hey, thanks for calling,” says Kantner when the interview finally commences. “I had some village trips to take care of, and some commercial fishing left to do. But I’ve got some time now.”

After a 2-3 second delay, we asked our first question.

Indy: Congratulations on Shopping for Porcupine. I have to ask, considering your schedule and the fact that you have to do so much just to live off the land up there, how do you have any time to write?

Kantner: Ha! Good question. But, first, I’d like to refute your statement a little bit there. I think Alaska has become a bit of a welfare state—a bunch of people who remember when it used to be hard and at this point are receiving too many checks in the mail. We used to be pioneers and we used to be tough people, but now we’re just talking about it.

Indy: I don’t know. I saw some of the photos in your book. It still looks tough to me.

Kantner: It’s not how it was. But to answer your question, I tend to write in the winter. The summers are short and busy for me. I work a part-time seasonal job for a native corporation running their agriculture program—basically it provides plants and seeds for the village gardeners. Then, in the fall, I teach them how to do food preservation like fish canning and salmon pickling. Meanwhile, I sell some salmon locally in town. And then I further commercial fish by selling at the fish dock. Then, I try to keep up with the columns I write and the work I do to attempt to keep my books from disappearing. I also sell some notecards and things like that here in town. And I write for the electric company—I provide photographs and stories for their Rural Light

Mid-winter’s my quietest time—it’s everyone’s quiet time up here— but also it’s pretty dark and cold and I get pretty depressed from the lack of light. I just try not to get too down with my writing.

Indy: How did Shopping for Porcupine come about?

Kantner: Before, after and during my novel, I was writing other things, mostly nonfiction. But before Ordinary Wolves, most of that was not being published. I had no name, so nobody would publish my stuff. Afterward, I started to get some of these things published. Somewhere along the line I got the idea of making a book of fiction and nonfiction, but the publishers didn’t really go for that. They wanted a collection of essays about what life was like out here. Turning it into more of a memoir or a full-length narrative with photographs happened about halfway through the process. This was a couple-year project. I thought it would be quicker, but I had to keep writing new stories to help fill it out.

Indy: Considering it was a memoir and not a novel, was Shopping for Porcupine easier or harder to write?

Kantner: Both. Fiction’s pretty hard to make good and true and believable. Nonfiction, in my case—I have a bad memory, so trying to get all these little facts correct and not irritate anybody was difficult. Some of this book took place before I was born and trying to deal with the past—the muddy, muddy past—was pretty tiresome to me. Now that the book’s out I have people coming out and saying, “Well, you know, so-and-so’s dog was named Rover instead of Bonehead, and he had two dogs instead of four.” It’s really irritating. I’m trying to show a world. Some of it, it really doesn’t matter that much.

Indy: I guess that’s indicative of where you’re writing about. You’re probably the most significant historian in Kotzebue.

Kantner: You’re right. And, I mean, the facts do matter. I guess I should retract some of that statement. But what I’m trying to say is there was two to three years of work that went into getting this right, of capturing the history, and getting focused in on the smallest details I’ve found really irksome. I guess I can’t wait to get back to fiction.

Indy: In Shopping for Porcupine, you write a lot about how technology and the times have changed Alaska. What are the biggest differences between now and when you were growing up?

Kantner: Travel and communication. It used to be that when winter came we were all frozen in for the season. You’d talk to somebody who went to Anchorage two or three years ago, but now every time you talk to someone they just got off the jet yesterday and they’re going back tomorrow. This whirlwind of travel and telephones and computers—we just didn’t have that. When I was a kid, we went to visit the villagers just 25 to 30 miles up the river from our igloo a couple times each winter and they didn’t even have a telephone. Eventually, they got one, which you could wait in line to use, but it was real expensive. Now, everything’s all tied together and fast moving—GPS, helicopters on the horizon. The whirlwind of travel and communication has enveloped us.

Indy: Do you continue to fight against that change, or do you find yourself swept up by it, as well?

Kantner: Both. I fight against it the same way my dad did by trying not to buy stuff. In his case, you buy, for example, a Honda generator, which meant you had to buy gas. That meant you not only bought the generator and the gas, but somewhere along the line you had to leave and get a job to make money. I try to avoid stuff for exactly that reason. I try to keep life simple. And of course, I fight against it with my writing.

Indy: What do you mean by that?

Kantner: I’m trying to show that this change has come, and to explain that all this change and technology isn’t wonderful. It may be the opposite of wonderful. Right now, for instance, Alaska is going through a giant fight over clean water initiatives on upcoming ballot measures. A lot of those huge mines that have been down in Montana are now up here with great desires to rape and pillage. I’m writing editorials about it, doing what I can as a writer.

Indy: It would seem that some of the issues you’re seeing in Alaska—growth, tourism, energy industries moving in, traditions being lost—are the same things impacting other parts of the West, like here in Montana.

Kantner: Absolutely. My first comment is, I think you guys are the ones who can teach us. I’d like some of the folks from Montana to come up here and warn the locals what these big companies can and will do without oversight.

One thing I’m learning lately is that whole expansion westward, where the great white fathers were talking generously to their native brothers, is happening in a corporate way now. The great mining companies have come in here and are acting all pro-native, as if they’re here to help us. But what they’re here for is to just take one more thing.

Just up the coast now, about 90 miles away, is the largest lead and zinc strip mine in the world, Tech Cominco, a Canadian conglomerate. And they’ve linked up with a local native corporation. And here, that’s very popular and everyone is very pro-lead mine. I don’t think they understand what’s at stake. All around Alaska there are plans for these giant mines and if you draw a circle around each one the circles are sort of close to each other.

Indy: That’s different from another change you talk about in Shopping for Porcupine. You say in one essay that there is a “war going on up here on the last frontier.” Explain that war.

Kantner: That war came first, before the mining, and that war is all about resources and demand for resources. Basically, it became a fight over subsistence rights to hunting versus sports hunting desires. The federal government, when they divided up the land here with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, told the natives we’re going to protect your subsistence hunting and fishing rights. As more and more people came to Alaska as tourists and miners, and then told their friends, and then posted it on the Internet, more and more hunters from all over the world have descended on northwest Alaska. That has just put pressure on our resources, where the locals aren’t happy to have what we call “Cabela’s Army” marching in here—giant white guys in camouflage every fall with their guns, a lot of them from Montana. There are also subsistence laws that are supposed to protect some of the outlying areas from that type of hunting.

The whole mining thing is a second stage—a whole different battle, but also about resources. It’s scary…I don’t even know what to think about it sometimes. I just try to write about how neat hunting and fishing was when it was a little simpler.

Indy: One thing that’s not necessarily simple in your new book is the word “respect.” You wrestle with it, for instance, in the title chapter, when you write, “Respect, though, here on the far edge of America, has grown to be a complicated creature that is nearly impossible to comprehend.” What does the word mean to you in this context?

Kantner: I tend to think of respect, first and foremost, as how you treat the animals and the land around you. I realize a lot of people attribute it to humans and, in their mind, that’s where it stops. I grew up with not very many people or people at least being pretty rare, so I value the land and animals even more. I find it hard to even understand the amazing lack of respect the average person has for pretty much everything natural.

Indy: You’re talking about more than just tourists, more than just “Cabela’s Army”?

Kantner: I have to be careful here, but…there’s a lot of talk about respect for the land. A lot of it is just rhetoric. A lot of it is the opposite of that. A replacement for respect of the land has been numbers—How many caribou do you drag home with your snowmobile? All the little details about how you got the caribou or what you do with the meat afterwards is not in the picture—it’s just how many you got. That’s what I mean by “respect.” The culture here has just been completely turned upside down and shook out in the leaves. Fifty years ago people out here were living much closer to how they lived 5,000 years ago and now everybody’s watching cable television and playing video games and planning when they’re going to Anchorage next.

Indy: Your writing obviously covers a lot of how growing up and living in Alaska has influenced you. How did your time in Missoula influence you?

Kantner: Those people taught me how to write. I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn’t have been a writer if I didn’t stumble across the campus to the journalism school.

Indy: And what brought you to Missoula in the first place?

Kantner: I went to college [in Fairbanks] to find a girlfriend. I wasn’t too successful. But I took whatever classes looked easy, and accidentally took a writing class. One of my visiting professors that semester told me to go to Missoula to be a better writer. When I dropped out of college in Fairbanks, about all I remembered from my two-and-a-half years was her telling me: “Go to Missoula.” What’s that, three words? That’s all I took with me.

Indy: Coming from Alaska, what were your impressions?

Kantner: Well, it’s brighter. I went down there Dec. 18 once and I remember digging around in my suitcase for a pair of sunglasses because it was so bright.

But, at the time, I didn’t realize there was a difference between a graduate program and an undergraduate program. When I got to Missoula I found that I wasn’t going to be exactly welcome in the creative writing program as an undergraduate. And for whatever reason I ended up in the journalism building and not in the forestry school.

Before long, I was climbing trees and taking pictures of rallies of the Persian Gulf War protests. I wasn’t waving a sign, but I was working pretty hard taking pictures of the people who were and getting them into the Kaimin. I was pretty busy. Those journalism teachers are cruel. It was amazing what they made us do.

Indy: You’re pretty humble about your writing, especially when you write about receiving the Whiting Award in Shopping for Porcupine. Do you consider yourself more of a photographer than a journalist?

Kantner: I learned how to do both at the same time in Montana, so it’s more equal. But photography is me wanting to show the country the way I feel about it. My photos are a little different than your average outdoors photography, I think. There are so many pictures of the bear with the salmon in his teeth. I try to back up and show the animal in his environment, to show their lives as it normally appears. A photo has to have depth of field to show how they live their lives.

Indy: How much do you despise having to go on book tours?

Kantner: It’s not my favorite part…Like, right when the book came out I had to leave. I was coming from up-river, alone, just with my family over breakup [the time of year when the ice breaks on the water] with caribou and animals crawling all over, and I had to come from that flying directly to L.A. to the Book Expo with 50,000 booksellers and writers. Then, my first reading after that was in Marin County, where there were, I think, three friends and two strangers. And that’s even worse than just two strangers. It was pretty awful.

But this leg takes me to Missoula, and I think that should be okay.

Seth Kantner reads from and signs copies of Shopping for Porcupine at Fact & Fiction Monday, Aug. 25, at 7 PM.


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