I AM UAA: Don Rearden

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

M.F.A. '05; Associate Professor,
Community & Technical College and University Honors College
Hometown: Bethel, AK
Fun Fact: Believes procrastination, under the right circumstances, can be motivational

Generations of writers have been told to "write what you know" and fortunately those same writers have been revising (or flat-out ignoring) that advice to bring readers fantastically imagined worlds and characters. For instance, novelist Don Rearden has little first-hand knowledge of post-apocalyptic survival, something that's explored in his debut novel, The Raven's Gift (Penguin Canada, 2011). But the book is set in Southwest Alaska, a place Don still considers home, though he now lives and teaches in Anchorage. Blending the unknown-but-vividly-imagined with the familiar led to praise from other prominent writers, including Ron Carlson who called the book "...gritty and engaging, an absolutely good read, all in a world, that Alaska world-which I could believe." Don is looking forward to introducing his newest family member-son Atticus who he welcomed with his wife, UAA nursing professor Annette Rearden, this past summer-to all that he loves about that Southwest Alaska world firsthand on their next trip back home.

I AM UAA Don Rearden

When coupled with Don's talent and creativity, his strong ties to rural Alaska help him to achieve success not just as a writer and but as a full-time professor for UAA's College Preparatory & Developmental Studies (CPDS) program where he helps students from all over learn to recognize their own creativity in his introductory writing courses. He makes a point of finding out where each student is from and shares his own stories about adaptation to life and school in Anchorage. As a young kid, he moved to Southwest Alaska with his law enforcement dad and teacher mom. "I was really lucky to grow up where I did, the way that I did," he says. But it didn't make things easy moving to Anchorage to attend the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at UAA. "Coming from a culture where there are moments of silence and pauses, I didn't get a word in as a grad student initially," he says. Though he'd spent four years as a high school teacher in Bethel before heading to graduate school, "I couldn't cut somebody off. I still have problems doing that. So I just didn't speak until the professors figured out that I'd read the material and would be able to say something intelligent." It got easier, but his own experiences have made him sensitive to students transitioning from rural areas, particularly Alaska Native students. Don just completed his seventh year teaching for CPDS in the UAA Community and Technical College where he's worked since graduating with his M.F.A.

As an M.F.A. graduate student, Don connected with other students who have become his writing and editing colleagues and relies on them to read drafts of his work at varying stages of completion. On writing while working full-time as a professor for UAA, he says, "It's really nice to be in a place that encourages you to work on your own professional development." Don has two more books in process right now. He'll spend some time this summer researching for an upcoming novel about whaling. He was awarded INNOVATE grant money to complete his research and hopes it's inspiring to his students that a guy with degrees in English and creative writing can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with scientists to accept a research grant. For more details about that project, visit the INNOVATE blog. He is also finishing some edits on Moving Salmon Bay, a novel about an Alaska village getting ready to move because of climate change, much like Shishmaref or Newtok. It's a timely book. "People are becoming climate refugees. And the people in Alaska are becoming the first real climate refugees," he says. Driven more by story than any political or environmental agenda, Don hopes his books resonate with people around the world who, in response to today's economy, are facing both physical moves from one place to another and moves within society and class structures. "Through teaching and writing, that's how I know how to help. Because I don't necessarily want to become a politician. Showing what's happening [in rural Alaska] is part of who I am. And it's also my way to go home, since I live here." He's hoping to see Moving Salmon Bay published before the coastal villages in Alaska complete their moves, he says, "or I'll have a lot of revising to do."

To revise another old adage, Don is proof that you can indeed go home again. You just need to make sure you bring enough books. Writing about your hometown, even in a work of fiction like The Raven's Gift, is a tricky business. Don says, "I thought I would be in trouble actually. I was really, really concerned." But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He's sold every book he's taken back home. His book became such a hot commodity at last year's Cama-i festival when his stash of 100 was exhausted, folks ended up bartering with the early shoppers, trading goods for a copy of the book. A friend even made him a beautiful kuspuk in exchange for her copy.

You can also add "screenwriter" to Don's list of accomplishments. "My dream is to eventually write something that will be filmed here in Alaska," he says. With Alaska's film subsidy program, that might be another timely project and one that would undoubtedly be inspiring to his students, his fellow alums and his loyal hometown fans, not to mention son Atticus, who, in just a few years, might be the first kid ever to sit attentively while the credits roll looking for his dad's name on the big (or small!) screen.

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