M.F.A. grad shares how to 'Find the Good'

by joey  |   


Heather's latest book-"Find the Good"-is available at the UAA Bookstore and at bookstores nationwide.

"I was in Alaska long before I had a career," said Heather Lende, M.F.A. Creative Writing '12, of the gradual road that led to Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer.

This book-her third-follows a similar path as her previous New York Times bestseller, If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. As the local obituary writer in Haines, Alaska, she's gained a refreshing perspective on the sunny side of life and death in a small town. Her most recent work, though, is also informed by her own near-death experience-in 2005, a pickup slammed into her bicycle, requiring a thousand-mile medevac flight to Seattle.

Heather's characters and stories are rooted in Southeast Alaska, but her themes extend beyond the 2,500 residents of Haines. As a resident of a remote town, she values the benefits of a close community. As a survivor of a near-fatal crash, she appreciates the potential of each new day. And as a small town obituary writer, she's learned how to find the good in friends, neighbors and everything else.

Domino effect         

Over 30 years ago, Heather and her husband drove cross-country from their East Coast home and planted roots in Haines. He opened a lumberyard, she took care of their two young children and worked at the local radio station hosting, among other things, an afternoon country music show. Although she hung up the headphones when baby #3 came around, she started writing 'slice of life' radio essays to air weekly-essentially, she told stories about people in Haines to the people in Haines.

Now, thanks to a series of well-timed connections and happy accidents, she shares those stories on an international stage. She decided to boost her résumé by dabbling in print journalism, and mailed (yes, with a stamp and envelope) an essay up to the Anchorage Daily News. It was the same week another long-term writer ended her column. With one article under her belt, Heather became ADN's newest columnist.

Heather's writing career kicked off with "slice of life" radio stories of the goings-on in Haines (Photo courtesy of Heather Lende).

Heather's writing career kicked off with "slice of life" radio stories of the goings-on in Haines. (Photo courtesy of Heather Lende)

"As soon as that happened, NPR took everything I did because I was suddenly a columnist for Anchorage Daily News," Heather laughed. Her radio pieces, already airing statewide through the Alaska Public Radio Network, gained a national audience. The dominoes kept falling. A New York editor heard her NPR stories and called with a book deal. The book ended up in a cabin visited by the editor of Women's Day magazine and for the next two years, Heather wrote for Women's Day until publishers changed and bumped her column in favor of Katie Couric's.

Today, Heather has five kids, five grandkids and, years later, she still hosts the country music show on the radio in Haines.

The bright side of obituaries

As an obituary writer, Heather rarely loses sight on the possibilities of each new day. In a place like Haines, the entire community feels a bit like family to her.

When there's a death in town, Heather will often visit the grieving family, share a cup of coffee and take notes as the family recalls spirited stories from the sunny past. Heather weaves those memories into a brief chronicle of life, focusing on the best in each person.

"It's a weird career path. Pardon the pun, but it's a dying breed," Heather smiled. "I am really lucky that the Chilkat Valley News is so old-fashioned they still hire an obituary writer." In other big cities, families write and pay for obituaries-its one of the few profitable arms of most papers-but not in Haines.

Often when people leave a funeral, they're emboldened to live a little better out of respect for the person who just died. If we're fortunate, that reminder only comes around every now and then. "For me, it's a weekly occurrence," Heather noted. "If I didn't get anything out of it, I'd be a really hard-hearted person.

"Just imagine if you were basically dealing with a death in the family once a month for 20 years. It would affect you. And I think its affected me positively," she concluded with a warm laugh. "People lead great lives. They're inspiring!"

It's easy to find the good in Alaska, especially when sun-soaked beach trails beckon outside your doorway (Photo courtesy of Heather Lende).

It's easy to find the good in Alaska, especially when sun-soaked beach trails beckon outside your doorway. (Photo courtesy of Heather Lende)

For her third book, Heather's editors asked her to delve a little deeper-share a few stories, but tell us how you feel about them too. They asked her what she would say to her grandchildren on her deathbed and she responded, simply, "find the good."

"I don't know where that came from, but I just believe it. I want them to find the good in people, in situations, in the world they're lucky enough to live in!" she exclaimed.

Although her writings are rooted in Haines, her stories expand beyond the boundaries of the small coastal city. Like her previous books, Find the Good deals with death-a subject that's hardly novel to Southeast Alaska (she's happy to point out, for the first time, her book doesn't feature a moose on the cover).

Readers will see more stories that can't happen anywhere else, like the woman who boards a ferry with her mother's body in the mini-van so she can have her cremated in Juneau. "Certainly there are quirky things in Haines that might not exist in other places," Heather admits, "but that story really is about mothers and daughters and this relationship we have." https://youtu.be/xKf9CB9-Uzs Currently, Heather is on the book tour circuit, holding signings across the Pacific Northwest and appearing on radio shows in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Boston, Dallas, even Naples, Florida.

The most important response, though, came from the folks whose lives are displayed in her national bestsellers. Find the Good launched on April 28 with a party at the Haines library. The event carried a $10 entry fee to raise money for a library expansion, and Heather was nervous no one would show. "So many people came the fire marshal had to turn people away," she laughed.

"Really, I'm just so relieved the people that I love think I did okay."

Earning a master's from home   

Heather graduated from UAA in 2012 and was lucky enough to share graduation with one of her daughters, who earned her bachelor's degree the same day. For Heather, it was the culmination of a long-term goal.

"I wanted to be part of the Alaska writing community and UAA is really the hub of it," Heather said of her motivations. "It can be pretty lonely being a writer in Haines without colleagues in terms of your 'profession.'" UAA's low-residency M.F.A. offered an ideal option to earn a master's degree from her beloved town and convene with classmates for two weeks each summer on campus in Anchorage.

Thanks to UAA's low-residency M.F.A. program, Heather could complete her master's degree from her beloved home base in Haines (Photo courtesy of Heather Lende).

Thanks to UAA's low-residency M.F.A. program, Heather could complete her master's degree from her beloved home base in Haines. (Photo courtesy of Heather Lende)

The program exceeded her expectations-she was able to learn from authors she read and respected, and was able to hear their feedback as she crafted her stories without fear of a publisher's rejection. For someone who "accidentally" wrote two books already, she called the experience "freeing."

"The things I learned reinforced what I had known in my gut, plus helped me write better," she said. "I really don't think I could have had a better experience anywhere, between the professors I had, the things I read, my fellow classmates... For me, it was just great and I'm just really proud of it."

Her UAA diploma now hangs on the wall of her home office, next to the wind-whipped windows framing the nearby mountains, amid clips of newspapers and stacks of books and surrounded by family photos of her kids and grandkids and her life lived richly in Haines.

Click here to read an excerpt of Find the Good, courtesy of Alaska Dispatch News.

Click here to read some life advice from Heather, published by Huffington Post.

Catch Heather on the remaining stops of her May book tour.

Anchorage Thursday, May 14, 10:30-11 a.m. UAA Campus Bookstore (2905 Providence Drive)

Petersburg Saturday, May 16, 12-2 p.m. Sing Lee Alley Books (11 Sing Lee Alley)

Seattle Monday, May 18, 7 p.m. University Books (4326 University Way NE)

Bellingham Tuesday, May 19, 7 p.m. Village Books (1200 11th Street)

Juneau Friday, May 29, 6-9 p.m. Hearthside Books (254 Front Street)

Haines Weekly readings on Wednesdays, all summer long, at the Port Chilkoot Dock

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