Page turners: Check in with UAA’s alumni authors

by Matt Jardin  |   

What are some of the things a writer needs to succeed? Coffee? Seclusion to help focus? Networking opportunities? Anchorage is home to all of those and more. So it's no wonder that many graduates of UAA's English and creative writing programs go on to have successful forays into writing. From sci-fi to fantasy, nonfiction to poetry, we catch up with six UAA alumni authors about their latest releases.

Lisa Stice M.F.A. Creative Writing and Literary Arts '16 Latest release: Permanent Change of Station (Middle West Press, 2018)

(Photo courtesy of Lisa Stice)

Fun fact: While working to earn her M.F.A., Lisa Stice, a military wife, actually lived in three locations: Virginia, California and North Carolina. In fact, the ability to fit UAA's low-residency creative writing program into a military family lifestyle is what originally attracted Stice to the program.

Stice's second and most recent poetry collection, Permanent Change of Station, is based on one of these moves, from California to North Carolina. The title of the book is borrowed from a United States Armed Forces phrase referring to relocating active duty military service members and their families.

(Photo courtesy of Lisa Stice)

"Our daughter was 2 years old, and she kind of had a meltdown when we moved," says Stice. "Everything was different for her, and I was struggling because my family lives in Nevada. So I was a long way from family, a long way from the friends I made in Alaska, a long way from friends I had in California, and kind of by myself. And right after the move, my husband went for training out of state. So it was my daughter, me and my dog. So all of the poems are inspired by that period that was just a difficult time."

Stice explains that poetry is the perfect literary vehicle for her, in terms of her thought process, daily schedule and the unpredictable nature of being in a military family.

"The way I think is small snippets. I like to focus on the smaller details and how the smaller details fit into the bigger picture. Poetry does that the best of any of the genres," says Stice. "It matches how I see things, and it fits into how my life is always changing and where I live. We never know when my husband will be in town or when he'll be out of town. We never know how long because in the military everything changes depending on what's going on in the world, and you can't predict that very well. So the smallness of poetry fits into those pockets of time I find."

Matt Gilbert B.A. English '05 Latest release: Chandeera (Sage Words Publishing, 2018)

(Photo courtesy of Matt Gilbert)

Matt Gilbert wrote the very first chunk of his book when he was still in high school in 1995. After being absent for a few days, his teacher tasked him with writing a short story to make up for the missed days. Suffice it to say, after working on his book for the following 24 years, Gilbert has more than made up for the time he missed.

Gilbert's book, Chandeera, is a sci-fi novel about a Native American off-planet miner and his girlfriend who wind up stranded on a less technologically developed planet and caught in the middle of a political conflict. The novel was written under the pen name Wolf Golan, which is taken from the names of Gilbert's first dog and his grandmother.

(Photo courtesy of Matt Gilbert)

Chandeera, takes inspiration from the sci-fi stories Gilbert read growing up in Arctic Village, and was brought to life in 2010 when Native American sci-fi surged on the big screen.

"It was the year Avatar and Twilight: New Moon came out. Native American science fiction was just really gigantic that summer and it totally fueled me. It poured lots of fuel on my little fire and I just exploded. I don't care if it's the last thing I do, I'm writing this book," says Gilbert.

With Chandeera - the first in a planned trilogy - Gilbert hopes to help continue the trend of Alaska Native and Native American-led sci-fi stories for the next generation.

"I just wanted the book out there. I'm not so much interested in fame or fortune. I just wanted to get it to Native American teens, because unfortunately a lot of them are living in less than ideal situations and I thought my book would provide them an escape and a vision for a bigger and better life. Because that's what it did for me when I wrote it in high school," says Gilbert.

Kellie Doherty B.A. English '11 Latest release: Sunkissed Feathers & Severed Ties (Desert Palm Press, 2019)

(Photo courtesy of Kellie Doherty)

Kellie Doherty's new novel, Sunkissed Feathers & Severed Ties, reads like a loving homage to the fantasy genre's best elements, including epic quests, cursed artifacts, animal companions and satisfying alliances.

A hallmark of Doherty's work that doesn't stem from fantasy trappings is the inclusion of LGBTQ characters as protagonists, which she never saw as a dedicated fan of the genre growing up.

(Photo courtesy of Kellie Doherty)

"I do this because I'm part of the queer community and I didn't see much of that type of diversity in the SFF books I was reading, or really in TV shows, movies, etcetera, though that's changing now," says Doherty. "I wanted to add that to my stories to promote positive representation of queer characters, but not have that be the sole focus of the story."

Sunkissed Feathers is the kick-off of a five-book series. The first four books will focus on a new lead character before colliding with each other in the final book. This structure should feel familiar to any fan of the last decade's worth of Marvel and Avengers movies.

Doherty is already on track to publish the second installment next year. Despite the seemingly tight turnaround, she maintains a comfortable pace, writing on weekends and between her day jobs as an office assistant and freelance editing assignments.

"I would love to say that I write every day, but that is a lie," jokes Doherty. "That's one of the main pieces of advice I see, that you should write every day, and I think that's important if you can work it into your schedule. But if you can't, don't beat yourself up over it. I think it's important to follow your passion, and if you do want to be a writer, then go ahead and craft your own story."

Todd Boss M.F.A. Creative Writing and Literary Arts '94 Latest release: Tough Luck (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017)

(Photo courtesy of Todd Boss)

Todd Boss lives the life of a wandering artist in every sense of the title. In July 2018, Boss sold all of his belongings and began housesitting his way around the world. Without having to worry about paying rent or a mortgage, his expenses are considerably lower. But to cover his bases, Boss relies on the income streams he's built over the years as an author, short film producer, artist for public installations, and through his work at a nonprofit and tech startup.

"The practice is about the life around the page. It's about being open to poetry all the time, not just when writing it, and sort of living in a poetic way more often. That's why travel really suits me. If I can do what I do from anywhere, then why not travel to do it? Travel has turned out to be my key to keeping my life poetic and keeping it from becoming routine," says Boss.

(Photo courtesy of Todd Boss)

Forming the backbone of Boss' latest poetry collection, Tough Luck, is a sequence of 35-word poems about the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 people and injured 145. According to Boss, he crossed the bridge just 20 minutes before the bridge collapsed.

"I spent a couple years processing it and about a year writing it," says Boss. "It's about things falling apart, but it's also about the spaces that open up when they fall apart. It talks about my divorce a little bit, I have poems in there about my children who are growing up leaving home, poems about sort of generally exploring those themes of letting go and letting things open."

Boss describes his writing as poetry for people who don't like poetry.

"A lot of poems are written for editors and other poets and academics and students," explains Boss. "My whole family background is farmers and blue collar people. I want my uncle to get something out of what I'm writing. I don't want to talk over him, I want to talk to him. So I have a strong feeling about not dumbing down my language. That would be the worst thing to do when speaking to people. But still using an elevated language that isn't clouded by theory or allusions, but something that is immediate and approachable by someone without a classical education."

Elizabeth Bradfield M.F.A. Creative Writing and Literary Arts '05 Latest release: Toward Antarctica (Red Hen Press, 2019)

(Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Bradfield)

Even though Elizabeth Bradfield is now located on Cape Cod where she teaches at Brandeis University as associate professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program, Alaska is never far from her thoughts. In fact, Bradfield still finds time to come back most summers to work as a naturalist on expedition ships in Southeast Alaska.

The time Bradfield spent working on boats eventually led to her interest in Antarctica, resulting in the continent's focus in her second book of poetry, Approaching Ice.

(Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Bradfield)

"I was really fascinated with developing this concept of a place no one had yet experienced.  Humans didn't actually see or set foot on the Antarctic continent until the early 1800s," says Bradfield. "Antarctica is a place that never had an indigenous population, so the human history there is very unique."

Almost serendipitously, Bradfield was given the opportunity to actually go to Antarctica as a naturalist on an expedition ship. Obviously, she jumped at the chance. Knowing she wanted to write another book about the experience, Bradfield also wanted to experiment with a form of Japanese poetry called haibun, invented by 17th-century poet Bashō to chronicle his journeys into remote Japan.

"[Haibun] can invite people in who are not drawn to more familiar forms of poetry. Yet it's more challenging in other ways because the language is so compressed. That is really a fascinating conundrum that both can be true," says Bradfield. "I was curious to see if that form would allow me to record, question, explore and ground truth in my own travels. It's a form that for me ties with journeying in particular, so it really felt like the right form for this book."

Not only is Toward Antarctica the realization of Bradfield's dream to visit Antarctica and her first foray into haibun, but the poetry collection is also the first time Bradfield has been able to successfully coalesce her background as an author and naturalist. It's also the first of her books to incorporate a strong visual element, pairing her photographs of the expedition with her words.

"It's been really fun to work in that hybrid medium and expand that vein of creation, to play more with how the visual and the literary can complicate and amplify one another," says Bradfield.

Don Rearden M.F.A. Creative Writing and Literary Arts '05 Latest release: Warrior's Creed (St. Martin's Press, 2019)

(Photo by Joe Yelverton / Courtesy of Don Rearden)

After reading The Shining in second grade, Don Rearden knew he wanted to write and scare people. Since then, he's made good on that goal. Rearden's first novel, The Raven's Gift, draws from his days growing up in Bethel to tell a haunting story of an epidemic that strikes a rural Alaska village.

For his most recent two outings, Rearden traded fictional frights for real-life danger by writing about the exploits of pararescuemen, also referred to as PJs.

(Photo courtesy of Don Rearden)

"PJs are like military superheroes," describes Rearden. "They're the guys who rescue people off of Denali or the Bering Sea. If you were having a heart attack in your cabin in the middle of a storm and no one could get to you, they would parachute in and save you. They're also elite Air Force tactical people. They would go in to rescue a pilot downed in enemy territory, or if things go bad for the Navy SEALs, the PJs are who they call."

His first co-authored work of nonfiction, Never Quit, tells the story of pararescueman Jimmy Settle, who was also a cross country runner for UAA and longtime friend of Rearden. Originally the inspiration for a character in one of Rearden's in-progress novels, Rearden's agent insisted that he pivot the story to focus on Settle. Rearden was already on board.

"Jimmy was wounded during a rescue in Afghanistan and I was kind of bitter about him losing his dream job after so much hard work to become a pararescueman. I wanted to try and help him and I said, 'Hey, let me help tell your story,'" says Rearden.

While interviewing the people in Settle's life for Never Quit, Rearden spoke to Roger Sparks, one of Settle's mentors and the eventual subject of Rearden's follow-up, Warrior's Creed.

"Roger is a legend in both special forces and pararescue. I couldn't pass on helping him bring his tale to life, it was too powerful of a story. And spending time with Roger is kind of like hanging out with a 6'8'' Yoda. He just exudes wisdom like the Yupik elders I grew up with," says Rearden.

Initially hesitant to even attempt these two co-authoring projects, which took all the normal stress of writing a book and essentially doubling it, Rearden is ultimately happy to have told the stories of these remarkable combat veterans.

"These guys are like my brothers now," says Rearden. "What was neat with the PJs was I became friends with their teammates too. To be able to enter this brotherhood and have these two guys who are exceptional human beings be there for me as much as I'm there for them is really cool."

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

Creative Commons License "Page turners: Check in with UAA’s alumni authors" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.