The Alaska State Writer Laureate program was established back in the 1960s as a partnership between the arts council and the Alaska Humanities Forum. Earlier this month, after a two-year gap in program funding, Haines-based writer Heather Lende was awarded the honor.
Lende’s work is deeply informed by her own life in Haines. She’s served in local government and owns a lumberyard with her husband. As an author, she has a large enough following that a local bookseller said online sales of Lende’s books helped keep her store afloat early in the pandemic. But Lende says the most rewarding work she’s done may be writing obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News.
Her latest book, “Of Bears and Ballots, An Alaskan Adventure in Small Town Politics,” will be released in paperback on May 25.
Lende spoke with KHNS about her writing and about what it means to be named Alaska’s laureate.
HEATHER LENDE: I think that’s really probably the most important thing about the announcement that I’m it is that — Alaska has a writer laureate again. I just think that’s a point of pride and a state that’s so full of lots and lots of great writers and always has been a place of storytelling.
MIKE SWASEY: Well, tell me a little bit about the process of writing in Haines. How do you go about your daily business of writing?
Lende: I write around the edges of a busy life. And I always have. Part of the reason I think I was nominated is because I’ve just been writing a long time. Columns and essays and stories and books, of course. And basically, I say yes when anybody asks me to write something, is sort of how it began. My process, usually, is most productive when I have a deadline. A deadline is a great inspiration for me.
Swasey: What has been one of the more rewarding writing segments that you’ve done?
Lende: Well, I think for me over the years, probably the most rewarding in lots of ways, because it’s affected people the most, has been writing the obituaries for the Chilkat Valley news. Which is sort of an odd thing. And I think that’s been very rewarding because I’m using what I know how to do directly with people that I care about, at a time when they really need that. And it’s not even so much the writing as just being there with people at hard times. It’s changed my life, having that connection with, literally, life and death. A lot.
The other thing that’s really rewarding is, you know, a book. You write one and you think, “Well, that’s a miracle.” And then you write another one, and it’s like, “How did that happen?” And then another one.
I would have bet a significant amount of money that I wasn’t going to write a book about being on the borough assembly, but, you know, the way it happened. I think I owe the recall for that book. It wouldn’t really have been a story without the conflict. So that book, to me, I’m pretty proud of that. That I was able to wring something out of what for me was a really challenging, difficult, often heartbreaking time. And I managed to make something that was kind of, I think, fun to read and also maybe perhaps helpful for future people who serve in community governments.
Swasey: Tell me about one character that’s really stuck out in your mind that you’ve written about.
Lende: I spent a lot of time with my neighbor and my friend Betty Holgate. And I think she’s woven her way in and out of almost all of my books. And certainly a lot of columns, you know, my neighbor, Betty. My wise and pithy and funny neighbor. She would say, “A well-done steak was as tough as a boiled owl” and stuff like that. But she also was very kind to me, and [she was] my friend. So she ended up being sort of the foil to my neuroses. Betty was the sane voice in a lot of my stories and my books. So I think that enduring relationship that went through all of my books and an awful lot of columns is the one that comes to mind right now. And she just passed away in April.