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Amazon.com Talks With James Magdanz

Amazon.com: How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?

J.M.: I have been writing for as long as I can remember, aware that publication may be possible but not motivated solely by publication. I enjoy writing, and delight in writing well.
We all face the same fundamental problems: how to know one's self, how best to live peacefully with one another, and how to best teach one's children. Writing gives me license to live inside other people's lives, to try to think and see as others do, to learn thereby how to better live my own life, and to share what I learn with others. Writing gives me a vehicle to understand.
In 1978, when I was working as a photojournalist, I received an assignment to photograph 16 Iņuit (Eskimo) children visiting a dairy farm in Iowa. They were unlike any children I had ever known -- so kind to one another and enthusiastic about life. I wanted to understand more about their lives, and within the year I was living in their remote Alaska village.
Ever since, I have been living in Iņuit communities in northwest Alaska and documenting Iņuit life through words and pictures. My first book, Go Home, River was written for children and looks at Iņuit life through the eyes of a child.

Amazon.com: What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

J.M.: My early library included Dickens, Hardy, Hemingway, Hersey, Steinbeck, Twain, et al, and I continue to admire a good storyteller. Walker Evans' and Robert Frank's photographs capture America in mid-century like few works of literature. After I moved to Alaska in 1979, I became more interested in human relationships to the natural world, which are well explored by Barry Lopez and Richard Nelson.
Recently, my reading list has been dominated by Alaska books, especially by historical and scientific accounts. There is as yet no defining Alaska novel, although Velma Wallis' "Two Old Women" leads the list of contenders.

Amazon.com: Could you describe the mundane details of writing: How many hours a day do you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)? Do you have a favorite location or time of day (or night) for writing? What do you do to avoid -- or seek! -- distractions?

J.M.: I have always written at a keyboard. I write long, then edit hard to get it short. I work on multiple projects, putting away one when I'm stuck and picking up another. With a young family, I avoid distraction by writing when everyone else has gone to bed (right now it's 1:38 a.m.). I can write just about anywhere, as long as I can concentrate.
Eight months a year, I have a "day job" conducting research on subsistence hunting and fishing for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. I write numerous technical papers and reports. None could be called literature. I think of it as mental weight-lifting, keeping me fit. I take long and regular breaks from writing, which gives me ideas and helps my writing stay fresh.

Amazon.com: Do you meet your readers at book signings, conventions or similar events? Do you interact with your readers electronically through e-mail or other on-line forums?

J.M.: Alaska does not have a lot of writers, and it does not take long for Alaska readers to recognize them. I meet my readers in grocery stores, on airplanes, and on the street in Nome. I see them in schools and libraries when I do presentations for children. People see my picture or read about my book in a newspaper, and stop me to talk about it.
Alaska may be big, geographically, but the state has only 600,000 people. Most communities are small. Virtually all of Alaska's citizens, from the governor and senators to the laborers and clerks, seem accessible to one another. One of our early governors is said to have known every voter in the state by name. I can't say I know all my readers personally, but in Alaska I get to talk with many of them.
I do respond to reader inquires by e-mail.

Amazon.com: When and how did you get started on the 'Net? Do you read any newsgroups, such as rec.arts.books and rec.arts.sf.written, mailing lists or other on-line forums? Do you use the 'Net for research -- or is it just another time sink? Are you able to communicate with other writers or people you work with over the 'Net?

J.M.: For a long time, the Internet simply wasn't available in rural Alaska. Then CompuServe began offering a dial-up, but at $9.00 to $11.00 an hour. This summer, finally, a local Internet service provider went up in Nome for $3.00 an hour. Most of my on-line research has to do with technical computer or photography problems, and CompuServe is excellent for that. The net is too expensive and too slow for research related to writing. I haven't found much interesting on the net about Alaska.
E-mail is by far the most useful part of the net, especially now that commercial services have Internet capability.

Amazon.com: Feel free to use this space to write about whatever you wish: your family, your home town, hobbies, favorite places, where you've lived, where you went to school, what jobs you have had, your last (or planned) vacation, your favorite color/food/pet/song or movie, what books you'd take to a desert island, what you intend to do before you die, or what you think of just about anything.

J.M.: Living for nearly two decades among Iņuit people in an essentially unaltered natural landscape has had a strong influence on my writing. The Iņuit world now seems natural to me, while the modern world Outside Alaska seems unnatural and even unreal. Despite great economic, political, and military power, people of the developed world are ignorant of the natural world.
Few of us know how to move through the natural world or, more important and difficult, know how to live within it. Who can anticipate the weather in the clouds of morning? Who can describe the migration of snow geese? When a rain drop falls from your nose, do you know where it goes?


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