Harper Collins had a conversation with Cindy Dyson about the making of
How did you come to set the book in the Aleutians?
briefly lived on Unalaska in my early 20s. I was taking time off from
college and bumming around with a cute fisherman. Something about the
place was so different than anywhere I'd live previously, or since. (And
I've lived in Anchorage, Juneau, Los Angeles, Laytonville, C.A.,
Missouri, New York, and Montana.) At the time, I don't remember
thinking, "Wow, this is an extraordinary place." But over the years, the
feel and look of it never left me. In the book, the Aleutians have a
magical quality and I guess that's because of the way that place stayed
with me, giving me a comparison for the rest of my life. I wrote an
article recently about the closing of the Elbow Room, which happened in
April 2005. While writing that piece and interviewing folks for it, I
realized that part of the reason Unalaska was memorable was because, at
least when I was there, it was perhaps the last vestige of the American
frontier. There was a wild west feeling of possibility and danger and
freedom that went beyond the stark natural beauty and captured a raw
kind of human beauty. So it was both an awe I felt at those pinnacle
mountains in green and gray rising from the Bering Sea, as well as a
feeling that because this place had not yet been civilized, it still
held hope and danger and second chances.
The themes of motherhood reappear several times in the book. How has
being a mother influenced your work?
I actually began this book because I became a mother. I'd been doing
magazine freelancing and children's nonfiction books. When my son was
born, all of a sudden it was tough to work on deadline, to travel, and
to schedule interviews. My son would wake up screaming right in the
middle of a hard-to-get phone interview, or, even worse, an editor would
call as I drifted off for a rare nap. So I started on this story about
Brandy that had been brewing, mostly in my mind and in one opening
paragraph on my computer that I'd been rewriting for years.
At the same time I was researching the Aleutians and the Aleuts, I was
learning to be a mother. I was learning about this overpowering
protective instinct that had suddenly taken over my body. I was
surprised by the ferocity of mother love, the vicious potential I felt
it awaken in me. I mean I would have taken a hatchet to anyone who
threatened my son. I would have pulled his vitals out. I would have
turned the world upside down and beaten it like a rug to keep my son
safe. These feelings were unexpected and all encompassing.
So the unexpected strength of these feelings colored how I wrote the
stories of the generations of Aleut women. What stronger justification
exists to break taboos, to kill, to murder, than a mother whose children
are threatened? And then the same feeling leaked into Brandy, because
she needed to care about something enough to kill or die for it.
First novels are often somewhat autobiographical. How much of Brandy
Have you ever confused the experiences of a character in a book or movie
with your own? At times, I swear I've lived in Australia and skydived
and had an abortion. I've even caught myself telling someone I did
something and realized, no, I didn't, but I feel like I have because I
was with a character who did it. Everything I've done, and seen, and
read about, and wondered about, and imagined are, in ways, things I've
done. I scavenge experiences and thoughts wherever I come across them.
And then I think of them as mine.
That said, a lot of the book is auto-experiential, which is a term my
husband came up when I was ranting about another "autobiographical"
question. I lived in the Aleutians; I cocktail waitressed; I commercial
fished in the Bering Sea; and I hung out in dive bars. I've noted
latrinealia, ridden a motorcycle, been to a Mary Kay party or two. I've
tried an illegal drug or two; I've been too drunk, slipped into caves,
eaten decayed seal flipper and a lot of other weird stuff. I've seen
women stuck in party-girl mode into their 30s, 40s, 50s and wondered
about the how's and why's. I've stood in the wind over an ocean and felt
something soft and possible opening in front of me. And I've listened to
my friends' experiences and thoughts and they've become part of my own.
I think this is a large part of why we read, to broaden our experiences.
And to a large extent, that's part of why I write, to bring all the
scavenged experiences into focus and see what they mean to me.
What research went into writing this book?
I love research so I did a lot. And working on a book with a dominant
non-fiction component was so nice. If I didn't feel creative or blessed
with the muse one morning, I could use my writing time to research. I
read every book on Aleutian history and archeology I could get. I
interviewed archeologists, social workers, anthropologists. I went back
to Unalaska and revisited the settings of the book, toured an archeology
Some of the most fun research was interviewing a few of my friends to
get a better handle on Brandy and her past. I had an idyllic childhood
and didn't understand Brandy's past and how it had messed up her present
with as much depth as I needed to. Fortunately a couple of my friends
had good messed up parents and I interviewed them repeatedly (usually
over drinks to loosen them up) until I could feel their experiences so I
could write about them not just with detailed accuracy but with
Another fun research project was exploring the ideas of the book. When I
wanted to explore ideas about the effects of conquest, I read thinkers
who had subversive ideas about the nature of conquest. When I wanted
Brandy to embrace blame for an attempted rape, I found thinkers who were
going against the grain and looking at victim culpability. When I
started including Roman history, I read the classics on the rise and
fall of Rome. Then there was graffiti, mummies, blondness. All that was
wonderful research to delve into.
What was the genesis of the book idea?
There were really two starts to this book. The first was a general
question that sprung from my wayward years. I was hanging in dive bars
around less than savory characters, and I'd see women doing what I was
doing who were much older. I was in my 20s, when such behavior is more
accepted as a sowing-wild-oats kind of thing. But there were women much
older doing the same thing. I always wondered, why was this never going
to be a lifestyle thing for me? I never needed to escape it, because I
was playing, dabbling. I wondered what the difference between them and
me was. And I wondered what it would take to shove such a woman out of
that life. So that's how I came up with the character of Brandy, who is
that woman. And I knew I wanted her in Unalaska, just because it's got
the best dive bar and it's so on the edge of everything.
But I had no idea for a story, an actual plot. Then my friend, Dana, mis-described,
or I misheard, the description of a book. She described it as about a
group of old women in a quilting circle who had been judiciously killing
"bad" men in their community for decades. So I read the book, because,
well that's a great idea. But it turned out, the quilting biddies had
only killed one man and it was in the heat of the moment, not a
premeditated, assassin's club kind of thing. I was disappointed and then
I was elated because I suddenly had a plot. And as I read about Aleut
history, the plot just fit better and better. And suddenly I knew how to
burden my cocktail waitress with freedom. I knew what it would take to
set her free and what it would cost.
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