Tara Neilson lives off the scenic Inner Passage of Southeast Alaska, but nowhere where you’d be able to find her—she’s off grid. Frighteningly off grid, to me, but she was raised out there along with her sister and three brothers. Her father, a brooding Vietnam veteran, mostly had jobs across the dangerous waters and skiffed back to his family on weekends. Tara’s mother is obviously an incredible woman to have spent so much time “alone” with five kids running wild with a lot of bears and wolves. The introduction to Raised in Ruins, her memoir, already had me in its grip. Then off I went, from one adventure to another.
Although Tara loved to read and write, kept journals, and grew up to write columns for Alaskan media and various magazines, she didn’t think her life was all that interesting to others—it was “normal.” To her. Maybe kind of normal for other Alaskan inhabitants. But then she started her blog, Alaska For Real, and got a lot of interest. An author friend encouraged her to write her memoir, got his editor interested, and then his publisher got interested, and suddenly Tara had a book to start writing. My mother thought her life was normal, too—for someone growing up in Japan during WWII. Sometimes it takes outsiders to help you learn how interesting your life has been. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I love reading about different cultures as well as lived history. Tara grew up alongside a burned-out salmon cannery with a history she wondered about. Who once lived there, what were their lives like? Ghosts of the past. Culture does not just mean life in another country. It can mean life in a part of your own country, in a city or a town or in a house amid cornfields, in the mountains or beachside. And everyone lives during a time that will become history.
I asked Tara a few questions:
Tara, how did you learn to write so beautifully? Your stories require a lot of telling, but the writing is smooth with action sentences, you know how to describe a scene without overdoing the adjectives, you use plenty of realistic dialogue. Did you read books on writing or take classes?
Thanks, Linda, that made my day! I always knew I wanted to be a writer and so did my family. My grandfather was a published author and in my teens he gave me all of his back issues of Writer’s Digest and bought me various writing books. I wore them out! I really think, though, that the best way to learn to write is to read a wide variety of books: good, bad, and classic. Bad books are great for showing you your faults because it’s always so much easier to see someone else’s mistakes. I could then go back and look at whatever I was writing (I was always writing something) and see if I had bad habits that needed to be broken. Adjectives and adverbs were a battle from day one. They’re the empty calories, junk food of writing so they’re very hard to give up once you get a taste for them. As for dialogue, my journal pages were often nothing but conversations I overheard. I loved writing dialogue and my quirky family provided me with lots of material.
I love all your “shimmering images,” the title of Lisa Dale Norton’s book on writing memoir, that you could describe so clearly a scene frozen in time and how you felt at that moment—very sensitive and thoughtful. Did you write like that in your journals or just remember while writing your memoir?
I love the way you write questions. I want to read that book, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I wrote “sensory snapshots” in my journals, capturing all the senses in a moment in my life. Sometimes it was all the senses involved in something as common as hauling firewood, or walking on the beach. I had pages of the “snapshots” that were super helpful in writing the memoir. But I also found that as I re-wrote a scene the memory would come back stronger. I wound up re-writing most scenes five or more times because deeper sensory details would well up the more I remained on a single scene. It was like time traveling with the mind.
Tell us about the process of putting together your memoir. Easy, hard, outline, start-to-finish or just writing and figuring out the puzzle later?
A fairly in-depth outline was a required part of the proposal that I submitted to my publisher, West Margin Press. The outline itself was easy to do, though, and I wrote it in a day off the top of my head. As I wrote the book, though, I discovered that I had waaay too much material. I had to cut out a ton of adventures–it was remarkable to me how much we’d done and experienced in such a short amount of time. I didn’t want the book to just be a series of adventures, though, I wanted to capture the feelings and thoughts I had, and what impact music and movies had on us even as isolated as we were. I had to shift things around a bit in the outline and only touch on some subjects. Perhaps there will be a follow up book, there’s certainly plenty of material for it.
As for whether writing it was easy or hard, it was excruciating. I find writing about myself extremely boring and it takes a lot of effort to get myself in the frame of mind that will let me do it. At one point I was promising myself that if I just wrote 500 words a day it was okay. And even that was hard. Thankfully my publisher gave me over a year to write it, which was a life saver.
I’m curious – your sister, Megan, is an artist living in Florida. She left for city life in the warm sun. Do you all love visiting her in winter, or maybe city life is overwhelming after so much solitude? Maybe she likes escaping to the wilderness?
Our entire family visited her for her wedding, but I’m not sure any of us has ever been back. It was an interesting experience and I think we all enjoyed it, and I keep promising to visit her again. But it’s not really my cup of tea. The amount of people is fascinating to me, I feel like I’m visiting a strange planet. (Megan told me she always feels that way, too, when she goes back home after spending a few weeks in the summer with us.) I like that part of it. But city life is way too structured and regulated for me to ever feel at home in it. Megan loves to visit the wilderness and owns her own island near here which she hopes to build on this summer, but she can’t handle cold weather so we won’t see her in the winter any time soon!
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Tara Neilson is a writer who can make you feel the wildness of a storm or see the sunlight glinting through a dark forest. The poetry of her words adds further magic to these amazing stories of survival in the wilds. I learned so many interesting things about life—and death—in Alaska. Most of us in the Lower 48 have no clue. Read Raised in Ruins and enjoy the adventures—from the safety and comfort of your recliner.
Read more about Tara Neilson’s life on her blog, Alaska for Real, and find her on Twitter (when she can get a signal for internet) at @neilson_tara.