Writing through a 'Cold Spell'
Deb Vanasse sits out on the deck of her house out on Hiland Road, casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her hand idly stroking the head of her energetic boxer, McKenzie. Behind her the valley stretches wide and far, and out in the distance two eagles float across the sky.
Vanasse, an accomplished writer with over 10 books to her name and co-founder of 49 Alaska Writing Center, moved to Eagle River from Anchorage two years ago with husband Mike Ferency.
Her latest book “Cold Spell” releases Aug. 14 from the University of Alaska press, though it’s currently available through online bookseller sites.
The work lyrically blends two stories: A mother trying to start over in Alaska and a daughter whose longings threaten to undo them.
Advance reviews have been glowing.
According to Booklist, “Cold Spell,” “Captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds.”
It is, Vanasse says simply, the book she’s always wanted to write.
Passion for words
Vanasee, who grew up on the grounds of the Midwestern state mental institution where he father worked, always loved to read and dreamed of being a writer. Yet, when her college advisor pointed out that writers don’t make an easy living, she pursued a teaching degree instead.
Her first teaching job was out in Nunapitchuk in 1979. Back then Alaska had a plan where you could retire after 20 years of teaching, she says. It was her goal to put her writing dreams on hold until after retirement.
But life didn’t quite work out that way.
After moves to Bethel, Fairbanks and the North Pole, she published her first book, “Distant Enemy,” a young adult account of the clash of cultures in the Alaska Bush, a few short years before her 20-year retirement date.
“I was very fortunate that my first novel was published out of New York in 1997, when I was still teaching,” she says. “I felt like, wow, I’m ahead of schedule.”
The book started as an assignment for a continuing education course.
“I had never written a story or any fiction in my life,” she says with a laugh.
After putting her son and daughter to bed, she’d sit down and write.
“They always say write what you know, and I knew the village but I didn’t know the village,” she says.
She ended up writing what turned out to be Chapter 14 of “Distant Enemy.”
“The teacher really liked it but I put it away,” she says. “I was really busy.”
It took another education class, 10 years later, before she unearthed that chapter again.
“It was a similar assignment, to bring in a story, and I was like, I already have one,” she says. “It was a different teacher and she said, ‘This is really a novel, if you tell what happened before and after.’”
She did just that, and when she finished, the instructor recommended Vanasse send it to her agent in New York, where it was soon picked up by a publisher.
“It was ridiculously easy,” Vansee says. “I was lucky. I benefitted from the generosity of other writers.”
Vanasse finished writing her first book, “Distant Enemy,” during the summer, which she had off from her teaching job.
“That book and every book since has been about discovery,” she says. “It’s so exciting to find out things you didn’t expect. And when it’s done, to discover how much of the book is really about you, which you also don’t expect.”
Unlike the majority of her past works, “Cold Spell” is an adult novel. She ended up writing for young adults by chance.
“The woman who told me my story could be a novel wrote for young adult, and her editor edited young adult,” she says. “That was the beginning.”
Vanasee enjoys writing for young adult audiences, yet she’s always aspired to write the kind of books she loves to read, the kind that you curl up with in a chair, that causes you to linger and wonder.
“That’s the kind of book I like,” she says.
“Cold Spell,” which took Vanasse over three years to write, was produced during her do-it-yourself Masters of Fine Art period.
“At the time I had published almost 10 books but didn’t feel as if I had ever really studied creative writing,” she says.
Unable to afford a regular MFA on retirement funds, she formulated her own course of study, and “Cold Spell” was her self-made thesis project.
“I heard Sylvie’s voice in my head, and that’s how I started,” she says.
She threw out lengthy versions of the book, threw out a third after she thought she was done.
“That wasn’t hard because I could see it getting better,” she says.
Once finished, it felt similar to when her children graduated from college.
“I thought, if I die tomorrow, it’s okay, this is done,” she says.
The book highlights emotions and situations from deep inside, topics such as her relationship with her mother, with religion, and with the Alaska wilderness.
Now that the “Cold Spell” is finished and the publishing process over, Vanasse is anxious to begin her next book.
“I have this pent-up energy, the water is building up behind the floodgates,” she says. “I’m very excited.”
“Cold Spell” excerpt, by Deb Vanasse
University of Alaska Press, 2014
I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory. Then her father ran off and her mother became obsessed with a glacier and she realized this was what happened to girls who believed themselves poems, poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.
Before the glacier, Sylvie’s mother had been ordinary and dependable, a plain woman with kind eyes, unlike her father who was dashing and quick, with a flair for the dramatic. When he’d come home cursing his boss in the Fords part department or when he’d blow up at the neighbor for turning his dog loose, Sylvie’s mother would massage the base of his neck and speak calm soothing words. After he left Minnesota for Florida in the company of Mirabelle, a redhead from the dealership, Sylvie cried in long, heaving sobs every night for a week, and because she cried her sister Anana did too, and there was nothing poetic in their sorrow, no words for it even.
With her soft, steady voice and her fingers stroking their hair, Sylvie’s mother assured the girls that their father loved them whether he was still in Pine Lake or not. For her mother’s sake Sylvie tried to pretend this was so, though in truth she doubted it deeply. She wished her mother would cry, wished she would wail and scream and flail, wished she would rage at something, at someone, at anyone, even Sylvie.
Instead her mother’s smile, always ready, became automatic, as if by the push of a button her lips made their slight upward turn. She roused the girls every day at precisely 6:30, even on weekends. She sliced bananas over their oatmeal and sprinkled brown sugar, one tablespoon each. She sipped coffee brewed in a new pot that made only one cup and ate toast spread thin with peach preserves and deflected Sylvie’s complaints that no one else ate oatmeal for breakfast.