One morning in Ketchikan, Sitka writer John Straley climbed down a barnacle-encrusted ladder at low tide, a subpoena for a sleeping fisherman in his briefcase.
A blue heron flew away beneath the dock, croaking in alarm. He could smell the old wharf, and the coastal world around him.
“I was climbing down there, and I thought, this is the greatest job in the world,” Straley said.
Straley retired in August from 30 years as an investigator for the Alaska Public Defender’s Office in Sitka. Moments like the one on the barnacle-encrusted dock (and another in which he became the target of bar napkins, cocktail swords, and, before he fled the bar, a glass) have made it into his award-winning crime and detective fiction.
“I just keep track of those as if my brain were a camera, or an experience collector,” he said.
He writes them down in a journal, which helps him remember them when it comes time to get creative. He also has a folder of articles, notes, and photocopies of library documents, especially for historical fiction, which will be the topic of a Nov. 12 talk at the Hangar on the Wharf ballroom, hosted by the Friends of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.
A 2008 novel, “The Big Both Ways,” is based in 1935, when two characters — a former logger and an anarchist — make their way from Puget Sound to Alaska.
“You do want to do your best to (be) accurate,” Straley said of historical fiction. “I’ve made mistakes and particularly Alaskans hate it. They just hate it. Alaskans are notoriously unforgiving.”
Straley and his wife, marine biologist Jan Straley —who studies whales, organizes Sitka’s annual Whalefest, and is editing a book on game-changing ecologist Ed Ricketts, in which John Straley has an essay — moved to Sitka in the 1970s after Jan took a job there. It was a few years later that John began working as a private investigator.
He wasn’t a stranger to the private-eye world before that, though. He estimates his parents read one or two private eye novels a day.
“We had thousands of books,” he said. “So I had read a few growing up, but it wasn’t until I actually worked as a private investigator in Alaska that I seriously thought… well, maybe I should try.”
He sent the manuscript for “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” to a New York agent. That agent wrote him back and told him no one in New York would take him seriously — he’d misspelled “lox” in “bagels and lox.”
Then Sitka naturalist, anthropologist and writer Richard Nelson’s agent recommended Straley try SOHO Press, which happened to be looking for “literary crime fiction from far-flung places,” Straley said. They published the book. It went on to be lauded as the best detective novel of the year.
He doesn’t write about the cases he’s worked on, though he’s worked on some high-profile cases. The most notorious may be the “Investor” murders in Craig in the 1980s, Alaska’s worst unsolved mass murder. (Eight people were murdered on board the seine boat the Investor.) Or it could be his work as a criminal defense investigator for Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez. He does, however, find inspiration and fiction models in real-life characters, conversations, places and Alaskan scenes.
Now, he’s ruined for everywhere else, he said.
“For me, everything starts with writing about place,” he said. “My characters grow up out of the ground in my stories, and the water, and the coast, and the fog, and the rain.”
He loves the contrast between the “smooshed together” downtown Sitka, where he and Jan live, versus the wilderness of the rest of Baranof Island.
“It feels like a little city (downtown),” he said, “with the harbor, fish plants that are working, and there are people of different ethnicities, and there are the Tlingit people, who are the first people, and there’s the conflict involved in all of that. City problems, conflicts and arguments going on in city government. Then right outside of it, just 100 yards up the mountain or a mile out to sea, you have wilderness. True, genuine wilderness with no human influence whatsoever. And that’s just an amazing, almost miraculous feature. That’s a natural setting for drama, for me.
“And it’s such an artistic juxtaposition where you can be in the middle of an argument, where you think the whole world is involved in it, but look out and up a mountain, and catch things — a deer swimming in the channel, a bear walking across a slide — and realize there’s a whole world that’s totally indifferent to your drama going on. I love that, and that’s what — it’s not just scenery that compels me to write about this place. It’s also the thematic element to the place.”
Alaska is a perfect setting for the mood of the stories he writes, he said.
“I don’t think I can live anywhere else anymore,” he said. “But it’s not that I just totally love every bit of it. I was vacationing recently where I used to live in Eastern Washington, the northern slope of Cascades. The climate was perfect. Dry. The light was crystal clear. Everybody’s walking around in Spandex. I’m sure they have problems down there, but I don’t see anybody with problems… I came back (to Sitka) and I was thinking ‘I could never live there anymore’ … because this is where I belong now. And it’s not that I’m gloriously happy in Sitka, it’s just that it’s where real life happens.”
He’s now working on a new collection of poems, sorting through about 120 he’s written, and writing more.
Part of the way he’s been able to be a successful writer while working is discipline, he said. When he’s writing a first draft, he writes a certain number of words per day and “just gut(s) it out,” he said. After that, he’ll take a break from it, then revise for a certain number of hours a day.
“I try to keep to that fairly religiously,” he said. “Once you get rolling, it’s usually not that bad… every day has to be a success (because you’ve written,) and that’s all that matters. If you wanted to be a writer, and every day you do it, you’re a writer, and that’s it. Nobody can take that day away from you.”
In addition to the collection of poems, he’s also working on a new Cecil Younger novel now (Cecil is the protagonist of, and private investigator in, many of his books) that he wants to make more plot-driven.
“I resurrected him (Cecil), and now he has a teenage daughter, and she’s giving him hell, and driving him crazy,” Straley said. “He’s going to really just suffer.”
Straley will discuss “the nature of truth and the importance of historical and scientific accuracy as an essential quality of lively storytelling in fiction and even poetry” according to information about the event, on Thursday, Nov. 12. He also said he’ll read some favorite writings by others, some of his own writing, and historical poems.
That talk is at the Hangar on the Wharf ballroom and begins at 7 p.m., with the Friends’ annual meeting beforehand, at 6:30 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 13, he’ll read from his writing at KTOO’s 360 North as part of its Writers’ Showcase event. Filming for 360 North begins at 7 p.m.
Straley has won two Shamus awards — the award for the best novel of the year in the “detective fiction” genre — for “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” his first book, and “The Curious Eat Themselves.” He was Alaska’s Writer Laureate in 2006.
He writes a thoughtful and frequently affecting blog about life in Sitka and writing at www.johnstraley.com.
• Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.