Leonardo DiCaprio rises while seated on a couch, adopting a meerkat’s stiff posture. He extends one hand’s index finger while the other hand clutches a cigarette and a beer can. His face is both furrowed and alight with an unmistakable glint of recognition.
The still from “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” has become internet shorthand for an unexpected brush with the deeply familiar, and it perfectly distills the sensations Southeast Alaskans —and those familiar with the region —will feel reading McKie Campbell’s prose. Campbell will be in town for a Friday event at Hearthside Books’ Merchant’s Wharf location to promote his two novels, “Clean Slate” and “North Coast.”
“I have always loved to read,” Campbell said in a recent phone interview. “I read all kinds of things—both fiction and nonfiction, and you think ‘I can do this.’ Juneau and Southeast Alaska is so unique, I felt there was a real story to be told there.”
Campbell said he is always put off by false notes in fiction, so he opted to set his novels in a place he knows and take inspiration from lived experience. And he racked up plenty of firsthand insight while living in Alaska for over 30 years, serving in a variety of public sector roles and being an avid enjoyer of the outdoors.
While in Alaska, Campbell worked for the Legislature, served on the Eaglecrest Ski Area board, local Planning Commission and City and Borough of Juneau Assembly; was deputy chief of staff for Gov. Wally Hickel;and headed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as commissioner. The author bio on his website notes he was also staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C., and has also worked as a hot-tar roofer, a scuba instructor, a police officer and an investigator for a sheriff’s department. He is on the advisory board of ConservAmerica, is a visiting fellow at the Energy Policy Center of the University of Chicago and is a managing partner for consulting firm BlueWater Strategies.
Campbell’s first book, “Clean Slate,” doesn’t date quite as far back as his lifelong affinity for the written word, but he said drafts of his first novel’s first few chapters date back to the early ’80s era in which it’s set. In recent years, Campbell said he decided he wanted to finish the book and get it published, which resulted in him working with Alaska publisher Todd Communications.
The book centers on Pete and Annie McLaughlin and a good Samaritan act with unintended consequences. Campbell’s real-life love of reading, dogs and the outdoors seep into the novel, but he said that his characters are generally not inspired by real-life counterparts. However, he did note Hearthside owner Brenda Weaver among others make cameos in his work.
“What matters for me in a book more than anything is, ‘Do I care about the characters.’” Campbell said. “I tend to force myself to finish a book no matter what, but there’s certain books, where I don’t like this character, I want to get out of this book.”
He said that means making the characters believable people rather than omnipotent super spies.
“They do have backgrounds, they are real people,” Campbell said. “They do not have James Bond capabilities. Then, you put them in a situation you care about them, and then in my mind, you have to bring them to a good ending.”
Campbell’s growing body of written work provides ample time to develop an affinity for characters. Protagonists from “Clean Slate” serve as supporting characters in “North Coast,” Campbell said. They will also turn up in lesser roles in novel No. 3, which is a work-in-progress.
“I am working on a third, and a fair amount into that,” Campbell said. “That’s going to be a shift for me. That’s going to be spent in Bristol Bay. I spent a lot of time in Bristol Bay over the years, but I certainly don’t know it as well as Southeast.”
The third novel, tentatively titled “Pitfall,” will take loose inspiration for the controversial Pebble Mine project. The proposed copper and gold mine has been a hot-button issue in Alaska for decades, and Campbell said it’s one he said he had an open mind about until reading 2018 plans for the project, which he deemed “shoddy.”
“It’s (the third novel) set in Bristol Bay, but there is a large operating mine called Rock Mountain in the book, and it is circumstances surrounding it that kind of make up the book,” Campbell said.
He said while his sentiments for the project color the impending third novel, he’s mindful of not writing a “screed,” while potentially changing minds.
Connecting with audiences both inside and outside Alaska and representing the state well is one of Campbell’s goals.
He said despite COVID-19-related challenges in promoting his books, they are finding an audience and they seem to eliciting positive responses among people who know Southeast well and people who have never stepped foot in the 49th state.
Campbell said it’s challenging to ask people what they think of his work, but feedback is also a rewarding part of publishing his writing.
“I have found forcing myself to be willing to say, ‘Hey, I wrote this, do you want to take a look at this and read it,’ is much harder than writing the book,” Campbell said. “What is really nice is I just get random emails and stuff, I got one from someone who had picked the book up in Hamilton, Montana, and I didn’t even know they were carrying it.”
He added: “The easy way to any writer’s heart is saying ‘I liked what you did.’”
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt
Know & Go
What: Meet and Greet with McKie Campbell
Where: Hearthside Books, 2 Marine Way.
When: 4-7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 6