Were you a born writer?
I love this question because it makes me think of all the various aspects of being a writer. In the sense that I’m compelled to write and happiest when I’m creating, the answer is yes. I’ve always loved to read, and language comes easily for me. But I’ve had plenty to learn along the way.
Did you enjoy teaching, or was it more difficult than expected?
I enjoyed the creative part of teaching—putting lessons together, figuring out how to make a difficult concept come clear, designing meaningful projects. And I loved the kids. But there were so many of them! At the high school level, you’re working on average with 140 different students every semester. How can you possibly give them the individual attention they diverse? And so many aspects of teaching are harder than most people can fathom. It’s incredibly draining. The pressures are intense. It’s mostly thankless work (which is why your kind note to me means so much!) I still teach, but it’s on my terms—creative writing workshops through the local writing center (I co-founded it) and as a visiting author in schools.
Do any family members take after you, or are you a lone wolf?
Growing up, I guess you could say I was one of four lone wolves in a very loosely organized pack; my dad, mom, brother, and I pretty much went in our own directions starting when I was in junior high school. We’re closer now, and we’ve all done some form of writing, especially my brother, who’s a well-recognized journalist, social critic (he probably hates that term), book reviewer, editor, and all-around super-smart guy. He and I have postulated that growing up without a lot of guidance made us tougher as writers—more willing to take risks.
What is the best thing about writing? The worst thing?
For me, the best thing is discovery. I love spinning stories and seeing the directions they’ll take. I also like the fact that I’m constantly learning. In that sense, I can’t imagine a better vocation. The worst thing is the uncertainty. Even if one book has done well, the next might not. You can’t let that get to you. You have to write the best book you can, and go on to the next one.
If you could ask a class of promising young students to read any books, what would they be? What books made the most impact on you?
I’d first tell them to read what they love. If you don’t do that, where’s the joy? In school, you read classics, which is important for being part of the cultural conversation and for challenging your ideas about books, writing, and life, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to be a writer, you need to read the sorts of books you want to write, and it helps to read them in a very particular way, with a focus on how the authors do what they do. And I believe it’s important to read up, meaning that you read books by authors whose work inspires you—aspirational authors, as David Vann calls them. Books by Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Kim Barnes have had a tremendous impact on me. Of those authors, I’ve only briefly met one (Kim Barnes) but I consider all of them mentors because I’ve learned so much about writing from reading their work. But that’s because they write the kinds of books I write. So it’s back to reading what you love.
Author of more than a dozen books, Deb Vanasse has been fortunate to enjoy a huge variety of experiences in the company of some amazing people. Her childhood was far from ordinary, as her family lived on the grounds of the state mental institution where her dad worked. The staff consisted mostly of foreign doctors, so she grew up with children from around the world, always in the shadow of the sprawling hospital and patients who walked the grounds, each more or less in his own little world. Deb lived in her own little world much of the time too. Her favorite hangout was a shed attached to her family’s barracks-style cement block house, where she’d spend hours reading and imagining story worlds.
College in Northern Minnesota introduced her to the wilderness and the cold, so it seemed natural to head to Alaska for her first teaching job. After teaching in three Yup’ik Eskimo villages, she moved to Fairbanks, where she taught first at the university and then at North Pole High School, where she was fortunate to have Autumn Dawn as a student in one of her honors classes.
After all these, Deb’s still in love with Alaska, though she makes regular trips to San Diego and Portland (Oregon) to visit her children and their families. Writing is now her fulltime occupation, though she also teaches creative writing at the 49 Alaska Writing Center, which she co-founded in 2010. After re-releasing a backlist title (Out of the Wilderness) in 2013, she started the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books. Her fourteenth book, Cold Spell, came out in 2014, to glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Foreword Reviews. She lives on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage with a husband who spoils her and a dog who supplies the pen name she uses for less literary endeavors, B.B. Mackenzie.
Cold Spell: "Grabs you from the opening line and never lets go" ~ Publishers Weekly
Alaska Sampler 2014, a free eBook featuring fiction, memoir, biography, and nature writing from ten of Alaska’s finest authors
No Returns: “The first movement in an ambitious song cycle of a tale” ~ Kirkus Reviews