Alaska Mystery Writer Dana Stabenow Talks about Writing Mysteries

“Writing North of the Fifty-three” by Dana Stabenow

An Alaskan Mystery Writer Finds Her Way in from the Cold

For years I tried to get an agent because “everybody” told me that the way the publishing game worked was you got an agent who then got you a publisher.

“Everybody” didn’t tell me that if you’re trying to get an agent from Alaska, the difficulty compounds geometrically, like interest owed to a loan shark. My manuscripts returned regularly like little homing pigeons accompanied by letters which read, “Alaska? Where is that? Oh, right, over by Finland?” and “Alaska? Is that, like, you know, a state?” My favorite letter came from an agent who said, “Your manuscript is wonderful and I would love to represent you; unfortunately, I only represent American authors.”

It’s funny now. It wasn’t then. I sobbed out the whole story on my friend Kathy’s shoulder, and she took drastic action, hauling me thirty miles down the road to the Double Muskie and pouring half a bottle of Gran Marnier in me. On the way back to town we stopped at the Bird Creek Campground and had a ceremonial bonfire of all my rejected manuscripts and rejection letters. Yes, the agent who only represents American authors’ letter, too. No, I don’t remember his name. I plan not to remember it for the rest of my professional life.

I wound up getting a publisher first and an agent after, but the, let’s say the distinction of coming from Alaska continues to present me with interested, ah, opportunities. Like on the book tour when I went into the public radio station interview and the host greeted me with a bellowed, “Well I See Susan Butcher Just Killed Another Dog!”

This guy, who I soon gathered was an animal rights activist, carried on and on about how HE owned dogs and HE didn’t kill any of them and how the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was an Abomination and a Disgrace and anyone who condoned it was a Murderer. He was between me and the door, so this murderer rode it out for ten long minutes, at which time he turned on the tape and into a rational, amusing, intelligent man, who had actually read A Cold-blooded Murder and was prepared to discuss it in an amiable and informed manner. We spent a delightful half hour taking about Alaska and writing and Kate Shugak and the Edgar, one of the best interviews I’ve ever had. I was just glad to get out of the room before the third person who occupied that body showed up.

From agents who don’t know where or what Alaska is to radio hosts who have never seen a dog team fight itself to get into the traces, everybody has their own opinions about Alaska, always strong ones, and often erroneous. Sometimes, mea culpa, my books don’t help. In Dead in the Water I referred to “pewing” fish, and while I was on another tour Outside a reader demanded to know what “pewing” was, she thought a “pew” was something you sat on in church or said when you smelled a skunk. Those too, I said, but a pew in this case was a wooden handle, like a shovel or a rake handle, with a sharp metal prong on one end that deckhands used to stick into salmon to lift them from the fishing boat onto the tender, a bigger boat which would then take the fish to the cannery.

She was horrified, and I hastened to add that the fish were dead by then, and further that I was dating myself by using “pew” anyway, as pews are no longer in use and fish are now transferred by hand by deckhands wearing monkey gloves. Whereupon she shrieked, “You mean you use gloves made out of Monkeys?” and stormed off, presumably straight to the nearest chapter of the ASPCA. I’m sure she was next in line behind the radio show host.

And then there was my editor, who was shocked by a scene I wrote in Play With Fire describing an eagle swooping down and carrying off a tourist’s pet poodle. How could I? she demanded, how could I write something so sick? and warned me in ominous tones that I would get nasty letters from the Humane Society.

What with the radio host and the ex-fan, nasty letters from the Humane Society seemed pretty much a given at this point, so I wrote back and said I was only describing something that had in fact taken place in the Alaskan Bush that very summer, fortunately for all of us with a representative of the media at close hand, who reported it in loving detail on the front page of next morning’s newspaper.

Hey, to an eagle protein is protein, and if it doesn’t move out of the way fast enough it winds up on the eaglets’ lunch menu. Nature Red In Tooth And Claw, and why were those tourists in Alaska in the first place?

It ain’t New York.

It is a state, though. Has been since 1959.

Buy Dana Stabenow Mystery Books at


Dana Stabenow was born in the territory of Alaska in 1952 and raised on a 75-foot fish tender in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. When she wasn’t seasick she wrote stories about normal children who lived on shore. Now she writes entire novels, fourteen to date. The first Kate Shugak mystery, A Cold Day for Murder (June, 1992) won an Edgar award for mystery writing. The tenth,[su_amazon_link title=”Midnight Come Again” code=”0312978766″], came out in May 2000. The second in the Liam Campbell series, So Sure of Death, comes out in October 1999.


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