Becoming A Published Author
Agony and Ecstasy of Writing a Book
By Evan and Lois Swensen
Barbara J Atwater
My Journey to Walter’s Story
“So, what are you going to do with all this information you are gathering?” he asked me. I was speaking with a history professor from Oregon at a friend’s party. My friend, Judy, knew of my interest in history and had introduced us. I was excitedly telling him how a genealogy project had gotten me so intrigued that I was spending a lot of time researching the history of the Pedro Bay area. I would find out something that would lead me on to another tidbit of more exciting and intriguing history than the one that led me there. It was like a treasure hunt, and I kept finding new clues to lead me on.
It was a good question. At the time, I hadn’t considered what I was going to do with the information. I was enjoying the search. It was to be a few more years before I dared to think that maybe I had enough for a book. But how was I to do that? What would be the format?
It was around this time that I began to visit Walter and Annie Johnson regularly. They were full of the old lore of my home area. It started when I asked Annie to help me with a cemetery project. I was trying to identify all those buried in the cemetery at Pedro Bay—graves were unmarked, and many were difficult to locate. Annie and another elder, Mary Jensen, assisted me with this. We made a list of the people they knew were buried there. We came up with more people than there were identifiable graves. And, of course, I needed to learn as much information about each person on the list as they could tell me—so many more leads and clues! As a result, I found myself spending more time with Walter and Annie.
One day as I sat listening to Walter in his summer home in Pedro Bay, it dawned on me that maybe I could write this history through Walter. The more I listened to him, the more I realized what a truly extraordinary life he had lived. He was the youngest of his family but was raised very much like an only child. His mother of Dena’ina/Russian descent only spoke the Dena’ina (language) in their home. She passed on to him much of the Dena’ina lore. Walter was a treasure house of the Dena’ina Indian culture and language of the area. He had a remarkable memory of so many characters that lived in the area. I did not say anything to him immediately. I needed to digest this idea myself first. Finally, one day I did speak to him about what I wanted to do. He looked at me and said I was too late. My heart sank. He told me about a book that Kari from the University of Alaska Fairbanks did with him. He showed me the book, Sukdu Nel Nuhtghelnek I’ll Tell You A Story, and I was amazed. It is an excellent book. But it was very different from what I wanted to do. It is more of a scholarly work, focusing on the Dena’ina language. But Walter felt like there was no need for another book.
I recruited his daughter Ruthie to help me convince Walter that another book was possible. She had given me a lead-in with the forward she wrote for Sukdu Nel Nuhtghelnek I’ll Tell You A Story. “Another book in itself could be made from Dad’s stories just about checking the trap line during the winters.” Needless to say, we did convince him. He decided that perhaps there was more to tell.
So we started our journey in earnest! Walter lived in Homer, and I lived in King Salmon. This meant a lot of travel. Every trip to Anchorage meant a side trip to Homer for my son, Ethan, and me, where I recorded Walter’s stories. Then I would transcribe the tapes. This went on for some years, and finally, I decided that I had enough and started to figure out how to put it together into a cohesive story.
Walter told me his stories as he remembered them, not as they happened. I needed to organize the information, most of which I had to rewrite. It was imperative to me to keep his voice, so I would write and then read it and listen to determine if I could hear him saying it in the way I had written it. After listening to him for so many years, plus listening to the tapes as I transcribed them, it was not too hard to do—to hear his voice in my head. So hopefully, I have been successful in keeping his voice throughout this story.
As I wrote his story, I required many more visits to Walter, as additional questions were raised and needed clarification. He often told me things in bits and pieces, as he remembered them, so it was like a puzzle. I needed to get everything and everyone connected in the right way.
It was here that I made another decision about this story. At first, I had thought I would interview other family and friends to add to or flesh out Walter’s Story. While working on the rewriting of his words, I realized that this was indeed Walter’s Story. To bring others in would, I felt, muddy the story. So what I did was include many endnotes that I hoped would help further explain anything Walter either did not remember, or did not explain very well. In these endnotes, I included anecdotes from other people that I felt clarified some of the characters and events. It was here, too, in the endnotes, I incorporated much of the research that I had been doing over the years.
I especially like the Distant Memories that precede each chapter of the book. These are all Walter’s as told to him by his mother and other elders of the area. They are, I believe, an essential part of the folklore of the Dena’ina people, the oral history of the area.
I am not a Dena’ina speaker, and it wasn’t easy at times to find an English word for a Dena’ina word that Walter used. In some cases, I thought it best to use the Dena’ina word but often could not determine what it was. Even with the use of Kari’s fairly complete Dena’ina language dictionary, I was stumped. One such case was Walter’s word for the invisible people. Because I couldn’t find anything that seemed right, I decided to use a blank for this word.
For the photos, I owe my thanks to all those who were willing to share with me. It was hard to pick and choose which to use. Most, of course, are Walter’s. I especially like Walter’s sketches. The photos and Walter’s illustrations help to tell the story.
Because the people are so intricately connected in so many ways, I included several genealogies. I hope that some of the readers would determine how they are connected to the area through these.
Yes, it has been quite a journey. There were many times that I would get bogged down and become discouraged. But, then someone would ask me how it was going. It would always seem to be just the impetus I needed to get back at it! So I am thankful to those who took the time and interest to inquire about my project—they don’t realize how helpful that was!
I am so grateful to all those that helped me to believe that I could do this. But, of course, one does not accomplish such an enormous task without a lot of help and encouragement. At a gathering some years ago, my brother looked directly at me and said, “Someone needs to write a history of this area.” I thank Norman for the confidence he placed in me with those words, the confidence and vision to complete this project. I am grateful to the professor for asking me the question, to the friend who introduced me to him. I am especially grateful to my husband and son for their unwavering encouragement and support. Plus, it always seemed that just as I needed it, someone would appear to help me over a hurdle. So, yes, I am grateful for all the help along the way.
When I was finally ready for a publisher, I went online and started searching. I compared services and prices. Those out of state were relatively cheaper, but I wanted someone close to deal with. Publication Consultations had many options, so I went and talked with them in person. This was very helpful. Mr. Swensen showed me other books they had published and what some of the possibilities were. After this meeting, I decided to go with them and have been thankful that I did. I have been exceptionally pleased with their assistance through this process.
It was so exciting when the books arrived! My son was with me as we tore open a box to look at the finished product. It was a bit surreal, I must say. I immediately planned a Book Release Party at my house several weeks after the books arrived. It was a wonderful experience. Walter and his daughter and granddaughter were able to come. The event was celebratory, and I truly appreciated each person that came, bought a book, and visited with me and with each other. Some even brought me flowers! One lady brought me a gift of fresh bread and homemade jam. I felt pretty special that day.
The reception of the book has been more than I could have anticipated. I found that I enjoy the marketing side of the book more than I thought I would; it is a new challenge. I am very much an introvert, and so was dreading that part. Yet, I am finding I enjoy talking to people about the book. It is a whole new world for me, scary yet exciting.
It was a very long journey, and like most trips, I had many hurdles along the way. But as I stated, there were many along the way to help me keep going. I am very thankful and feel so blessed to have completed my project—my journey to Walter’s Story.