Sitka author John Straley has published a new novel. The story weaves a little-known strand of 1960s pop culture into the fabric of life in a remote, Southeast Alaska fishing town.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey recently spoke with Straley about the book, and what’s next for one of Alaska’s most prolific fiction writers.
Note: Author John Straley will read from Blown by the Same Wind at 6 p.m. Thursday, December 8, at Old Harbor Books in Sitka.
The novel is called Blown by the Same Wind, and like all of John Straley’s books, there is more to the title than meets the eye.
Writing mysteries and detective fiction is just Straley’s day job. By night, Alaska’s former Writer Laureate is a poet, and a student of literature and history. During his decades working as an investigator for the Alaska Public Defender Agency, Straley says he kept a quote from the monk Thomas Merton on the cover of all his notebooks.
“I wrote this quote down and it was, ‘I am blown by the same wind that moves all of these people down the street like dead leaves and bits of paper in all directions.’” Straley recited, from memory.
Knowing that he carried Thomas Merton with him as he explored the criminal underbelly of Southeast Alaska, it’s a little surprising that it’s only in Straley’s twelfth and latest novel that Merton makes an appearance. I asked Straley to tell me the story of the story, which begins shortly after Merton, a Cistercian monk living at a monastery in Kentucky, had published a best-selling book called The Seven Storey Mountain, making him something of a superstar in the world of spirituality.
“Dozens and dozens of tourists would come to want to sit at the feet of Thomas Merton,” said Straley. “The abbot suggested that he go someplace more remote, to pray and meditate and serve a small community. And they talked about coming to Alaska. In 1968. Merton actually did come to Alaska, and he wrote some letters indicating that after his trip was over, he was going to come back and live in Alaska – in southeastern Alaska. (Although he was nervous about bears.) Anyway, after he was in Alaska, went to California and then to Asia, where he traveled and met with the Dalai Lama. He was also of interest to the FBI and the CIA because he was not in support of the war in Vietnam. And he died in Bangkok. His brothers found him under an electric lamp, which they thought must have killed him.”
That Merton actually came to Alaska – and may have moved here had he not died suspiciously – was all Straley needed to weave him into the fictional world of Blown by the Same Wind.
“It’s an interesting story full of conspiratorial overtones,” said Straley. “And so I thought, that’s just perfect for me. So I thought up every conspiratorial frame of mind that I could from 1968, researched all the different kinds of things and have Thomas Merton come to my little fictional town of Cold Storage and get involved in a big, messy crime.”
Blown by the Same Wind is Straley’s fourth novel set in the fictional Southeast Alaskan town of Cold Storage. He’s written eight other novels in a different series featuring his ne’er-do-well detective, Cecil Younger. His plan is to write a novel for each series in alternate years.
Twelve novels so far, some poetry collections, an anthology, and a biography make John Straley one of Alaska’s most prolific writers, but there is a small problem – he doesn’t live in Alaska anymore. Earlier this fall, Straley and his wife, the noted humpback whale biologist Jan Straley, moved to Carmel, California.
Straley is trying to make the adjustment.
“I love the climate there,” said Straley. “It’s good for my health. It’s good for my wife’s health. I love the food down there, the fresh vegetables, but I miss the people here.”
Straley has been knocking around some of the roughest corners of Alaska for about four decades. He’s in Steinbeck country now, and he’s already noticed that most residents appear “thin, rich, and healthy.” But, there are plenty of thin and healthy people in Alaska. But Straley is having to recalibrate his ideas about the rich.
Straley – “Brad Pitt has a $42 million home in Carmel, California now, with like 62 fireplaces. He hired a guy just to work on his fireplaces.”
KCAW – “Wow.”
Straley – “That’s where I’m rolling now. That’s the kind of crowd I’m in.”
KCAW – “Does Brad Pitt have a library?”
Straley – “He should. I haven’t driven up to the gates with the guard dogs and the men in black suits and sniper rifles to try to drop a book off, but you never know!”
Straley feels obligated to write another novel about detective Cecil Younger, since the last title in the series, So Far and Good, saw our hero locked up in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center. “I’ve just got to get poor Cecil out of jail,” Straley says. Next comes a biography of his wife Jan, and only then might he turn his attention and his pen to Northern California. There is literally no place John Straley can’t work.
“Everybody has failings and tries to cover them up and gets in trouble,” Straley observed. “Everybody gets in trouble. And I have to say there’s some beautiful country around Big Sur and some crazy people down around there and near where I live. So every place is worthy of writing about.”