Melinda Moustakis is the author of the short story collection Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, reviewed in the January/February 2012 issue of Orion. We asked Melinda a few questions about the relationship between her stories’ characters and the Alaskan landscape.
When I first started writing fiction, I spent a lot of time describing the settings of stories, and, often, the setting was more vivid and interesting and alive than any of the humans inhabiting the piece. Bear Down, Bear North is subtitled “Alaska Stories” because I wanted readers to know where the stories were set—because Alaska is as much a character as any of the humans in the book.
There’s a line in the story “The Mannequin in Soldotna” that reads, “What is the sound of a river?” I often ask myself, What is the sound of a place? What does Alaska sound like to me—in dialogue, on the page, in those still moments? A character has a voice; a landscape can have a voice. These things are all intimately connected, and when I find each element difficult to parse out, I know I’m getting something right.
I just taught The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus, and in the preface, he breaks down the definition of plot. One definition is the literal, a “small piece of ground,” and another is the setting or “space in which a story occurs,” a plot of land where characters live and events happen. I found this very useful in thinking about place. Plot is a piece of land, a place. Plot is place. And I like to think that characters are place as well.
To me, the Alaska in this book is not external to the characters, not just a landscape out there. It’s an emotional and psychological landscape, too. It is part of the human characters—their mirror, their echo, their metaphorical plane. One of the characters, Jack, in the story “The Weight of You,” tells his sister, Gracie, “Alaska’s in your blood.” I wanted to write a book where Alaska was in the veins of every single word on the page. To have stories that couldn’t happen anywhere else. To have characters who couldn’t exist anywhere else and were shaped by their surroundings as much as they shaped the space around them.
I grew up listening to homestead stories and stories about hunting and fishing—Alaska was the place where all the family stories and happenings took place. This book is a complicated love letter to the Alaska that I know, either from family stories that I spun into new ones, or my own experiences. But I didn’t want to be blinded by this love and the beauty of the place I was trying to capture. As the character Gracie tells it, “If there’s one thing you know, it’s that love is fierce.”
This is a fierce place. This is a fierce love. And I hope that this is the first of many love letters I have yet to write.
Melinda Moustakis is a visiting professor at Pacific Lutheran University. Her stories have appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, the New England Review, and others. Bear Down Bear North, her first book, won the 2010 Flannery O’ Connor Award in Short Fiction and the University of California Davis’s Maurice Prize in Fiction.