Q&A with Heather Lende
The author of Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs discusses raising a family in Alaska, writing about people she knows, being part of a tight-knit community, the role of faith in her life, and . . . chickens.
Q: Your inspiration and your subjects are your family, friends, neighbors, and those who live around you in a tiny, geographically isolated Alaskan town. What’s it like to write about people you see on a regular basis?
Heather: Well . . . it’s just my life. I’ve told stories from Haines on National Public Radio, in the Christian Science Monitor, and in a long-running Anchorage newspaper column. Because of our isolation, though, not a lot of my neighbors knew about my writing beyond Haines’ own Chilkat Valley News, for which I write the obituaries. When I was working on my first book, one of my colleagues on the school board thought I was joking when I said I couldn’t make a committee meeting because I was writing a book and had a deadline that day. Since the book was published, people are obviously much more aware. I hear “this is not for publication” a lot, and that’s fine. At the same time, one elderly woman told me it was too bad her husband hadn’t died sooner, because then he could have been in If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, which was largely based on those obits I write in the local paper. I’m also mindful of what I should say and not say. The line I usually draw, especially in this book, which was harder than the last one in that these stories are more intimate, is that if I’m at a public event—a funeral for four hundred in the local theater or the community Veteran’s Day dinner where a letter from a soldier is read aloud—then I feel free to use that material. I am careful to present stories as my own interpretation of events: this is how it moved me and why. Also, since my time at the Monitor, I’ve always tried to hold to that paper’s editorial guideline—“to injure no man but bless all mankind.” But I wrestle with this everyday.
Q: Do you arrive at a community function eager for good material, with an active ear to the ground? And do you ever hope to head out of the house without tripping over a new subject?
Heather: I can’t help myself. I always have a pen and paper in my pocket and often end up writing on napkins, basketball game programs, and even the church leaflet. Not all of that ends up being printed though. Much of it is still in a pile on my desk. And, yes, sometimes I wish I lived in a place where I didn’t know everyone, but, so far, I haven’t ever wished that there were less going on or that my life here were less . . . involved. One of the reasons my husband, Chip, and I chose to raise our family in Haines is for that very reason. We wanted to be truly connected to a community, with all the entanglements, responsibilities, and pleasures that entails.
Q: Where does the title of your book come from?
Heather: That was my mother’s last communication with us. Before she went into a surgery, she knew she might not survive. My father asked her if there were anything she wanted to be sure he and my sisters and I knew, just in case. She was on a ventilator and couldn’t speak, so she wrote, “Take good care of the garden and the dogs.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized these are words to live by.
Q: Is life in Alaska your inspiration or would you be a writer if you lived in, say, New Jersey? And do you see yourself as an Alaskan?
Heather: I would probably be a writer if I lived in New Jersey, but I would be writing about something else, and I suppose I would be someone else, too. Moving to Alaska in my twenties, especially to this small town, has completely made me the adult— and thus the writer—that I am. I hunt and fish and snowshoe. My children were born here. The longer I’m here, the more grateful I am for this life in this remarkable place. I want to share it with the world. So, yes, I’m an Alaskan and an Alaskan writer.
Q: Is there a “Heather Lende, the writer” persona separate from “Heather Lende going about her daily life”?
Heather: Yes and no. My husband says no, but I know that my writer voice is my best and most polite self. In real life I swear more.
Q: What do you hope to share with your readers through their experience of reading this book?
Heather: I’ve tried to give readers a window into a specific time and place and, by being so local and personal, tap into emotions they may have, too. This book began when I was quite literally run over by a truck, but if you think about it, by the time we reach a certain age, most of us have been hit by a proverbial truck in one way or another. Maybe it was cancer or some other brush with mortality. My story and those of my Alaskan friends and neighbors may help people see the value in their own stories. Also, I like to think I’m adding to the history of our time and place, like the pages put in the time capsule in Our Town. In this day and age of homogenized housing, education, food, cars, and furniture, when so much of the country looks the same and feels the same, it’s even more critical that we showcase what is unique in our own experiences. Those of us who are able to tell stories that aren’t the same as everyone else’s should do it, you know?
Q: One last question: I understand you have a chicken coop with the most intricate roof on earth. Care to elaborate?
Heather: My husband runs a lumberyard. I like to build things with his materials. I helped build the apartment above the lumber store where my daughter now lives, a cabin in the woods, and our house. I wanted the chicken coop to be pretty, so the roof is gabled just like our house, and it has shingles and two big windows so my hens (there are four at the moment) can see out from their roosting pole. The door was made with cedar tongue-and-groove boards, and I’m glad, because it survived two bear attacks, although now we have an electric fence that we turn on at night.