SUMMER READING – Award winning author Amy Butcher, left, listens to her Sitka Fine Arts Camp creative non-fiction writing student Tayla Eaton, of Kodiak, read at the Backdoor Cafe Wednesday morning. Butcher took her class to read essays they wrote in class during the two-week camp, which is wrapping up this week. Students are giving final performances in a variety of artistic disciplines tonight and Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

SE Characters Abound in New Straley Novel

Sentinel Staff Writer
    If writer John Straley had remembered to cash a $300 check from his publisher three years ago, his book “Cold Storage, Alaska” might still be sitting in his files at home.

John Straley with his latest novel. (Sentinel photo)

    “I wrote the first draft years and years ago,” said Straley in an interview this week. “I sent it out to publishers, and they didn’t buy it.”
    The longtime Sitkan said he never gave up hope that it would one day be published, as one in a series of stories about a fictitious small town in Southeast Alaska. Then, about three years ago, he received a call from Soho Press, which published his Cecil Younger detective novels.
    “The bookkeeper called me and said, ‘Mr. Straley, you didn’t cash our check.’” Straley apologized for forgetting, and dug through his papers to find it. In casual conversation with the bookkeeper, he was asked what he was currently writing. Straley mentioned his “Cold Storage, Alaska” draft.
    “Why don’t you send it to our young editor and let her take a look at it?” he was asked.
    He did, the Soho editors liked it and agreed to publish it.
    “If I had cashed that check, I might not have thought of it,” Straley said.
    Straley will have a reading and book signing 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kettleson Memorial Library.
    The book was actually written before “The Big Both Ways,” a story of a ragtag trio being chased up the Inside Passage from Seattle during the Great Depression. After “Cold Storage” was turned down by publishers, Straley decided to use the fictional town as the place where “The Big Both Ways” would end.
    But now, with the publication of “Cold Storage, Alaska,” he sees the possibility of developing a series that he had planned when he wrote the book years ago.
    “The idea is to use ‘Cold Storage’ as the center of this series,” Straley said in the Sentinel interview at the local Public Defender’s office where he works as an investigator.
    In “The Big Both Ways,” union organizer Ellie Hobbes, her niece Annabelle and drifter Slippery Wilson are on the run in a dilapidated boat up the Inside Passage. The story in “Cold Storage” picks up decades later, with an aging but feisty Annabelle and her two very different sons, Miles and Clive McCahon. Miles lives in Cold Storage working as a physician’s assistant and resident do-gooder. Clive is just out of prison in Washington and heading back home – maybe to cause trouble.
    Straley said he started off with just the good brother, but added the shady brother “to spice things up.”
    Many who have traveled around Southeast will see shades of Pelican, Port Alexander and Tenakee Springs in the fictional Cold Storage, population 150, a town founded next to a hot springs in 1935 by Norwegian fishermen. Straley’s detective series starring investigator Cecil Younger mostly took place in Sitka and other real places in Southeast.
    “I chose to make up a little town,” Straley said. “I got tired of sticking to the truth.”
    His new book contains elements of crime and mystery, which will pull the plot along, but Straley wanted to write mostly about people and Southeast.
    “This won’t have a detective or amateur sleuth, and you won’t have a ‘locked room’ puzzle,” he said. “It’ll be about characters and place, and it will be about how much I love the culture and climate and characters of Southeast Alaska. And I really do. The more I investigate this world the more I’m amazed by it .... I’ve been here nearly 40 years – it still surprises me.”
    In addition to a number of colorful characters who live in this rainy, diverse town, Straley is writing about broader ideas.
    “I’m interested in how patterns of human behavior evolve and change over the years and how those patterns are always leader-less,” Straley said. “They have a natural flow, a give and a take. Those patterns don’t evolve because a leader says they do.”
    The same “anarchic” behavior is seen in nature throughout the book and in the people of Cold Storage.
    “Schooling fish, birds flying, people wandering around, looking for their places, aimless, looking for their way,” he said. “How do you find your way in the wild country, in this world? Those are the things I get a big kick out of, and get a big kick out of in this wild country.”
    One of the characters heads off on a kayak journey and ends up joining a band called “Blind Donkey,” which Straley intended as a “playful literary connect of people looking for their way.”
    “Cold Storage, Alaska” is not as dark as “Big Both Ways,” with an overall feeling that even if things go bad for the characters, the reader should feel reassured that things will work out in the end, as in a 1930s screwball comedy.
    “I wanted to write something happier, and a little more optimistic,” Straley said.
    Straley has already received a number of good reviews for the book, and a starred review from Booklist. “Cold Storage, Alaska” will be featured in a column in The New York Times Book Review on Sunday.
    Straley, 60, moved to Sitka in 1977 with his wife, Jan, who was taking a job with Bill Hughes in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The pair founded J. Straley Investigations, focused on investigating crime and science. Since 1985, John has worked off and on for the Public Defender, for a total of 12 years. He said he mainly has been writing poetry since the publication in 2008 of “Big Both Ways.”
    “It’s a stressful job, and I owe all my work my first priority,” Straley said. But he hopes one day to retire. “Hopefully ‘Cold Storage’ will sell well, and someday ... the next check I forget to cash will be more than $300.”
    Other Straley books include “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” “The Music of What Happens,” “The Angels Will Not Care,” “Cold Water Burning,” “Death and the Language of Happiness” and “The Curious Eat Themselves,” published by Soho Press and Bantam. His poetry collection, “The Rising and the Rain,” was published in 2008 by University of Alaska Press.

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