How did you approach the research process for your story? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?
The research for Surviving Bear Island was very hands on and spans twenty-five years. Since my teenage years, I have always been drawn to remote places. I have worked in roadless areas on the North and West Coasts of Alaska doing field biology. I have witnessed 12,000 walrus hauled out on a beach, 120,000 caribou crossing the tundra, and Killer Whales hunting and eating a porpoise.
Even though none of the above experiences are directly in this book, my long history of extended wilderness travel permeates the story on many levels.
In 1991, I went on my first sea kayaking trip, which was a nine-week, 500-mile journey in Prince William Sound on the South Central Alaska Coastline where Surviving Bear Island is set.
Since then I have returned almost every year to paddle part of the Sound, doing trips ranging from one week to one month both solo and with friends.
On my wilderness trips I have always kept journals. When I decided to try to write a story set in Prince William Sound, my journal entries became much more detailed regarding what I was experiencing at both the sensory and emotional levels.
On one trip my wife and I spent several days circumnavigating an island and that island became the template for the fictional Bear Island in my story. I took very detailed setting notes and was able to use them, sometimes word for word, in parts of the story.
Without creating spoilers for people who may read Surviving Bear Island, many of the experiences that the main character has are inspired by experiences that I have had. Basically, I used my experiences as springboards for some of the trials that Tom faces in the story.
|“a terrific thrill on the page.” — Kirkus Reviews|
As I started to add new incidents not inspired directly by my experiences, I tried to experience or replicate what I was writing. For example, Tom has an emergency blanket that in damaged in a fire. For research, I burned part of an emergency blanket to see how it would respond to fire and it turned out to be quite different than how I imagined it. Instead of bursting into flames, it melted and made crackling noises.
I have been fortunate to have witnessed bears fishing for salmon, to have paddled a kayak in large stormy seas without disaster, to have spent extended periods of time in remote places cut off from all other human contact so where you are becomes your whole world and you can experience a place deeply and without distractions.
The main roadblock I ran into when writing Surviving Bear Island was how to write a story with primarily one character and have it have authentic emotional depth and complexity. Early drafts of my story were very plot heavy and episodic.
As the years went by and I wrote other stories where characters were interacting with each other, I developed my skills for exploring emotional depth, and also for writing in first person. I think those other manuscripts I wrote gave me the tools I needed to transform a single-character third-person narrative into a single-character first-person narrative that was much more character-driven and emotionally authentic.
As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?
My identity as a writer has informed my identity as a teacher in significant ways. I have spent most of my teaching career working with struggling and reluctant readers and writers. As a writer teaching writing, I brought to my teaching a passion and enthusiasm for something I love, coupled with experience. I tried to design writing activities that as a writer were meaningful.
|Paul writing on his treadmill desk.|
When I was teaching fiction writing to my fifth graders, I did every pre-writing and writing activity that I required my students to do, with the end result being that each student would write, edit and revise a short story.
Each morning during writing time I would start by sharing how I had completed the assignment that I was about to give them. I would show them what I had done and answer questions and then they would apply whatever the lesson was to the story they were writing.
When I taught high school English in an alternative school for students who had exhausted all their other public school options, a job I held for fifteen years, I tried to honor student differences and strengths by using more of an open format for teaching writing.
As a writer, I wrote what moved me, and as a teacher I let my students write what moved them. Some wrote science fiction stories, some wrote essays about challenges in their lives, others wrote poetry. There were some writing assignments tied to the reading/literature part of the class, but for the straight writing I gave my students room to roam and tried to support their interests.
Many experiences of being a teacher have also informed the part of me that is a writer.
When I worked as a Naturalist for a few different outdoor education programs, I had my students build shelters for a survival activity weekly. Years later, when I was writing Surviving Bear Island I mined those memories and used them to inform my writing when Tom, the main character, needed to build shelters.
|Prince William Sound|
Teaching in an alternative high school setting for fifteen years helped me to stay in touch with the issues and challenges that young people face daily. I also got to witness how incredibly strong individuals can be even when they are facing circumstances that are overwhelming, like homelessness, changing foster homes on short notice, or dealing with an abusive family member. I developed a deep respect and compassion for students who were going through difficult times.
My students were my greatest teachers, and I hope the characters I create are as complex as the amazing people I’ve been fortunate to interact with as teacher over the years.
|a rare warm day|
Surviving Bear Island is a Junior Library Guild selection.