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an interview with melinda moustakis

melinda moustakis was born in Fairbanks, Alaska and grew up in Bakersfield, California. She holds an MA from UC Davis and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories is her first book, and won the Flannery O’Connor Award as well as the Maurice Prize. She has also been shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. The National Book Foundation named her a 2011 5 Under 35 writer, and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Conjunctions, Cimarron Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a 2012-2013 Hodder Fellow at The Lewis Center of the Arts at Princeton University.

maria anderson: How do the acoustics and cadence of a piece figure into its authority and power, for example, in "The Last Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show"?

melinda moustakis: If I don’t have the right cadence in the very first line or paragraph, I can’t continue the story. There are three stories narrated by a character named Gracie in the collection, and " Lumberjack" is the last in the group and happens to be the last story in the collection. Because I had worked with this narrator before, I knew what the voice should sound like and there was a certain rhythm to the narration that was important to maintain.

anderson: What considerations went into the organization of your stories, specifically the first piece, "The Weight of You"? How does "The Weight of You" function as one of the first pieces of the collection and also as a stand-alone piece?

moustakis: "The Weight of You" introduces a close-knit familial relationship and it introduces the setting of the river. Other considerations included point of view, chronology, and different story structures.

anderson: In several of your stories you use the second person point of view. What does this do for you from a writer’s perspective? How does it affect the dynamics of a linked story collection?

moustakis: From a writer's perspective, I feel as if I was often warned against second person point of view. That it is too showy and a lot of people don't think you should use it. But I think with any sort of technique, if it works, it works. That's all that really matters--does it enhance the story and not get in the way of the story. For me, the second person in the three stories are indicative of the main character's psychological state--of her wanting to distance herself from her brother's life but not being able to do that. As a whole, the book includes many different points of view so the ordering was important and the second person stories needed to be spaced out from each other.

anderson: Was there a story in Bear Down, Bear North that came out easiest, one you had to revise the least?

moustakis: I’d say “The Weight of You” because I had a deadline for a class and really got most of it down in four days and ended up doing minor edits, and then fixing the first paragraph. But I had been thinking about the material for a long time and had sections I’d written a few years before that I had put aside and realized fit in the story, so it was as if I’d been composing the story for a few years but the initial drafting process was relatively fast which is unusual for me. Sometimes, it seems like you think you’re writing a new story and starting from scratch and then realize this “new” story is actually a revision of other stories and concepts you’ve worked with in the past.

anderson: How would you describe your revision process?

moustakis: I’m not one of those writers who can come up with pages and pages and then cut down to what is necessary. Sometimes I wish I was. I would say I revise as I go, line by line, trying to make the language as precise as possible. I think I trick myself into thinking I’m not revising, when in reality I’m constantly revising.

anderson: How does research figure into your writing? Do you rely more on the internet or on printed matter?

moustakis: Most of my research is scientific research related to plants and animals and I’ve found many useful sources online, and now many “printed” sources can be found online as well.

anderson: Which prose writers were you reading while writing the collection?

moustakis: I was greatly encouraged by writers like Pam Houston, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich, Nancy Lord and others because they were writing about the wilderness and women in the wilderness.

anderson: What about poets?

moustakis: I just read Wait by C.K. Williams. The poetry books I remember reading while I was writing the collection include We Bed Down into Water by John Rybicki and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine.

anderson: I hear you’re working on a novel now. How is that going? How is the process different from writing short stories? Is it still that same feeling of pulling knots tighter you mentioned in your interview with The Story is the Cure?

moustakis: I’m in the beginning stages of a novel and it feels like I’m starting completely over. With short stories, you might write twenty pages and fail. But with a novel, now you’re looking at three hundred pages that might not work. That, to me, is daunting. I felt like I got to a point where I was at least somewhat proficient at writing stories and now I’m learning how to sustain a narrative for a much longer arc—maybe it’s akin to switching from riding a bicycle to a motorcycle.

anderson: Do you have a favorite fishing spot in Alaska, or a particular location that remained with you when you were elsewhere? Could you describe it?

moustakis: My uncle’s cabin on a river is one of my favorite places in Alaska. As a rule, any good fisherwoman knows you don’t give away the location of your prized fishing spots.

maria anderson is a writer from Montana with a Literary Arts degree from Brown University. She currently lives in Eugene, Oregon. You can find her online at

photo credit: Sandra Neumann