BOOK CLUB RESOURCES
About the Author
From an interview with Cinthia Richie in The Alaska Star, July – Issue 4 -2014
Deb Vanasse sits out on the deck of her house out on Hiland Road, casually
dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her hand idly stroking the head of her energetic boxer,
McKenzie. Behind her the valley stretches wide and far, and out in the distance two
eagles float across the sky.
Vanasse, an accomplished writer with over ten books to her name and cofounder
of 49 Alaska Writing Center, moved to Eagle River from Anchorage two years
ago with husband Mike Ferency.
Her latest book Cold Spell lyrically blends two stories: A mother trying to start
over in Alaska and a daughter whose longings threaten to undo them. According to
Booklist, Cold Spell, “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of
self-doubt and complicated family bonds.”
It is, Vanasse says simply, the book she’s always wanted to write.
Vanasse, who grew up on the grounds of the Midwestern state mental
institution where her father worked, always loved to read and dreamed of being a
writer. But when her college advisor pointed out that writers don’t make an easy
living, she pursued a teaching degree instead.
Her first teaching job was in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Nunapitchuk in 1979.
Back then, Alaska had a plan where you could retire after 20 years of teaching, she
says. It was her goal to put her writing dreams on hold until after retirement.
But life didn’t quite work out that way.
After moves to Bethel and Fairbanks (Alaska), she published her first book, A
Distant Enemy, a young adult account of the clash of cultures in the Alaska Bush, a
few short years before her twenty-year retirement date.
“I was very fortunate that my first novel was published out of New York in
1997, when I was still teaching,” she says. “I felt like, wow, I’m ahead of schedule.”
The book started as an assignment for a continuing education course. “I had
never written a story or any fiction in my life,” she says with a laugh.
After putting her son and daughter to bed, she’d sit down and write. “They
always say write what you know, and I knew the village, but I also didn’t know the
village,” she says.
She ended up writing what turned out to be Chapter 14 of A Distant Enemy.
The teacher really liked it but I put it away,” she says. “I was really busy.” It
took another education class, ten years later, before she unearthed that chapter
“It was a similar assignment, to bring in a story, and I already have one,” she
says. “The teacher said, ‘This is really a novel, if you tell what happened before and
She did just that, and when she finished, the instructor recommended Vanasse
send it to her editor in New York.
“It was ridiculously ea
“That book and every book since has been about discovery,” she says. “It’s so
exciting to find out things you didn’t expect. And when it’s done, to discover how
much of the book is really about you, which you also don’t expect.”
Unlike the majority of her past works, Cold Spell is an adult novel. She ended
up writing for young adults by chance, and she’s always aspired to write the kind of
books she loves to read, the kind that you curl up with in a chair, that causes you to
linger and wonder.
“That’s the kind of book I like,” she says.
Cold Spell, which took Vanasse over three years to write, was produced during
her do-it-yourself Masters of Fine Art period.
“At the time I had published almost ten books but didn’t feel as if I had ever
really studied creative writing,” she says.
Unable to afford a regular MFA on retirement funds, she formulated her own
course of study, and Cold Spell was her self-made thesis project.
“I heard Sylvie’s voice in my head, and that’s how I started,” she says.
She threw out lengthy versions of the book, and threw out a third after she
thought she was done.“That wasn’t hard because I could see it getting better,” she
Once finished, it felt similar to when her children graduated from college. “I
thought, if I die tomorrow, it’s okay, this is done,” she says.
The book highlights emotions and situations from deep inside, topics such as
her relationship with her mother, with religion, and with the Alaska wilderness. Now
that the Cold Spell is finished and the publishing process over, Vanasse is anxious to
begin her next book.
“I have this pent-up energy, the water is building up behind the floodgates,”
she says. “I’m very excited.”
About the Book
Excerpted from an interview with Melinda Brasher
Cold Spell has an interesting range of characters. Who was your favorite to write
I’m always delighted to talk about characters—they’re the pulse points of any novel.
Choosing a favorite is tough, though. It was Sylvie’s voice that opened the story for
me. I’m intrigued by characters who long to be noticed, who find subversive ways to
get power, as Sylvie does with her sexuality. So often, our longings betray us, as is the
case for both Sylvie and Ruth; that line between impulse and self-control is constantly
shifting. In many ways, the two of them mirror each other, not only as mother and
daughter, but also in the ways that they fool and also frighten themselves. I can relate
to all of that. I also ended up falling hard for Lena, a character I was sure I wouldn’t
like. I have lots of outtakes written from her perspective. I love it when characters
surprise me like that, weaseling in where I didn’t expect them.
The glacier in Cold Spell is almost like another character in the book. If you could
describe it in three words, what would you say?
I feel place intensely, both in life and in fiction. I think you find that often in places
like Alaska where people choose to live intentionally—landscape not as backdrop, but
as relationship. I love the traditional Native idea that landscape is sentient, that it
acts and reacts as humans do. In this book, I especially loved working with ice, which
on the surface appears stagnant and off-putting but is actually vibrant and moving and
full of power. As a character, the glacier is potent, multi-faceted, and transformative.
Part of this novel takes place in Alaska, a state that most people only experience
as a tourist, or through film. What are a few things about living there that
travelers don’t usually see?
Each new “reality TV” episode chips away at what those of us who live here consider
to be the real Alaska. It’s amazingly diverse, in every way—people, landscape,
cultures, opinions—and quirky, a word I don’t especially like, but it captures in part
the idea that it’s easier to be your own person here than in many places; the
showboating that you see on TV isn’t at all who we are. It’s also impossible to truly
feel the effects of a vast, changing wilderness unless you put yourself in the middle of
it on a regular basis and engage all the senses: the smell of tundra in autumn, the
taste of wild blueberries warmed in the sun, the searing cold when you breathe air at
40 below. Seeing Alaska through a tour bus window, or worse yet, on a screen, simply
isn’t the same. I’ll admit a bias, but I truly believe that, short of living here, the best
way to experience the astounding variety that is Alaska is through books.
What do you find most difficult about the writing or publishing process?
I love what I do, but none of it’s easy. The hardest thing these days—and to some
extent, maybe it’s always been this—is cutting through the noise so your book finds its
readers. That, and you have so many choices, especially when you write fiction. You
have to develop a huge sense of discernment, coupled with a readiness to let go of
whatever’s not working in a story.