Mary Roach announced as keynote author for 2015

Story and Photos by Katie Emmets

Though it went without a title, Team Alaska carving artist Peter Lucchetti said their Sourdough This year’s North Words Writer’s Writers Symposium welcomed best-selling author and journalist Simon Winchester to Skagway as its keynote speaker.

Winchester is the author of 22 books, including the 2010 New York Times best-seller The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. His other best-sellers include The Professor and the Madman, an account of the men behind the Oxford English Dictionary; A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906; and The Map that Changed the World, about the nineteenth century geologist William Smith.

Though his long list of accomplishments would have trouble fitting into this windy valley, Winchester was extremely approachable and generous, and became a friend to anyone who entered into a conversation with him.

“It was the best yet, by far,” said Jeff Brady, Skagway: City of the New Century author and publisher of The Skagway News.
Brady is one of three organizers of the event along with Daniel

Henry of Haines and Skagway’s director of tourism, Buckwheat Donahue.


“The keynote was outstanding,” Brady said. “Simon was engaged with everyone, and he was a wonderful speaker and storyteller.”

Brady said Simon’s keynote address about what it takes to become a writer was very inspiring, and added that the symposium hasn’t seen that kind of energy coming from a keynote speaker since its birth year in 2010 when Alaska mystery novelist Dana Stabenow filled the role.

In an interview, Winchester, who has been to Alaska twice before, said he always recommends for those interested in the profession to write about what they know.

“Skagway is full of potentially very good stories,” he said. “Write about the now, not about this history.”

Winchester said there are so many interesting things about Skagway’s unique environment and thinks people’s stories should be explored more.

“Who are the merchants? Who does well and who doesn’t do well?” he said.

Winchester was also interested in the seasonal worker arrested for slashing the tires of 29 vehicles and setting a Skagway Police dispatcher’s car on fire. On May 28, Skagway scored a spot on Winchester’s Twitter with a photo of Skagway News’ blotter blurb along with the caption, “Life in the charming Alaskan town of Skagway, my home this week (for NorthWords seems livelier than I had imagined.” Winchester later said the young man’s story is one worth finding out about and recommends someone fly to Juneau to ask him what was going through his mind on the night of his vandalism spree.

An active participant in all panel discussions he was a part of, Winchester took the time to have meaningful conversations with participants and offered expertise and opinions when presented with book ideas and writing samples.

Skagway resident Douglas Smith, who is writing a book on Martin Itjen, said he received a lot of help and tips from symposium faculty such as Winchester, Alaska wildlife writer and photographer Nick Jans and Yukon historian Michael Gates.

“All of the authors were extremely generous,” he said. “It was an incredible experience to get advice from people I admire. It was a wonderful atmosphere of fraternity.”

This year the symposium provided additional workshops at the library and late-night writing sessions at the Skagway Inn. Brady said they were very well received, as extra writing time is something participants asked for more of.

Organizing faculty member Daniel Henry scribbles notes during a panel titled "Reality Basted: Writing Readable History that Sticks the Facts.

Organizing faculty member Daniel Henry scribbles notes during a panel titled “Reality Basted: Writing Readable History that Sticks the Facts.

The paid participants totaled 24, Donahue said, which has been the best turnout yet.

Having a big name like Simon Winchester as the keynote speaker helped with attendance.

Next year’s keynote speaker will be science non-fiction writer Mary Roach “The fact we’re able to announce that and start to play that up more in the next few weeks will give us a job on getting registrations up,” Brady said. “Until now, we’ve been announcing it mid-year at the earliest. By announcing it now, it gives people more time to plan for the symposium.”

Brady said he is excited by the exposure participants are getting to faculty members like John Straley, Nick Jans and Heather Lende, and Dick and Nora Marks Dauenhauer.

“We’ve gotten to the point that our participants are becoming better at this, and they are going to be published authors soon,” he said. “That’s really what it’s all about.”