Fitting the theme of his keynote speech, Paul Theroux (center), and the other participants of North Words took a hike up to Laughton Glacier during the event. PHOTO BY JEFF BRADY

By DAN FOX

EDITOR

With a record-breaking 38 participants, organizers are calling the 2017 North Words Writers Symposium a success.

“I think this year’s conference was bigger and better than ever,” North Words co-organizer Daniel L. Henry of Haines said.
North Words is organized by Henry, Buckwheat Donahue, Jeff Brady and Katrina Woolford, and just cleared its eighth iteration. After running the event for a number of years, Henry said the organizers have really started to figure out the best ways to structure the event and keep it flowing.

The keynote speaker for this year’s North Words was Paul Theroux, author of “The Great Railway Bazaar” and “The Mosquito Coast.”

Theroux encouraged the writers assembled for North Words to both explore the world, and explore the works of well-known authors.

During his keynote address, he levied a strict assignment of heavy reading on all the attendees.

To really understand an author, Theroux encouraged reading no less than five of that writer’s books – and a biography on that writer to cap the research off.

One cannot be a writer without being a reader, he commented, but writers must also be more diligent in their reading.

“One of the many horrible things that universities teach, one of the many ways that universities corrupt students is by making them read one book,” Theroux said.

Donahue said some attendees may have been taken aback by the wide range of authors and novels Theroux referenced and quizzed them on, but Donahue himself has ordered piles of reading material on Theroux’s suggestions.

“You should see all the books that I’ve received this week,” Donahue said. “I went and ordered a bunch of Joseph Conrad books, Terrence Cole books and Ambrose Bierce books, all because Mr. Theroux said that these are important pieces of American literature that we need to be familiar with.”

Theroux said many writers can claim a formative experience, be it war, travel or work in the Peace Corps, that helps shape them as writers.

He said he admires writers and people who try to change the world, or themselves.

“The writer who stays home is mildly interesting to me,” Theroux said. “But much more interesting is a person of action, someone who does something, who attempts to do something. [He] may fail at it, but gets out of his comfort zone and does something.

“A hike, a kayak trip, a war, whatever it is.”

Theroux, a well-traveled individual, seems to have followed his own advice. When he graduated from college, he joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa.

John Straley (left) and Lenora Bell (right) lead a panel that focused on keeping the writing good when characters get between the covers. PHOTO BY JEFF BRADY

He lived there first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a teacher. He traveled to Singapore and Vietnam, and lived in England for a time. Despite his globetrotting, however, Theroux’s trip to Alaska for North Words was the author’s first time coming to the Last Frontier.

“It’s advice that I would give anybody,” Theroux said. “Leave home, do something difficult.” The impact of such an adventure is profound, he said. Henry said Theroux’s advice was “very much” like the famous author.

“He is a person who is really well-known for being experiential,” Henry said.

The four-day symposium included a number of panels, workshops and plenty of opportunities for 1v1 discussions with prominent Alaskan authors.

The panels ranged from discussions of Haikus and publishing pointers, to steamier affairs.

“The sex one was hilarious,” Brady said, referencing a discussion titled “Why is it so hard to write about good sex?”

“It was everything we thought it would be.”