Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Q&A with Debbie Clarke Moderow

Debbie Clarke Moderow, photo by Michael Conti
Debbie Clarke Moderow is the author of the new book Fast Into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail. She ran the Iditarod race in 2003 and 2005, and the book recounts her experiences. She lives in Denali Park and Anchorage, Alaska.

Q: You write, "There is an uncanny resemblance between running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and completing a memoir." What are some of the similarities?

A: Running the Iditarod—and writing the memoir—were both inspired by my love for our sled dogs. The artistry of moving along a wilderness trail with my team of huskies, and the discoveries revealed when fully engaged in writing the story, are joys equally difficult to quantify.

Since I was a young child, I’ve had a tendency to choose grandiose goals. While attempting to complete Iditarod—and to publish Fast Into the Night—I was reminded of artist Constantin Brancusi’s words, “To see far is one thing, going there is another.” Both on the trail and at my writing desk, the “dreaming” proved to be far easier than the “doing.” 

Patience, extended focus, and resilience characterized both extended efforts. When I got stumped writing the memoir, I lost confidence in my ability to write, just like I doubted my skill as a musher when things got difficult on the Bering Sea coast. My internal wrestling match between daring and doubt colored both journeys.

In the same way that I had to metaphorically “go back to school” to finish the Iditarod, I literally chose to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing in order to complete Fast Into the Night.

Studying for an MFA at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop made all the difference. The rewards at both “finish lines” were far greater than they would have been if either effort had been easy.

Q: Why did you decide to write about your experiences, and how long did it take you to complete the book?

A: When I finished Iditarod, I knew I’d lived an incredible story. I mean, how many people get to do what I had done? I wanted to share the journey, both to make sense of the experience myself and to gift it to others—in the form of a dog sledding memoir.

The writing of Fast Into the Night spanned a decade. I wrote detailed notes after both of my Iditarod races. I began working on the book in earnest within a month of crossing the 2005 finish line.

Q: Was it difficult to recreate and relive the details of your time spent on the Iditarod Trail in 2003 and 2005?

A: Our memories—the lifeblood of memoir—are intensely personal, mysterious, and often elusive recollections. Whenever I experience something profound, I free write about that experience as soon as I can. I try to put onto the page both the raw and emotional details of the events lived.

I actually planned to keep a journal during my first Iditarod. That was a joke! The priority to care for my dogs and myself, as well as the need to concentrate on the marathon effort, left no opportunity for note taking.

After each Iditarod, I wrote nonstop for several weeks, recalling dog details, trail notes, and emotional threads of particular miles.  

Sleep deprivation cast a haze over some of the memories. When writing about a hallucination it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction, but that’s all part of my Iditarod experience. I relied heavily on these post-race notes in the writing of the memoir.

The most challenging part of looking back over so many miles was to figure out what furthered this particular story —the one I wanted to put on the page.

There is no question that deciding what to leave out was the most difficult part of writing the book. In Vivian Gornick’s terms, separating the “situation” from the “story” was easier said than done.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the Iditarod race?

When visitors come to our kennel in Denali, they are almost always surprised at how small and athletic our dogs are. They expect to see big burly furry dogs, like those described by Jack London or included in movies about Alaska.

Of course, most human marathoners are not large people; in the same way, our dogs are lean, light-framed athletes particularly well-suited to move along the trail.

Many assume that the strongest sled dogs are purebreds. There are some Siberian Husky teams that enter Iditarod each year, but our sled dogs, like most, are Alaskan Huskies.

Debbie Clarke Moderow and her dog Spaghetti. Photo by Jane Sobel Klonsky
They are mutts, a combination of huskies and hounds bred for the northern trail.  They have double coats (meaning they shed in springtime) and tough feet. Ours are sweethearts who love belly rubs and leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner.

Some chase sticks, and one even has a pet rock. They howl for all sorts of reasons, and usually are eager to pull the first time we put them in harness. Their world revolves around us, and we live for them.

On the human side of the Iditarod, there is a common misconception that men have an advantage. It is true that fewer women run the race than men, but the sport is truly gender blind. Women do very very well on the dog sledding trail.

Much is made of the winner of the Iditarod each year; even for those of us within the sport it’s difficult to recall who came in second or third on a given race.

But the truth is that each individual team, even those at the very back of the pack, are “competing” fiercely to make it to Nome. Iditarod bears no resemblance to a long camping trip, for anyone. It’s far more committing and demanding, every mile of the way.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the process of writing another memoir, about several specific wild places that have held deep meaning for me over the course of my lifetime.

There are a variety of critters in this new story—migrating birds, quarter horses, and of course, sled dogs. To process life’s meaning in the company of other creatures has long inspired me about what it means to be human.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My highest hope for Fast Into the Night is that it might strike a chord in those who have never considered adventure in any form.

Eleanor Roosevelt spoke eloquently about the value of taking on life’s challenges: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face...you must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

My dogs certainly pulled me into a territory fraught with challenge, and together we found our way. By honoring my huskies and our journey, I hope to inspire an adventurous spirit in others.

To step into that messy territory between daring and doubt is daunting, but the attempt at  “going there” can be rich with rewards that apply to all aspects of living. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment