Dear John McPhee
A year ago, Alaska writer Tom Kizzia received a letter in his Homer mailbox from John McPhee.
The story of how that letter appeared there began about 40 years earlier, when Kizzia, who had recently graduated from Hampshire College, awoke one morning in a tent in the Brooks Range. He had been reading McPhee’s “The Pine Barrens,” a collection of New Yorker magazine writing about the people and history of a coastal part of New Jersey, the state where he grew up. It was one of the works that launched a genre known as creative nonfiction.
Kizzia already had fallen in love with Alaska, but the book set his ambition alight.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can do for Alaska what McPhee did for New Jersey,’ ” he said.
A few years later, McPhee published “Coming into the Country.”
“I realized John McPhee was doing for Alaska what John McPhee had done for New Jersey,” Kizzia said.
Even so, Kizzia stayed focused on writing about the culture and history of our northern state. He took a job at the Homer News. The idea was that he’d work for a short time and then return to the East Coast. But soon he bought land and built a cabin. He kept up with some of his friends from college, who were working at large city papers, like the Washington Post. In his late 20s, he began to wonder what he might be giving up, living so far away from America’s urban, intellectual centers.
“I sort of freaked out and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I had great experiences but hadn’t launched a career of any kind,” he said.
He returned to Washington, D.C. One night he was at a party when someone asked what he’d been doing since college. He said he’d been living in a little fishing town in Alaska.
“The guy said, ‘well that must have been weird.’ He said it would be hard to live in a place like that where everybody is the same,” Kizzia said. “I looked around the room and everybody there had like horn-rim glasses and a dress shirt and tie and had gone to an Ivy League school and was working in some sort of liberal spin-off politics. I thought about the incredible variety of old timers and fishermen and world travelers I’d gotten to know in Homer and it was a blazing moment of realization.”
And so Kizzia went back to Alaska, where he soon took a job at the Anchorage Daily News. He married and started a family. He traveled in rural Alaska and wrote essays about places in a regular newspaper column called “Northcountry Journal.” Those travels became the basis for his first book, “The Wake of the Unseen Object,” published in 1991.
The newspaper offered him a means for deep reporting and gave him the chance to observe complex stories unfolding over time. His second book, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” grew out of his stories for the Daily News on Papa Pilgrim, the flawed patriarch with 15 children living an isolated, religious life in the wilderness outside of McCarthy. That book, published in 2013, became a national bestseller.
That book also brought an invitation to write for The New Yorker.
“I got to do the thing I most wanted to do,” he said. “When I was giving up the East Coast for Alaska I thought I guess I’ll never write for The New Yorker, but I’ll have a good life.”
After he’d written several pieces of journalism for the magazine, he decided to pen a letter to McPhee.
“I had long wanted to write him a fan letter,” Kizzia said.
He kept it to a page, describing his ambition as a young man and his admiration for McPhee’s work. After a while, there came a reply.
“Yours is the second letter I have ever received from Homer, Alaska,” McPhee wrote.
The first, many years before, had come from the owner of the Homer News, writing, McPhee said, “to apologize for ripping me off.” The weekly paper had reprinted sections of “Coming into the Country” without obtaining the rights.
“McPhee thanked me for writing and talked about some people he guessed, correctly, we knew in common. I thought about writing back to confess that I had been the young editor who ripped him off but decided one letter per fan was the appropriate limit,” Kizzia said.
Kizzia was the recipient of a 2017 Rasmuson Foundation Artist Fellowship, which allowed him to focus on his current project, a history of McCarthy’s ghost town era. The book didn’t have an obvious commercial angle, so the fellowship allowed him to explore the subject without marketing pressure, he said.
“Having the grant allowed me to say I’ll see what happens,” he said. “It legitimized my step away from newspaper writing. It authorized my being an independent artist.”
The first draft of the book is nearly complete. Kizzia is giving thought to his next projects.