The Rumpus Interview with Blair Braverman
I first heard about Blair Braverman on This American Life, when her piece “200 Dog Night” opened the May 2015 “Game Face” episode. During the summers of her 18th and 19th years, Braverman worked as a dogsled guide on an Alaskan glacier. One afternoon, the weather turned bad, stranding a crew of tourists for the night and forcing Braverman and her co-guides to adopt a script of performed optimism. The anecdote now appears in her debut memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North, released earlier this month by Ecco/Harper Collins.
Braverman grew up in California, but she fell in love with the Arctic after spending a childhood year in Norway with her parents, and she has repeatedly traveled back to the country: to study abroad, to learn dogsledding at a traditional trade school, to curate a historical museum in the tiny, coastal town of Malangen. Now, after getting an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, she’s training to race in the Iditarod, and this spring, she was selected for the inaugural Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor 30 Under 30 list. But while Arctic adrenaline textures her prose—looming polar bears, collapsing snow caves, and a backdrop of white mountains that “sloug[h] into low mounds like melted wax”— Braverman’s awe-inspiring interrogation of female self-discovery in these male-dominated environments truly compels the story. “I’ve spent more than half my life pointed northward, trying to answer private questions about violence and belonging and cold,” she writes at the onset of the first chapter. (It seems worth mentioning that Braverman’s current Twitter name, “Feminist Jack London,” feels like the book’s truest genre).
I planned to interview Braverman by phone, but when I mentioned I would be camping in Northern Michigan before I got back to my desk in Minneapolis, she invited me to stop for a night at her Wisconsin farmhouse. Fast forward to the night of my arrival, which came in a thick soup of rain and thunder. When I got to her house, the windows were dark. A minute later, Braverman made it to the door, wearing a floral sundress and a blinding headlamp, and flocked by four wiggling dogs. She was quick to hug and quick to explain: she had been hiding in the basement from a tornado warning; both the water and electricity were toast; one of her huskies had recently bit the nipple off of another pregnant husky (she had reattached it in the bathroom); puppies were due any time.
The next morning, with water and electricity restored, Braverman muddled glasses of minty iced coffee, we watched Youtube’s best videos on canine contractions, and we sat down to talk.
The Rumpus: I thought we might start with the book’s subtitle, “Chasing fear and finding home.” You write about fear in terms of your safety in both a physical environment and a male-dominated one, writing “If I could be safe in the land, maybe I could be safe in my own body. If I could protect my body, maybe I could live in this land.” Did you always know you would write about the North through this frame of fear?
Blair Braverman: Not entirely. The book that I proposed was a pretty standard adventure narrative, like “I went and did this crazy thing and then this other thing happened.” That’s the book I sold. It was also about Alaska and Norway, but more, “Hey I went dogsledding and then I got buried alive in a snow cave and then I met these interesting people.” I always knew the story was more complicated than that, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to write the more personal parts, because it is really terrifying to write them. So when I started writing I started trying to write a more straight-up and almost male adventure narrative, which doesn’t require a lot of introspection. But it was flat, it just wouldn’t work, so I told myself I was only writing it for myself. I gradually started adding elements of fear and sexual violence, those experiences that I had and the ways that that has influenced my relationship with the landscape. The whole time I kept saying, “This is only for me, I’m only adding this for me.” But that’s the actual current of the book. The adventure aspects are, to me, just sort of details on the side.
Rumpus: Were the editors working with you to pull out these other strands?
Braverman: No. [Laughter] I just surprised them.
Rumpus: Your book made me think about why we fall in love with a place, which can look a lot like falling in love with a person. It’s this paradoxical mix of looking to where we both feel safe and where we feel thrilled. In your book, we see an Arctic full of danger, but it is also predictable, and you write that “All its dangers distilled into one crisp feature: cold.”
Braverman: It’s absolutely tied. There was a point in the writing when I just became acutely aware of the relationship between the Arctic landscape and men, and how my work was about being drawn to those, and being afraid of the possible repercussions. That’s not a logical connection, but it was so vivid to me that I knew I had to parse it out in the book.
Rumpus: Did it feel vivid to you while you were living in the Arctic?
Braverman: No, I don’t think so. I often have a word in mind for every project that I do, and the word that I had with this one was “curation.” Part of the framework of the book was that I was invited to restore this museum—curating history in this small Norwegian town, curating the story of this little community in the Arctic—and then I use that as a sort of launching pad to go through other experiences in places that were geographical similar. Curating that museum and then going through the writing process, selecting the experiences that added up to the narrative. There are so many decisions to make in any sort of memoir writing, so I was very aware of those parallels.
Rumpus: And you have an ongoing relationship with the village where you curated the museum in Norway, so how did you land at the book’s ending?
Braverman: Yeah, that was really hard. I just wanted to keep going, and finally my editor just had to say stop. I had all these afterwards that were like, “And then the sheep was born. And then, so-and-so got arrested for drunk-driving, and then so-and-so got the girlfriend.”
Rumpus: Right, because those people’s lives are continuing. Their stories don’t end when you leave.
Braverman: Yeah! Yeah. And I love this community that I followed, and they endlessly fascinate me. But finally my editor said, “Stop, nope, you’re stopping here. And we don’t actually have to know what happens in this community after that. That’s not the point of the story.” So I just had to cut it out. And that was one of the hardest things for me, letting go of where all those stories continue.
Rumpus: Were there other big sections that didn’t make it into the book?
Braverman: I think I’m honestly done with the story, but who knows. I often think that if I was going to do any sort of additional project, I would go back to that community and follow mail-order brides and their lives, and it would not be memoir—it would just be straight journalism.
Rumpus: I would love to see that written. Throughout, the North feels like almost its own character in the book, and I realized at times I was conflating Alaska and Norway in my mind. How have you related to the word “North” in writing this?
Braverman: Well it’s an incredibly vague word. Northern Norway and Alaska are very different, similar landscapes, but I conflate them too. Part of the book was learning to distinguish between the different male-dominated worlds, because in Alaska, it felt—it was—dangerous to me, and the male-dominated community in Norway felt very similar, but it turned out to be a real place of safety. And then, you know, finally coming to rest at least for the time being here in Wisconsin, in another rural community. It’s not Northern in a stark landscape way, but still sled dogs and being on the land.
Rumpus: Traditionally, the canons of “travel writing” have differed for men and women, and I sensed at times that you were maintaining deliberate distance from a sort of Eat Pray Love model. For example, after praising the water of Malangen, you apologize for your attention. “It tasted healing, I thought, and then I corrected myself, embarrassed at my own emotion. The water was water. The place was a place. It was no more healing than a kiss to a bruise.” Were you consciously aware of navigating gendered expectations of language in genre?
Braverman: I think Elizabeth Gilbert is fantastic, so I would love to be more like her, but I was very resistant to writing what I heard the book proposal had called a “female emergence narrative.” So I set out very much not to write that, and you know, I wonder why I was so afraid of that now. How much does that run parallel to my being in the North and thinking, do I have to wear boy’s clothes to be taken seriously? Here I am trying to distance myself from a female genre in order to be taken seriously in literature. You know, eventually the book just became what it was. I heard one reader describe the experience of reading it as thinking of a typical male coming-of-age story as being, “I went out into the world seeking adventure, and I found it,” and a typical female coming-of-age story as “I went out into the world and found that it was dangerous,” and so you can read this book as a combination of those two.
Rumpus: I like that a lot, and I also tend to think of these traditional female travel narratives as being, well, a woman goes out and falls in love.
Braverman: Right, and I was wary of that, because there is a love story in the end of this book. But, you know, I wasn’t going to fight it. And the real love story is for Arild, the Norwegian shopkeeper. It’s very platonic, but the book feels very much like a love story to him.
Rumpus: It’s about love, and it’s also about being afraid. You face a lot of fears in the book, and I wondered if one of those fears was actually writing some of this down. I saw your Tweet about feeling apprehensive to show your parents the book. What would you tell writers who are having trouble writing about their experiences, either because of self-censuring or because they are afraid of how other people will respond?
Braverman: My biggest self-censuring was a fear that people would say, “Well, you didn’t really experience trauma.” Almost like a hierarchy of trauma, like how is it my right to talk about certain violence when the things that I experienced are actually so utterly typical. And that’s actually the best response, that nobody has said, “Hey, why did you write a book about sexual trauma when you didn’t experience any exceptional trauma?” People have said, “This really reflects my experience.” But I was helped so much by reading other people’s stories, other people who have written about making sense of gender violence. I recently read Mac McClelland’s Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, and that was such a great book for me. And essays I’ve read. I’m just so grateful for them.
There is an idea in the ether that if something terrifies you to put down in writing, then you should do it. But after writing this book, I wouldn’t think anyone should write about the things that are hard to write about. If they want to, sure, but I don’t think there is any need to, I don’t think it makes you a better person. It’s so much more difficult than I ever would have thought, and I don’t begrudge anyone who decides not to tell a difficult story. I think that may be the smartest choice.
Rumpus: And I’m not sure when you started this, but was it your MFA thesis in Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program?
Braverman: It was a book before it was my thesis, because I sold it in the spring of my second year. My thesis just ended up being the parts I was working on. Which I really recommend! It makes your thesis way less scary, because the book is the scary thing.
Rumpus: Thinking about how the book’s chronology skips back in time, it is this series of woven experiences that loops through the past decade or so of your life. How did that structure emerge?
Braverman: From the moment I started writing it, it was clear this wasn’t a chronological story. That’s where the word “curation” comes in. The frame of the story is moving into this Norwegian village that in some ways resembled the situations that had been so difficult for me before. And then I have a very everyday life there. For a book that in some ways is a sort of outdoor adventure story, an incredible amount of narrative is just farmers talking around the coffee table. But my experience of being there is that I used that place to go back and make sense of past experiences that I had been avoiding thinking about. In some ways I think of it as a mystery for both the reader and me. It doesn’t totally make sense why I am in this village, it’s not a really logical place, and my emotional response isn’t totally logical, so over time as I go through past experiences, I’m able to make sense of what that place is so important for me, and the reader is figuring out alongside me why I ended up in that little part of the world. That was not a thing that was clear to me when I first started.
Rumpus: Can you talk about how you researched and recreated the scenes from Norway?
Braverman: Writing present-tense memoir is a very weird experience that I don’t actually recommend, because I had to be interrogating myself constantly. What am I doing because I am genuinely drawn to it, and what am I doing because I think it will make the story better? And so my challenge was to be true to how the experience would unfold naturally, while at the same time as recording so I could write about it. But I had no idea where the story was going. I just took a huge amount of notes, and then I knew that I would go back and curate them. So the dialogue is largely verbatim, and when it’s not it is as close as I could get if I couldn’t write it down at the time. The parts of the book in Northern Norway feel very much like journalism to me. It is interesting to hear it referred to as memoir when the process in some ways so journalistic. Because I knew that it was going to be a story, I was conducting interviews on the history of the place and the context, and being very open in terms of writing down conversations as they happened. So I don’t know how that affected the story, I don’t know how that affected my interactions. I do think that Helge Jensen—who is that sort-of pirate character—I have a theory that the reason he took to me is that he wanted to be in a book, that he heard that I was writing it. So there are certain things like that, where I am sure that the act of writing the book affected how the events played out, but some of that was out of my control.
Rumpus: You have an epigraph at the start of the book from Charles Bowden, “We are on a set, and the set makes us all actors.” Was performance always a theme?
Braverman: Yeah, I had that quote from long before I started the book, and I knew it was a guiding theme even before I knew what the project was. The book in part is just a way of saying, look, how do our behaviors respond to our environments? How do our communities and relationships respond to the landscape around us? What interactions happen in the Arctic that can’t happen anywhere else?
Rumpus: Zooming out, I wonder if you can talk a bit about working with This American Life, and how that process felt different than working in print.
Braverman: That’s the only radio writing I’ve done, so I can’t speak as any kind of expert, but that was my most fun editorial experience. It felt to me like a really excellent sausage factory. I put in this event, and then I watched it be churned through this sausage-maker—all ground-up, then inserted into a shape—and then it comes out as a really great sausage. They are so good at what they do, and it’s also so specific. I’m often stressed if there is a heavy editorial hand in something that is moving in a direction that doesn’t feel true to me, but in this case, all the editing was so excellent. It went through many drafts, and a lot of the trick was making the prose more colloquial. And recording that segment, which ended up being fourteen minutes, it took about half the time as it took to record my entire audio book of ten hours. They kept encouraging me to flatten my voice, to be less sing-song, and also to pause in between words that felt very unnatural to pause at. But when you are listening it makes total sense. They are just so friendly and smart.
Rumpus: You’ve walked a line between many different kinds of editorial projects—journalism, radio, book—and I wonder what advice you might have for writers, and maybe especially female writers.
Braverman: I’m always interested in different forms. I write poetry, and lately I’ve gotten into making home videos. What I’ve discovered is that the more comfortable I become with the craft of a particular genre, the less comfortable it is for me to do. And so I find myself reaching out to a lot of different genres, taking structural things from poetry and conventions from journalism. I love watching dance performances. If something feels particularly moving to me I think, okay, whatever just happened, how could that be replicated in a piece of writing? I think being really omnivorous between different medias and genres has helped me a lot.
In terms of female writer advice, well, that implies that I know what I’m doing. [Laughter] In my experience female writers really look out for each other, so make sure you’re part of a community, and make friends with other female writers. I’ve made so many friends with writers over the Internet lately, on Twitter or Slack, and they are really valuable and make me feel like I am a part of a community. Because I mean, I live here, in a farmhouse in a town of five hundred people. Geographically I’m not close to a lot of writers or female nonfiction writers. Still, sometimes I feel like I see more people here than I would in New York. We go there a lot, but also my friends from Brooklyn come out here, and they stay for a few days. They come for a writing retreat or we go dogsledding together, and I really love that. It seems like my friends in New York are always trying to catch up with each other. I really like that when I see people it’s very concentrated.
Rumpus: How do you balance dogsledding with writing in your day-to-day?
Braverman: At this point I suppose maybe I’m a semi-professional musher, but I don’t really know what those terms mean. The vast majority of my waking hours during the year I spent on writing or dogsledding. There isn’t much time for anything else. I probably spend more time dogsledding than writing, more time taking care of the dogs than reading or thing like that. But it also becomes very seasonal. So I engage in the writing community intensely during the summer, and then there are four months in the winter where I basically don’t do any writing at all. I tend to write in waves anyway, I’ll write a lot for a couple weeks and then I just won’t for two months. That’s never stressed me out. I never feel like I should be writing when I’m not writing, because writing is not my identity, it’s a form of communication. If I don’t have anything to communicate, why would I be writing? At some point I will. Sometimes I think that dogsledding feels more real to me, but what’s actually happening is that dogsledding makes writing feel less real, which I think is a very healthy perspective.
Rumpus: Any new fears you are chasing? What’s the next year look like?
Braverman: I haven’t looked much past the book. I would like to be working on another book since I like having a project to be working on for a few years. Probably seeking out more journalistic assignments. But also, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube. Every time I read a piece of writing now, I’m watching for the gears turning below the surface. That’s a privilege, and in some ways it deepens my appreciation, but it also means that reading is not ever relaxing to me in the way that it used to be when I was growing up and falling in love with words. So now when I want to turn my brain off I watch YouTube videos. It’s relaxing compared to reading a work of nonfiction. So I have decided I want to make a vlog. That’s utterly not a professional decision, but it’s terrifying to me. So that’s the fear I’m chasing, and I just made a “What it’s like to run a 100-mile dogsled race” video. It’s my side project. You can link to it. [Laughter]
Author photograph © Quince Mountain. Photograph of the author with sled dog © Christina Bodznick.