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Brian Payton
THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER takes place in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in World War Two during the Japanese invasion. What inspired you to write about his little known piece of history?
I first came across the story of the war in the Aleutians when I lived in Alaska in the early 1980s. I was blown away by the fact that the story is not widely known outside of Alaska. I found that there had been several histories written about this chapter of war, but could find little fiction. I’ve known since then that these events could serve as an incredible backdrop for a novel.

I began my research in the late 1990s. When I began writing my story in 2002, I wanted to shine light into a hidden corner of history and to answer some questions. Why were the journalists expelled from the war in Alaska? What happened to the American and Japanese soldiers, or the civilians caught in between? Then the characters came alive, asserted their hopes, fears and dreams, and the novel bloomed into something more. I was soon forced set it aside to work on other projects, but I continued to return to the story over the years and rework it.
You obviously have a very strong sense of the natural world and some of the descriptive passages are very evocative. Is this your own preferred element?
With THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER, I want the environment to confront the reader because it profoundly affects the main characters in my story. For John Easley, the physical environment is both his only source of protection and his most formidable enemy. For Helen Easley, it is an unknown and persistent threat—not just to her own life, but to her hope of ever finding John.

As a writer, I’m often reminded that National Book Award winning author Peter Matthiessen once said something like “I don't want these characters to step off the page, I want them to step out of the landscape.” This makes a lot of sense to me and helped me find my way into the story.
The story is told from the point of view of protagonists Helen and John. Was it difficult to ‘get into the heads’ of two central characters?
From the beginning, I was writing the stories as alternating chapters. John Easley arrived on the scene first and set my head spinning. I was so intrigued by him and each question I asked about his life and history pointed in some way at another strong personality, a missing part of himself. Then, when I found his wife, Helen Easley, I was equally intrigued about the kind of woman who would be with John, and what she would do now that she was essentially left behind. Her husband was missing and, she believed, in need of her. How would she rise to the challenge? What was it about her that made her go to the ends of the earth to find her husband? Because I’d never written a female character before, it took me longer to find Helen’s voice. But once I stopped staring at the differences between us, the fact that she is a woman, I was able to see and feel her more clearly. We make much of the differences between us—men and women, young and old, various races and cultures—and it gets in the way of seeing all we share in common.
The novel is a very poignant love story - and an endurance story. Did writing about John’s endeavours for survival, both romantically and physically, come easily to you?
John came to me in such a strong, visceral rush. So in a sense he came very naturally, easily. But watching him deal with all physical, emotional, and spiritual torments that came his way was difficult to write.
Who are the writers that inspire you?
I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when I was 14, and it shook me to the core. I vividly remember savoring the final scene while on the road, curled up in the hatchback of our Ford Pinto (infamous for having its gas tank behind the bumper) because there were not enough seats for all us kids. By the time I reached the ending, I was sobbing loud enough to require explanation. I knew then that I had magic in my hands and wanted to become a magician.

I still find inspiration in—and admire the writing of—John Steinbeck, as well as Frank McCourt, Earnest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Roddy Doyle, and Ian McEwan, for example. But I don’t think I write like any of them.
Brian Payton

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