Story last updated at 2/29/2012 - 2:57 pm
At this point in her career, Vivian Faith Prescott is likely a household name in Sitka, where she lives, as well as in Wrangell, where she was born and raised, if not among the literary-aware in Alaska in general. Prescott is in her own league; her accomplishments span the achievable of several lifetimes.
In addition to the numerous poems, short stories, prose and three books she has published, Prescott has a PhD in Cross Cultural Studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After completing her PhD, Prescott went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage. While pursuing her MFA, Prescott was awarded the Jason Wenger Award for Literary Excellence for her graduate thesis essay and creative work, an award shared by well-known author Heather Lende of Haines.
Prescott is also co-director of a nonprofit organization called Raven's Blanket, which promotes Native and non-Native Alaskan artists and advocates for cultural wellness and the traditions of Indigenous people throughout the world. She is also a world traveler, spending time in Kuwait and Puerto Rico, where her husband, an aero-medical physician assistant for the U.S. Coast Guard, was stationed. In Puerto Rico, she started both adult and youth writers groups. She also has four children. And she doesn't appear to be slowing.
Prescott's most recently published work, "Keeper of Directions," is her first full-length novel, though her published fiction work includes numerous short stories. The book was published in electronic format in January.
Prescott is currently living and working in Kodiak, where her husband is stationed. She plans to return to the Southeast sometime in the spring, and will conduct various readings at schools and libraries.
CCW: Can you give a brief description of "Keeper of Directions?"
VFP: Lance Jensen, a young boy with Asperger's syndrome, visits the Tower of London to see its famous ravens. Lance is obsessed with ravens. Unfortunately, the Tower is closed because a raven has been stolen. As it turns out, the ravens kept at the Tower of London aren't ordinary ravens but a clan of shape-shifters entrusted with keeping the natural world in order. The missing raven's name is Rose and she was the Keeper of Directions. Lance is soon entrusted as the apprentice Keeper of Directions and he and his smart-mouth, teenage sister are caught up in the search for Rose and preparing for a great battle at the Arctic Circle.
CCW: Was this book an attempt to speak out about issues facing indigenous people and climate change in a medium that might appeal and affect younger generations?
VFP: I wanted to address climate change and the issue of responsibility in the novel. I did consciously consider my indigenous worldviews. We are people of the sun and wind. The Sáami have been dealing with effects from the Chernobyl disaster, the construction of dams across their rivers, and deforestation for a long time. My Finnish worldviews are also interwoven into the book. The book is really an expression of my multicultural family.
I also wanted to show how children are often given responsibilities that are way over their heads. I kept asking, "What if?" I asked: What if a kid was given a huge reasonability and didn't really have a choice? I asked: What if a kid is thrown into a really bad situation like war and he's told who is good and who is evil. How would he respond? And finally, what if that kid had a developmental issue like Asperger's, a form of autism?
CCW: What tools did you use to make your novel appropriate for younger readers?
VFP: I have family members with Asperger's. Sometimes Aspies are called "little professors," which means that they often exhibit a lot of knowledge in one or two areas. So when thinking about what my character knew about science, I also considered my audience. Can a 10-year-old reader understand what a 10-year-old Aspie is talking about when he describes the biology of a feather? I wrote how the Aspie might think and speak.
My early readers were a 13-year-old male and a 13-year-old female. I gave them the manuscript to read and then we set up a feedback session. I got to hear what they thought and they gave me suggestions about where I could improve it. It also helped that I facilitated the young writers' groups. They were a very fun group of kids. It made me recall what it was like to be that age.
CCW: You've tackled environmental issues in previous publications, and it doesn't appear that this new book is an exception. Was that intentional, or an automatic effort?
VFP: At first I think it was subconscious. But early in the writing process I asked: What could the Ravens be protecting that is threatened? It wasn't hard to make the leap to the natural world. My main focus became the theme of "caretaking" and what would happen if an enormous duty was given to a child. As a child I was really in love with nature. I lived most of my childhood outside. There were seven kids in our family and we were always being told to "go outside and blow the stink off."
CCW: You explained in an interview published in the CCW in November of 2010 that your mother was part of a bizarre UFO cult that she started in Wrangell. Did any of her experiences aid the writing of "Keeper of Directions?"
VFP: My mother ran off when I was only 7 years old, so while growing up I didn't really remember her at all, although I'm sure she must have told us stories or read books to us. I'd like to think that. After she left it was like she was Lord Voldermort, "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." It was forbidden to mention her name so my siblings and I developed a myth about who she was. I was able to imagine what she might be like or what the UFO cult might be like. Back then, though, I was under the impression that she was a "devil worshipper." Later, I thought she was part of Charles Manson's cult. No one bothered to explain it to me.
I must have inherited my mother's imagination; and imagination is the fiction writer's best tool. Writing fiction seems healthier than starting a religious cult.
CCW: Why do you use a pen name? How did you choose L.K. Mitchell?
VFP: An author will often choose a pen name if they cross over into another genre. I've been writing poetry and prose with my name, Vivian Faith Prescott, for most of my writing life. Now that I'm writing middle-grade and young adult fiction I wanted to be able to separate the two. In writing for middle-grade or teen boys, an author who uses a name that doesn't identify the author's gender is in the author's favor. The name L.K. Mitchell pays homage to my parents who were my first storytellers. "L" is for Lorna Woods, my mother. "K" is for Kay, my stepmother who died a couple of years ago. And "Mitchell" is my father's and grandfather's name (and also my son's name).
CCW: The release date for your novel was Jan. 6; how has the reception been so far?
VFP: I'm getting good reviews from parents of Asperger's children and Aspies themselves. One of my reviewers, an adult Aspie, has read the book and loved it. She's now reading the book every night to her nephew on the telephone. But instead of using my character's name "Lance," she substitutes her nephew's name. Her nephew thinks it's his story.
CCW: Why the electronic format?
VFP: My goal is to hold a paper book in my hands and say "I wrote this." I'd love to see it on library and school bookshelves. However, thirty percent of American households now have an electronic reader of some sort. And by the middle or the end of this year I imagine that number will increase drastically. I took a chance and sent my manuscript to a recently formed publisher who was only doing digital format. But Musa Publishing has informed their authors that they are going to go into print as soon as the company stabilizes.
Being a Kindle Fire owner, I find myself reading much more in both e-format and paper. My oldest daughter has had the same experience. She thinks that her Kindle has somehow renewed her love of fiction. And, like me, she's buying more paper books and reading ebooks.
My characters in "Keeper of Directions" are dealing with similar issues: traditional technology versus new technology. The Ravens try to hold on to ancient technology and the DiLong are all about advancements. But both use nature.
CCW: You started with poetry, then expanded to prose poetry, and now a novel. Can you explain a little bit about how you approached the different literary mediums and what encouraged you to extend your genres?
VFP: I've been writing short stories for nearly as long as I've been writing poetry. I discovered prose poetry after I wrote my novel. I love to play with my poems, fleshing them out and making them into prose. I also like to see if they are really a short story. I fail a lot, but it's fun trying.
I've always wanted to write a novel. I have a few novels that I've written that are around one hundred pages. I stopped writing them because completing my college degrees took precedence. Then, Ron Carlson, the famous short story writer, visited my MFA program in Anchorage during the summer of 2008. He told us students: "Sit your butt in the chair." I had no idea that writers just sat down and let their characters tell them what they wanted to do. That's his method. So when I asked myself "What if the ravens that are kept at the Tower of London aren't really ordinary ravens?" I sat down and wrote the entire horribly messy novel.
CCW: Assuming you continue to write, do you see yourself primarily publishing electronically?
FVP: I hope to publish both in print and paper. In fact, my oldest daughter, Vivian Mork, and I are starting our own small chapbook publishing company soon and we plan on doing both electronic and paper.
CCW: How do you have time to be so literally productive with four children, a non-profit, and travel?
VFP: I have so many projects that are already finished and they just need to be edited. I've written a lot of material over the years. I was afraid of rejection so I didn't send anything out. Also, I didn't have the time to sit down and edit or send the manuscripts out because I had kids at home. Now, my children are all grown and on their own so they aren't asking for so much of my attention.
Moving with the Coast Guard does interfere with my writing life, but only temporarily. I have to plan well to make a move and keep writing. Often I just bring one journal and one project to work on during the travel and interim. But the first thing my husband does when we relocate is set up my office, hook up my computer, and get the internet. It's become a ritual, a priority. Now I usually write about six hours a day.
CCW: You started both adult and youth writers groups while you were in Puerto Rico where your husband was stationed for Coast Guard duty. Now that you've left, do you know if they've continued?
VFP: It was very hard to leave all the writers that I was mentoring in Puerto Rico. We left the adults with another group leader who'd retired to Puerto Rico and lived near the base. We were going to try and keep the group going online but the forum I was using turned out to be not so user-friendly.
I recently received an email from a writer who attended our group in Puerto Rico only once. He works for the FBI all the way on the other side of Puerto Rico from where we were stationed so he couldn't attend our meetings on a regular basis. But he kept in contact with us through our email prompts. He's finally written his middle-grade novel and emailed me for some advice and help. I was glad to help him and to hear that he was inspired to write his novel.
And, as it turned out, one of the teens in the Puerto Rico writers group got stationed with her family in Kodiak along with us. She is now in my teen writers group here.
CCW: You mentioned in a previous interview that you were hoping to work through your nonprofit organization, Raven's Blanket, to start recording more Wrangell stories. Has this happened? If so, what are the stories about?
VFP: I'm in the process of compiling my father's stories and my daughter is working on recording others' stories. I'd like to compile a collection of Wrangell fire stories and record the memories of people who were there in the 1950s when the downtown burned. I'll start this project when I move closer to Wrangell.
CCW: What are some of your new literary projects, and what additional projects would you like to start?
VFP: I just received word that I'm getting a new poetry chapbook titled "Sludge" published by Flutter Press this year. A chapbook is a smaller collection than a full poetry manuscript; typically, less than 35 pages. "Sludge" is a sequel to my digital poetry chapbook, "Slick." Only this time it will be in print. I have a third poetry manuscript called "Reek." My plan is to put them together by the end of the year in a full-length collection called "Journal of the Thirsty Chemical Society."
I also have a new full-length poetry collection out in print called "The Hide of My Tongue." This collection came out, unintentionally, two weeks after "Keeper of Directions."
I'm also editing a new young adult novel called "The Mermaid Café," which is a contemporary novel set in Southeast Alaska. And I'm still working on my memoir and still trying to sell my collection of short stories, a linked novel about Wrangell called "The Dead Go to Seattle."
I don't have an agent yet so it's a lot of work to research publishers and send work out. I also have two other poetry collections that are edited and ready if I can find a publisher. One is called "Bitter Water People." This collection recently won an award for literary excellence during my MFA program. And the other collection is called "My Father's Smokehouse," which is a hybrid of poetry and prose.
In the future I want to co-write something with my daughter, Vivian Mork. I also want to co-edit with Professor Lance Twitchell (UAS) an anthology on Sáami literature focusing on Alaskan and NW Coast Sáami writers.
I'm also considering writing a young adult novel about a young girl living in Southeast Alaska in the 1960s-70s whose mother ran away with a UFO cult and her new stepmother was recently released from a mental institution. It will be fiction, of course.
Amanda Compton may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.