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The publicity material was explicitly clear: Sarah Palin biographer Joe McGinniss would not talk about Sarah Palin.
Joe McGinniss: Extremes Revisited 090810 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly The publicity material was explicitly clear: Sarah Palin biographer Joe McGinniss would not talk about Sarah Palin.

Courtesy Epicenter Press

Joe McGinnis's 1980 bestseller "Going to Extremes" has been recently re-released by Epicenter Press.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Story last updated at 9/8/2010 - 7:10 pm

Joe McGinniss: Extremes Revisited

The publicity material was explicitly clear: Sarah Palin biographer Joe McGinniss would not talk about Sarah Palin.

This, after She-Who-Would-Not-Be-Named made national news earlier this summer by erecting a wall between her Lake Wasilla compound and the house McGinniss rented while researching "Sarah Palin's Year of Living Dangerously" (working title), his biography-in-progress. The two then feuded a bit via Facebook and The Today Show. Police action was threatened.

If not all that, then what would he talk about?

Well, to mark the official Sept. 1 re-release of his 1980 best-seller Going to Extremes: A Search for the Essence of Alaska (Epicenter Press), about oil money's effect on the last frontier, McGinniss was game to discuss anything else about how Alaska changed since he first started writing about it.

Of course, I wondered how he could possibly tackle that subject without mentioning one of, if not most prominent figure in the state's admittedly short history. (And did I mention she's his next-door-neighbor? Levi could be over there right now trying to win back Bristol).

Anyway, the press pack did its job - curiosity piqued.

And so I spoke with Joe McGinniss via telephone last week, at the tail end of his four-month sojourn in Wasilla, a town he remembers 30 years ago for its one blinking traffic light but now characterizes as having fallen prey to the dark side of development.

"Of course, my view might be skewed," he admitted. "I've spent a lot of time here, doing the same thing day after day."

Back in the mid-70s, researching Going to Extreme, McGinniss figured he'd find his story by having experiences around the state, the more off-beat, the better. As such, he opened himself to everything, purposefully allowing diversions (and if there's anything Alaska has, it's plenty of diversions). This time around, however, McGinniss was working with a tight focus from specific plans.

Still, he traveled enough to notice two important things. First, there are a lot more people here now - people who wouldn't be here without the pipeline. He also sees what he calls "a culture of greed" spreading throughout the state, especially around Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

"It's sort of become the way of life up here, get anything you can from anywhere you can," he said, although he went out of his way to note that certain parts of the state didn't seem nearly as bad. Parts that tended to vote a certain way.

At this point, McGinniss got as close as he would to mentioning You-Know-Who.

"The oil definitely brought the far-right politics," he said, explaining that it wasn't the ideology he objected to as much as the intolerance for other points of view. "In 1975, Alaska was a blue state; now it's pretty red, and may be getting redder."

Still, one thing hasn't changed for him: the willingness of Alaskans to talk with him, whoever they were.

"I've spent the last four months in Wasilla, and I haven't had a single unpleasant one-on-one experience," McGinniss said (obviously not counting those with his neighbor).

McGinniss also noted that the Alaskan spirit of generosity seems intact.

"People in the Lower 48 don't understand the way you guys help each other out up here," he said. "There's still plenty of that, even in Wasilla. Just the other day a guy I'd never met before drew me a map and gave me the keys to his cabin in Big Lake 'if I ever needed somewhere to go'."

Unfortunately, McGinniss didn't retrace his steps to Southeast Alaska this summer - the closest he made it was Homer - but he's been back to Juneau several times recently, first in 2008 working on a piece for the now-defunct Conde Nast Portfolio magazine, and then again in the fall of 2009 to start researching his current project.

Maybe he was just being nice, knowing where this story would wind up, but McGinniss spoke favorably of Southeast Alaska. He likened it to going back in time.

"The towns are European, almost - even Juneau, even out by the glacier," he said. "Wherever you go, you know you're in Alaska and you know that it's a good place to be. You can't always say that of Anchorage."

But Joe McGinniss doesn't want you to get the wrong idea. The state is every bit as entrancing to him now as it was then. In fact, he called Alaska his favorite place on earth.

"For one, it's as beautiful as ever, with more outdoors than in the rest of the country combined," he said. "I wish I didn't have to leave, but I gotta go home and write."

Joe McGinniss hopes to return to Alaska as soon as possible, definitely for the book release in the fall of 2011. At that time, I imagine he will be able to speak about Sarah Palin. Come on, he's got to be.

Geoff Kirsch is a writer in Juneau. Visit his website at www.geoffkirsch.com.