Brian Payton answers your questions

14 May 2015

By Pan Macmillan

Thanks to Ecco for this post.

The Wind Is Not a River is set during World War II in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands amidst the only battle to take place on U.S. soil. Could you tell us a little about this historic occupation?

On June 3, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Dutch Harbour in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, officially bringing the Second World War to the North Pacific. Four days later, a force of nearly 2,500 Japanese combat troops seized and held Attu and Kiska, two of the outermost islands. The residents of Attu – U.S. citizens – were taken prisoner and sent to Japan. The remaining Aleut people – 880 men, women, and children scattered throughout the Aleutian and Pribilof islands – were evacuated by the U.S. military and interned in Southeast Alaska. For the next eleven months, U.S. forces sustained an aerial campaign against the Japanese-held positions. From May 11 - 29, 1943, one of the toughest battles of the war took place to recapture Attu. In proportion to the number of men engaged, it ranked second only to Iwo Jima as the most costly American battle in the Pacific Theatre. It was the only battle fought on North American soil.

Although the war in the Aleutians was relatively small in the context of the global conflict, some 500,000 men took part; dozens of ships, hundreds of planes, and an estimated 10,000 lives were lost. An entire culture was displaced. Time would reveal the capture of Attu and Kiska was a diversionary tactic – an unsuccessful attempt to distract U.S. forces from Midway. These events are forgotten footnotes in the history of the Second World War. This happened over 70 years ago and is still a part of our living memory – but not for long.

This history is so little known. When did you first learn about it?

Many of us like to think that we have a good grasp on the history of American involvement in World War II. Most of us are wrong.

I first came across the story of the war in the Aleutians when I lived in Alaska in the early 1980s. I was in my early teens at the time, but was blown away by the fact that the story is not widely known outside of Alaska. In my late teens and early twenties, I found that there had been several histories written about the war in Alaska, but could find little fiction. I’ve known since then that the events of 1943, in what was then the Territory of Alaska, could serve as an incredible backdrop for a novel.

The Aleutian Islands' terrain – stark, yet majestic – is described so vividly and beautifully in your novel that it almost becomes a character unto itself. Did you travel to the islands to research your setting?

I began seriously studying the history of the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands in the late 1990s. In 2001, I began to sketch out a story. I soon determined that I must go to the Aleutians myself in order to get a better understanding of the human and natural history of the place.

Travelling to the Aleutians has always been a difficult undertaking. At the time I went, there was a small Coast Guard station on Attu, the outermost of the islands, but it was closed to outsiders – with the exception of the occasional specialty bird-watching group. Today, the island is uninhabited. I traveled as far west as I could at the time, which was the island Atka. I spent time there, in the community and out on the land. I also spent time in Unalaska (Dutch Harbour) at the eastern end of the chain.

I also write nonfiction, most often pertaining to wildlife and the environment, so I am always very interested in the living setting that surrounds us. 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.

Why do so few people know about this battle?

Journalists were ordered out of the Territory, military censorship was drum-tight, and most of the campaign was fought beyond view of the civilian press. There are numerous reasons for this, including the government’s desire to not raise the alarm among the civilian population of the west coast of North America. It was important, from a propaganda perspective, for civilians to believe that the war was being fought overseas, in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The idea was that we should fight and settle it “over there” before it reached our shores. The war in Alaska threatened that narrative. From the U.S. perspective, the campaign itself was fraught with problems and was seen as something of an embarrassment—the fact that it took so long to drive out the invaders. The U.S. military gambled on the fact that they could contain and ultimately defeat the enemy there. History proves them right.

Why were you compelled to write about it and why in fiction form?

I wanted to tell this story in the form of a novel. The historical, nonfiction account of the events had already been done. In my work, I wanted to get at something else. I wanted to make visceral connections to that place and time through characters that I (and the reader) could get to know inside and out… to feel as if we are living these events with them. I wanted both the writing and reading experience to be felt deeply, personally. To help us make sense of what happened in the past, we often reach for fiction in order to help try and grasp the meaning (or face the meaninglessness) of certain events. The great war novels help us understand WWII, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnam War, etc., in ways nonfiction rarely does.

Many of the servicemen who served there came home to a country that had heard little or nothing about their fight and their sacrifice. Many of the men returning from the Aleutians were met with blank stares and sometimes disbelief when they told their stories to the people back home. When I began work on this book, 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 was the government hiding? What happened to the American and Japanese soldiers? What became of the civilians caught in between? I set myself the task of writing the definitive, dramatic history of this chapter of the war.

But a funny thing happened along the way to completing that book, something that has happened to writers down through the generations – if they are so lucky. The story began to take on a life of its own. The characters came alive, asserted their hopes, fears and dreams, and the novel bloomed into something far more beautiful – a personal story of physical and existential survival. A story about the limits of the human spirit and the enduring power of love.

With this book, my goal is to transport readers to a stark, beautiful, and unforgiving landscape, then challenge them to ask themselves: How far would you go in search of the truth, or to honor a lost loved one? What are we willing to do to survive, or risk for the sake of love?

You choose to tell this story from two points of view. How did these characters come to you?

In reality, when journalists were expelled from Alaska, several of them tried to sneak back into this theatre of war. They were caught and sent home. From the start, I knew my story would follow a journalist who was sent home, but was determined to get back to the Aleutians, close to the action. 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 believes, 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?

What makes this book relevant today?

Great survival stories can tell us something elemental about what it means to be alive. This story is primarily a story of survival and devotion set against a history that has been lost in the popular culture. A history I hope to help reclaim. Great love stories can tell us something about the human experience, what it means to live with, without, and for one another… who we are in the presence or absence of love.