Saturday, January 16, 2010

Canada Calling: Jessica Simon

Jessica Simon is a Yukon writer whose Markus Fanger adventure crimes fill a niche long overlooked in Canadian crime fiction, the portrait of crimefighting in a modern Yukon. All walks of Yukon life are reflected in the characters and the stories provide a glimpse into the certain something that makes Yukoners unique in Canada.

When they hear "The Yukon," many people are stuck in that Robert Service—Jack London—Sergeant Preston of the Yukon triangle. Does that have an effect on your writing?

Yes, I write with the ghosts of Jack London, Robert Service, Pierre Berton and sometimes his mother, reading over my shoulder, and kibbitzing. Pierre Berton tells me not to use a $10 word when a 50 cent one will do. Robert Service reminds me about the Law of the Yukon. And Jack London's silence of the North…not these days. In fact, this crowd influence me to such a degree that I've established a Klondike Writer's Tour featuring all three. Go to the tour’s web site for an idea of what the tour covers. It'll be on offer again in 2011.

While my work gets compared to Jack London's, which is a great compliment, I strive to show today's Yukon, not that of 100 years ago. My world is recovering from residential school, extracts gold at a rate far exceeding that of the gold rush, flies all over the place (hence the end to the silence of the north), and is far more complex than tales of the gold rush allow.

You use the phrase “magic and mystery” when referring to the Yukon. Tell us a little about that.

On the surface, although we have moved on from the last ice age and the gold rush, there are traces of it all over and they are easy to see - just look around at the striations in the rock up that mountainside that marks where waves from a prehistoric lake lapped at the shore. Oh, watch your step; you almost tripped over an artifact.

A little deeper, where Robert Service and Pierre Berton effectively ignored our first nation history, and Jack London didn't have the time in to do an insightful portrayal, I enjoy an integrated culture of first nations and westerners to enliven my stories.

Artistically, the Klondike literati left an indelible legacy for artists in the north. The Yukon currently holds the highest per capita proportion of cultural industry workers in the nation at 4.8%. Ontario has about 2%, British Columbia 3%. We also have Berton House administered by the Writers' Trust of Canada and Klondike Visitors Association to nurture the creative spirit nationwide.

Environmentally, we are being steamrolled by climate change and it’s going to affect us a lot more than the gold rush ever did. It's scary exciting to write about that. If I'm true to what I see, I can't help but reflect those changes in my stories. For example, an acquaintance in the MacKenzie Delta woke up one day to find a hundred foot band of silt with the consistency of quicksand deposited on his shore, making it impossible to reach the ocean. Warming trends had melted an iceplug and the subsequent wash dumped all the debris at his door. What if it had flushed out a skeleton, too?

What lit your creative spark to create your detective, Markus Fanger?

A different one from what instigated From Ice to Ashes. I announced to my mom when I was 11 that I'd be a writer.

Markus Fanger, the character, comes from the Yukon community. There are thousands of German-speaking Yukoners and for some reason German police officers—LKA, BKA, Bundesgrenzschutz, Militärdienst—love to holiday in the Yukon. I've met them all on canoe trips, driving dog teams, in the supermarket, and knowing them has given plausibility to Fanger's character.

His name is a mixture of my nephew's name and the German word for "to catch." For the longest time (through most of the first draft of Abenteuer Whitewater) Fanger was my husband, until the day he had a reaction my husband would never have. That was the day Fanger became his own man.

As a result, Fanger's adventures are not coming out chronologically. From Ice to Ashes is set in 2004, the manuscript I'm writing now spans 1991 to 2011 and a third Fanger adventure plays out at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul during Expo 2000.

PDD: Tell us a little about From Ice to Ashes.

In brief: While volunteering for the Yukon Arctic Ultra extreme race, it’s up to auxiliary constable Markus Fanger and a young offender to thwart a terrorist bent on destroying military targets in Alaska.

This started out as a fanciful adventure story inspired by the series 24. I thought it would be great to have Jack Bauer trying to prevent doomsday in the north. He’d be thwarted by crappy communications, bad weather, the unavailability of only one chopper in town which is booked for the rest of the summer with a mining camp… The possibilities were endless. But as usually happens, northern reality crept in and the whole community chipped in to create Fanger’s fictional adventure. The setting came from the Yukon Arctic Ultra, as well as the plot structure which mimics the race itself (pre-race/training, the race, post-race wrap-up). The stunts come from a site devoted to extreme sledding, and the characters from my community.

How does what Fanger faces solving mysteries in the north differ from him solving mysteries in, say, Red Deer, Alberta or Guelph, Ontario?

The Incidence of Coincidence is exceptionally high here. In real life a lot of crime in the Yukon is solved by bumping into the suspect, and/or listening to the rumour mill and moccasin telegraph. If I wrote how much coincidence there really is, no reader or publisher would believe it. I had the opportunity to confirm this once with Yrsa Sigurdardottir, an Icelandic crime writer who said that the same thing happens in Iceland.

Distance here is measured in hours, not miles or kilometres. So if someone says on page 19 that it takes 8 hours to get to Dawson and on page 137 its only 6, that's because the conditions improved between page 19 and 137. Yukoners are completely fixated on the weather, the sky, and the light.

We are the last frontier of the cutting edge of technology, and when technology meets the weather, life gets interesting. Via internet, on January 25 from 7-8 pm in Alberta, I'll be a guest at the Delia Public Library. However, if a raven shits on the power line it's game over. This same technological frustration pervades police work and a standing piece of advice here is don't trust your life to something that beeps or blinks. Everyone--cops, criminals, victims, witnesses have to be able to look after themselves, which creates a very personal toughness I sometimes take for granted but southerners find unusual.

The differences aren't just north/south. Only the Yukon is the Yukon. Alaska is different. Eastern and Western Arctic are different. So not only am I beholden to represent the north's uniqueness to southern readers, I'm also careful to make my books distinctly Yukon so someone in Yellowknife or Barrow can read my stories and find similarities and differences.

You’re involved with the Artic Ultra, which bills itself as the world's coldest and toughest ultra Marathon for Mountain Bikers, cross-country Skiers and Runners. The Ultra itself is taking a break this year. Tell us what you’re doing instead.

Since the Ultra's inception in 2002, I've been involved either organizing or staffing a checkpoint at Dog Grave Lake, a remote location - off road, off grid, off line.

Now the Yukon Quest, which this year runs from Fairbanks starting February 6, has asked us to make our Ultra talents available to them as hosts of the Scroggie Creek Checkpoint on the Quest trail. This site is in the middle of the Black Hills, the same ones Jack London wrote of occasionally. While our communications possibilities are limited, readers can follow the race through our electronic checkpoint. See you, virtually, at Scroggie Creek!

To learn more about Jessica, her books and her interests, visit her web site.

All photographs ©Jessica Simon and used in this blog with her permission.


Janel said...

What a fabulous interview! I have never been to the Yukon, but it sounds like a very interesting area, especially to base a series on.

Jessica, have fun with the race and good luck with your series!

Sandra Parshall said...

Fascinating stuff, Jessica! I've always enjoyed stories in which the landscape and weather play a major part in shaping the characters and their fates, and you've brought the Yukon (about which I previously knew nothing) into focus for me. I'll certainly read your work.

Julia Buckley said...

These are amazing pictures, and a fun interview, Sharon and Jessica!