Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

Visit the website.


--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

Join us in celebrating the book launch of Our Perfect Wild


How far would you go to save the things you love? 

KaylenOPW Covere Johnson-Sullivan will be discussing her new book (with Ray Bane) Our Perfect Wild published by the University of Alaska Press. Joining her via Skype will be Ray Bane, co-author and the subject of this biography about a couple whose passions led them to love and fight for the treasures of the Far North.

UAA Consortium Library, Room 307

December 3, 2015

6-8 p.m.

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A Poet’s Unusual Neighbors

On the heels of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it seems appropriate to review a book that I recently finished by a poet whose work I admire. Next Door to the Dead is a reflection on living in an old country church just outside Louisville, Kentucky. Next to the church is an antiquated cemetery. Driskell takes to visiting the “neighbors” which is the basis for this collection of poems. I have heard Kathleen read her poetry aloud and her words can bring a lump to my throat and at times makes me laugh.

I was reading Next Door to the Dead when my father grew ill.  I flew to Portland to help the family with Dad’s care and left the book behind. In the crisis that ensued, I forgot all about the book and Driskell’s poems.

Each day, as I drove to visit Dad, the road I took passed by two old cemeteries. Huge maple and oak trees stood sentry over the headstones. The moss-covered grave markers listed with age. I tried not to look at the graves as I drove past, tried to look instead at the autumn brilliance of maple leaves against the blue sky. I did not want to contemplate the inevitable.

Then my father died. And a few days later, our family stood at a different cemetery. This one looked more like a golf course – neat, sunny, and freshly mowed.  We left the service both numb and wailing inside with some of Dad’s last words emblazoned in our minds. “Be brave,” he had said. What other choice did we have?

I returned back home to Alaska and suddenly Next Door to the Dead became a whole other realm of reading. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish the book. It seemed too soon, too raw to be gallivanting around a graveyard with words. Aren’t some things better left to the quiet?

I picked up the book anyway. Driskell’s poetry is accessible and earthy and, as her poems have in the past, the words gave me pause to consider the beauty and nuance of language. Every word of this book felt like the thump of my heart. Her words brought people to life, gave substance to names and dates, and created a context around lives that had long since passed.

Driskell had been told on purchasing her home that the old cemetery had fallen out of use. So she was astonished when she came home from shopping to discover a hearse and a congregation of mourners next door.  In the poem “Living Next to the Dead Acre” she writes:


… I slid in behind the long row of cars

      and parked as if I belonged there. I did

My best to hush the rustle of grocery store bags,

      to hush my kid trying to kick free

From his car seat. He bleated to be

      let loose, to be allowed to join that party.


The poems offer meditations that weave the past with the present and the living with the dead.  She also discusses visitors, including birds and deer and the man who mows the grass.

There are poems about the miller’s wife, about the slave girl, the Civil War infantryman, the snake handler, and the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who buried his poetry with his wife. Bereaved, she had died of an overdose following the birth of their stillborn child. Later Rosetti dug the poetry up again.


Rosetti stood by the fogging window

and watched the wet street

for the men’s return. Despite

The storm, it was a good day

For those who had been parted.

While all know the lesson that life must go on, a few had learned

so will love, and others

had learned, so must art.


Rather than finding Next Door to the Dead morbid, even during my own time of grieving, I re-discovered Driscoll’s gift of turning a phrase that packs a wallop while maintaining a sense of humor. She lets us laugh at ourselves even in the shadow of death. That may be one of the best gifts of this book. In her poem “Infant Daughter, Marcus 2 Years Old, Myra 8 Days” she writes:


Among these tiny grave markers, I think of my own

little terrorists, my budding suicide bombers.

They shriek against inoculations, squirm, refusing

spinach on their plates, try to swallow marbles …

Every day, with such joy, they threaten to blow apart my heart so utterly. 


In any collection of poetry, I find poems that I connect with deeply and a few whose resonance eludes me. But in this slim volume Next Door to the Dead, I found myself finishing the book and then starting again from the beginning.

It was but a small bravery to pick up this book just a few weeks after my father’s funeral. But the courage and humor of Next Door to the Dead made it worth the persistent lump in my throat.


For more information about Kathleen Driskell and her poetry, please visit  her website at:


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Writing Through Writer’s Block

As a cub reporter right out of high school, my first newspaper editor threatened to tear up my notebook if I did not compose directly from my scribbled notes to the computer. No second drafts. Just get the story done by deadline. I soon came to love that fast-paced, adrenaline rush of getting a breaking story on the front page by the next morning’s paper.

Twenty-something years later when I finished my undergraduate degree at Vermont College, it was hard to break the habit of racing to the finish line. However, my first faculty mentor, Matthew Goodman, was as exacting as that newspaper editor. Except for one thing. He absolutely insisted that his students take the time to write about the process of writing itself.

At first I resisted – it seemed like a waste of time. Here’s how it worked:  As I sat with a blank page (screen) in front of me, struggling how to carefully craft that perfect first sentence to convey a thought in the most elegant language possible, I had another page (computer document) nearby. On this second page, I wrote to Matthew what it was that I intended to write or what I struggled with as I wrote it.computer

Let’s say the essay was about carrying a gun in Alaska. I wrote to Matthew that I wanted to write about my ambivalence of carrying a firearm and how it changed over time. I wrote about how it bothered me that bears had teeth and claws and how moose had hooves to protect their young but I pretty much had nothing. So when my sons were little, I took a gun along on our adventures in Alaska’s backcountry, even though the weight of it felt ominous in my pack. The next thing I knew, I had written entire passages in my letter to Matthew – passages that I could lift, place and revise on the blank pages that still awaited that elusive, perfect first sentence.

It is like writing a letter to your best reader. “Let me tell you about …”  In that letter you  get all the literary throat clearing out of the way and then somewhere around paragraph three or maybe page four, you find the beginning of the piece. Writing about the writing can be away to break up a mental log-jam, beginning with describing “Here’s the problem …” or “I’m just not understanding …” It can also be a reflection on not knowing what to write next. “Just what am I supposed to do with these unruly characters anyway?”

The exercise is not the place for literary prowess – just a place to get the fingers moving and the mind in gear. Pour out the work’s frustrations and fears and challenges. This process led me to some unexpected surprises in my writing. Most of all it slowed me down to really think and dig deep.

Writing about writing was so fascinating that I continued on to Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program where this process was examined and refined even further. Several outstanding faculty mentors offered that same experience of having a “best reader” to be supportive while still demanding that I slow down and go deeper. To this day, my former mentors are the readers I imagine as I attempt to get unstuck in some writing challenge. I hardly need to send the email or letter – just the writing helps clear the way.

He doesn’t know it, but Matthew is often still my best audience when I write. He’s completely unlike me – male, Jewish, a city-dweller from New York – but he is curious and sympathetic and interested in my world. And he is exacting in a good way. He refuses sloppy story telling. He wants DETAILS. So I tell him about it and just by “listening,” he helps me find connections and complexities.  And he helps me to lighten up. Have some fun.

[Along with Matthew and other fine mentors at Spalding, I’d like to thank Luke Wallin who recently worked, not as an imaginary reader, but as a real and fine editor while I worked on Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane’s Journeys in the Fate of the Wild North (University of Alaska Press, Spring 2016). This faculty mentor from Spalding offered exceptional support as we exchanged emails over the project. Many thanks Luke!]




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A Perfect Title

Finding the best title for a book has always been a bit of a puzzle and most book authors I know have stories to tell about how their books were ultimately christened. So how do you come up with three or four words that somehow encapsulate what took some 70,000 to expound in the first place?

One of the first surprises I learned is that the title you begin with is often not the title that that winds up being published. There is the “working title” and then the final title that appears on the book cover. For example, the working title of A Tender Distance was originally This Caribou Season. I chose it because that Alaska fall hunt was an important ritual of my sons’ growing-up years. This was a memoir about their childhood and their “migration” from boyhood to men. To me it seemed perfect. But the editor, Sarah Juday at Alaska Northwest Books, suggested that I reconsider. The book wasn’t really about hunting and the title didn’t convey anything about my sons or our relationships.
It took months of scribbling on the backs of napkins, dozens of conversations with writer friends, and finally, a mentor friend, Richard Goodman, from Spalding University’s MFA in Writing read the book and said, “This is not a book about your sons. It is a book about you.”
My Lutheran, Lake Wobegon sensibilities chafed a little at any notion that I was trying to call attention to myself.  This was about my children, not me … but deep down I knew Richard was right.  The book was a memoi

r about motherhood. And then one evening, in that luminal space between sleep and wakefulness, the words “tender distance” perched in my thoughts. There it was. Those were the words that best conveyed that tension between a mother and her sons as they left their childhoods behind.

Sarah subsequently helped write a subtitle with “searchable” words for readers looking for a particular kind of book. Adventure. Sons. Alaska. The full title of the book grew into:

I went through a similar exercise recently with my forthcoming book (Spring 2016) from the University of Alaska Press. This is a biography of Ray and Barbara Bane whose conservation work in Alaska helped draw the lines on the map of Alaska’s treasured public lands. The working title of the book was Gathering Echoes: The Life and Times of Ray and Barbara Bane. Ray and I talked at length about this title.  It embraced his desire to collect the stories and preserve the old ways of the Native elders whose relationship with the land was reverent and resourceful.

Again the editor, James Engelhardt at University of Alaska Press, asked us to reconsider. While the working title honored Native elders, it drew no attention to the stories of Ray and Barbara as a team or the formidable fight they undertook to save wild places in Alaska.

This time I was stumped. Ray and I came up with dozens of possibilities, narrowed them down to two or three and submitted them—only to hear that they still weren’t quite right.  James suggested an exercise: Take some phrases in the book that reflect some of the book’s themes and see if they work; if not, mix them up and see what happens. Here was the list James offered to play with:

A Boy’s Dream, A Man’s Soul
A World Apart
From West Virginia to Arctic Plain
And A Heated Debate Ensued
The Fate of the Wild North
Furthest/Farthest North Park Ranger
A Place Remote and Sacred
Just Add Another Million Acres
I Hate Your Guts
The Feds Can Go To Hell
To Save the Frontier
Last Chance To Do Things Right the First Time
It Had Been Perfect
Ray, You Got Problems
Citizens of the Natural World
To Thank the Land

At first glance these phrases by themselves seemed strange. However, by playing with the words, much like playing with the letter tiles in a game of Scrabble, we came up with:

Our Perfect Wild: 
Ray and Barbara Bane’s Journeys in the Fate of the Far North

The word “Our” holds the concept of Ray and Barbara as a couple; “Perfect” conveys an Eden quality (with the potential of a fall); and “Wild” reflects all that they cherished and tried to preserve.

It was an interesting exercise and I will use it again when the time comes to name a book. As in all revision, the exercise begins with a certain level of letting go—especially when the working title seemed ideal. But as often happens, writing will take on a life of its own and surprise you.

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All in the Family

Mom and girlsMemoir is a tricky business because there’s always someone in the family who doesn’t want the story told and others whose recollections don’t line up with your own memory. To write from personal experience can feel like working your way through an emotional minefield. As Anne Lamott so aptly described in her book about writing, Bird by Bird,“your mental illnesses arrive at your desk like your weirdest most secretive relatives. And they pull up their chairs in a semi-circle around your computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.”

In my last blog, I wrote about my father’s Alzheimer’s disease, my parent’s turbulent relationship and the power of story. I wrote through tears as I remembered my father who was, in so many ways, my first and best hero. I wrote because it NEEDED to be written. But once finished, I had to wonder how my mother might view the piece. The burden of caring for my father is growing increasingly challenging each day. Would this only add to her sadness? A friend suggested letting Mom see it first and then decide whether to share it with the world. When I looked at the piece in this light, I immediately saw a sentence that needed changing. Already, I was filtering the work through Mom’s eyes.

I sent it off to her and she was quick to reply. She had only one suggested change beyond the one I made earlier. So I made that change too. Purists might disagree with my methodology here—it is memoir, after all, which by some definitions means no-holds-barred disclosure. But I had no reason NOT to make this change. It didn’t diminish the story and it offered Mom a sense of dignity in allowing their story to be told.

I’ve written three biographies and a memoir, and I can tell you that the memoir was by far the most challenging. I was emotionally tied to not only to the writing but to the people I was writing about.

In A Tender Distance, I wrote about raising my sons in Alaska. Mostly it is a coming of age story of a mother who is being shaped by the landscape as much as her growing boys. My sons were in their late teens when I wrote the book and I offered, haltingly, to let them read it. But frankly, they weren’t all that interested. When I told them the book would be published by Alaska Northwest Books, they shrugged. “Cool.” After publication one son made the remark that he remembers one of the scenes in the book quite differently. No other comments. Zilch.

I was surprised and taken aback, however, when a friend who appears in the book took me to task about something I had written about her. I spent all that energy wondering about my family and the one who was hurt wound up being someone completely unexpected.

Writing strikes a nerve. Like the blog about my father, A Tender Distance NEEDED to be written. More than a decade after its writing I understand more clearly why. My fears about my family’s opinion of the book were tied into the fears that framed the book itself, the fear—no, terror—of loss. The sputtering irony is that I lost them anyway. I lost the boys as they grew up and became men. I lost the marriage to divorce. In the intervening years, I’ve discovered that our fiercest love cannot stop the march of time; our clenched grasp cannot conceal the deepest truths.

Which brings me to writing about family: When I sit down to write I close the door to those weird relatives (imagined or otherwise) that clamor to criticize. In that barricaded solitary space, I write out of fervor and a burning need to understand something. I don’t write out of some (laughable) notion of imparting wisdom—I write in hopes of gaining it.

Only after the essay has become the best that I can write it, do I consider the life this writing might have outside my self-imposed seclusion. Only then do I consider what to change, what to leave in, and who the story might impact. Then, if I do make changes I ask, why am I making that change? For them? For me? For the good of the work? Whatever the answer, I try to be aware of the motives behind those decisions. And I challenge myself to write as honestly as I know how.

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Eagle River. She has found adventure on Mt. McKinley, the Chugach Mountains and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; Portrait of the Alaska Railroad; and Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.


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