The Think Piece Interview: Blair Braverman

Blair Braverman is an author who lives up to her name. Brave in enduring crazy-cold temperatures in Norway and Alaska. Brave to take up dog-sled racing as a native Californian. Brave to endure sexual violence with strength. Brave to write it all down, which she did in her remarkable memoir Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North.

Hers is a book of exteriors and interiors. The exteriors are filled with thrilling dog-sled races and gorgeous descriptions of Arctic natural beauty. The interiors are dominated with the terror of being the only woman in male environments. Both are equally urgent and exquisitely drawn.

We called up Braverman, who resides in northern Wisconsin, and she spoke with us while cradling a new pup in her lap.

TP: Your book is a category in itself, with memoir, adventure, and dog-sledding. Did the book end up being the book you set out to write?

BB: When I was selling the book I pitched it as pure adventure. It was that I’m going out on the tundra with my dogs, get buried alive, and all these things that I thought would be marketable. But what I heard again and again from publishers was that we like the story but we don’t like the narrator. The reason that they gave was that there wasn’t something quite right in my depiction of myself. I ended up working with Ecco and I loved the editor I worked with there. I was resistant to writing a female emergence narrative, which is the language I heard thrown around about what they wanted from a young woman. I had all these reasons. If I were a young man they’d be like, Great, your adventure story of going into the north and looming over nature and that would be enough. Actually a friend of mine who’s a successful writer sort of rolled his eyes and said, No, if you were a man pitching this book everyone would just want the adventure and they would call it Cold.

TP: But that wouldn’t have been the whole story.

BB: It would be the book without anything personal in it. There was more to the story. I would have been hiding from the story, which how my being drawn to the north was intertwined with fears for my body, fears of sexual violence, trying to reclaim ownership of my body. Without that internal journey the book is flat. The adventures are not meaningful. The publishers were right. They were picking up on something. My agent called me and told me, Please Blair, if you just have a drug addiction or something that would help. (Laughs.) I thought, Oh my god, this is what people want from women and I was so resistant to it. But I ended up writing in one night a 40-page addendum to my proposal that talks about the sexual violence.

TP: And suddenly publishers were interested?

BB: Yes, but what I love about Ecco was that they were interested in the book without reading that addendum. They just wanted me to go into more depth. Once I gave them my addendum my editors were really good about how to weave all of this together. I still didn’t think I’d ever publish the book.

TP: You dived into painful territory in describing your relationships. Was that hard to do?

BB: The biggest challenge I had in terms of writing about those sort of things was not trusting my own memory. What I ended up doing was to talk almost exclusively about the reactions that I had to the events. I wrote very little about what actually happened. That was what I could trust, what I could remember. When I was with the host family, I knew I had practiced climbing out my window and I certainly had never had that impulse before. I knew what it felt like to be held down on the kitchen floor and to have the cold floor on my cheek and to register that as being wrong. I told that part of the story in such a different way than the rest of the book. It was so deeply internal.

TP: Did you rely exclusively on journals or did you also speak with people who were there?

BB: The only way I could have the confidence to put forward certain parts of my story was if I obsessively fact-checked everything. I relied on my journal. I did interviews with a lot of people I knew during the book. I dug up correspondence I had with friends during times in the story. I did all these things to verify that my memory was accurate. I’d call people up and say things like, You were my classmate from Norway whom I haven’t talked to since 10th grad. What do you remember about me? I would try not to give any cues. I’d say, Hey, what do you remember about that year? I really wanted their memories to be untouched by mine. I didn’t want to say, Hey, I remember this, do you remember it? I wanted to find out what was in their memories and where we overlapped.

It’s strange to have the book described as a memoir because the process was such a reportorial process. The conversations with the characters in Norway — the shopkeeper, the customers, all of those characters — they’re verbatim, I was taking notes. They all knew I was writing the book and I think they were interested in me because they wanted to be part of the book. That was a different process writing those sections than writing the traditional memoir sections where I was writing about things I remembered from years before.

TP: And everything lined up.

BB: It did. I’ve had one factual dispute after the book came out and that was about the kind of sandwich that I ate one day nine years ago. (Laughs.)

TP: Did you write the book while getting your MFA at Iowa?

BB: I wrote the proposal my second year at Iowa. I was 24 when I sold the proposal and I had just turned 28 when the book came out. Two years of that were full-time writing, from nine in the morning to five in the evening. There were intermittent trips to Norway and interviews here and there. In the middle of it I came down with Lyme Disease and was pretty much bedridden for nine months. The bulk of the book was written in that state. I would have two hours a day where I felt like I had the energy to sit up and type. I would do everything I could in that time then watch Netflix and try to read. It was tough. There were days I was incapable of getting myself a glass of water. I wonder how the book was impacted by my condition at the time. My mind wasn’t always quite there.

TP: Have you recovered from the Lyme?

BB: I’ve fully recovered from it. I have to be careful when I’m doing something when I could get too warm. Just yesterday I started another six-week course of antibiotics. So it’s something I monitor. It’s tricky because it’s invisible. I go on book tour and nobody knows that I go back and sleep for 20 hours. It’s been a very real part of this book process for me.

TP: Have you always had such a deep connection with dogs?

BB: I have although they can be different relationships. It’s funny though. People seem to think that I’m less connected to my working dogs than my pets. It’s different but the bond is still there. I have many dogs as pets and I love them. But I also love my sled dogs as I rely on them for my life out in the wilderness and they rely on me. That’s a certain kind of bond. It’s like we’re colleagues.

TP: You’re training for the Iditarod now, yes?

BB: I am.

TP: That seems like a full-time job in itself.

BB: I consider myself a writer first and a dog-sledder second. I’m more ambitious with my writing. I mean I really want to run the Iditarod. I really love long dog-sled trips, going hundreds of miles. But I’m less driven to success than I am with my writing, which just could be because I make my living through writing. If I want to be able to buy dog food, I need to be able to sell my work.

TP: What is it like racing dogs? It must be amazing.

BB: I just want to go as fast as possible and pass everybody, and the dogs feel the same way. I don’t know how they understand it, but they know what a race is and they do not want to be behind other dogs. It’s a totally different mood than when you’re out on a training run.

TP: What books influenced you in putting yours together?

BB: Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. Both include very detailed and dense journalism. Every day before I started writing I would read one page from one of those two books. I just wanted to absorb that attention to detail with the hopes it would influence my own writing.

TP: Once you decided to include your addendum to your proposal, how did you go about organizing your book?

BB: That was so fun for me. I went to Iowa for my MFA and Iowa is very concerned with high art and lyric essays. I learned so much about that kind of writing. But when I left I realized I had no clue about how to structure a narrative in a way that will drive people forward. What I started doing was reading all these blogs by people who write genre books: blogs by romance authors, science fiction authors, authors talking about how to write a narrative-driven book, how to keep the reader moving forward. That’s what they’re good at doing. They’re so good at it. I would take all these notes and think how can I apply all these weapons toward forward momentum in my weird, complex whale of a story. That was the biggest challenge but it was so fun. I would cut up the pages and move them everywhere. I remember one romance author wrote about heart-stopping moments. She suggested writers make a list of all the heart-stopping moments in your book, and she gave examples of heart-stopping moments — declarations of love, moments when your life is at risk, first kisses. She said to include them and write as little as possible in between them. So I made a list of all the moments that were exciting in my story and I wrote them out and put in the connective tissue. Granted, people sitting around a coffee table in a shop in Norway wasn’t on the list of heart-stopping moments, but for me it was.

TP: Your descriptions of gender intimidation were powerful to read. That comment at the end from your beloved friend Arrild almost killed me.

BB: I wrote that scene the day after it happened and at the time I didn’t know what would happen to our relationship. Arrild felt bad. The next day he called me over and was making really dumb jokes about bicyclists and I knew that was his apology. I was nervous about him reading the book. I wondered what he thought about me including not one of his prouder moments in the book. But he loved the book. His only objection was at one point I wrote that he doesn’t like talking on the phone and he maintains that he does. But I was nervous about putting that moment out there. I was nervous about putting it down on paper. I wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. Arrild is a very dear friend. He was my family there. I love him and still do. You don’t want to damage that but it was just part of the story. To me that indicated how that culture can bring that kind of attitude out of people. You don’t need to be a bad person to say things like that. It’s not about being a good person or a bad person.

TP: How did the writing of the book feel to you? Was it cathartic or painful or both?

BB: My next book is not going to be about trauma, I’ll say that. Not a chance. My mental health suffered a lot in writing it. It’s better now. It’s not easy to remember those things so vividly, to go back to those memories. The best feedback I’ve received is from men. I mean I’ve received wonderful feedback from women. But I got one message from a man who told me for the first time he understands his wife’s experience. I felt like in some ways I was writing the book for men, to make visible this thing that is so invisible, which is to go through the world in a woman’s body and how the world reacts to you.

When I really got into writing the meat of the book, I had recurring nightmares, which I had never had before. Multiple times a night for a good year. I had the same nightmare, that I was running up a flight of stairs and all these arms were trying to grab me as I ran by. I’d go to sleep and that’s what I would dream. It was absolutely related to what I was writing. So all day I’d be tired and that was the same time I had Lyme Disease. But that faded. It was terrible. It was terrible for me, it was terrible for my partner. I would wake up screaming many times a night. I had never had that happen before or since. It was a tremendous challenge to go through and I did not expect it.

But I’m definitely glad I wrote the book. All these things that used to have so much power over my life have become almost boring, in the best of ways. These things that have gripped me I can now talk about. I don’t doubt myself anymore because I went back and figured out what was true. There are so many people who have shared similar experiences and when I speak openly they speak openly. I feel like I’m over it. I feel like I had to write this book to process fear and sex and bodily integrity and now I’m done. I really am. I used to break out in a sweat if I was talking about these things and now it’s just interesting to me, not frightening. It felt like I had to walk through this fire and now I’m on the other side.

TP: What a good feeling.

BB: It is.

TP: What do you have coming next?

I want to do something on Preppers next, either a long-form story or a book if it grows into that.

TP: Preppers?

BB: There’s a lot of people preparing for the end of the world. I’m fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by what that fantasy is. I’m fascinated by if that’s driven out of fear or hope. I think in many ways it’s driven by socioeconomic status, people who have never been able to dig out of hardship dreaming of living in a world where they’ll be on top because they will be prepared. And I want to do a dog-powered book tour at some point.

TP: A dog-powered book tour?

BB: Go from event to event in a dog sled.

TP: That’s awesome.

BB: I hope it happens.

TP: Last question. How many dogs do you have?

BB: Twenty-one.

TP: That’s a lot of names to remember.

BB: All the sled dogs are named after literary journalists. We have one named Talese, one named Didion.

TP: Love that.

BB: It’s fun.

TP: Make sure you save Braverman for one.

BB: Wishful thinking.

— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing