An Interview with Alaskan Fiction Writer Stoney Compton

Leonard Wayne ‘Stoney’ Compton is a professional illustrator who specializes in writing about his longtime home of Alaska. As any fan of Jack London or Gary Paulsen can tell you, Alaska is an excellent setting for stories about grit and determination with a natural setting that is at once similar to and distinct from the high desert in any of your favorite westerns.

Currently, Stoney Compton has two alternate history books (Russian Amerika and Alaskan Republik, published by Baen) that depict the Native peoples of Alaska struggling to win independence from their Russian overlords in what would be the late Cold War era in our own timeline.  Unfortunately for the Alaskans, the United States is fractured and divided regionally into numerous countries, so political and military support is piecemeal and comes with many strings attached.  Not many books manage to balance the intricacy of a complex political backstory with an intimate look at the men and women on the ground quite as well as this pair of books.

In addition to his two commercially published books, Stoney Compton self-published the first of what will hopefully become a quadrilogy of historical mysteries set in early 20th century Alaska.  These books are/will be published under his full name and are replete with plenty of historical research and interesting characters.  Many professional writers can churn out a novel in four to six months, but by the first two chapters of Treadwell, it is clear that Mr. Compton put a great deal of time and research into the crafting of this novel.  While I acknowledge that the stigma against independent publishing is occasionally merited, Treadwell illustrates the possibilities and potential of indie works better than just about anything else I have read.  Personally, I cannot wait for the sequel.

Finally, Mr. Compton is also the writer of several standalone novels inspired by his time in Alaska, all of which can be found on his website or Amazon page.

Alright, that’s enough from me. On to the interview.

-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a writer?

I have been an artist most of my life and my current day job is being an illustrator for the Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) at NAS Corpus Christi, TX.

For a few years I had my own art studio in Juneau, Alaska where I painted, made prints (had my own etching press) as well as working as a freelance graphic artist. My bread and butter came from three contracts I had with various departments in the State of Alaska.

Economics in Alaska is different than in the Lower 48. In 1986 the price of oil dropped to $11/bbl. As oil money is what operates the state, it created a recession in Alaska. For the first time ever the SOA had to lay off people. In one day I had three calls from the departments I worked with – cancelling all my contracts.

If I don’t have a creative outlet, I can be a very difficult person to be around. I had to give up my studio and move all of my equipment into a large closet in the house we rented. There was no room for a studio and in addition I wound up being the caregiver for my two-year-old son and his three-year-old cousin. Both my wife and her sister (who was living with us) had jobs.

I had taken some writing courses in college but never gave writing that much time and effort as it interfered with my visual art. Suddenly time wasn’t really a problem. Then I stumbled across Writers of the Future, Volume 1 (I was and still am a voracious reader) and discovered the quarterly contest. After reading the stories, I decided I could write that well and went after it.

It took me longer than I had anticipated but I came in 2nd in the 4th Quarter of 1993 and my story is in WOTF, Volume IX. By then I had sold my first novelette to Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber for their Universe 1 anthology.

-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your books, and what tools have you found to be most effective?

Enjoyment is the fast answer. Along with that I hope they get a new perspective on whatever it is my story is about. In my alternative history novels, Russian Amerika and Alaska Republik, I wanted the reader to meet and understand the Athabascan People of Alaska’s Interior.

I worked for the Tanana Chief’s Conference, a social services organization out of Fairbanks, for three years in the 1970s and made friends there I still have today. The job was like an immersion in a foreign culture and I flat out loved it. I usually write about things that mean a lot to me.

In Level Six and Return to Kiana it starts with archaeology and ends with sociology as the framework for the rest of the story. Those are both firmly under the science fiction heading. Whalesong, which is the novel length version of the story I sold to Bob and Karen back in 1988, is about acceptance and understanding of viewpoints other than what one has previously held. It is also an anti-whaling treatise that points out the incredible intelligence of the cetaceans and what we might learn from them.

-Every author seems to have a unique path to publication. How would you describe your efforts to become a published author?

I spent 11 years writing a historical novel about Alaska. Treadwell, A Novel of Alaska Territory takes place from late 1915 to the spring of 1917. It came in at 187,900 words (it is also illustrated with period photos). I started querying agents and publishers. I believe I sent it out at least 100 times.

Agents and publishers alike all said it needed to be split into two novels – it was too long. I pointed out that historical novels are supposed to be long. Then they would note my lack of a track record and how nobody would publish that large of a book by an unknown.

After ten years of dealing with this “Catch 22” I started my own publishing company in 2011 and self-published the novel. The only problems with self-publishing print-on-demand trade paperbacks, or e-books, are marketing and distribution. Both are costly and incredibly time consuming, and frankly require knowledge that I do not have and am not sure where to obtain it without getting ripped off financially.

My first two novels, Russian Amerika and Alaska Republik were both published by Baen Books, so I have been “traditionally” published. I am grateful for that. However, the financial return for a writer is quite low and if the next manuscript you come up with does not elicit any interest with your publisher, you are out of luck. So I self-publish my work. I figure if I get enough work out there people will like one of my works and check out the rest. That’s why I still have a day job.

-As a writer with a day job, what tools have you found to be effective in balancing work, family time, and your writing career?

The day just isn’t long enough to do every thing I want to accomplish. There is work on the house that needs to be done. My job takes 42.5 hours out of every week. Colette, my wonderful wife, doesn’t ask for but appreciates time with her. Our two dogs like to get out and go for walks, which means Colette and I must go along.

The result is that I go straight from work to the library for any research I cannot accomplish on my computer, then home for dinner and perhaps a bit of writing prior to going to bed. Dinner on week nights is about all the time I spend with Colette. I am very lucky she understands my situation.

-How would you describe your writing process?

As pointed out in answering the last question, it is somewhat hectic. Once I have all my research ducks in a row and at least a semblance of an outline, I try to spend three to five hours writing each night. On week ends when I am well into the ms I will sometimes spend all day. However that is a luxury I do not get on a regular basis – not until I retire from my day job.

If I made a living income from my writing I would rise about 8:30AM and do what is needed through the day. Around 7PM I would start writing and go until 1 or 2AM. Frankly that sounds lovely to me.

-Research is obviously a very important part of writing historical fiction and alternate history. What methods do you use to make sure that your settings, characters, and events are realistic?

I love doing research. Prior to beginning Treadwell I spent 8 months at the Alaska State Historical Library researching the 1915-1917 era. It was the only way I could steep myself in the “moment” and have any hope of getting it right. The backbone of the novel is an investigation of a serial killer by a Pinkerton agent. That part is all true; it actually happened.

The liberties I took with the Pinkerton and local history is what made it fun. Treadwell is the first book of the Gastineau Channel Quartet. Gastineau Channel runs between Juneau on the mainland and Douglas Island. There used to be four towns there, now only two remain.

-Do you have any future projects that you wish to discuss at the moment?

Treadwell was just awarded a Seal of Approval by the IndePENdents, which is a non-profit group of volunteers who vet independent small press or self-published works for quality of execution and structure. They make no comment on the contents other than that. It is an honor to receive their seal.

I am currently researching for Book Two, Thane, The Assassination of Warren G. Harding, which takes place from late 1920 to August 1923.

Book Three, Douglas, The Great Conflagration, takes place from 1935 to late 1937.

Book Four, Juneau, The Plot to Kill FDR, takes place from 1941 to 1945 when Alaska Territory was a theater of war.

I’ll stop with what I’ve already said.

-Presently, most of this blog’s subscribers are on the ground floor of the writing/publishing business. What do you know now that you wish you knew starting out?

I wish I had realized how much I didn’t know. Writing is a lonely business and by the time you get something finished, whether it is a short story or a novel, you feel like you’ve paid your dues. In reality you have only started. I started writing late in life, 38, so I’ve tried to catch up. There are so many books in my head that it is both thrilling and frightening at the same time.

All I can say is put your heart into your work, make it as good as you can. Always remember that critiques or criticism is gold to a writer. You know how the story goes and what it says – but is that what the reader is getting or did you leave something out that you felt was obvious? I have four Beta readers who read my work and mark it up anywhere they feel I used the wrong word, came to the wrong conclusion, or just do not believe the character would respond in that manner.

I don’t have to do everything they say, nor do I have to make every change they point out. It is my book, but I want the person who buys it to get the best possible story I can deliver, so I ponder on those critiques at length and I thank those wonderful people for the insight I can’t possibly have since the work is my baby.

If you want to be a writer you have to have a very thick skin. However, anyone who attacks you rather than your work should be cut from the process like the cancer they are. Many writing groups fall victim to personality differences and lose the focus and support they were supposed to provide.

One Last Question: Do you see any parallels between your work as a visual artist and your work as a writer?

My initial impulse was to say, no, I use a different part of my brain when I write. But after seriously considering the issue I realize there is crossover. When I worked for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services I did a lot of images that conveyed non-linear mental images, “continuum of care” for example. Compared to that, describing a locale in a scene in a story was so easy I didn’t realize I was doing it. But I was.

In “Russian Amerika,” where I have Grig and another character outside Chena Redoubt at -40F, I pulled up memories of my years in Fairbanks and extrapolated visually from there. A good portion of Americans have never experienced that intense degree of cold and it was important to the story that I portray it in a manner to which all could relate.

In effect, I “painted” that scene with words from experience and memory. I don’t always get all five senses engaged in every scene, but I strive for that. The concept of the smell of chlorine wafting though a building elicits a much different mental image than would the bouquet of lilacs. So I do render an image in words somewhat like I would in a painting or print – but with visual art you have only visible texture and line to work with – writing allows you to use the full sensory range if you can convey the images as you experience them in your mind.

Thank you for taking the time to check in and offer such valuable advice to both my readers and myself.

Thanks for opportunity to chat with you and I wish you the very best of luck.

As always, I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it. If there are any authors that you would like to see interviewed or any questions that you would like to see asked, please feel free to comment or contact.  Here are some links for further reading.

More Author Profiles

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Alaskan Fiction Writer Stoney Compton

  1. Jaynie Martz

    Steve Gregor, I really enjoyed the indepth interview with author Stoney Compton. “any parallels between your work as a visual artist and your work as a writer?” is an insightful question. I met Stoney as a fellow illustrator, then discovered the ‘alternate history’ genre through his Russian Amerika novel. It was so descriptively realistic that I got the heebee geebees when reading of an invasion at a nearby amphibious base in Tidewater, Virginia. We have Stoney’s novels in hardcover and Kindle versions. Your interview now has me chomping at the bit to begin Treadwell, impeccably researched and written. Thanks for offering such an overall picture of how prolific and dedicated he is to his writing craft.
    And thank you both for your service!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s