Fairbanks author Paul Greci has explored a range of ideas in his young adult novels. But several commonalities underlie each. The first is that all of his books are set in Alaska which, he explained, “lends itself as being a really good canvas to put a story on. It’s a place where you can use the landscape as a character.”
The second theme is survival. In each of his books, the lead character or characters are unexpectedly thrown into situations where they have to fend for themselves. “I’m a big fan of survival stories, both fiction and nonfiction,” Greci said. “Since I love reading these survival books, writing them turned into kind of a natural thing.”
The third element, however, is perhaps the most personally important to him. Having spent his professional career working with children who are reluctant to read, he knows these kids need to be hooked in by realistic characters, a steady flow of action, and page turning cliffhangers. “When I write a story,” Greci said, “I keep those readers in mind.”
This approach has garnered Greci national acclaim. His first novel, “Surviving Bear Island,” was a Junior Library Guild Selection in 2015. Set on a rain-swept island in Prince William Sound, it explored how its teen protagonist kept himself alive for weeks after a kayak accident left him marooned and dependent on his wits and limited skills.
“The Wild Lands,” which came out last year, is a post-apocalyptic tale set in a future Alaska devastated by climate change and governmental breakdown, wherein the lead characters wander across the state, seeking refuge from dangers human and otherwise.
His latest, the just published “Hostile Territory,” is contemporary and injects political as well as survival themes into its plot.
“It has a geopolitical aspect to it that’s sort of inspired by current political times,” Greci said. “This is a story about what can happen when you distance yourself from your allies around the world.”
He added, “It is set in the wilderness, and it is about four teens and their journey in the wilderness. But it also has a bigger thematic story that isn’t just a wilderness survival story. It’s kind of a state and country survival story.”
Greci grew up in South Bend, Indiana, but it was a high school trip to Montana that spurred his love for wilderness. “That was the first time I had been out West,” he recalled. “It was at that time that the light was turned on to all these big open spaces. That piqued my interest and I went back there backpacking a couple of times.”
Greci attended college at Indiana University Bloomington, earning degrees in English and psychology. But it was while working a summer cannery job on the Kenai Peninsula in 1984 that he decided Alaska would be his home. After graduation, he returned north in 1986 for a summer volunteer position at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
“I was out in the field for about 5 1/2 months,” he said. “I got to see amazing things. Ten thousand walrus hauled out on the beach.”
In 1990, Greci settled into Fairbanks, where he has lived ever since. He’s earned several teaching credentials from the University of Alaska. He has worked in education during most of his time in the golden Heart City, including 15 years with the Youth Education Support Services program operated by Family Centered Services of Alaska, where the writing bug bit him.
Greci was working with teenagers who were falling behind in school because they struggled with reading. He would find books that would hold their attention so they could discover the joys of reading. These kids also needed to develop better writing skills, and to help them accomplish this goal, Greci would read novels to them, and at a critical point in the story, pause and assign them the job of writing the story forward themselves.
“I was doing those assignments with my students, and that is how I discovered that I like fiction writing,” he said.
During this same period, Greci attended education conferences where he kept bumping up against publishing industry representatives. That was when, he asked himself, “Why not me? Why can’t I be published too?”
In 2007, Greci left his job and devoted himself to writing, approaching it as a full time job for the next four years. Each day he would get up and write. “I had an exponential learning curve on how to write novels,” he said.
While he didn’t get a book published during this period, the hard work paid dividends down the road. “Sticking with it and showing up at my desk to write is what made the difference between being published and not being published.”
Eventually Greci went back to work in the schools and is now a special education resource teacher at Pearl Creek Elementary. Meanwhile his writing career has also blossomed. “Surviving Bear Island,” which he worked on for nearly a decade, was well received. And after years of banging on the doors of publishers, he suddenly found himself in demand.
2020 promises to be Greci’s biggest year yet. In addition to “Hostile Territory,” this summer “Follow the River,” his sequel to “Surviving Bear Island,” will also be published. Greci said working on multiple books at once keeps his creativity flowing. “I think it’s good to have more than one project to work on. Because sometimes you’re maybe blocked on one project, but you have another one to work on.”
Greci has a couple of other books in the works, although he hasn’t found publishers for them yet. But they’ve taken on an unintentionally immediate relevance. “Not that this was planned,” he said, “but both of these novels have a quarantine aspect in them.”
Whatever the future holds, one goal remains constant for Greci. His love for his home. “I hope that my stories connect kids to the enormity, isolation, excitement, and beauty of the Alaskan wilderness.”
Paul Greci can be found online at https://paulgreci.wordpress.com/?fbclid=IwAR3V1D4s3P2KQEnLgjlDFkFgOH7x5gB2b9gigMT55CYTrH4EKTYOSpOnjdg
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.