“I felt like I had something to add to that community of Alaskan writers that are trying to describe this very unique vibe that’s happening up here in Alaska,” Fairbanks author Rob McCue said, describing what drives his writing. “I felt like I could bring a little more of a gonzo element to Alaska journalism.”
For McCue, this entailed taking an unusual approach in his recently published essay collection, “One Water,” which explores the interaction between the sometimes depressing Golden Heart City and the vast wilderness that surrounds it, and how residents are forged by this dichotomy.
“The book always wanted to be about Interior Alaska. The land and the nature primarily and the people I’d taken these trips with,” McCue explained. But he also wanted to share his urban experiences. “If the book’s about Interior Alaska, it’s got to have Fairbanks in there.”
Expanding on this, he added, “All this space informs who we are and informs our whole community. To be able to go out and dive into that and come back to a community where that’s what everybody’s doing. That’s why so many people are here. The access to that that we have here. There was a non-serious aspect to that. We’re not responsible people. We’re going to have a good time.”
Originally from Kansas, McCue wandered north in 1988, looking for a few months of adventures. But like so many, he felt an immediate sense of belonging he’d never previously experienced. Choosing to stay, he soon migrated into Fairbanks, where he’s lived ever since.
Drawn to the outdoors, McCue began driving taxi cabs in the early 1990s, a job that offered him the flexibility to leave on extended trips whenever the whim hit. (He’s also worked as a big game guide in the Brooks Range.) McCue’s experiences driving people around the streets of Fairbanks are recounted in three vividly drawn essays included in “One Water.”
“When I started driving cab, that was a shocker. I’m an upper middle class kid and I’m all of a sudden thrown into some pretty intense situations,” McCue recalled, adding, “I’d take the mayor home from the Elks, and then I’d pick up some homeless guy at the park across from the Marriott who stunk and was wasted and paid me in change. In my mind it brought everybody together.”
This sense of egalitarianism is what he seeks to convey in his writing. He takes in the entirety of the people who pass through his stories, be they blue collar workers from the North Slope, Gwich’in residents of Arctic Village, friends he traverses the backcountry with, neighbors or others, uncovering their core humanity while compassionately recognizing the flaws that make them who they are.
“We all come from these bizarre circumstances that nobody else can appreciate,” McCue said. “I don’t know that someone who went to college and has a good job is any more interesting than somebody that came from humble beginnings and figured out some way to get by. That is the humanity I’m trying to get at. Just because this guy lives on the street or that guy has a drinking problem, you don’t know what that person went through. You don’t know what that person’s experience was that caused them to become this person that did things this way.”
He added, “I feel an affinity to the folks who maybe don’t appeal to the types of people that read a lot. Because I am or have been one of those people.”
McCue began writing in grade school, composing short stories for fun. “They were pretty terrible,” he recalled. But he kept at it. A few years after coming to Alaska he read Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” which helped him focus his ideas.
“She advocated putting a lot into your journals and using your journals to practice your craft,” he said. Goldberg encouraged writing as much as possible and for doing it years as a means of developing one’s voice. “I really bought into that.”
Uncomfortable with condensing his stories into magazine article sized pieces, McCue stuck to his vision of writing longer essays. He also befriended the late poet and creative writing instructor Derick Burleson, who helped him make the needed connections to bring his work to print.
One such contact was Fairbanks poet Peggy Shumaker, editor of the Boreal Books Series, an imprint of Red Hen Press, which eventually published the book. Shumaker was impressed with his raw talent.
“When I first encountered Rob’s prose, I knew his work was something special,” Shumaker said. “I had lived in Fairbanks for three decades, but his writing showed me parts of my town that were completely foreign to me, hidden and mysterious. By alternating chapters that take place in wilderness with chapters that take place in his taxicab, Rob offers his readers high energy and fresh perspectives.”
Shumaker connected McCue with Utah-based editor Dawn Marano, who told him he needed to work his own perspectives into his prose. “Her immediate thought was we needed to personalize the book more,” McCue recalled. She gave him writing assignments, and some of the material that resulted found its way into the book.
What emerges in “One Water” is a wide-ranging look at Interior Alaska’s starkly contrasting urban and wilderness realities, told through the eyes and experiences of McCue and his passengers, coworkers, and cohorts.
McCue, who had never been published prior to the book’s release, is continuing to write, and said he’s started experimenting with fiction. But the one constant regardless of style is Alaska and its people, which remain the focus of his work.
“I was not a fully-formed person when I moved to Alaska,” he said. “So that’s what I’m attracted to when I’m driving folks in the cab. Seeing how this state informed how you are today. And how is your perspective on our condition here right now, on our community here, how is that relevant to a bigger discussion?”
Rob McCue will be giving a reading from “One Water” at 7 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Bear Gallery in the Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts at Pioneer Park. fairbanksarts.org/literary-arts/literary-readings.
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 email@example.com.
Correction: Peggy Shumaker's name was misspelled in earlier versions of this story.