Exploring the world with Nan Elliott
by Sherrie Simmonds
Nan Elliott, Alaska Press Women’s March speaker, kept the APW audience engaged and entertained with stories of her experiences. The author, cruise ship lecturer, assistant professor, journalist, and filmmaker, having worked on assignments around the world, for an Alaskan governor, the White House, and the federal government, says she has “no Marshall Plan for life. I’ve just taken opportunities, and I’m curious.”
Years ago a friend told Nan, “I use my writing to explore myself; you use yours to explore the world.” But that really wasn’t her plan. A history major, she turned in the final 60-page, comprehensive college paper and rode off on her bicycle, vowing never to write again.
Nan came to Alaska to teach the Inupiat Eskimos to swim. Deciding to stay in Alaska, the only job she could land was on the sports desk of the “Anchorage Times.” Everyone else told her to come back when she had more experience. (She wondered how she was going to get experience when no one would hire her.) She recalls Mike Doogan as the editor, walking around whacking on typewriters to get the stories by deadline. “It didn’t matter what they looked like; they just needed to be on time!”
Her recollection of writing her first sports article was not a fond memory. The reporter rushed in with the details of the game (several days after the fact, since there was no fax, e-mail, etc.). She wrote what she thought was a terrific article; but when she handed it to the editor, he hollered, “You’ve never written for a paper before, have you?!” “Well, yes, but just feature articles.” (She had put the score and winner at the end of the story.) That convinced her to hurry to the library to read up on how to write for a newspaper.
While at the Times, one of the sports writers took her on several fishing trips. She was impressed with his ability to roll a cigarette with one hand and continually asked how he’d acquired the skill. He finally confessed he’d spent time in jail. She pictured a few days for a misdemeanor and later learned he’d actually served six years in San Quentin for armed robbery. “This is one of those things I didn’t tell my mom,” she said.
After a year and a half, Nan “retired” from the paper to explore Alaska.
Upon returning to Anchorage, there was no job waiting. She went to work for the National Park Service, where she was assigned to work for one of the 12 “key men.” This was in 1974-75, and says she never thought to question why there weren’t any “key women.”
When that job finished, she went to work for Governor Jay Hammond in the Alaska Public Forum, a grassroots forum for people to talk about issues such as land, oil and gas, and subsistence. They would analyze issues through interpreters and translators. It was during this time she learned how TV could help tell the story.
After three or four years, the White House decided to hold a huge conference on public participation, so they came to Alaska for training. When the staff went back to D.C., she was asked to go along to help out with the conference, which led to being hired as part of a team to study the living conditions in the coal mines of Appalachia. The two towns she was assigned to in West Virginia and Kentucky were infamous, making Esquire’s list of 10 Worst Cities that year. She learned that the Hatfields and McCoys were real people. “It’s a totally different culture; there are a lot of fundamental religious and snake handlers who worked in the coal mines.” Nan said she had everything on tape. “Tape was great, because they have wonderful expressions, and I could get it just right. They’d take you clogging and to see their moonshine still.” From those interviews and photos, she wrote The American Coal Miner.
“Retired” again, Nan traveled to India, where she received a news assignment to cover Ray Genet’s death on Mt. Everest. She is still working on an “ancient book project” with notes from that assignment.
Returning again to Alaska, she went to work for the University, disseminating information about science and the arctic to the rest of the world through radio and television. They put equipment into villages, giving many of them access to TV for the first time. It had quite an influence. A resident of Norvik, mimicking a robbery he had just seen on Dallas, donned a ski mask, went next door, held up his neighbor, went home, and sat back down to watch TV. He had no idea he had just committed a felony.
She learned that writing scripts is “like bad writing.” She thinks of it as poetry or “economy of words.” When she writes a script, she uses pencil and paper (rather than a computer) to remind herself to keep it short. She became fascinated with working in film – the words, the sounds, the sound effects, and the visuals.
She told the rapt APW audience how she spent considerable time perfecting the dialogue for her first script and felt really quite good about it. Then just before sending it off, she scribbled in the left-hand side [set directions]. When the editor received it, he told her the script stunk, but the left-hand writing was interesting.
When the money for that project dried up, she wrote books (I’d Swap My Old Skidoo For You: A Portrait of Characters on the Last Frontier and Alaska guidebooks). When she initially spoke to the Seattle-based editor about doing “Alaska’s Best Places,” Nan told her, “We’re not going to tell you our BEST places; but we’ll tell you our second best.” Nan never did meet the editor but remembered a humorous phone conversation with her. The editor told Nan she was concerned about a proposed writer, who would be reviewing restaurants in rural Alaska. The editor had taken her to lunch and was appalled that the woman didn’t know one of the words on the menu. Nan asked about the word, and it turned out to be chevre. Nan said, “I don’t think you need to worry. The odds of her running into a foreign word in a restaurant she would be reviewing in Alaska are quite remote. . .maybe Deluxe and that would be in reference to a burger.”
Nan and her co-writers decided the book needed a little humor, so they came up with a section called the Best Places to Die. “Initially the editor was not impressed; but it got left in.”
Nan, having written a history guide for National Geographic and currently working on an article for National Geographic Magazine, says she’s finding the process for each quite different. With the book, she says, “They just want you to go out and do it. With the magazine, everyone wants to talk to you all the way up the line. The process for an article takes SO much longer.” She obtained the latest assignment because of the photographer’s recommendation; but she said that’s a death curse with some editors who don’t want to hire a “team.”
When asked how it was to co-author a book, Nan said they worked it out quite well. Each writer had expertise in different areas of the state, so they just divided the state in half. When it came time for the acknowledgments, her name was, alphabetically, the first of three (along with her co-writer and the photographer). The bibliography now lists: author, Nan Elliott, et al., so she receives emails from her co-writer signed et al.
In answer to how she began lecturing on cruise ships, Nan explained that 15 or 16 years ago her brother-in-law, a naturalist, was asked to speak on a small ship, the Exploration. He couldn’t make it and recommended her, saying she could keep talking all the way back to Anchorage. On her way to board the ship, she boned up by reading five books on Alaska. She continues to “talk”—but only on her choice of select summer cruises.
Nan Elliott’s enthusiasm and humor were contagious. She is the epitome of one who makes the most of every opportunity and lives life to the fullest.