Heather Lende describes her first three books about life and work in Haines as "love letters" to that Southeast Alaska community, but her most recent work strikes a different tone, drawing inspiration from a dramatic term on the Haines Borough Assembly.
Published by Algonquin Books on Tuesday, "Of Bears and Ballots" is a 287-page first-person account of Lende's 2016-19 term on the Assembly, and the recall election that erupted in the middle of her term.
"Of Bears and Ballots" is Lende's first book to be published since 2015, when she released "Find the Good," which chroniclses her time — and lessons learned – as an obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News.
Lende's second book, "Take Good Care of the Garden and Dogs," came out in 2010, four years after the 2006 release of her New York Times bestselling book about Haines, "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name."
On the release date of her latest book, the Daily News spoke by phone with Lende, who explained that tumultuous local politics is at the book's core.
"Haines is always very interesting in terms of politics, and I found myself in the middle of a lot of it," Lende said. "And I thought, 'You know, if I was going to run for office again, ("Of Bears and Ballots") would have been a good book for me to read before I got started."
After 37 years spent in Haines, Lende is no stranger to community involvement, having served on the local school board and planning commission.
Her motive to fill a seat on the Haines Borough Assembly was derived from the state of national politics in 2016, as the country waited to hear the results of the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.
"I thought, at the time, that we were going to have our first woman president," Lende said, referring to Clinton. "And wouldn't it be cool to be part of a bunch of women that were all changing the shape of American politics? And we know how that went."
Regardless of the broader results of that year's election, Lende found herself filling a three-year seat on the Haines Borough Assembly.
A year later, in 2017, Lende was one of three members of the Haines Borough Assembly to face a recall election, along with fellow assembly members Tom Morphet and Tresham Gregg.
In April of the same year, the recall was voted down and Lende finished her term in 2019.
"If it hadn't been for the recall, I don't know if there would have been a story," she commented.
"I really didn't think that there would be a book in it," Lende said. "... There's a lot of drama and a lot of inspiring stories. Then there's also lessons for our times, because we're all kind of hyper-political these days, and this will, I think, help people maybe have a little more empathy for public officials."
Lende said that "Of Bears and Ballots" features more political subject matter than her other works.
"(The other books) were really, in lots of ways, sorts of love letters to the community," she said. "This one's a little different because I got caught in the politics of things. So there's some heartbreak in here, but there's also a lot of joy."
Lende characterized the book as being about "coming out on the other side of heartbreak," and said that it followed her journey, beginning with her as a "fairly idealistic and somewhat naive" newcomer to the Assembly.
"I realized something about my community that I hadn't experienced firsthand," she commented.
Lende explained that she often has been accused of relying too much on her "rose colored glasses" to view Haines.
She recalled being warned by another Assembly member that Haines' local politics was a "blood sport."
"I kind of thought he was being melodramatic until I was on the Assembly, and then I realized it kind of is," Lende explained.
By the time she completed her term, those rose-colored glasses were "cracked," she said, "(and) there's some tape on them."
Haines, in Lende's experience, is home to a wide variety of people whose opinions often do not mix well.
Lende commented that often times, a Haines resident will disagree with their neighbor about a political idea, but due to the size of the community, they're forced by events and situations to associate with each other.
"In a small community, we blend a lot," she said.
Adding that she believed Haines' local political issues mirrored larger-scale national issues, Lende said that she hopes her own account of political turmoil can serve as a cautionary tale about treating your neighbors well.
Regardless of the subject matter, Lende said the writing style remains "intimate and informal," not unlike a personal letter to a friend.
"I just write to understand the world that I'm living in, and it helps me understand even myself, in a way that I hope translates to other people," Lende said, adding that she considers herself to be a natural storyteller.
For Lende, everything goes back to stories and what we can learn from them.
"It's really a lot of stories, but they all add up to the story of our common existence," she said, explaining that her book is less a linear narrative of her experience, and more of a collection of stories from that time.
"A book is its own entity," Lende said of the writing process. "It's not a play-by-play of my time on the Assembly. Hopefully, it gives some meaning to it."
The author's favorite part of the book is the sections between the chapters that feature small reports and documents from her time on the Assembly.
"It was fun to write about those, in between other things happening, that 'Yes, indeed, life rolls on, and our common life really is very much linked to our local governing body."
Lende hopes to visit Ketchikan in the fall for a book tour. She has visited Ketchikan as the coach of the Haines High School cross country team, and commented that she enjoyed visiting Ward Lake and viewing artwork by creators like Ray Troll.