Andrea Thalasinos holds a PhD in sociology and has taught at Madison Area Technical College for nearly twenty years, but along the way she has spent much of her free time rescuing and raising Siberian huskies and learning how to be a musher—training the dogs to run on a recreational dogsled team. When Thalasinos decided to try her hand at fiction, her beloved huskies served as the chief inspiration for her debut novel, An Echo Through the Snow (Forge Books/Macmillan), available this August.
An Echo Through the Snow tells the story of Rosalie MacKenzie, a high school dropout living in northern Wisconsin. Stuck in a bad relationship and living without direction, Rosalie rescues an abused husky and discovers that she has a gift with dogs. Her gift soon brings her into the world of competitive dogsled racing and opens her eyes to the lost world of the Chukchi, the indigenous people of the harsh, Arctic coastal region of Siberia. The Chukchi held huskies sacred and depended on the dogs for their lives and livelihoods. The story of the Chukchi people’s past becomes part of Rosalie’s future when she joins an international team determined to restore huskies to their native lands.
Writer/editor Joan Fischer met with Thalasinos this summer to ask five questions about her experiences with Siberian huskies and the novel that New York Times bestselling author Susan Wilson (One Good Dog) says is “destined to become a classic.”
You once owned six huskies, though now you’re down to one. What is it about these dogs that you find so fascinating?
Initially I was taken with how wild and beautiful they are. They are so close to their wolf origins, yet thousands of years of selective breeding went into creating a dog that was both sacred and essential to the survival of the coastal Chukchi.
As for my own experience, they say that huskies are like potato chips—once you start with them, you can’t stop. We got the first dog from a newspaper ad, a five-month-old that somebody no longer wanted after discovering it wasn’t a golden retriever in wolf’s clothing (a frequent supposition of new husky owners, and one that eventually prompted my getting heavily involved in a husky rescue group).
Soon after, a second dog was warranted to keep the first one company. Then our mailman saw me walking the dogs and told me about a nearby family that had two Alaskan malamutes and a dogsled. So I walked over, introduced myself, and on the first snowy day accompanied them to the Military Ridge Trail. They hooked up my dogs behind theirs on the sled and gave me a ride.
It was amazing to watch the dogs run with such joy and conviction; it was some sort of species memory at work. After seeing the power of hundreds of years of genetics come to life in that moment, I knew I had to learn more about them and the people who had created the breed.
And, of course, I had to get my own sled. Another dog led to more dogs, and soon we had a six-dog team.
People ask how I—a native New Yorker—got into this sport, and I have to tell them that I don’t know. But for eight years, four to five times a week, we took our team out before the crack of dawn, using a wheeled rig when there was no snow or a sled when there was.
I’d read everything ever written about how to train a dog team, but in reality the dogs trained me. Dogsledding Rule #1: Hold on. Rule #2: Don’t let go. We ran from the first cool August mornings until the June mornings got too warm. Then I’d walk them, two or three at a time, all summer long. People in the neighborhood all knew me, and when I’d take two for a walk, the dogs left behind would erupt into a bout of spontaneous howling heard throughout the neighborhood—a densely packed residential neighborhood in central Madison, I should add.
Your fascination with huskies drew you into the history of the Chukchi as well. What did you learn?
With my first husky, I bought one of these “about the breed” pocketbooks. When I read about the dogs’ history with the Chukchi, that was it. I was buried in UW’s Memorial Library from 1993 to 1995, checking out every related thing I could find. I read ethnographies from Russian and Norwegian explorers, histories from a variety of perspectives, but I couldn’t find much about the Chukchi’s fate after Stalin. The little I did find told of a tragic outcome, but at that time it was difficult to find information. I’d finished a draft of the novel in about 1996 and, after querying agents to no avail, stashed it in the attic and began working on something else.
A decade later, when I picked up the novel to resume work, the flourishing of the Internet made research much easier. More details had emerged of the Chukchi’s plight under Stalin—they’d been driven from their homeland, and many were killed, along with the dogs they held sacred and at times referred to as “Guardians”—as well as their fate decades later during the breakup of the Soviet Union. The situation of the Chukchi was unfortunately very similar to the conditions and treatment of our own Native American Nations much earlier in our country’s history.
How did the idea for your central character, Rosalie, evolve? In what ways do you identify with her?
It’s funny how on the surface there’s nothing about Rosalie’s life that is remotely autobiographical. Yet underneath, there is. She’s painfully shy, has no confidence, and is kind of wandering without direction and sometimes without hope. That’s something we all feel at times. I know I have felt that way and still do on occasion. Watching my students is inspirational. I’ve met many fine people in the classroom and watched their struggles as they search for a place that fits and feels like home. That’s what Rosalie is doing. And when a dog cries out for her help, she’s faced with a choice: She can ignore the urge to become bigger than who and what she is or risk the burn of lost chances. And when she makes the decision, her life is forever changed.
Where did you find inspiration for the setting of this story?
From the beginning, northern Wisconsin was the setting. And Lake Superior demanded to be a central character. During my first trip up to Bayfield back in the early ’90s, I fell in love with the North Woods: the lake, all the steep ravines, the hills—there’s something so special about that landscape. Even though I live and work in Madison, part of me is always there in my mind’s eye. I eventually bought some property that I one day hope to build on. I try to spend as much time as I can up there. It’s restorative. And, although I’m not a native of the state, [I find] so much character in the people of Wisconsin; I am repeatedly amazed at being in the presence of such ordinary heroes.
How difficult is it to break into publishing? What is your advice to aspiring authors?
For me it was very tough. I don’t have formal training or an MFA, and at first that whole publishing world intimidated me. I’ve heard stories of others who have waltzed into both an agent and a publishing contract, but that is exceedingly rare. I must have queried more than seventy agents, the vast majority of whom never even returned an e-mail to say they weren’t interested. A few requested excerpts of the novel before politely declining.
And then I heard from agent Marlene Stringer: She loved the story. From the beginning, Marlene understood the story in the way that I’d written it and would speak to me using words I would use myself. I knew she was the perfect fit. Within a few months, she’d found a publisher, Forge Books, which is an imprint of Macmillan. I have a second book with Forge that will be out next year.
As for advice to aspiring writers, you have to care and believe in your story—and not let go. Remember the rules for dogsledding? Rule #1: Hold on. Rule #2: Don’t let go. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, believe in your story.
We write the stories we’re given; we love the people we’re given. And while rejections are painful and disappointing—boy, do I know—something inside wouldn’t let me give up, and neither should other writers, if they feel strongly about their work. I have to admit, sometimes I wondered if I was a little nuts and whether everyone around me was thinking, Why can’t she just relax, treat it as a hobby and not an obsession?
But, for me, writing isn’t a hobby. It’s too demanding to be “put away.” Besides, novels have eyes and can see you; they know where you’re hiding. So I’d not mention to friends that I’d gotten up at 4:00 am again to rewrite a section I still wasn’t happy with. It made me feel guilty, as though I were leading a double life, punching an invisible time clock. But I couldn’t help it—it was like repaying some sort of debt to the Chukchi, to the dogs—it wouldn’t let me go.