“I think I’d proven that I could write books that no one would buy,” Richard Chiappone said, with the self-effacing humor of a man who enjoys his work but doesn’t take himself seriously. This time, however, “I set out to write a commercial book. I wanted to get a few more readers. My short story collections didn’t sell very well. Nobody’s short story collections sell well. But people who read them liked them, and I felt that if I could reach more readers, I would have more people who were happy about what I wrote.”
People seem to be happy about Chiappone’s new book, The Hunger of Crows, his first full-length novel. It follows two well-crafted collections of essays and short fiction that marked his emergence as an Alaskan literary voice at once both thought-provoking and whimsical. Both of these elements are again in full bloom this time around, as is a theme that runs through many of his writings.
“I think when I started writing,” Chiappone said, “I was writing about middle-aged guys who are questioning everything. And I may have just imprinted on that like a duckling and haven’t gotten beyond it very well.”
It makes sense that this would be his starting point. While he writes with the skill of someone who’s been at it his entire life, Chiappone didn’t plan on being an author and didn’t even begin writing until he himself was entering middle age. He didn’t even reach Alaska until his thirties.
Born and raised in the border city of Niagara Falls, New York, Chiappone “spent a lot of time in Canada fishing and camping” while growing up, he said. This was before the Clean Water Act, when the waste from decades of industrial activity left the Niagara River badly polluted, sending him north into Ontario seeking untainted fishing opportunities.
Having grown up reading Jack London, Chiappone always considered the North as the place he wanted to be, but it took time for him to get here. Though expected by his family to attend college, he instead married young, and by the age of 25 had three children. Being a father kept him out of Vietnam, but it didn’t keep him married. After getting divorced, the faltering economy of Upstate New York in the 1970s prompted him to relocate to Las Vegas. There he married his wife Lynn, and in 1982 moved to Alaska, where he opened a wallpapering business in Anchorage while she obtained a counseling certificate and went to work in the city’s schools. “I was 34 when I finally moved up here,” he said.
This was when Chiappone decided to give writing a try, just as a side hustle. In 1986 he submitted a short story to a contest in the Anchorage Daily News. It won an honorable mention, prompting him to enter college at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “I finally got a bachelor’s degree when I was forty-three or so,” he said. “Then I stuck around for the MFA because I liked writing and I liked writing workshops.” Chiappone remained on the faculty of the UAA Master’s in Fine Arts creative writing program until it was discontinued in 2020.
Even as he was developing as a writer, working with some of the state’s luminaries such as his mentor, Ronald Spatz, founder and executive editor of Alaska Quarterly Review, Chiappone continued to run his wallpapering business. That working class background finds its way into his writing still, lending his work an earthiness not always found in modern literature, even in Alaska where the divisions between blue and white collar work is more blurred than it is elsewhere.
In 2002, Lynn got a job with the Homer schools, and the couple relocated, although Chiappone continued dividing his time between their Kenai Peninsula home and Anchorage. He maintained his business until 2010, and only shut it down when his back became too problematic for hard physical work.
Meanwhile, he kept writing short stories until tragedy entered his life. “My twenty-seven-year-old daughter died in 2004 from cancer. I found that I couldn’t really write fiction anymore at that point. Because the kind of fiction I write is character-driven. I create characters and put them in a situation and sit back and see what they do next.”
As he worked through his emotions over the loss of his daughter, Chiappone said, “I kept veering off down these rabbit holes of grief and morose and self-pity, and it was killing every story. If I had been writing Moby Dick, there would have been a twenty-seven-year-old girl onboard the Pequod who had cancer. I couldn’t avoid it.”
Seeking an alternative approach, he turned to writing comic nonfiction pieces for the Anchorage Press instead. These were observational bits about life in Alaska. “They were very silly essays that allowed me to keep writing, which I like to do. I love seeing words on the page come together. But without sending me down into a hole of, like I say, self-pity and grief. That’s why I wrote nonfiction for a while.”
Chiappone’s first collection, Opening Days, was published in 2010. It gathered some of his nonfiction and fiction work together with travelogues and more. This was followed in 2016 by Liar’s Code, a selection of essays about fishing in New York, Alaska, and beyond. The recently published The Hunger of Crows, however, marks a new direction in Chiappone’s literary career.
The novel originated as a short story included in his first book about a waitress in Homer who is on a skiff that sinks. Characters from that story evolved into Carla Merino and Scott Crockett, the lead characters in the new work. Chiappone said fellow Homer author Nancy Lord, who he counts as a dear friend, told him she found this story particularly compelling. He had personally felt it was incomplete, so he looked at it again and asked himself, “Why is this Carla person in Homer? Who is this Scott guy to her?”
“I had these two characters, and I knew they had to get together somehow,” Chiappone said. He knew Carla was hiding out in Alaska, as many people do, and as he figured out why. “I just kept adding more and more to the story.”
It was a lengthy process. Chiappone began fleshing out the novel and by 2016 had sent it to an agent. After two additional years of revisions, he said, that agent rejected it. Then he found another agency that worked with him on it for two more years. By 2020 the book was ready to go, and it was submitted to Crooked Lane, a crime novel publisher.
Writing a novel was new to Chiappone. He had never planned out his short stories, letting them find their direction on the page. He quickly learned that with a novel he couldn’t get away with this. “It was a clumsy way to go about it,” he said. “Like learning to fly an airplane by getting in it and flying. There were a few hard landings along the way. Don’t try this at home, because it’s really dumb.”
On the surface, The Hunger of Crows is a thriller about Carla, a no-longer-young woman living in Phoenix who makes a habit of stealing a memento from each man she sleeps with. One night she goes home with a mysterious guy named Cosmo D’Angelo, and after the night’s activities, covertly steals a photograph from his bedside dresser. The picture includes a much younger D’Angelo somewhere in Latin America, alongside a military officer and a businessman from the country it was taken in, as well as Gordon McKint, who by the time the story opens is a border security contractor and far-right presidential candidate. The photograph indicates that McKint, a dangerous man, had lied to congress about his past ventures, and now Carla holds the proof. She learns to her horror that D’Angelo, her one-night stand, is McKint’s fixer. Realizing she’s in trouble, she runs, landing in Homer where she hopes to disappear into the remote fishing town.
This being a thriller, it goes without saying that McKint and D’Angelo will locate her, and what transpires takes up the balance of a tale that touches on America’s dalliances in Latin America and the emerging authoritarian trend in our politics, while capturing daily life in Homer with persistent humor that brightens the story despite its fairly serious plot.
One thing Chiappone did weave into this tale was his daughter’s death, evoked when the fictional D’Angelo’s own daughter succumbs to the same cancer. He said it took years of trying before he had enough control over the emotions that his loss left him with to be able to effectively channel the event into writing.
“Now, decades later, I can write about it,” Chiappone said. “But I certainly didn’t know that D’Angelo was going to have a sick daughter. I thought he was just a bad guy.” Instead, D’Angelo develops into a sympathetic character, a middle-aged guy who is questioning everything. It adds complexity to the story. As in real life, nothing is completely black and white.
“I think at different times in my life, there were reasons why I gravitated towards one style or genre or another,” Chiappone said. But now that he’s a novelist, he’s sticking to it. With this book on the shelves, he’s already hard at work on the next. Once again, Homer will provide the setting, and he said he won’t be holding back. “I’m too old to worry about a career in writing, so I can write any kind of novels,” he concluded, before adding mischievously, “I don’t really care much if I’m beloved by critics. There’s a lot of comic stuff about Homer.”