FWG Interview: Julia Scully

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with author Julia Scully.

Corey: When I was eleven, the most adventurous thing I did was ride my bike on the railroad tracks behind the local prison, occasionally heckling the inmates.  When you were eleven you were serving shots of whiskey to gold miners in your mother’s Alaskan roadhouse.  Then later on you took the all-male world of photography by storm, and sat in on one of the longest running poker games in New York.  You’re kind of a bad ass huh?

Julia Scully: Although I’ve heard the term, I’m not sure I know what a “bad ass” is.  But I doubt that I qualify.  Yes, I served whiskey to gold miners in my mother’s Alaskan roadhouse when I was eleven.  And I still play poker in what’s probably New York’s longest running poker game and I climbed the ladder of photographic publishing when it was mostly a man’s field.  But I never saw myself as a rebel or a rule-breaker — not even as a feminist.   I just kept my head down and tried for what I wanted and was always surprised when I got it.

97816022312901C: Your memoir, Outside Passage, starts off with you and your 13 year old sister arriving in Nome, Alaska.  Not exactly a modern metropolis, was it?

J: It’s hard to convey to someone who’s never been there, just how bleak, isolated, tiny and  God forsaken Nome was.  The town sits on perma-frost at the edge of the Bering Sea surrounded by barren tundra.  There is not a single tree in Nome or for hundreds of miles around.  The population was 1800 — today it is a whopping 3500. Ice-bound most of the year, it was — and still is — completely isolated with no roads connecting Nome to any other town or village.  The problem is that people have seen pictures of Southeastern Alaska with its forests and mountains and they imagine that is what I’m talking about.  That is not Nome. It is hard, too, to convey just how far away from that image Nome is — almost 3000 miles from Seattle.

On the other hand, Nome is only about 150 miles from Siberia, which explains a lot about the terrain. People often ask me “Wouldn’t you like to go back?”   I always say, “If I came from Siberia, would you ask me if I wanted to go back?”

C: At what point did you know you wanted to write?

J:When I was about 14, I read Sinclair Lewis‘ “Main Street” about a woman’s dissatisfaction with small town life in Minnesota.  The story helped me understand my own feelings about living in a small town.  For the first time, I realized that someone could talk to me, reach out to me, through writing.  While I didn’t make the next step to understanding that I could express my own ideas and feelings that way, too, I felt I wanted to be part of the world of writing, of books.

C: There are many examples of genius or historical discoveries that were made by accident. You’re career inphotography was shaped by such a discovery wasn’t it?


J: You’re referring to my part in the discovery of the wonderful portraits by Mike Disfarmer.  That was an important event in my career and, in some ways, was a turning point.  Through writing about his work and about the time, the place and the people he photographed, I discovered many parallels to my own life and experience.  I found that when I wrote about his world, I was vicariously writing about my own.  From there, it was a small step to write directly about my own experience and the result was “Outside Passage:  A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood.”

C: Who was the most interesting photographer you worked with?

J: There are too many great photographers for me to be able to name one or two.  What I can say is that I learned a lot about the creative process from meeting and interviewing many of them.  The same issues exist for artists in any medium — photography, writing, painting — even dancing.  For example, I remember interviewing George Silk, one of the best of the Life Magazine staffers.  He was explaining to me how when he goes out shooting he will see a subject and decide to take a shot of it.  As he is looking through the viewfinder, he realizes what he is about to take is a cliche.  Yet, he knows he has to click the shutter in order to get past that cliche, and on to something original, something he will discover.  I found the same to be true in writing.  When I am writing a first draft, I can tell that it is bad, corny, trite — any number of disparaging words that go through my head.  Yet, like Silk, I’ve come to understand that there is no shortcut.  I can’t just go directly to the “good stuff.”  You have to work your way into the writing as you have to work your way in to your subject in photography.


C: Being from Alaska, how do you feel about lumped in with someone like Sarah Palin?

J: Infuriated.  I’ve written an as yet unpublished article, “Sarah Palin Ruined My Life” which says it all.

C: What are you working on these days?

J: I’ve recently completed a proposal for a book about my long career in photographic publishing during the most dramatic and revoutionary decades in the medium’s history.  I had a front row center seat to all the events and was, in fact, part of them.  The book will be full of juicy back-stories about the big names in the field as well as being a personal history of how I learned to survive and win in what was essentially a boy’s game.  Included, too, will be the details of what a famous editor termed my “fully lived romantic and married life.”

C: Well Julia, you are an exceptional writer, you were on the ground for one of the most inflential times in the history of photography, and you had a part in shaping that history.  You also served whiskey when were 11, had a fascinating romantic life, you played in New York’s longest running poker game,and are refreshingly humble about all of that.  Throw in the fact that you don’t like Sarah Palin and we here at The FWG Network have made a ruling.  You’re officially a bad ass.

Julia Scully is the author of “Outside Passage:  A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood” and of “Disfarmer:  The Heber Springs Portraits”.  Check them both out today!

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