Last week, after working on it for six years, Bainbridge Island author Jon Mooallem released his second book, This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, a Voice That Held It Together. That city was Anchorage in 1964, only a few years after Alaska had become a state. That voice was Genie Chance, a radio reporter who, following the biggest earthquake in American history—4.5 minutes, 9.2 on the Richter scale, "a city of infallible right angles buckled and bent"—stayed on the air for 59 hours, reporting on the disaster. It is a book about the instability of the world and the power of a small city's citizens to contradict this, to overcome it. Of course, it's arriving in an unstable world, as cities small and large do the same.
I talked over the phone with Mooallem, as he cooked some beans on Bainbridge, about what it all means—an earthquake, a pandemic, random mayhem, a community theater production of Our Town.
What prompted the book?
I'd been interested in writing about this town in California that'd been struck by a tsunami. I didn't really do anything about it until about 2014, and as soon as I started Googling around, I realized it had been struck by the tsunami because of this earthquake. From there I found Genie's character almost right away, because she had spent months after the quake interviewing people all around Alaska, just trying to capture what those four and a half minutes of the earthquake felt like for them. And she put all this in a 200-page report. In a little tiny introduction to the report she mentioned that she was a radio broadcaster that'd spent 59 hours after the quake working to get messages throughout Anchorage and that her family had recorded a lot of those broadcasts. That set me off because I felt that if I could find those tapes, it'd be pretty incredible. And I did ultimately.
This is the inevitable question. After working on this for six years, has it been helping you process what's going on at the moment?
Yeah, I think so. It’s interesting because I was trying to talk about this the other day and I sort of realized in the middle—I've been spending so much time thinking about this that of course I'm going to think about everything through the lens of the book, whether it's a pandemic or not. But it's been really interesting now that people are reading the book and they're telling me how they're processing the world—it feels more credible somehow that it's an independent person who didn't know anything about this until they read this book. But mostly a big part of the book is about this idea that ordinary people really can handle these situations surprisingly well. They find ways to help and they're very resourceful.
There are some sociologists that show up in Anchorage the day after the quake and start studying what's happening. And they think they're going to study how society is falling apart, but it's actually the opposite. It's what I just described, people being very levelheaded and helpful.
In fact, the sociologists have gone on—there's a whole field that does this now that pretty much started in Anchorage. So for 50-something years they've been documenting the same stuff in disasters all over the world. So going into an emergency like this with the expectation that people are going to rise to meet it—rather than the opposite expectation, that we're all going to fall apart—has been really stabilizing for me. You can sometimes not recognize that. You dwell on the exceptions and not the rule. I think it's very easy to be fearful and distrustful of other people when there's a big disruption like this. And that leads to other problems.
The other thing that's been not helpful at all, just having spent years really trying to internalize the sensation of such a powerful, such a long earthquake. That's been very scary and that has not served me as well right now, having internalized this idea that you don't know what's going to happen, that anything that feels stable isn't necessarily stable. You don't quite know how things are going to end and you can't trust your own assumptions about it.
I was thinking that if I was somebody living on the West Coast, writing this book, my anxiety would be about the big one hitting. Instead, when publishing the book, here's a pandemic.
Yeah, totally. That was what I thought. I live on Bainbridge. And there's this group here called Bainbridge Preparers, and their mission is just to make sure that people are prepared for emergencies, [to] really stress that these things can happen. An earthquake can happen. They've obviously just focused on earthquakes for most of what they're doing. I was talking with them, like maybe when my book comes out next year we could do some kind of partnership. Obviously [the pandemic] kind of blindsided me, but it's the same kind of message, with a lot of the same challenges.
What else did you learn from the people you were looking at in this about dealing with catastrophe?
Right after the quake Genie is basically driving around Anchorage and seeing all this damage and trying to collect all this information. When the radio does get back up and running, she really sees her job as pretty simple, just report some information and then find the people in charge, the mayor or the city manager, and let them use my little radio in my car to get information out to the city. She doesn't see herself as that important. She gets very confused when people are asking her to take on more responsibility and make decisions about what to broadcast. She doesn't feel like it's her place. She doesn't see herself as someone who's contributing in that way—who's she, right? And I think what you see over the course of the weekend, like a lot of people in Anchorage, she just keeps on seeing problems that she can solve and taking them on.
That to me was a very interesting. We can be more helpful than we think. That's what happens in these emergencies. People rise up to meet them and they do things that end up surprising them and surprising some people around them.
How does Frank Brink [an Anchorage community theater director] factor into all this?
He's a fascinating character. Every Christmas in Anchorage he would do his own one-man Christmas Carol on local TV. He would wear a tuxedo and play 26 different characters all by himself. He was also very dedicated to using the theater in Anchorage to build community. The play he was doing that weekend, Our Town—I think I probably read it in high school or something. My memory was that it was just sort of hokey. I read it [again] and actually it’s completely strange and profound. It's about the way that we take daily life for granted. We don't appreciate how beautiful and interconnected all of our lives are until we can kind of step back to another time or get some other perspective on it.
So in the book, when the play, which gets interrupted by the earthquake, finally gets back on about a week later—this is how someone put it to me who was in the play: It was as if they were performing a play but they were also talking right to Anchorage, in that so many of the themes of the play were themes that Anchorage was grappling with itself. She said it was like everyone was cracked open and the words of the play were just pouring right into them.
It's one of those things where it would almost feel a little hokey if you made it up, that they happened to be doing this play, but it's true.
It's almost like having a protagonist named Chance in a book about random chance.
Right! Yes, I guess I don't even think about that one anymore but you're absolutely right. The whole thing is preposterous in some ways, and yet there it is.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.