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A Christmas Tale

A story featuring Alaska fishermen and women, and the creatures of the sea


It’s not unusual for a writer at Alaska Business Monthly to publish a book. For example, Jody Ellis-Knapp who has written many articles over the years, published “Ghosts of Alaska.” And freelancer Susan Stark Christianson, a writer for ABM since before my time, wrote “Women’s Voices: The Wisdom of the Grandmothers.”

We are proud of all our freelancers turned book writers, just as we are of our latest success story: ABM writer Will Swagel of Sitka who is author of a children’s book titled “The Bight … Before Christmas.”

“We actually sell more to adults for adults,” laughs Swagel.

That’s because this storybook, which is illustrated by Fairweather Prints art gallery owner and artist Colin Herforth, is all about fishing and Christmas, using nautical terms that provide joy for children and learning opportunities for all ages. It is especially well received by those in the commercial fishing industry.

It birthed out of a dream, where Santa visited a guy on a fishing vessel for Christmas. “Santa has to be there, too,” said Swagel. “Santa goes everywhere.”

Swagel found Herforth by running a classified ad asking for an illustrator who had a “wry” or “pumpernickel” sense of humor. The long-time acquaintance quickly answered. “I didn’t expect someone of his caliber,” said Swagel.

Herforth is a talented artist who worked on the project for a year and came up with the 18 original water color paintings used in the book. Fairweather Prints is named after the Fairweather fishing grounds in Southeast and a lot of Herforth’s art is of the fishing fleet and fishermen. In fact, Herforth was a former deckhand.

Fish to Riches

Swagel’s story is a different one than other ABM writer/authors. He didn’t set out to write a book. He started as the columnist of “Our Town,” which comes out in the Sitka Soup every other week (www.sitkasoup.com). Each Christmas for the five years or so before the book came out, Swagel published his Christmas story, a take-off of The Night Before Christmas, in word form.

It went viral – at least in Sitka. People were sending copies to friends and family, they were doing plays based on Swagel’s fishy Christmas words, promoting it at fundraisers, reading it to students in classrooms, talking about it.

“There was a great outpouring of affection; it was fantastic,” said Swagel. “I was really inspired by the great fishing community in Sitka.”

The book, featuring a variety of common North Pacific sea creatures was published just before Thanksgiving 2009 and nearly 1,000 were sold in Sitka, out of a population base of about 9,000. The second year in print Swagel branched out to Juneau and Ketchikan. This year it’s going to the Lower 49 through marketing efforts of Swagel and his wife Suzanne Portello.

On the Road

“When she was in graduate school, Suzanne brought some books to Gloucester, Massachusetts – a fishing community where The Perfect Storm was filmed. It was an instant success. In mid-October Swagel took the book on the road. “I went down the coast as far as Eureka, California,” he said. “To all the fishing communities. Got a delighted response on the road. They said ‘there isn’t enough about us,’ meaning fishermen and fishing life.”

Assisting with production of the book was Hannah Portello-Swagel, Suzanne Portello, Rachel Ramsey and D.J. Robidou. Also noteworthy is the instate printer Alaska Litho of Juneau, which allowed it to be a Made in Alaska product. “We proudly put the Made in Alaska polar bear on every cover,” says Swagel.

Individuals can buy the book at bookstores, gift shops and marine suppliers throughout Alaska, which are listed on the book’s website in www.thebightbeforechristmas.com. The book is also available at amazon.com.

“This has been just a very organic situation,” said Swagel. “We got so much encouragement from the community to do this. There’s tremendous motivation in knowing you have this kind of support. Even though it started here in Sitka, we’ve actually got something. We’ve sold a bunch of books.”

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