Musician Jimmy Buffet is famous for inspiring generations of woozy sun worshippers to waste away in Margaritaville.
But for Doug Letch, a Massachusetts native who now serves as aide to Sen. Gary Stevens, it was Buffet’s novel writing that provided motivation — not to head for the tropics on a bender, but to abandon his job as an electronics salesman and resume his stalled radio broadcasting career by looking for work in Alaska.
“I was working at a department store selling office equipment and computers, and thinking I’m either going to go into the management program of this now-defunct office store or do something really desperate to get back into radio,” Letch said.
The year was 1992, and, as fate would have it, he picked up a copy of Buffet’s recently published novel “Where Is Joe Merchant?” in which the down-on-his-luck protagonist dreams of escaping to Alaska.
“I read this book that Buffet wrote and I thought, you know, maybe I should give Alaska a chance,” he said.
The remotivated Letch sent his resume to a few radio stations in Alaska. His efforts bore fruit when he landed a job as news director for a station in McGrath and later moved to other stations in Valdez and Dillingham. His jump to Kodiak occurred in 1996 when he was hired as part of the KMXT news department.
NEWSPERSON AND SPORTSWRITER
Letch’s career in radio had started in the mid-1980s. After graduating from high school in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1981, he attended college at the University of Maine to study broadcasting.
“When I got out of college, I worked at a beautiful music station in the summer of 1985. They hired me to change tapes and give weather updates and news headlines and called me their newsperson. I think they paid me five bucks an hour,” he said. “I wound up working at a couple of radio stations in Massachusetts, including the biggest one in Boston, and got paid four bucks an hour there part-time.”
Those jobs led to a full-time gig covering news for a radio station in Dover-Foxcroft in central Maine, where Letch said he “learned about life as a small-town news reporter.”
He eventually left the station to attend graduate school at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. While there, he gained invaluable experience as a journalist by writing for Sports Collectors Digest, which brought him into contact with some legendary names in baseball, hockey and football.
“Me and my boss would take our tape decks and go up to the stadiums, and we’d get passes to locker rooms and dugouts,” Letch said. “That, as far as writing goes, was awesome — as a sports fan, to start interviewing these people. Some of them are easy to find. I got Gordie Howe’s home phone number from the Hartford Whalers. He didn’t return my call, but I left a message for him. He was probably like, ‘Who’s Doug Letch from Sports Collectors Digest?’”
Among the lessons he learned was to never try to impress famous interview subjects by mentioning who else you had interviewed. A case in point:
“We were in a dugout in the old Comiskey Park in Chicago and my boss is talking with George Brett, the Hall of Fame third baseman for Kansas City,” Letch said. “(My boss) asks, who are your influences, and George Brett says Brooks Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski, and (my boss) says, well I interviewed Brooks Robinson recently, and I said, I interviewed Carl Yastrzemski. Brett was not impressed: ‘Well, you’re interviewing me now.’”
Letch wrote for the magazine for a few years — during grad school and a bit beyond – but gradually, like everything, time took him in a different direction. The radio work also dried up, which is how he ended up selling electronics, only to have his life redirected by Jimmy Buffet.
COMING TO KODIAK
After his radio jobs in McGrath, Valdez and Dillingham, Letch arrived in Kodiak in April 1996 to start work at KMXT.
“I spent four and a half years doing news at KMXT. I was news coordinator when they hired me, news director when I left in October of 2000,” he said. “I was covering the local government meetings, school board, lots of Thursday nights with the borough assembly, a lot of Monday nights with the school board, the occasional city council meeting, did the fisheries report, hosted the Talk of the Rock program.”
One of the great things about working in radio, he said, was getting the chance to meet well-known people and finding out “they’re just regular people.” Among the highlights at KMXT was his Talk of the Rock interview with Spike Walker, author of a nonfiction book about crab fishing in Kodiak titled “Working on the Edge.” Letch described it as “one of the best books I ever read set in Alaska.”
Despite these perks, Letch moved away from radio at the end of 2000 when he was offered a media outreach and public relations job with the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority out of San Jose, California. Just before he departed the island, he had a random encounter “at Walmart or Safeway” with Gary Stevens, who at the time was making his first bid to get elected to the Alaska House of Representatives.
“Gary had mentioned that if he was going to go to Juneau, he would have liked to offer me a position. I said, yeah, give me a call. You never know,” Letch said.
He went down to California, where he found that he liked his new job but not so much the commute, which took three hours out of his day. When he got the call from Stevens, who had won the November 2000 election, he decided to return to Kodiak after only two months in California.
“I hadn’t invested too deeply in things down there (in California),” he said. “You know what it’s like in Alaska. It’s just different.”
Letch started his job as aide to Stevens in January 2001, the first session of a political career that continues to this day. Aside from a short stint working with another legislator in Kenai in 2013-14, Letch has been with Stevens the entire time, following him when he moved from the House to the Senate in 2003.
“My work has evolved over time. If you kick out this year because nothing is usual about this year, in Juneau I cover committee meetings, I’ve worked on legislation,” he said. “I do a lot of the communication-type things, I’m an outreach person. If people call in having a problem with government, I handle a lot of constituent issues.”
With Alaska State Senate District P covering such a large geographic area, there’s plenty to keep track of and many contacts to be made. Another bonus of the political career has been getting to work with people who are often seen on the national stage, including Alaska’s U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who Letch said “knows me by name.”
“It’s interesting work. No day is the same as the last and the things that come up can be really challenging. Occasionally you find that perfect solution for somebody and you do good, and occasionally you find yourself unable to really help somebody. If I can help somebody, I will. If not, I try to find a person that can,” Letch said. “But it’s fun, and it’s one of these things I didn’t think I would ever get into but when it came my way, I certainly made a right choice for me.”
INSPIRATION TO WRITE
In the midst of his duties working as Sen. Stevens’ aide, Letch has somehow carved out the time to write three novels. Two of them — “Bitter Cold” (2003) and “The Stir of Ashes” (2007) — are “mystery/mild thriller/adventure” stories set in Kodiak and feature the protagonist Hayden White, a former Coast Guard officer turned Kodiak attorney.
Letch has found plenty of inspiration in Kodiak. The island is the sort of unique, back-of-beyond corner of the country that causes the literary-minded to wonder just how a great American novelist like Herman Melville or John Steinbeck might have written about it.
In fact, Letch cites Steinbeck as one of his influences as a writer.
“I was probably that one kid in my English class who enjoyed reading John Steinbeck,” he said, also naming James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin and Stephen King among his favorite authors. “I went to the University of Maine and Stephen King is a graduate from there, and I read a lot of Stephen King books, and I really like the stuff that isn’t horror that he writes.”
Letch’s interest in writing dates back to his childhood. Creativity was encouraged in his family, and he and his three brothers and four sisters were their own favorite comedians and storytellers. In high school, he entertained himself by writing short stories. In college, he took a few creative writing classes and earned an honorable mention in a short-story contest.
“I had a professor that encouraged me to work on a screenplay. He had a contact that had written some movies and some episodes of the TV show ‘Miami Vice.’ He could get my script looked at,” he said.
Through another contact, he and a friend wrote and submitted a script for an episode of the show “Family Ties” in which Alex P. Keaton moves out of the house. The script was never used, but the positive feedback from the producers was encouraging.
Letch even spent some time as an amateur standup comic as a means of getting attention for his written material.
“I learned a lot about that. One is that I don’t want to be a standup comic on the amateur circuit,” he said. “But I was trying to get the attention of people so I could write material and then work back into that screenplay idea.”
Those script writing projects never panned out, but eventually Letch started thinking that someday he might want to turn his attention to writing a novel. He didn’t settle on the story he wanted to tell until after he moved to Kodiak. Once he got started, it took about two years of writing early in the morning and on weekends to complete the book.
“When it came time to put the next chapter together, boy, it took a long time to actually finish a project,” he said. “I can come up with beginnings, I can come up with endings, but coming up with the middle … Working through the drafts of the books was time intensive. “
The result of that first effort was the novel “Bitter Cold,” which Letch self-published through Indiana-based AuthorHouse.
The story incorporated many recognizable elements of Kodiak and delved into the quirkiness of small-town Alaska. Inspiration for secondary characters came from people Letch had met throughout the state, not just Kodiak. The lawyer protagonist was not based on anyone in particular but was rather an amalgamation of personalities.
“There were some nuances of my personality in there along with some other people. He was a lot taller than me and had more hair,” he said.
The follow-up book was “The Stir of Ashes,” which took less time to write but was likewise inspired by life in Kodiak. Among the influences that seeped into the novel was Letch’s experience as one of the founders of the local youth football league.
“There was a scene in the second book that was inspired by one of my good friends in the middle of one of the youth football games,” he said. “His daughter made a sack and he started cheering for her and forgot that he was the white hat, the head ref, and everybody started giving him the stink eye. But it was his little girl accomplishing something. I stole that incident and used that in there.”
For his third book, “Pushing Forty” (2012), Letch went in an entirely different direction, shifting the setting from Kodiak to Las Vegas and incorporating more elements from his own childhood.
“It was a more personal story, but it was more of a comedy. If you don’t like my sense of humor, and many people don’t, you probably weren’t going to enjoy the book as much,” Letch said.
“Guys like it — some — and some people just really didn’t, whereas most people were fairly tolerant of me otherwise before that … I enjoyed writing it, but it was truly the one book that I wrote and I had just me as my central audience in mind, and so I had to get it out of my system.”
‘BLESSED WITH KODIAK’
Since then, Letch has moved away from novels and has instead dabbled in shorter forms of writing.
“Every now and then I try a little bit of comedy on Facebook and see what kind of reactions I get. Some of it goes over the way my last book did,” he deadpanned.
That’s not to say that he’ll never write another novel. He’s thought about revisiting the Kodiak lawyer character — and then there’s that one book project he started in the 1990s and never finished. The idea has developed over time, and the setting has been transplanted from the East Coast to Anchorage to Kodiak to other places.
“That’s probably the one that someday I’ve gotta finish. It’s mostly done, it just needs some revisions,” he said.
But while small towns can inspire creativity, they can also act as a deterrent: As time has passed, Letch has found that he remains reluctant to write anything that might be construed as painting Kodiak in a bad light.
“That’s a balance you have to draw when you’re writing about a place like this. We’re a small town but everybody’s got somebody that they know and a lot of connections,” he said. “I love the people of Kodiak. I’ve been really lucky here, really blessed with Kodiak as part of my life. Met some great people … But the older I’m getting, the people in Kodiak and the situations that we’re going through not so much make me want to write about them, but they keep me interested in what’s happening in this town.”
Meanwhile, Letch and Sen. Stevens have the looming Nov. 3 election to think about and, if all goes well, a new legislative session to prepare for. And in the event that Sen. Stevens doesn’t win?
“I don’t want to work for any other legislator than Gary. So if Gary is happy with my work, then I’m more than happy doing the type of things we’re doing now. If he doesn’t go back, I’m perfectly happy to move into something else,” Letch said.
At 58, and admittedly being just a few years away from retirement age, that “something else” will come sooner or later.
“Eventually that day will come, and I think I can say when that day comes I think we’ve done a good job and done our best to represent our district and constituents,” Letch said. “And maybe when I’m retired, I’ll pick up writing again. “