Why do people like Palin biography? For one, it's short

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 21, 2008 

ANCHORAGE — At a folding table in the corner of Title Wave Books Saturday, Kaylene Johnson took a seat behind a stack of her Sarah Palin biographies and waited.

"Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down" is Johnson's third book. The others are Alaskana -- a coffee table book about the Alaska Railroad and a history of the Kenai Peninsula. They sold fewer than 10,000 copies and expectations for "Sarah" were equally modest. The initial printing was 8,000.

But that was in April.

A week after Palin's big announcement in August, 80,000 new copies of "Sarah" hit stores.

By Saturday, 350,000 more were on the way from Tyndale, a Christian publishing house.

"Sarah" is now No. 3 on The New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list, behind "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert and "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson.

Still, at Johnson's first public appearance in Anchorage since Palin went national, she wasn't sure what to expect. She brought a journal in case she got bored sitting there alone. But a woman approached right away, pulling a stack of hardback "Sarahs" out of her purse.

"You look just like the picture in the book!" she cooed.

Johnson uncapped her Sharpie.

Johnson wrote the 159-page biography in 10 weeks, based on two 1-hour interviews with Palin, newspaper stories, an e-mail exchange and conversations with 45 people who knew her, including family friends and students in Palin's aerobics class. She'd never met Palin before she started writing.

"It's certainly the Reader's Digest condensed version," she said.

The book's sunny tale of a Christian super-mom turned political maverick reads like a blueprint for the Palin story that's transfixed national media. It's been echoed by campaign speechwriters, right down to the basketball games and the now famous "pit bull in lipstick" line.

"It was kind of fun to hear that when she said it," Johnson said. "It was like, 'Oh, wow, it's right out of the book.' "

In fact, it's the title of Chapter 6. Johnson found it in an editorial Palin wrote in 2004.

As Saturday shoppers cruised the aisles at Title Wave, Ray Lammon and his 13-year-old daughter, Alex, approached the folding table.

"She's a real person, natural," Lammon said of Palin's appeal. "That's why she doesn't have too many problems with the interviews."

Johnson makes most of her living writing a newsletter for Alaska Works Partnership, a nonprofit that does job placement in the construction industry. She lives in Wasilla and has two grown sons. She goes to prayer group on Friday mornings and writing group once a month in Eagle River. She has never been interested enough in politics to put a sign in her yard for any candidate. Now people won't stop asking how she's going to vote. She won't say, except that she admires Palin.

"I think she did some good things, like the fact she broke up the establishment, she stood up to Randy Ruedrich," she said. "That put her in another league. She's got courage."

That said, she would still like to "get to the bottom of the troopergate issue."

Carolyn Leman, wife of former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, arrived and plopped down a stack of books.

"I liked it because it was short and you can get through it quickly and there's lots of pictures," she explained.

Then came Joan Nockels, who slid a book about Barack Obama in front of Johnson and asked her to sign it.

Why?

Because he's going to win, she said.

Nockels had just come from a meeting with anti-Palin protesters at the neighboring bagel shop, she said. She wasn't in the market for a "Sarah."

"America is grabbing the mythology," she said. "We need to stay focused on the issues."

Nockels left. Johnson sighed.

"This is what it's been like," she said.

The book pulled her into a high-stakes conflict she wasn't prepared for. With so little known about Palin three weeks ago, friends and strangers by the hundreds sought her out. She was featured as an expert on every major cable news network and interviewed by numerous grocery store glossies.

It was heady at first, but the thrill faded. Social situations get awkward. Nasty e-mails arrive in her inbox. Even her writing group, which includes people across the political spectrum, feels a little weird though they've been friends for years.

"Everything's become a little more passionate and personal than it was in the past," she said.

And the journalists keep calling with questions about Palin's hair, and her glasses and her lattes. They want analysis or gossip like Johnson's a government professor or part of the paparazzi. They ignore the fact her book ends in 2006 with the governor's inauguration.

After that, "I know as much as people who read the newspaper," she said.

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