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Writing the book on Palin

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DICKINSON - An author, who at the age of 14 knocked on the door of The Dickinson Press looking for work, quickly became a top-seller Friday morning.

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Kaylene (Cartmill) Johnson, who grew up in Dickinson, authored the biography of Alaskan governor and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin.

"Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment on Its Ear," sat at No. 8 on the Amazon sales rankings as of Saturday afternoon.

"It's been a wild ride the last couple days," Johnson laughed. "... It's hard not to be excited because I think that she's, I think it's just going to be really an amazing and interesting race. It's historic beyond a doubt."

Johnson said she found out Palin was named as McCain's running mate just like the majority of Americans, through the news media. Since then the phone has been ringing off the proverbial hook.

Since the announcement, TIME Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News and PBS have looked to Johnson for interviews, being so she is the unofficial, official Sarah Palin expert.

Johnson said it's a little strange being the expert people look to for information on someone else's life. Johnson's book is the only book that has been written regarding Palin's life.

"I've just been sort of astonished," Johnson said.

The selection of Palin effectively overtook the news media Friday as outlets scrambled to find information on the relatively unknown governor.

Seen as something of a dark horse candidate by most of the nation, Johnson said the people of Alaska aren't surprised.

"That's true from a national perspective," Johnson said. "As far as Alaskans are concerned, she's our superstar."

The media has descended on Wasilla, Alaska, Johnson said. Wasilla is where Johnson and her husband, Todd, currently reside, and where Palin grew up.

Palin, who in her younger days represented Wasilla as Miss Wasilla at the Miss Alaska pageant, also served as the town's mayor for two terms starting in 1996. Johnson said Palin has consistently turned heads in every office she's held.

"She started very young in politics," Johnson said. "She basically took on the good ole' boy's network and she took on business as usual and pretty much just cleaned house every place she went."

Johnson, who had written two other books; "Portrait of the Alaska Railroad" and "Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor," was approached by Epicenter Press, Inc. to write a book about Palin. Johnson had been watching Palin's career with interest and thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about her.

Even though relatively young, Palin, 44, still provided plenty of content for Johnson to write about.

"It was more a matter of how I was going to fit it all in," Johnson said. "I was given a really short deadline. I had basically 10 weeks to write the book."

Johnson met with Palin twice while writing the book and corresponded with her through e-mail to help form the narrative of the young politician's life.

Through the whole process Johnson said she hoped she was able to convey the essence of Palin, who she had grown to admire and respect.

"I enjoy writing and I really enjoy being able to profile people. I think getting down to the essence of who somebody is, is just ...," something Johnson said she strives to do when writing.

Once the book was published last April, Johnson wondered if Palin thought she had captured that essence. She contacted Palin, but, the governor had yet to read the book.

Palin told Johnson it was just too strange to read about herself. Johnson was reassured by Palin's family that she had done a good job.

"You know the thing that made me feel good about the book was that her husband and her parents felt it was a good reflection of who she is," Johnson said.

Palin's selection on Friday came as a bit of a surprise to Johnson, but it wasn't a shock.

"What I thought was maybe a few years down the road ... I was thinking that she was probably going to go places after she was governor here," Johnson said. "I don't think anyone thought she was going to be done when she was done being governor."

Being at the center of a big news story like this is exactly why Johnson wanted to get into journalism at an early age.

"I think it was around the eighth grade that I decided I wanted to be a writer," Johnson said. "I think it was current events, I loved being at the pulse of what was going on in the community."

You can't get much closer to the "pulse" of what is going on then writing the biography of a vice presidential nominee.

Not too shabby for someone who found themselves turned away by The Dickinson Press at age 14.

"I really wanted to work there from the time I was a youngster," Johnson remembered. "So when I was 14, I knocked on the door and I asked for a job and they sort of sent me packing, I was just a kid."

Persistently, Johnson returned when she graduated from Dickinson High School in 1979, at age 18. This time the result was different.

Johnson was introduced to Editor Randy Howell as his new cub reporter and she couldn't have been happier.

"It was like the best job ever," Johnson said. "It was one of the reasons I went into journalism."

After moving around the country with her husband, Todd, who was in the Air Force, they ended up in Alaska where Todd was assigned in 1986.

They soon came to love the state.

"We just fell in love like we have come home for the first time," Johnson said.

And Johnson will continue to follow the career of the governor of her new home with interest.

Who knows, there might even be a follow-up book in the works. Johnson said she hasn't been contacted, but she would definitely consider it if asked.

"That would be great, I don't know, I think the future will tell," Johnson said. "It was a privilege to write this book and I'm certainly following her with great interest as other Alaskans are. If given the opportunity to write the sequel I'd be happy to do it."

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