Susan Chase-Foster

Entering Her Next Incarnation

By Susan Chase-Foster

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”

—William Carlos Williams

Jennifer Wilke

Jennifer Wilke

Jennifer Wilke and I are hanging out, self-medicating our chronic literary conditions at the writers’ table upstairs in Village Books. She’s a tall, handsome woman with a broad, inviting smile. We’re both members of SOLN, a stealth writing group whose exact name I’m not at liberty to reveal at this time.

I’m interviewing Jennifer as part of my own pre-grieving process. By Labor Day she’ll be moving back to Wisconsin, her birthplace, and I’m going to miss learning from her fine writing each week, especially, her sense of humor.

SCF: Jennnifer, Bellingham is such supportive literary community. Why are you leaving us?

JW: “To be close to my dad’s side of the family. They all have great senses of humor, even if some are Republicans. I’m going to miss all of you like crazy.”

Jennifer’s special brand of humor spills into her writing and inspires me to be more open to humor in my own. Here’s an excerpt from her soon-to-be published RWB anthology submission “Abaldyeno” about her1988 trip to the Soviet Union.

As the line inched forward, I remembered the Aeroflot barf bag I’d stolen from my seat pocket on the plane. Would the Customs officer ask me to empty my pockets? Would he accept my defense of innocently wanting a souvenir of the Russian language description of how to use a barf bag? Is a sense of humor allowed?

Jennifer has also taught me how to craft heartwarming scenes that connect readers with universal emotions and truths.

Ludmilla accessorized her running suit with a string of pearls. Her nails were clean and polished. Perhaps she didn’t know we would be camping. She touched my arm and laughed. “You are the first American of my life, Jenny. Camping is a small price to pay to meet you.”

SCF: What about the development of your writing life?

JW: “I was always a good speller and I loved writing and reading. In the 10th grade we read Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. It shocked me every time I found words I didn’t know, like “motley retinue.” I loved the sound of that and still try to use it every chance I get.

At last, our motley retinue of 200 Americans descended Aeroflot’s push-up jet stairs and set foot on Soviet soil in Moscow.

“I think when I really started to write, though, was in the 11th grade. My teacher had us write daily, at least a paragraph. It was intense. I really liked that practice.

“When I started making money it was in Juneau, through technical writing, which I thought was fascinating. But I wanted to learn how to write for movies, so I moved to L.A. I studied screenwriting at USC, pitched some scripts to producers and worked in post-production preparing subtitles for Hollywood movies. After eight years, even though one of my scripts was made into a short film, I was ready to leave. I didn’t know how to schmooze enough to sell screenplays, and I hated parties. Hollywood was exciting, but also disappointing. The writer had no power. That’s when I moved to Bellingham.”

SCF: How has your writing changed since then?

JW: I took the first Red Wheelbarrow Writers workshop taught by Laura Kalpakian, Cami Ostman and Susan Tive. I’d been working on a novel set during the Civil War and related to my family. The class helped me to be a better writer. I also joined my first critique group around that time. It was a big deal because I had to audition, which meant going public, reading my work aloud, really coming out as a writer. Being part of the RWB community has inspired me to be bold enough to write memoir, which I very much enjoy.


Jennifer Wilke does seem unstoppable. She’s an engaging storyteller who knows how to pay attention to detail as she works on her current project, a memoir about peace and war, of which her marvelous RWB anthology contribution is a part.

I followed that trail over a slight dune to discover a curving sandy beach and the endless Black Sea. The vast expanse of water was velvet blue, not black. The faded moon was sinking into the watery horizon to let the sun take its place.

SCF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned, so far, about writing?

JW: Show up!

SCF: Any final words about Jennifer Wilke as a writer?

JW: I feel like I’m entering my next incarnation.

A bit about Susan Chase-Foster

Susan CFSusan is an award-winning poet who gathers spruce tips and shaggy mane mushrooms in Alaska’s boreal forests with her grandson, eats stinky tofu and steamed sweet potato leaves on exotic Taiwanese archipelagos with her son, and has deep conversations about art and kiwis with her husband in their own jungle of a backyard. If there’s time, she ignites her computer and writes a tsunami.


Shannon  (2)

Kick Open the Closet Door: Write a Memoir

by Shannon Hager
Author: Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison, a memoir

We all have stories worth sharing. Mark Twain advised, “Write about what you know.” Memoir writing requires a high level of self-exposure, risking disapproval, danger or pain. To me, the best memoirs are those I learn from and take place within the context of what’s happening in a society or a political climate which is not my own. Powerful memoirs like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier describes lives of war victims we may not even think about or be aware of as victims. In her memoir Do They Hear You When You Cry, Fauzuja Kassendja writes about her experience as an asylum seeker from Togo trying to escape the female genital mutilation common in her culture. Her story makes me shudder to know what we in the United States do to people we lock up in horrendous conditions when they flee from dangers in their home countries.

Social upheavals make memoir interesting. Just take a look at Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and her other books. White Africans living in Southern Rhodesia during change from colonialism to black ruled Zimbabwe do, indeed, have a unique story unknown to many.

Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land is a memoir about growing up in an abusive Christian youth center in the Dominican Republic. It reminds me of the writings of local author Pam Helberg who describes coming to terms with being a lesbian in an extremely religious family, the abuse heaped upon her by the religion in which she was raised, and the society in which she lives.

When I read Orange is the New Black, My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, I was reminded that not everyone doing time is black and poor. I learned a lot about the federal prison system reading her story of what happened to her as a white woman from the upper class.

Memoir writers are often accused of being self-centered egotists. “How do you have the audacity to think that anyone cares about your life?” Writing a memoir may be construed as “self-promotion.” In the culture in which I was raised, self promotion was seen as bragging and, therefore, frowned upon. To all this nonsense I reply, “Oh, get over it!”

My friend Maureen Kelleher is a private investigator who works on post-conviction death penalty cases, reinvestigating the circumstances surrounding the crime that sent someone to death row. Her self-promotion as a hard worker who is fearless in her efforts on behalf of the condemned, gained exonerations for three innocent people who left death row and went straight to freedom. Her work and her art are now the subject of a soon to be released documentary, The Courage of Her Convictions. “If you don’t spread the word about yourself, nobody will. Please get over that ridiculous faux humility,” she says.

I had apprehensions about opening a Pandora’s box, dealing with repercussions from writing about secrets, when I wrote and published my memoir Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison, a memoir. Since the book came out, people have thanked me for kicking open the closet door behind which so many families and loved ones of the incarcerated live. I know about the pain of separation, the frustration of dealing with prison systems, the stigma, hopelessness, expense, and fear millions of people endure just to spend time behind bars with someone they love. The readers who thank me know they are not alone in their trials of separation because my book shows them they aren’t.

Royalty checks are nice and greatly appreciated but the praise readers give me, especially those who have loved ones behind bars, make me know the five years I spent living like a hermit to write this book and having the audacity to think someone may be interested in my life, is ok.

And in that vein, I’m working on a second memoir. This one has to do with my life in Liberia, West Africa living in primitive conditions, through riots and civil war. And I have the audacity to think that someone would care about that.

Shannon (2)Shannon Hager is the author and publisher of the Chanticleer Grand Prize Narrative Non-Fiction 2014 award winning book, Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law; Love in Angola Prison, a memoir. She worked for more than twenty years as a nurse in South Louisiana’s prisons and jails, and on the streets and in the heath care systems of New Orleans. Her memoir reflects her multiple roles as a health care professional, a prison wife and an activist fighting the criminal injustice system. Her deeply personal story begins at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola, and ends several years after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and its people.

In addition, Shannon served two stints as a Peace Corps Volunteer: Liberia, West Africa from 1978-1980 and Zaire, (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) in Central Africa from 1985-86. She specialized in public health, tropical medicine and infectious diseases.

In Liberia, Shannon managed vaccination programs, opened new rural clinics and taught a national health record-keeping system. Her second memoir, currently in progress, tells her story of living through riots in Liberia’s capitol city Monrovia, followed by a military coup and life under martial law.

In Congo, Shannon worked in a World Health Organization viral research project studying Monkey Pox and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola. As part of a mobile medical team, she participated in studies of HIV-infection in rural areas of the northern Congo’s Equateur Region.

After living in New Orleans for twenty-two years, she retired and now lives in the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys a cooler climate and the boating culture. She writes articles for a local boating organization and is glad to still be alive!




When I signed up to write this blog post several months ago, it was at the Red Wheelbarrow Writer’s happy hour and—as I’d been indulging in happiness for well over an hour—I was, um… easily manipulated. And writing a blog post for a bunch of writers at some random future date seemed like a great idea. No problem.

As the deadline neared, however, the idea shriveled: what could I possibly contribute that could be of value to such an amazing group of writers, most of whom have been at this far longer than myself? I tried denying that I would have to do it: the project would be abandoned, no one would notice if I let it slip, the Internet might break, etc. Of course, Diane called me right on cue. Sigh.

But then it occurred to me that everyone likes gratitude, especially when it’s genuine and directed at them, and that would be my honest experience of the Red Wheelbarrow Writers – a great giant heaping serving of gratitude. I am perhaps on mile twenty of my novel-writing marathon, and I have high hopes of reaching the finish line entirely because of this great community. So here’s my thanks to you all:

Thanks for the start.

On October 31, 2011, Cami Ostman texted and challenged me to a Nanowrimo duel—odd, as we didn’t know each other well at the time, and I had never expressed any desire to write a novel. She must have had an intuition that I had a story lurking, or maybe that I am madly competitive, because I picked up the glove. Mostly from a desire to beat her daily word count, I began writing the first story that came into my head, and was surprised by the end of the first week to find a whole crowd of characters had woken up in my mind and were clamoring for freedom. I haven’t had much peace since.

Thanks for the community

As a professional creative, I’ve participated in any number of conferences and activities with other folks similarly inclined, and have always rolled my eyes at what can quickly devolve into—for lack of better words—a big ol’ pecker contest: who has been published, who is connected to which publisher or producer, who won the award, who is sleeping with the drummer. Ick. I prefer solitude. When I reluctantly joined in with my first RWW meeting, what I found in you all was instead a marvelous group of people, all in different parts of their writing journeys, but all wonderfully supportive of one another’s successes and challenges. Each time one of you has garnered an award or new contract, or even just finished the first draft of a difficult project, others in the group are genuinely thrilled as if it were their own success. What a delight to be welcomed into such a group.

Thanks for the stretch.

Just like a really good yoga stretch is often done with a little help from the teacher, and usually hurts, (but not too much) you all have helped me stretch, even when it might not have been comfortable. You’ve been brave enough to tell me I used the same phrase four times in one page, that my characters needed more fleshing out or that (thanks Laura) a whole four pages are a waste of narrative space. Critiquing another’s work honestly is a brave and generous act, and I so appreciate those of you who have been willing to make it hurt a little!

Thanks for the laughs

The group Nanowrimo novels. Enough said.

Thanks for the stories

When I head to Uisce on a Saturday, I no longer see a group of strangers, but feel as if I am entering a big top tent teeming with wild and colorful stories. Because of you all, I have experienced the Alaskan wilderness, the thrill of blue water sailing, the joy of running, and the delicate insights uncovered in a garden. I have bird-watched on remote islands, been a civil war soldier, an African diplomat, a displaced gringa, and a woman obsessed with Elvis. I will never again cook a king salmon without a profound understanding of its arrival on my plate. Thanks for becoming my friends.


AGabrielPhotobigAuthor Bio:

Andrea Gabriel has written and/or illustrated a number of picture books for children, and is currently lurching toward the finish of her first novel. She makes a living creating pictures and websites.

Explorations in the Sociology of Writing

by Ben Frerichs

A stranger in an even stranger land………the land of the writers. There are many worlds, each its own reality. I entered the world of the writers as an elder with no illusions. I found my way into the world of words through the portal of a catastrophic disaster. By way of Louisiana.

For six months in 2006, I lived in a motel room in either Baton Rouge or New Orleans. I worked for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) assisting coastal communities plan for their recovery from what Katrina and Rita had wrought. And work we did, our contracts were for 72 hours a week, occasionally authorized to exceed that. But that’s a story for another time.

I would send back reports of my experiences, reactions, observations about what could be seen, some as travel writing, some about living life in a small space for weeks. Friends and family encouraged me to be more serious about the writing. When I returned home, I enrolled in writing classes at Whatcom Community College’s Community Education program.

I was an actual writer before, made a career of it, in academia, in state and municipal government, and consulting for real estate, community and economic development, but did not think of myself as a writer. I thought of myself as an economist. An economist who produced analyses, memos, reports, strategies, policies, programs, plans, proposals etc. etc. I may have written 750,000 to 1,000,000 words in technical reports over half a century. In some ways those reports wrote themselves: I was given a question(s) to answer – so the report was a narrative of what we did, how we did it, the results, the limitations and implications and what the client could or should do as a result.

Much different from my new world of “creative writing” which starts with a blank page confronting one pen (or one keyboard) being driven by one brain, may be operating in the right hand side of one mind. Usually having to think up the question. Writing is a response to one person’s creativity. But not a one-person activity.

I entered this new world, wanting to explore the right hand side   of my own brain after being schooled in and operating in the left, linear, logical, sphere. Two realities quickly confronted me: the need to activate and accept the left hand side of the brain and secondly the realization that I had entered   a community, a sub-population, a network, an industry and an art form: the world of the writer.

Writers’ world is peopled with self-defined writers, some lucky or good enough to be market defined for others it is a job, a profession or a hobby. Why don’t we refer to ourselves as authors? Maybe that title should be reserved for writers who are actually published. Now that self-publishing is practical that criteria may not work so easily. There are plenty of people and organizations to help you, to improve you, to stimulate you, to critique you, to publish you, to help you publish yourself, even sell you books to help you write books, usually they want money to do this. Other organizations and subscriptions are there to inform you, support you, connect you and network with you, provide a place to go when you need one, provide you a place to go to perform your work solo or in a group.

Another head-scratcher: why are local writerly events and activities dominated by females? In the classes at WCC, at the annual Chuckanut Writers Conference, for Village Books’ readings look around you, these are peopled largely with women. Curiouslly, if we look at the listings of bestselling writers in the NYT Review of Books as a ‘quick and dirty’ index of writerly success by gender, the gender loading is substantially more men than women. I have no answer for my “why?” question. Also of note, but more easily understood, notice how many of the writers you meet in the Fourth Corner who are retirees?

At a workshop for what Myers-Briggs personality styles imply for writing, the leader asks the “I” – Introvert revealed people to stand on one side of the room; the “E” – extroverts on the opposite side. Very few Extrovert styled people identified themselves as writers. This supports the mythology that writers are prone to scribbling alone during a solitary creative process; but we also know that writing requires interaction: critique, support, editing, feedback, empathy, and interaction, so not so solitary…….so while you can be an introvert to write, to be successful, to get recognition, you have to interact successfully with all manner people, especially the “market”.

More travel writing from this stranger in a strange land to come, maybe some answers.


Ben at Goldbergs 8-5-09 pabBio  Ben Frerichs, of Bellingham, is reinventing himself as a creative writer. He likes to balance the creative freedom of fiction with the truthiness of non-fiction and welcoming do-ability of short forms. He participates in two writers’ groups, takes writing classes and has volunteered with the Chuckanut Writers Conference for five years. Four of his short pieces have been accepted for publication in local collections; he has a novel 2 -3 chapters short of a whole; and has completed half dozen scenes for a quest memoir. (Contact:




Mary Wesley published her first novel at the age of 71, and then a dozen more before she died in 2002 aged 90. Her brilliant coming-of-age World War Two story, The Camomile Lawn, has been adapted for British television. I hope we see it here soon.

Wesley is an inspiration, but I would not have been able to follow – if haltingly – in her footsteps were it not for the revolution in publishing that has taken place in recent years. Frankly, I don’t have a decade to spend on pitches at writing conferences and query letters to agents, and I have no wish to paper my walls with rejection slips. I published my first Sarah McKinney mystery independently in 2013 when I was 64, and the second came out in 2015. These novels now bob along on an ocean of similarly self-published works, garnering a few appreciative reviews but not enough sales to matter to the taxman.

I don’t care. At last I have realized my childhood ambition: to be a Writer!

Writing is one of the few fields in our youth-centered culture (department store Santa might be another) where age is actually an advantage. I no longer have the distractions of school, raising children or working a sixty-hour week. I have time and my pension. I also have a hideaway above the garage that I call my writing studio. More importantly, I have a lifetime of experience to draw on, as well as a lifetime of reading.

Reading books is where writers go to school. Nothing equips a writer better than deep and repeated immersion in literature. After you have read a few thousand books (I calculate I have consumed about five thousand so far) you know when a character is convincingly drawn, or the narrative arc is complete. That is not to say I always get it right in my own work, but when a member of my critique group points out a flaw, I recognize it; it just didn’t feel right when I wrote it.

So what do I like to read? Mysteries, of course, and I find it encouraging that two of my favorite authors, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, continued to produce first-rate stuff well into their eighties. It’s also comforting that characters I fell in love with years ago – Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick come to mind – mature, get promoted and even retire from the force without losing their appeal. In contrast, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone has survived twenty-four adventures without aging out of her thirties.

Age does have its problems. Have you ever picked up a book with relish only to find (maybe several chapters in) that you’ve already read it? Nancy Pearl, everyone’s favorite librarian, says you never read the same book twice. The second time around, the reader brings an increment of experience and understanding which – if the book was worth reading in the first place – enriches the story. I certainly find this true with classics like Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. When I first read this novel, I was living in Atlanta and new to the States. I admired the construction of parallel narratives, but I didn’t really get it. Now, living in the West and thirty years older, I weep for the narrator confined to his wheelchair, regrets piling up around him. After forty-five years of marriage, I understand the resonance of the title.

My reading feeds my writing, and my writing informs my reading. I have become a more critical reader over the years, less willing to plow on with a book I’m having a hard time with, even if I spent good money for it. Another Nancy Pearl ‘pearl’: you owe it to the writer to read the first fifty pages; subtract a page for every year you are older than fifty! I’m looking forward to the day I can toss a tome aside (probably the large print edition) after a mere ten pages.

I’ll finish with another book recommendation from an older writer. Our Souls At Night was published in 2015 after the author Kent Haruf’s death. It is set, like his earlier novels on the plains of eastern Colorado, and in spare, eloquent prose tells the story of a couple in advanced age who come together to talk about their lives and assuage their loneliness. A young person could not have written this book; a young reader might find it depressing. I found it full of tenderness and hope.

marian_exallAfter a career as an employment lawyer, MARIAN EXALL now writes what she loves to read: mysteries! Like her heroine Sarah McKinney, Marian was born and raised in England. She lived in Atlanta for thirty years before moving to Bellingham where she hikes, gardens and does grandparent duty.

Twitter: @mysterymarian