Exclusive Interview With Laura Kalpakian!


By Susan Chase-Foster for RWB

Laura Kalpakian, author of more novels than I can count on my fingers and toes was due at my house any minute and I was excited. For years, I’d been hearing about Laura’s talent, not only as a writer, but as a memoir instructor extraordinaire. When I found out that Laura, along with Cami Ostman and Susan Tive, her former students, had created a nurturing community of writers named after one of my favorite poems, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” I immediately joined. Now, after three years of watching Laura in action at the RWB monthly socials, working collectively with her on the writing and performing of our annual NaNoWrimo novel, as well as reading several of her delightful books, I had the opportunity to learn about how she approaches the task of entering a novel in Chapter 1.


I set out several of Laura’s books on the coffee table, clicked on the gas fireplace to create a relaxed atmosphere and popped open a bottle of Juan Gil, knowing that she adores red wine, as I do. Before I could recite my favorite line from Educating Waverley three times,

“When you bite into a chocolate truffle, you don’t want to find oat bran.
When you bite into a chocolate truffle, you don’t want to find oat bran.
When you bite into a chocolate truffle, you don’t want to find oat bran.”

Laura had arrived, handed me her blue jacket and established herself on my comfy love seat. I poured her a glass of wine and she took a sip.

LK: Great wine!

RWB: Thanks, Laura. It’s Spanish. I have a bottle for you to take home when we’re finished. And now, if you’re ready for questions, shall we begin?

LK: Thank you and, yes, I’m ready.

RWB: Laura Kalpakian, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed! As this is your third year being the lead writer for a RWB NaNoWriMo novel, I just have to ask: Why do you do it?

LK: Because it’s FUN!

RWB: Cool! Would you please describe the process of writing a first chapter for a round-robin novel?

LK: Sure. So, this year’s was different, but in the past, well, in my computer I have a big fat folder called “Books Abandoned.” I worked on them, but they just never quite came together, so I abandoned them. For the first two novels I pillaged two different books from the folder…I had abandoned them as novels, so this was a new use for them.


For the third novel, this past summer friends of mine took me on two boating excursions. I loved the names of the boats! I feel that each boat name tells someone’s personal story, and with all the names together in a marina, for instance, you can make a sort of narrative out of them. When you see a boat named “Mom’s Revenge,” you go hmmmm.  And so, anyway, this idea came to me in my sleep, in a dream about a boat named “Placebo.” But I just couldn’t remember it. I thought it was Panacea, something with a “P.” And there was a boat named Panacea, but that wasn’t it. Then it came to me that the boat in my dream was “The Placebo.” It had great suggestive power. That went into the chapter.

I also remembered that on Valentine’s Day several years ago we were on Capital Hill in Seattle. We were walking and these beautiful roses had been flung down on the sidewalk, like a trail. I picked up eight of them and said to myself, “There’s a story here. But I never found it. So that went into the chapter, too. Later, I threw in a laundromat. This was all new material. None of this was in the “Books Abandoned” folder.

RWB: How does writing the first chapter of a round robin novel compare to writing the first chapter of a personal novel?

LK: In the first chapter of any novel you deal yourself a hand and you ask, what can I do with this? There’s clearly much more responsibility in writing your own book. You have to be resilient and look at what the characters can tell you. With the collective novel, a term I prefer to round-robin, the responsibility belongs to thirty people and you really have fun with it. You see yourself as part of a collective, fun opportunity. The deadline is important in that you have to put the chapter behind you, which is harder with a personal novel. Writing is a process, and with a personal novel it’s a process until the book has an ISBN number.

RWB: What’s important for an author to do in Chapter 1?

LK: In a first chapter, the task of the narrator is to set up tensions. Placebo has far fewer characters. We basically have Miranda. My task was to set up tensions that were inherent but not apparent. Miranda is questioning her relationship with Scott. But then we have this other suspicious, mysterious couple, Christopher and Claudia. She’s a contemptuous woman. And, of course, we have the roses.

The characters have implied interesting backstories. Scott is a trust fund kid who loves creating pastries. Miranda has a degree in art history. Chef Sigurdson is mysterious and demanding. Obi Juan is mysterious and nasty. You have to suggest mysterious connections and mysterious antecedents. What I’ve provided in Chapter 1 could be taken as a crime story because of the possible drug connection. Or maybe a relationship story because there’s tension between Miranda and Scott. Or maybe it will be about Miranda finding herself. Maybe Sigurdson will even turn out to be like the Swedish chef on the muppet show! That would be hilarious!


Laura fanned quickly through her copy of the interview questions and took another sip of wine.

RWB: How does writing a first chapter differ from writing, say, a second or third chapter?

LK: In my opinion, what I did is the easy part, but as a seasoned novelist the leading chapter is something I know how to do. The following chapters will pick up the threads and fill in the characters’ connections and antecedents and enrich them, leaving new possibilities for those who will write later chapters.

RWB: What are the challenges with a collective approach to writing a novel?

LK: That really depends on the writers who come after. Succeeding writers have the freedom to follow and create threads. Coming later, you have to account for what has come before. The later you write, the harder it is. I wrote late in the horror novel last year, under the name of Jeanne Moreau, and I felt like I had to rescue Julia, a character, from her circumstances. She was so vaporous she fainted at every crisis. This is sometimes the task of later writers. You can change or give life to a weak character. The people I admire are those who write the last chapter. They have a huge task to accomplish!

RWB: Just one more question, Laura. What advice would you like to give to the other 29 chapter writers for this year’s novel?

LK: Stick with the givens in the story. So, for instance, it would not be a given in the story that Miranda would turn out to be Scott’s half-sister. That’s just too weird! Ask yourself, where is the tension and how can I exacerbate and accelerate that tension? Everything you write has to Forward The Story. FTS! That is the writer’s obligation.


Here’s Laura with my copy of her novel Dark Continent

And here’s a link to her website, http://laurakalpakian.com/

Exclusive Interview with Seán Dwyer and Matt Morgan on Writing a RWB Novel During NaNoWriMo!


By Susan Chase-Foster for RWB

It was a dark and stormy afternoon, and the partial solar eclipse hadn’t helped any. Seán Dwyer arrived early at the Rustic Coffee and Wine Bar, which was unfortunate because I still hadn’t come up with any good questions, and you know how he loves to chat. Seán looked a bit harried from a lack of sleep, or maybe from his day job teaching Spanish at the university. A social butterfly, Seán worked his magic across the room, stopping at table after table to greet people he clearly knew, mostly women (his students?). He waved at the barista who waved back and shouted, “Got it, Profe!” Obviously, he’d been here before.


Within a minute, Seán’s 20 oz. pumpkin-spiced-extra-syrup-eggnog-hold-the-foam latte was delivered to our table. Seán smiled, squeezed the barista’s hand and asked me if I had any change for a tip. I found a buck in my jacket pocket, but when he frowned at me, I pulled out a fiver, which Seán slipped to the barista. He patted my hand, took a sip of his drink and whispered, “Thank you for getting me out of my office.”


Matt blew, or rather stumbled in twenty minutes late, smelling of a mixture of alcohols. He was wearing a slime green rain jacket, a Bumble t-shirt from Rudolf the Red-nose Reindeer and really tacky shades, possibly because of the eclipse, or maybe because his eyes were bloodshot from booze. Beneath his intoxicated grin, he looked irritated.


MM: Chase-Foster! Is there a Chase-Foster in this gawdawful place?

RWB: Over here, Matt.

SD: Jesus, what happened to him?

RWB: Shhhh.

MM: [Flopping into the chair next to Seán] What’ve they got here? I need a whisky. You’re paying, right?

RWB: Sure, I’m picking up your drink, Matt.

MM: I think you mean my tab, as in drinks plural, hon, or their ain’t gonna be no interview.

RWB: Yah, yah, I’ll get the tab. Whatever.

SD: [Gives me a puppy dog look]

RWB: Alright, you, too, Dwyer. This gig’s on me. Fortunately, it won’t take very long. You guys ready to answer some questions?

SD/MM: You betcha!/Where’s my drink!

I quickly thought of the first couple of questions as Seán waved the Barista over and whispered something in her ear. She shook her head, and then he said something else, and she nodded. In a flash the barista was back with a full bottle of Juan Gil and three wine glasses. She set them in front of Matt.

MM: What’s this crap?

SD: It’s called wine, Matt, Spanish wine actually, and one of my favorites. You’ll love it and, besides, they don’t have whiskey here.

MM: What the…!

SD: It’s this or nothing, dude. At least try it. [fills the glasses and hands one to each of us]

Matt grunted and took a tiny sip as if it were a Communion chalice, or poison. He paused for a millisecond, then quaffed the entire glass. Seán refilled Matt’s glass, and clinked Matt’s and mine with his own.

RWB: Okay, let’s get started. Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you as a writer. How long have you been writing and what is your focus?


SD: Well, I’m Sean Dwyer and I‘ve been writing fiction for many years, since I was a child. I completed two novels and have some short fiction published. I’ve also written non-fiction work about Pablo Neruda. I’ve got two or three projects going now, and I love being part of the community of writers here in Bellingham.


MM: I’m Matt Morgan and my gig is soft-boiled detective stories. I’m a plotter. I know Seán writes by the seat of his pants, but given my genre I need to know how I’m getting from A to B. Otherwise, I back myself into a corner. Spontaneity is for other birds. I have a series detective, and I have 6 stories in that series outlined and one written, just waiting to be hoisted on the public. I’m going Indie, baby!

RWB: You’ve both been involved in a Red Wheelbarrow Writers’ round-robin novel before. How many times have you participated, and why? What motivated you to want to be a part of a group novel?

SD: After I moved here in 2010 one of the first things I did was look up the Bellingham NaNoWriMo group and attend their kick-off meeting at the Black Drop. The group skewed young and didn’t seem interested in networking with me. And so, my next adventure into the writing community was to join a small group that included Shannon Laws and Susan Chase-Foster, among others. When October rolled around, Susan told me that I should sign up for the RWB round-robin. So, I wrote my chapter in the middle of the month, loved the concept and got hooked into RWB. I found the group extremely welcoming and so I began to attend first Saturday of the month happy hours, and by the following November Cami invited me to curate the horror novel. I had never written in collaboration with other writers and thought it would be a good growth experience. And it was.

MM: I got lured in this last November because Seán was managing the horror novel and he didn’t have enough people. You might not know this but we both grew up Gary, Indiana. I’ve known him my whole life [high-fives Seán]. So, anyhow, he emailed me and said, “ Can you write a couple of chapters to keep this book rolling?” So I said, “Dude, I’m not coming to Washington to write with you.” I misunderstood. I thought this was one of his writing retreat thingies, and that we would take turns writing chapters. I thought we would write it in one day and then post it over the course of the month. So I said, “I write soft-boiled mysteries and I don’t know how I would do with horror.” But it was a lot of fun. And Seán told me that some of the writers asked if I would be coming to RWB because they enjoyed my writing.

A guy who looks like a cross between a biker and a rock musician ambles up. “Hey,” he says looking at Seán, “aren’t you Seán Dwyer? Wow, I’ve heard about you! I totally want to read your novel. When’s it coming out?”

SD: Well, soon. It’s in progress now. Why, do you want to buy it?

“Dude! Yah! Can I give you my email and you let me know when it’s out?”

SD: Sure.

“You gotta pen, Loretta?” the guy shouts to his girlfriend at another table. She fumbles through her backpack and brings one over to him. The guy writes his email down on a napkin, hands it to Seán and leaves.

RWB: Moving on. What was it like having to write a chapter based on what came before your chapter? What were the positives and negatives?

SD: In 2012, I didn’t even know how to find the previous chapters on the website, so I wrote to Cami Ostman and said, “How will I know what I need to write?” She gave me the link, which is right on the website. I read the first thirteen chapters and made a spreadsheet of characters and their traits. I had an idea about what I wanted to write for chapter 15, but the writer of chapter 14 ruined everything I had planned for chapter 15. So I adjusted and had a great time writing my chapter. It was a really positive experience, nothing negative because it enabled me to see how flexible I can be.

MM: Seán warned me that any ideas I came up with would probably be trashed by previous writers. That added to the excitement of participating. Like I said, I’m a plotter, but once I read the chapter prior to mine there was so much material to work with that I simply took a couple of threads that I had as backups and was able to craft a good chapter. Then, I helped Seán wrap up the novel. We collaborated because I set up the final chapter for him. That was a real positive. Sort of like flying an airplane down from 30,000 feet. Hey, anymore vino, Dwyer? [holds his glass up for Seán to fill again]


I look around. The place is empty except for the barista and the three of us. It must be getting late.

RWB: Okay, guys, just a couple more questions. What did you try to do with your chapter? For example, did you consider that somebody had to write after you?

SD: It was clear that some people tried to leave threads open for the next writer and I did my part there creating potential complications that someone could develop. As curator of the novel, I could see that a couple of writers didn’t think about that, and so I would encourage writers this year to remember that they are passing a baton and that the baton needs to not close-off the story.

MM: I saw that people were doing something helpful by moving from one locale to another and creating a cliffhanger that the next writer could develop. I certainly did that when I thought of how my story arc could go. I made sure I created a juicy situation that the next writer could use or not as she or he saw fit. I was extremely fortunate that I got to write at the end of the month, as well, because I handed Seán the finale on a silver platter, and I let him kill everyone off.

RWB: Did you find writing a collaborative novel a creative process? What was your unique contribution?

SD: I did! The mental gymnastics involved were extremely energizing. And as for my contribution, when I wrote mid-month I kept as many threads open as possible and when I wrote at the end I brought everything home.

MM: For sure. It required agility which was a good stretch for a writer like me who plots every twist before writing a word. I suppose my big contribution was helping to filll days because Seán was pretty short on writers.

RWB: What did you learn in the process?

SD: That I’m a more imaginative writer than I thought.

MM: I learned that I can write by the seat of my pants the way Seán does. Now he has competition!

RWB; Would you do it again?

SD: I wouldn’t miss it!

MM: I wouldn’t miss it, to coin a phrase.

RWB: What advice would you give this year’s writers?

SD; I joined the project in 2012 with trepidation because I feared wrecking the entire novel. Enjoy the process. Be gracious for the legacy you’re creating for the next writer, and remember that no matter what your predecessors did, you will figure out a path for the story.

MM: I appreciate how the story reached me with lots of possibilities. Its good to give openings to your next writers.

RWB: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?

SD: I could not have done any of this without the support of Cami Ostman and Susan Chase-Foster who made me comfortable in this exciting endeavor.

MM: I blame Sean Dwyer for hooking me into this.

SD: Shut up!

The barista was standing at the door, a sure sign that the place was closing. Matt grabbed the wine bottle and swigged down the last few drops. I thanked the two writers and we headed out to the street where it was still dark and stormy, just the way we like it.

Poet Says Goodbye to Gabo

Our own Susan Chase-Foster says goodbye to her beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


What Is a Writer? by Robert Duke

Cover for Handout



Robert Duke is a RWB Writer who has recently self-published his book, Waking Up Dying: Caregiving When There Is No Tomorrow. His journey to write and publish this compelling book was not an easy or fast one, but it was a learning process. Below he tells us about his path as a writer/author and encourages us to keep plodding forward.

A huge thanks to Bob for sharing his hard-won wisdom with us!




A writer is one who writes.

It is where noun meets verb.

Everything else about writing is an adjective.

I became a professional writer in 1961 in the U.S. Air Force when at age 22 I was assigned to the Course Writing Office in the Air Training Command at Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado. My job was to write instructional texts and tests for teaching military students how to operate and maintain missiles and bombs

I was only a high school graduate and had no writing education or training, but I had demonstrated the ability to string together words into clear and accurate sentences.

From that beginning I wrote professionally for 50 years. Yet, my most recent and ambitious writing effort left me wondering not only whether I could write, but asking myself if I had ever been able to write.

Writing a slice of time, non-fiction memoir about caring for my dying wife had shaken the writing-me to my core. I couldn’t seem to do what at the outset had seemed so obviously doable. Though unnerved by what the experience was doing to me, I had this deep conviction that I could do it if I would only keep at it. Ultimately, I published the book and along the way discovered more about writing than I had learned during the past five decades of writing.

What I learned was that writing is a complex and multifaceted activity, and that no one but an occasional genius can do it all well. Writing for most of us self-styled or designated writers is some unique subset of skills and knowledge that enables us to start and finish assembling words into some coherent context that can be shared with others.

So what did I conclude writing to be?  What was my epiphany?

Writing is starting. Unless you start transforming thoughts into words and committing them to some tangible medium no writing is occurring. If no writing is happening then you are not a writer.

And I will stand by that definition, that writing (the verb) is the foundation of writing (the noun), because anything beyond that is such a complex personal experience as to defy comprehension. It is ultimately a journey that is impossible to share. But I will try.

I had written 22 emails to 17 friends and family over the 18 months of my wife’s battle with brain cancer and I was convinced that writing a book about my caring for her was simply a matter of writing introductions, transitions and conclusions around the updates and I would have a book. But after eight weeks I discovered the emails were extemporaneous and without context, so I abandoned that approach and started again, this time trying to view the whole 18 months in terms of key story elements. That seemed like it would work and ultimately that proved to be the framework for the finished book.

For the next six months I wrote for five to six hours everyday, producing three drafts totaling about 120,000 words. I had a couple of writer friends read portions of the manuscript and one brave soul read the whole thing and offered many solid editorial suggestions. But I knew good writing and a good story when I saw them and I knew none of this was “good”.  I sensed hopelessness rising in me like indigestion.

I went on to do three more revisions and knew when I completed revision six that I had made no progress and was in deep trouble. I had proceeded with the idea that if I would just keep writing I would finally hit my stride. My subconscious would kick in and things would piece themselves together and flow out coherently through my fingers tips onto the keyboard into the computer’s memory. I had never been stymied before and so my confidence remained high. I just had to stick with it, but a year had now passed and there was no end in sight. In fact, much to my horror, I realized I was merely writing the same thing over and over.

It began to dawn on me that I didn’t know what I was doing because this was writing unlike anything I had previously attempted. None of the skills, experience or techniques I had acquired was relevant to the work I was attempting. I needed help but was so helpless I didn’t know what kind of help or where to find it.

A writer friend in Anacortes, Washington, was having trouble with her book. She at least knew what kind of help she needed, but not where to find it so she called me to ask if I could recommend a developmental editor. “What’s a developmental editor,” I asked? She explained that such an editor plans and develops the overall structure of a book and may offer advice chapter by chapter.  I realized that’s what I needed and set out to find one.  For me, I found that a developmental editor was an objective person able to articulate the faults and strengths of a book manuscript.

I turned my manuscript over to a developmental editor and suffered the same feelings as when I first took my infant daughter to day care. We estimated it would take about two months of work to salvage the book, but it took more than three months. Over that time the editor fed back to me each chapter with revisions and recommendations, which I returned for assessment and a final content edit.

We didn’t always agree about what to do and how to do it, but we did agree on two essential things: there was a viable book in there somewhere and the editor was skillful and usually right. Since we had a viable book, it meant the editor wasn’t wasting her time on something beyond salvage and since she was usually correct the author was receiving constructive advice.

After three months of intense collaboration, the editor and author produced a manuscript that both were satisfied with and that was ready for copy editing and forwarding to a book designer. From design the book went to printing and bound copies were delivered on March 25, 2014, just six weeks later than the author had planned 20 months earlier.

Working with a developmental editor was just one of many unexpected and new experiences I had as a writer of 50 years while writing my first memoir. While getting the help of a developmental editor was key to successfully completing my first book for a general audience, what was critical to writing and finishing a 318-page highly personal book about the care and death of my wife of 40 years was that I kept on writing.

So if you want to be a writer, my advice after more than five decades of writing is to start writing and keep writing. Everything else will fall into place for you as a writer if you do that.


Bob Library Mug

Bob will be talking about his book Wednesday, July 30, 7 p.m. at Village Books in Bellingham, WA.  Email him with questions or comments: robertaduke.com


First Timer! Glad I Came.

New RWB attendee, Laura Malone, started her April reading with a short piece about her first time at happy hour. We asked her if we could reprint it here, because we want others to know that everyone is welcome at our gatherings. Laura trembled when she read, but pushed through her nerves. And we are glad she did. Her presence and her story are a welcome contribution to our community. If you’ve been thinking of attending a Red Wheelbarrow Happy Hour, don’t be shy. Follow Laura’s example and jump in!

by Laura Malone

A good friend is in the process of writing a teen Science fiction novel. She has been to a few of the local writing groups and suggested I join her last month at the Red Wheelbarrow group.

On the first Saturday of the month the Red Wheelbarrow writing group meets at a lovely Irish pub that the bartender opens an hour early so that they can meet and read aloud 5 minute portions of their work. Friends, spouses, editors and general supporters are also welcome to join in. There is an empty pitcher to chip in for the bottles of wine being passed around to share and an assortment of nibbles. Note to self…. bring a snack next time.

I am so glad she suggested I tag along! I love people, books and people who love both. I was excited to see a new side of it and curious if I would find a connection here for myself. In a way it seemed like a behind the scenes pass to the dressing room after a show or a peek into the kitchen of a favorite restaurant.

The group was a comfortable mix of many different types of people working on many different types of projects…poetry, memoirs novels and I think at least one short story. They were warm and kind to each other catching up and introducing themselves to the newcomers.

As everyone settled in, I could sense the tension of preparations for the coming sharing of their work. Pages and tablets appeared in some hands as they signed up for the order they would read in. After a quick self-introduction around the circle of about 20 people, they got right to it!

A flurry of different styles and stories were shared over the next hour or so. I enjoyed every moment. The people were attentively listening to the others work and they enthusiastically clapped at the end for all. They used a timer to keep to the five minutes, but they also used a soft kind hand at the end if the writer was at a crucial point of their work or hadn’t notice the buzzer went off.

When all had finished there was a palpable sigh of relief and appreciation. Some stayed to relax and mingle while others gathered up their snack trays and left quickly. We lingered a while to find out a few more details of the writing retreats and to chat with a few of the members. Overall it was lovely! I knew I would return and that I would bring with me an offering that I would read aloud…voice shaking or not.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-writers-block-image19886647Now for the tough part…What am I going to write about and why. More and more at this point in my life I am especially guided by asking the question and listening to the answer of the why….Going to the group and listening to the others read what they had chosen to write helped me sort this out. Time has also helped me know that we all have something to say. Whether it is to process an experience for ourselves, share an experience with others or create something from scratch that is as compelling to create as it is to consume the completed work.

I have wondered before if my experiences over the last few years, my ongoing commentary in my head and what I have learned from it all are the makings for something to be written down and shared. At the beginning and in the midst of the tumultuous middle, it just seemed like toxic waste that should be cleaned up and incinerated. However, now that I am further along the path, I realize it might do me some good and offer someone else swimming trough a similar rough sea a glimpse from the safety of shore….My why….

The years since 2007 would provide me with more than enough material to work on and would allow me to jump right in and avoid my strong skills of procrastination.

Warning: [I've got] no writing experience, no reading experience probably too many analogies as well as grammar that some would consider tortuous!


And even with “no experience,” Laura offered us a heartfelt reading that took us right into the heart of her journey of self-discovery and growth. Join us with a five-minute reading of your own (or just come to listen). We meet the first Saturday of every month at Uisce Irish Pub in downtown Bellingham at 4pm. Come on down.