November’s Featured RWB Writer of the Month: Jennifer Wilke

Posted by & filed under .

Red Wheelbarrow Writers is about community. To that end, we’d like to introduce you to some of our regulars, to those who contribute to our community with generosity, wisdom, and the gift of their presence.

We’d like you to meet Jennifer Wilke, writer of historical fiction and, more recently, biography. A big thanks to Jennifer for being our first featured writer.

Jennifer, in your writing life what do you find most rewarding?
The best reward is claiming the stories only I can tell. In film school I took a marvelous Storytelling class with writer/poet Philip Daughtry (www.philipdaughtry.com). How to find the story you must tell, the story uniquely yours. We performed our stories solo; I remember using a red shawl for a head scarf, a skirt, a blanket, a shroud, exploring how to dramatize old secrets. Finding the story I’m compelled to tell is exhilarating, and fuels the hard work of pulling it off.

It’s rewarding to find out I’ve made the fiction feel real to someone else. I’ve invented letters between the characters in my historical novel, and on two occasions someone asked if I’d used a letter actually written in 1864. Way cool. And it’s also great when I read something aloud that I meant to be funny and people laugh.

What is most frustrating?
Trial and error. How long it takes to make each word on the page find its right place. Reading what I wrote and liked yesterday, and finding it needs more work today. I’ve tried outlines, but they don’t work for me. Starting a scene, I’ll know the basic plot events, characters, historical details. But what’s really on my mind is getting the feel of it right, the sensory and emotional layers, the mystery, all the stuff between the lines. For example: the historical novel I’ve finished is grounded by my child’s experience of visiting my grandparents, who lived unhappily in a 4-story brick house at 914 Cambridge Road in Coshocton, Ohio. The high-ceilinged rooms were dark, even at noon. The Persian rugs were well-worn, the top of the upright piano dense with framed, dusty portraits of people who were dead. The glass-paneled bookcases held thick, leather-bound history books. All the furniture was too stiff or too soft to sit on. Every place at the dining room table had its own “salt cellar,” tiny bowls with tiny spoons filled with salt to serve yourself. Every cup had a matching saucer. The house smelled of leather and dust and wool and wood polish and secrets. My mother was tense, my grandmother was genteel and smiling, my grandfather had a stern moustache that scratched when he kissed my cheek. I knew my grandparents were glad to see me. Everything else was an abyss.

It takes a while, sometimes a long while, to make my scenes feel like that.
Writing a short summary of my novel is excruciating. I started with the entire English language, and had to pick out the 150 words I needed. The one-sentence version is taking even more sweat.

The isolation of writing in a room by myself every day. RWB is a great opportunity to build a writing community that challenges that isolation, graced by Laura Kalpakian’s generosity to teach the rest of us.

What project(s) are you undertaking now? Where are you in the process?
I’ve completed a first novel manuscript, THE COLOR OF PRAYER, about an Ohio boy, the girls he loved, and the Civil War that stole their innocence as it forged America’s soul. The story’s based in large part on my great-grandfather’s papers and diaries we discovered hidden in the attic a dozen years ago. I’m proofing the final (fourth) draft and preparing the query package. I’ve gathered names of potential agents for several years, and plan to query six at a time. I’ve also entered chapters in eight short story contests that offer cash awards and have great titles, like “the John Steinbeck Short Fiction Award”—mainly to help me get over the jitters and submit work online, meet a deadline, follow submission guidelines, let go.

Once I’ve started querying, I look forward to getting on with a non-fiction book proposal, also historical. The RWB non-fiction proposal workshop in October was enormously helpful to that decision. For this new historical project, my research will be primarily with local documents and people, and is a project with blessedly finite scope, involving two murders and an unjust verdict, not a whole war.

What is the role of readers for your work? Do you share your work in draft? What do you most value in your readers?
The most important thing I did after writing the first draft of my novel was to find a critique group in Bellingham (through Pacific Northwest Writers Assoc. online classifieds). I actually had to audition, then learn to listen. We use UW’s creative writing program guidelines and meet once a week, a good motivator to finish pages. We each bring and read aloud about 5 pages a week; I rarely bring a first draft. The current members are all wonderful writers: Janet Oakley (TREE SOLDIER), Heidi Thomas (COWGIRL DREAMS, FOLLOW THE DREAM), Nancy Adair, and Kathy Smith. Their feedback’s been invaluable, in terms of character, pacing, showing not telling. Those who are published inspire and encourage those of us who aren’t published yet. Giving constructive critiques has taught me a lot too, articulating what works for me and what doesn’t, and why. The simplest questions by other writers are often the most helpful, allowing me to reconsider my choices and intention, make a story commitment I’d avoided, omit something that I might love but serves no story purpose.

Patient friends and acquaintances, knowing I’ve been working on this novel for years, tend to ask, “Is(n’t) your book done yet?” By empowering contrast, a writer friend Toby Sonneman (SHARED SORROWS: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust; a great blog: www.tobykitchen.wordpress.com) asked me a perfect question: what did I think my revisions had added to my original draft? I could answer without hesitation, seeing in a new and clearer light the irrefutable evidence that taking my time to get it right had been worth it.

Who are the writers you have admired in the past and why?
Elizabeth Bowen’s A HOUSE IN PARIS made me want to be a writer. A young boy waits for a promised visit by his cherished, absent mother and she never comes. I was 12 when I read it, awestruck that Bowen could describe how everybody felt about everything.

Laura Kalpakian’s THESE LATTER DAYS and CAVEAT are marvelously structured, character rich historical novels.

I read many debut novels, finding inspiration in those that are authentic and resonant to me: C.E. Morgan’s ALL THE LIVING; Howard Bahr’s THE BLACK FLOWER, Robert Goolrick’s A RELIABLE WIFE, Robin Oliveira’s MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, Lisa Genova’s STILL ALICE. Footsteps to which I aspire [as I take note of their agents]

What have you discovered in your life as a writer?
I need to be braver. Stay honest.

Mrs. Reemer had everyone in my third grade class draw a picture of a robin with crayons. She put them side by side on the chalkboard, and told us to vote on the best one. Feeling the unjustness of artistic competition as well as a juvenile desire for appreciation, when Mrs. Reemer pointed to my robin, I raised my hand. I had carefully considered all the others and sincerely thought mine was best. To my utter astonishment, no one agreed. I kept my hand high, and wondered what was wrong with everybody.

As a grownup and a writer now, I aspire to stay as confident and honest as I was in the third grade.

Thanks again to Jennifer Wilke for letting us get to know her a little better!

3 Responses to “November’s Featured RWB Writer of the Month: Jennifer Wilke”

  1. Susan Bliss

    Jennifer Wilkw was always meant for greatness. She’s a teacher, a patient teacher, a learner, but an impatient learner, who has finally found that what she wanted was right there waiting for her all the time – the Next Logical Step in her wonderfully full life. Jennifer didn’t learn the writing craft, she invented it. Jennifer, the sky’s the limit and I am looking forward to your new book. I know this is way out of date and will probably never reach you.

    Reply
  2. Heidi M. Thomas

    This is a wonderful interview. Jennifer is amazing in the way that she has learned the writing craft. I look forward to her book being published. I think it will go far!

    Reply
  3. Tele

    Wonderful, Jennifer! Having appreciated the perspective and experience that you’ve brought to our classes, I loved getting this more intimate understanding of your writing process. Thank you for being brave, confident and honest enough to kick off RWB’s Writer of the Month!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *