By Susan Chase-Foster
“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”
—William Carlos Williams
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 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.