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Storyknife Writers’ Retreat: Alaskan author plans to double opportunity for women writers

Alaskan author Dana Stabenow writes from her home overlooking Kachemak Bay in Homer.

Alaskan author Dana Stabenow writes from her home overlooking Kachemak Bay in Homer.

© Nathan Havey, courtesy of Thrive Consulting Group

Dana Stabenow, the author of twenty-nine books including those in the wildly popular Kate Shugak series, doesn’t forget where she came from—in more ways than one.

Not only is her Kate Shugak character an Aleut who lives on a 160-acre homestead in a generic national park in Alaska, the state where Stabenow was born, raised, and calls home—but Stabenow also hasn’t forgotten the life-changing investment that was made on behalf of Hedgebrook Farm Retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, Washington, where she was granted two weeks of room, board, and solitude in order to apply her focused energy towards what would later be her first published book.

It was the combination of these two formative components in Stabenow’s life that provided inspiration for what she sees as her most important project of all, the product of all her written works combined: Storyknife Writers’ Retreat, a proposed six-cabin retreat for women writers—in the tradition of Hedgebrook Farm with an Alaskan twist—expected to serve a projected forty (with potential to serve up to one hundred) women writers each year by providing room, board, solitude, transportation from Anchorage, and Alaska experiences to help them hone their craft.

The retreat will be built on six acres of ocean view property in Homer. Select women writers will be granted a stay between six and eight weeks, write all day, and come together for dinner in the main house, where meals will be prepared and served. These six cabins at Storyknife will give aspiring women writers a place of their own and time free of any other obligation. Their only job while at the retreat is to write.

 

Where She Came From

Born in Anchorage and raised in Kachemak Bay, Stabenow spent her early years surrounded by Alaska Native friends, neighbors, and culture.

“I didn’t realize I was ‘white’ until I went to college,” she says, indicating that skin color was as much a non-issue to her friends as it was to her.

It only makes sense that Kate Shugak, the protagonist in most of her novels, would be a composite of those people to which the author was exposed, representing the quintessential strong and truly Alaskan female character. Stabenow hopes to garner interest among the Alaska Native community, not only in the form of grantees, but also funders interested in helping preserve what will otherwise be lost.

Litera scripta manent,” Stabenow says. “What is written endures. If you don’t write it down, it will be lost—period—end. In the Bush, there is a lifestyle going on now that is not going to survive the people living it—and if it doesn’t get written down, it will not be remembered.”

Although a fictitious character, Shugak is directly responsible for the bigger part of Stabenow’s success, so much so that she feels compelled to share with women like her. “This will be the retreat that Kate Shugak built,” Stabenow says. “And she is a woman and an Alaska Native.”

It is also Alaska Native culture that provided Stabenow with the inspiration for the name of the retreat: Storyknife.


© Nathan Havey, courtesy of Thrive Consulting Group

A yaaruin is traditionally made of ivory, bone, antler, or wood.

 

According to Stabenow’s website, storyknife is the English translation for the Yupik word yaaruin. Traditionally, young Yupik girls would use yaaruin made from wood, bone, antler, or ivory to carve stories in snow and in river banks to entertain their younger siblings. The stories often featured the lesson that disobeying one’s parents could carry the consequence of being killed and eaten by monsters. As girls who write stories about monsters in the snow become women who write full-length novels—some of them about monstrous acts—it’s a more-than-fitting name for a writer’s retreat for women in Alaska founded by a writer of murder mysteries.

“As a traditional Alaska Native vehicle for storytelling,” Stabenow says, “it is the perfect metaphor for what we hope to accomplish at Storyknife.”


© Nathan Havey, courtesy of Thrive Consulting Group

Dana Stabenow, shown writing in her office, is the author of twenty-nine books, including the extremely popular Kate Shugak series.

 

Stabenow is proud to be the “100 percent, through-and-through” product of the Alaska public school system. She attended Cordova Elementary School, Seldovia Elementary and High Schools, received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1973, and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from University of Alaska Anchorage in 1985.

The Hedgebrook retreat is the only writer’s retreat in existence exclusively for women, as far as Stabenow knows. Once Storyknife Writers’ Retreat is operational, it will have doubled the opportunity for women writers to obtain a residency in such a retreat, and Stabenow is proud to provide women with this opportunity—but says that even with her contribution, women writers deserve much more.

“Women are still the primary caregivers,” she says. “They are the primary homemakers. Women still earn sixty cents to the man’s dollar. Women still need the extra help. They just do—it’s a fact. Probably most educated men would agree with that. So it’s got to be for women. It’s going to be for women writers for those reasons.”

 


© Nathan Havey, courtesy of Thrive Consulting Group

Alaskan author Dana Stabenow and general contractor Scott Bauer discuss the layout of the proposed retreat.

 

Construction

Stabenow demonstrates that she knows how to reward a business for a job well done: She has re-hired Scott Bauer, the contractor who built her house in 2006, to be the general contractor for Storyknife.

“We’ve stayed good friends, and have communicated quite a bit since then,” Bauer says.

Stabenow plans to build six thirty-by-forty-foot cabins, each with a bedroom, bathroom, and Internet access. Lunch will be delivered to the residents in their cabins, and dinner will be served in the main house, modeled after Stabenow’s own. This main house will be the residence of the caretaker/chef, one of only two full-time employees at the retreat, the other being the executive director.

The timeline for construction, according to Bauer, is contingent upon the success of fundraising. When asked about the current phase of construction, Bauer responds with, “waiting for money to appear.”

“We’ve done a few things like a soils adequacy test for a septic system,” Bauer says, noting that the septic system is usually the biggest issue when it comes to building in Homer, “and everything passed… but Dana wants to feel confident that she does have the money before we get too carried away.”

“We are considering putting a road extension in, and the things we have done, including the soils test and septic design, are all things that add value to the land regardless, so we will continue along those paths,” Bauer says.

Since having cleared the hurdle of the soils and septic tests, Bauer rests assured that Storyknife is “not that difficult of a project”: six small cabins and a five-star energy rated house exactly like one he has built before.

 

Heating a Unique Site

“We want to try some alternative energy things,” Bauer says. “The cabins will be very small and very well-insulated, so we’re looking at perhaps heat pumps and possibly some alternative heat source for the little cabins.”

According to Bauer, heat pumps are not yet popular in Alaska.

“What they do is take heat out of the air,” he says, using the “opposite of a refrigerator” as an illustration. “Even air down to thirty or thirty-two degrees has heat in it, so a heat pump is just a compressor that extracts the heat from the air and puts it into a building.”

Because heat pumps get less effective and efficient in the cold, the cabins will need to have another heat source, most likely electric. Despite gas being plumbed in to many parts of Homer at this time, it is not yet available in the vicinity of Storyknife. The heating options available in Stabenow’s area include propane, oil, and electric.

Although some of Stabenow’s neighbors have found that the area has excellent conditions for wind energy, Stabenow and Bauer agree that the batteries used to store the wind energy are not yet effective enough to make wind energy viable for the retreat. Stabenow admits that the future could take her in any direction, but that she needs to plan for what makes sense right now, hoping to see the retreat finished next summer.

 

Good Neighbors

Stabenow aims to remain a well-respected neighbor by making sure the residents of Homer feel a sense of ownership in the retreat’s success by utilizing local businesses whenever possible.

Stabenow plans to provide each of the residents with one Alaska excursion as a part of her residency, if possible. If sufficiently funded to implement this plan, Stabenow says she will definitely be using Bald Mountain Air and Mako’s Water Taxi for the residents’ adventures but will be spreading excursion opportunities around the entire Homer tourism business sector. While implementation of this plan as part of the retreat residency is up to the discretion of the board, Stabenow likes the idea so much that she may pay for it out-of-pocket, if she is able.

Additionally, her Alaskan neighbors seem to be willing to transcend their regular business offerings in order to be involved in an undeniably beneficial project. Rita Jo Shoulz, former owner of Fitz Creek Gardens and current peony grower, has volunteered to do the landscaping, which will include, in Shoulz’s words, “lots of peonies.”

The menu will also have a decidedly local influence.

“Storyknife will be a nonprofit group” Stabenow says, “which means it can sign up for the moose road kill program. Any fisherman who runs out of freezer space, Storyknife stands ready to take their overflow. Storyknife will have a hoop garden and supply the retreat’s table with as many greens and vegetables as we can grow.”

 

Strength in Union

Storyknife Writers’ retreat founder and president Stabenow has assembled three board members and is currently trolling for more. So far, the board includes Pati Crofut, executive director for Arts on the Edge, as vice president; Rhonda Sleighter, a paralegal, as secretary; and Nora Elliot, an Anchorage-based CPA, as treasurer. Noteworthy members include Catherine Stevens, wife of late Senator Ted Stevens and former board member for the National Endowment of the Arts; and Jeannie Penney, rumored to be an incredible organizer.

At the time of this writing, Storyknife is still waiting for official word from the IRS on its status as a 501 (c) 3, tax-exempt nonprofit corporation. However, that is not stopping Stabenow from asking for support.

Stabenow has launched a crowd-sourced funding round on Storyknife’s website and on her fan sites. The organization is accepting donations of all denominations, but current donors can receive gifts that range from a commemoration in the form of a brick or a wall plate at a to-be-determined location at the retreat ($1,000 donation) to the opportunity to name a cabin after the woman of their choice ($250,000 donation).

According to the Storyknife website, the current $1 million fundraising campaign is the first phase in a much larger effort to raise a total of $21 million to cover the costs of developing the property and ensuring its continuing legacy through a $20 million endowment.

Stabenow certainly sets a good example of charity by donating a large portion of her own money to the project, “chipping away” at the construction as she can afford it, with her personal total up to more than $15,000. As a writer with no heirs and few encumbrances, she feels that this retreat is her legacy for women with great potential and great need, so they too can enjoy the reward of a fair living for what they do best.

“I just need a little money every year to travel,” she says, “because I want to continue to do that. Other than that, I’m going to write books until I can’t write them anymore, so I’m going to have income,” she pauses, switching to a comedic third-person narrative, “she says confidently.”

Mari Gallion is Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.

Copyright © 2013 Alaska Business Monthly. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in the August 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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