Arts and Entertainment

Author Dana Stabenow hopes to turn her success into a legacy that will benefit future women writers

Best-selling Author Dana Stabenow has a great view and an ambitious vision -- and she wants to share both.

The view is of Iliamna Volcano, whose white cliffs rise 10,000 feet above Cook Inlet, plainly visible from her house west of Homer.

"I can look out my window and see it," she said. "And they will too."

"They" are the women writers who Stabenow hopes will come to this spot for a few precious weeks of unencumbered time to concentrate on their work. On April 11 she announced a crowd-sourcing effort to raise funds to build an artistic haven called Storyknife Writers Retreat.

If the vision becomes reality, Storyknife will be only the second such facility dedicated to women writers. The first, which Stabenow is using as a model for her retreat, is Hedgebrook Farm on Whidby Island in Washington state. Hedgebrook began in 1988 with funding from a Seattle philanthropist named Nancy Nordhoff, said Vito Zingarelli, the program's residency director.

"Writers stay here between two and six weeks," he said. "Women come from all over the world to be here, about 100 each year, seven at a time."

One of the women participants in Hedgebrook's second year was an aspiring and unpublished Alaskan, Stabenow.

"It was beautiful," she recalled. "Rural. Quiet. You could focus your attention on honing your craft." Women had their own cabins in which to work. Lunch was brought to them. At dinner they met to eat and talk.

The main benefit wasn't the setting, but the attitude of the place, Stabenow said.

"The seminal event happened at dinner on the first evening. You know how your mom always told you to help clean the table? Well, when we were done eating, I started to clean the table. Nancy barked at me, 'Sit down!' Then she smiled and said, 'You've already done your work for today.'

"It was the first time anybody had really said to me that writing was a real job. More women need to hear that and I hope to have many, many women writers experience it at Storyknife."

Three years later, Stabenow's first mystery novel featuring a gritty Alaskan Native sleuth named Kate Shugak, "A Cold Day for Murder," was published and won the Mystery Writers of America's coveted Edgar Award.

Since then she's become one of the state's rare growth industries, with dozens of books featuring Shugak and other recurring characters, her new titles regularly showing up on best-seller lists.

For the past 25 years her thoughts have often returned to Hedgebrook and what it would take to do something similar in Alaska.

"It was on my wish list but way out there," she said. In 2004 she bought her current property near Homer, in part with an eye toward an eventual northern Hedgebrook. "But the place was mortgaged and it seemed like a long way off."

Then a miracle happened. Publishing began to shift from paper to the Internet. For many in the industry it was a disaster, sending book stores out of business, publishers reeling, authors without their familiar marketplace.

Stabenow, however, embraced with new technology with gusto. She set up a lively website for fans and even went straight to electronic editions, bypassing traditional publishing altogether in some cases. She was rewarded when readers started paying for web access to her out-of-print titles.

"E-books tripled my income," she said. "I paid off the mortgage last September. For now, I'm debt free."

She's contacted a contractor and drawn up plans for the site to include six cabins for guest writers and one central building for evening meals.

The cabins will have hot and cold running water, showers, toilets, a hotplate and small refrigerator. "We'll be trolling for women from around the English-speaking world," Stabenow said. It's important that potential applicants don't think they'll be signing up for an Alaska version of "Survivor." Stabenow said she had helped organize writers events in Anchorage and often found it hard to convince non-Alaskans to attend.

The plan is for the retreat to operate year round, which could be another obstacle. "We may wind up steering Alaska writers to the winter residencies," she said.

But no one will have to pay. Like Hedgebrook, Stabenow sees Storyknife as a program that should be free to participants. "If they get themselves to Anchorage, we'll pay for everything else," she said.

The Storyknife name comes from the traditional blade used by Inuit people, usually children, to draw pictures in snow or mud while recounting tales, often connected to survival and proper behavior. Stabenow said her friend, Katherine Gottlieb, who pushed her to apply for the Edgar Award, gave her a small ivory carving by Anchorage artist Richard Lonsdale when she attended the award.

"I was wearing it when I won," Stabenow recalled. The miniature is now the logo for the proposed retreat.

(Gottlieb, CEO of Southcentral Foundation, has since been awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship for her work in public health. Lonsdale has a studio in the Fourth Avenue Marketplace in downtown Anchorage.)

Having a dream is one thing, coming up with the money is another. Stabenow said she needs $1 million to built Storyknife. For that, she has turned to crowd-sourcing, seeking donors to cover initial costs.

"If we had $1 million next week we could have shovels in the ground," she said. "In Danaworld that would be ideal. But I'm giving myself a year to raise the money."

Building Storyknife is just the first step, however. To keep it running will cost a lot more. If she can get the retreat built, Stabenow's next step would be to create an endowment of $20 million to provide revenues to cover operating expenses into the indefinite future.

And for that, she's putting her money where her heart is. "I've created a living trust," she said. "All of my intellectual properties and real property will go to Storyknife."

That could be a substantial amount given Stabenow's steady production and success so far, particularly if any of the various television and movie options on the books generate a hit.

At the moment she's working on a historical novel about Marco Polo's daughter that's been tugging at her. "My publisher would like me to do five more Kate Shugak novels first," she said, "but I've wanted to do this for 15 years."

No one ever said Dana Stabenow couldn't be patient. Born in Alaska, raised in Seldovia across Kachemak Bay from Homer, she was in her 40s before she finally made any money as a fiction writer. This September she will return to Hedgebrook for another stay, this time as an honored alumna, one of the place's indisputable success stories.

She turned 61 March 27 and said she's in good health. "I went to the Mayo Clinic and got the executive physical and they said I'm A-O.K.

"But I don't want to have a board of directors that has to pinch pennies. I want to see this fully endowed before I die. I want this to live after me."


Anchorage Daily News