Alaska author wants to build writers' retreat

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A best-selling mystery writer from Alaska wants to establish a residency retreat for female writers, hoping to offer women the same help she received more than two decades ago.

"It was Dana Stabenow 25 years ago, that's who I want here," said Stabenow, the author of 29 novels, including her best-known works, the Kate Shugak mystery series featuring an Aleut private investigator.

Stabenow, 61, has started a fundraising campaign to build a main house and six cabins for the Storyknife Writers' Retreat near her home in scenic Homer, Alaska, and its stunning view of Cook Inlet. The goal is $1 million for construction and then a $20 million endowment for the operations.

"If I actually pull this off," Stabenow says, "this will be the writers' retreat that Kate Shugak built."

Long before she became famous, Stabenow worked in the rugged Alaska oil fields on the North Slope. She quit the job in 1982, went to graduate school and set a goal to publish something before her savings from the oil patch job ran out.

"The first thing my writing ever earned me wasn't an advance on a book, it wasn't a fee for an article or anything like that. It was, in fact, a residency at Hedgebrook Farm," she said.

Hedgebrook was established on Whidbey Island, Wash., as a retreat for female writers in 1989 by Nancy Nordhoff, a Seattle philanthropist.

"I did some really good writing there, but I'll tell you what the epiphany was," Stabenow said. "It was the first time that anyone acted like writing was a real job."

As her career progressed with mystery, suspense and science fiction novels, Stabenow bought land in Homer with the possible idea of selling it at a profit later in life.

Then another thought came to her, why not build something substantial to leave behind? Hedgebrook is currently the only retreat for female writers, and she figured more opportunities, more cottages, were needed for female writers.

"Why don't I build them?" she said.

The plan is causing excitement at Hedgebrook.

"The world definitely needs more writing retreats so writers can go deeper into their work, and we're absolutely supportive," said Katie Woodzick, external relations manager at the Whidbey Island retreat.

If Storyknife is established, the residency program would provide solitude for six women at a time. The residencies would run anywhere from two to eight weeks, offering women room and board, and silence and solitude to concentrate on their craft.

Stabenow envisions Storyknife benefiting "somebody who is broke, who is discouraged, who has seen every manuscript that she has sent to New York returned like a little homing pigeon, who needs just a little encouragement to just hang in there until her ship comes in," Stabenow said.

It can also be the woman who gets up at 4 a.m. to have an hour to write before her family and life consumes the rest of the day.

Phase one kicked off last week — a year to raise $1 million to construct the main building, cottages, roads and septic system. The goal is to break ground next April.

"If someone wrote a $1 million check or four $250,000 checks today, the builder could start tomorrow," Stabenow said.

But she's also realistic. "I don't know how many people there are with a million dollars who are inclined to give it to a writers' retreat."

The project is accepting donations at If, after a year, the plan isn't realized, she says all donations will be returned, minus credit card processing fees.

But if the goal is met, the second phase is to set up a $20 million endowment so future fundraising won't be necessary.

She's also set up a living trust and all her real and intellectual property is given to Storyknife when she dies. Her books will continue to earn money after her death, as will any stage and screen rights.

"The board of directors will be able to mine the income of those rights for the benefit of Storyknife in perpetuity, I would hope," she said.

Stabenow has thought a lot about the first woman who might receive a residency at the retreat, maybe someone not very unlike her most famous character.

"Kate is an Alaska Native, and she is a woman. I would be ecstatic if the very first writer to step foot in a Storyknife cabin was an Alaska Native woman writer," Stabenow said.