Chippewa Valley Book Fest's Past, Present, and Future: An Interview with Fest Co-Chair Mildred Larson


by Chloe Ackerman

The Chippewa Valley Book Festival began on Monday, October 15th and goes through Thursday, October 25th, spreading literary events across the Chippewa Valley. The festival’s lineup includes a variety of events like writing workshops, dinner discussions, events for children, and much more, so there is something for everyone!

I had the chance to sit down with Mildred Larson, a co-chair of the festival, who has been with the Chippewa Valley Book Festival since the very beginning. We talked about how it has grown over the years and what she is looking forward to in this year’s festival.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: How did the book festival start?

MILDRED LARSON: The book festival started out as a partnership between the L. E. Phillips Memorial Library and the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center 19 years ago. I was working at the public library, we had a grant from the American Library Association for a series of authors and discussions, and we needed a co-sponsor separate from the library. We found the Literary Arts Committee from the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center. Their representative was Karen Loeb, now a retired UWEC English department faculty member, so she and I did that grant. It just seemed to work well, and I think that’s how it got started. We were able to get a few more grants to bring more authors in so obviously it wasn’t the size of the current festival. At first, it was called The Festival of the Turning Leaves. I think people didn’t quite get the pun of turning pages in a book and fall, so that was kind of lost. We decided to change the name to something more obvious, and it became the Chippewa Valley Book Festival.

Many people have helped with the festival over the years, but the UWEC English department has been very helpful all along. Nadine St. Louis, who has passed away, was an English professor and poet and one of the first chairs of the book festival committees. After she passed away, we started to have a memorial poetry reading at the festival in Nadine’s honor at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The theme of this year’s reading is called Words Without Borders: A Celebration of Poetry in Transition. It’s at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, October 19th.

CA: How has the Chippewa Valley Book Festival grown since it began in 2000?

ML: It’s grown in a lot of different ways; we have expanded the number of days, and we’ve expanded to include more locations. This year, we have programs in five public libraries: the Eau Claire Public Library, and then also in Menominee, Chippewa Falls, Altoona, and Fall Creek. We’ve tried various locations around town, for example, we have had programs for several years at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have programs on university campuses, and this year for the first time we have a program at UW-Stout.

We’ve also added different kinds of events, such as writing workshops and a theatre event. The biggest addition has been authors in the public schools. We have ten authors coming to public schools in Eau Claire, Menominee, and Mondovi so it varies each year. It’s a wonderful experience for the kids. We have writing workshops for children and a Young Writers Showcase.  For the showcase, young writers submit writing to be selected by English honors students at UWEC.  Those whose work is selected will read at the Grand Theater in Eau Claire on Sunday, October 21st in the afternoon. It's fun and lively, and the children are excited to read to an audience.

CA: What are you most excited for in this year’s Chippewa Valley Book Festival?

ML: I am most excited about moving some of our programs into the Pablo Center. Barstow & Grand, David Treuer’s Native Americans and the Imagination, and then the third one at the Pablo Center is Caroline Fraser, author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. David Treuer’s talk will be in the JAMF Theatre, the Barstow & Grand release party will be in one of the rehearsal rooms, I believe, and then the final one, Caroline Fraser, will be in the big RCU Theatre which is a large auditorium. So we will be using three different spaces in the Pablo Center.

CA: What kind of connections do the authors in this festival have to the Chippewa Valley?

ML: We have local authors and we also have authors coming from Los Angeles, California, Spartanburg, South Carolina, and other faraway locations. This year we have three authors who are regional or local, there is Nickolas Butler who is going to be at UW-Stout, there’s Thomas Pearson who is going to be at the Fall Creek Library talking about frac sand mining, and then Molly Patterson who will be at the Menominee Public Library. Every year we have sort of a mix of local and regional writers and writers from around the country.

CA: What do you hope those who attend The Chippewa Valley Book Festival events will take away from them?

ML: I mostly hope they enjoy themselves. We look for authors who are going to be exciting presenters and we have scheduled a great range of types of literature and topics, so people should be able to find whatever’s of interest to them. For writers, we hope some of them will be inspired by the writers we bring, and then the people will maybe find some reading they want to follow-up with.

CA: Is there anything else you would like to add?

ML: Because it’s a long festival, it’s sometimes hard to get all the events out in front of people. I hope people will go to the website and look for more information on the authors and the programs. I hope that they will be coming all the way through October 25th when we have two very excellent programs; there’s Molly Patterson and there’s Heather Swan who is going to be at the Chippewa Falls Public Library. She has a book about honeybees, and it’s a very beautiful looking book. I am certainly hoping that people will continue right through the 25th of October.

Barstow & Grand Issue 2 Sneak Preview!


by Erin Stevens

The second issue of Barstow & Grand will soon be released into the world, and we’re getting ready to celebrate. Consider this your formal invitation to the issue two release party on Tuesday, October 16th!

At this year’s release party, you’ll have the chance to purchase issues one and two of Barstow & Grand, as well as any other books or publications by the contributors of issue two. The editors of the journal will be our hosts for the evening, so you’ll have the opportunity to get to know them, say hi, and ask them any questions you may have about submitting to the journal.


Then, of course, there’s the main attraction of the evening: a reading. You’ll be able to sit back and listen as the issue’s 14 contributors read from the work they submitted to the journal.

“The mix of contributors will show off the range of writers we were able to publish,” says Eric Rasmussen, Editor of Barstow & Grand. “People who live in town and who are traveling over to participate, young, old, folks who have published widely, and others for whom this will be the first publication.”

One of those contributors who submitted her work from outside Eau Claire city limits is Rebekah Morrisson. Morrisson, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2014, currently lives in Maine where she works as a Trail Specialist at Baxter State Park. She drew from her trail building work for the short story that’s featured in issue two.

“Having my first published short story featured in Barstow & Grand's second issue is more than an honor,” says Rebekah.


Since graduating from UWEC, she’s lived in parts of California and Maine for months at a time, making it difficult to find writing communities. That’s why she’s so grateful that Barstow & Grand exists so that she can stay connected to a community she loves so much.

“While I can't attend the release party, I can share in the excitement of another issue by reading it and experiencing the stories there which ground me in a community that I always want to be a part of,” says Rebekah. (Click here to hear a recent piece written by Rebekah).

Something else for attendees to look forward to 一 a chance to check out Eau Claire’s brand new arts center. Yes, you read that right! This year’s release party will be hosted at the Pablo Center at the Confluence. Come for the reading, mingle with members of your favorite local writing community, and also see what this new venue has to offer.

When asked what he’s most excited for, Eric’s answer came without hesitation.

“My favorite part is handing issues to the contributors and everyone who helped with the issue,” he says. “Producing the journal is a lot of work, and that moment when people see it and flip to their names or pieces - that’s a pretty cool moment.”

You, too, can be part of this moment! Make sure to come to the Pablo on Tuesday, October 16th at 7 p.m. to grab your copy of issue two and support our talented community! In advance, please snag your FREE ticket here!

Our New Bookstore Is Open for Business: An Interview with Dotters Books Co-Owner Margaret Leonard

 Dotters Books co-owners Margaret Leonard (left) and Jill Heinke Moen (right)  credit: Drew Kaiser

Dotters Books co-owners Margaret Leonard (left) and Jill Heinke Moen (right)

credit: Drew Kaiser

B.J. Hollars

No city is complete without a independent bookstore. And now, Eau Claire can boast its very own! Dotters Books, located at 1602 Hogeboom Avenue, is now open and ready for business! Enjoy the grand opening festivities beginning at 10:00a.m. on Saturday, October 6!

Read on for an interview with co-owner Margaret Leonard.

Congratulations on your new store!  What makes Dotters Books different from other book stores?

We're planning to stock a smaller, curated selection of books on our shelves. We're focusing on women, authors of color, and small presses - like Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Two Dollar Radio, and so many other great small publishers. We're facing all of our books out, privileging every voice, and we're trying to stock books that we have read and loved, or that we cannot wait to read. We have a dedicated room for children's books with a reading nook and mural painted by Serena Wagner. It is so cool! 

Throughout high school, I had the great pleasure of working in an independent bookstore in Indiana.  It was, perhaps, the best education I ever received.  How have bookstores played a role in your life?  What role would you like Dotters to play in the lives of your patrons and the larger community?


It has always been my dream to have my own bookshop. I loved going into libraries and bookshops as a kid and getting lost among the shelves. That love never went away. When I lived in Milwaukee, I tried to get a job at Boswell Books - one of my absolute favorite bookstores! - and they just kind of looked at me with pity and said they weren't hiring. No one EVER leaves a job at a bookshop because it's the best! So, in order to finally work at a bookshop, I opened my own. 

I think it is so important to have a space where people can come together to talk about the things that are important to them and to their community, and what better place than a neighborhood bookshop. Books teach empathy in such an active way, asking the reader to imagine a life very different than their own. We're hoping to be a space where readers of all ages can come together and listen and learn from each other. 

How have books impacted your life?  

In countless ways. As a kid, I devoured books. I suppose that hasn't changed a whole lot as I've gotten older. When I was in high school I had a few teachers who changed the way that I looked at books. I recently read a quote from Maggie Nelson (in the introduction to The Seas by Samantha Hunt) and it has stuck with me: "It took me back to how I felt as a kid, when you're newly falling in love with literature, newly shocked by its capacity to cast a spell." That's how I felt when I read books like Great ExpectationsThe Great Gatsby, and As I Lay Dying. A whole new world opened up and I knew I wanted to live in it forever. I studied English in both my undergraduate and graduate programs. I met some of my best friends as we bonded over our love, and hatred, for certain books, fought over whether Fitzgerald or Hemingway was better - now, I say neither, but back then I was a diehard Fitzgerald fan. The books that I have read throughout my life have helped me to become who I am. They have shaped my worldview and broadened my perspective, much like traveling. Each book is an opportunity to learn about other people and about yourself. 

How do you see Dotters Books fitting into the larger arts community here in the Chippewa Valley?

We are so excited to be a small part of the very impressive larger arts community of the Chippewa Valley. We are looking forward to hosting and sponsoring author events, children's Story Times every weekend, writing groups, and book clubs in our space and throughout the community. We're also hoping to have some live music, although we're still determining the best way to use our space for that. We're hosting our first concert here on October 29 - Siri Undlin and Shane Leonard - so stay tuned for more information about that event. Plus, artists need to read, right? We've got lots of books to keep you inspired.


What's your favorite rainy day read?  Your favorite summer read?  Best book when you're feeling down?  Best book when you're at the beach?

I'm don't often re-read books, so I don't have specific go-tos for these situations, but I'll do my best. 

My favorite book that pairs well with a rainy day is M Train by Patti Smith, but, to be fair, this is one of my favorite books in any weather. M Train changed the way that I look at possessions, material and otherwise. This memoir is the story of Smith's life after the death of her husband. It is full of everyday moments in coffee shops, and trips all over the world - most notably to La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo's home. It is beautiful, and moving, and heartbreaking, and so wise. 

One of my favorite books that I read this summer was Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. It felt seasonally appropriate while I was reading it. It's about a Japanese woman who works in a convenience store and struggles to fit into the expectations often placed on women in society. It's a bit reminiscent of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, but it's set in Japan, not nearly as dreary, and quite funny and quirky.

One of the most uplifting books that I've read recently is A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. This is a fascinating history of female writers and their friendships with other women, and it is written by two female friends. Each of these authors was writing at different times, so the social conventions that governed their interactions shifted and changed. If you're feeling down and are struggling to find evidence of progress and equality, read this book and, even if just for a moment, you'll feel like we've come a long way. 

My favorite book that I've read recently that would be great to read at the beach is The Seas by Samantha Hunt. Full disclosure: this is not your stereotypical light, airy beach read. The book takes place in the Pacific Northwest in an unnamed ocean town. The main character is a nineteen year old woman who may or may not be a mermaid. It's eerie and weird, and it features an unreliable narrator, my favorite kind. I loved it.

Be sure to drop by Dotters Books and pick up a copy of a great book today!

From Student to Self-Published: 3 Things I Learned About Being an Indie Author


By Nathan Zeiter

I remember the terrifying feeling of sharing my work with other students in my creative writing workshops at UW-Eau Claire. Sitting there—unable to speak—as others pick apart my writing. Dozens of eyes stare me down as I squirm in my chair, biting my tongue and accepting every bit of criticism. Despite the fear, it no doubt made me a better writer.

I reflect on all that I learned about writing during my time at UWEC as my hand hovers over my mouse. The next click will submit my novel for self-publishing. Five years of off and on work. Countless days and nights spent crafting a tale that people will hopefully enjoy. Once I click the button, it’s out of my hands. The horrible, anxiety-inducing thoughts swim around as I try to build enough courage. What if people hate it and leave bad reviews? What if it doesn’t sell? What if I wasted all this time for nothing?

As choose to let go of those fears and my fingers finally click the “submit” button, I find myself thinking about all that I’ve learned on this self-publishing journey. Here are the three things every writer should know if they’re looking to self-publish their work:

1.)  You’re too attached to your story. Find someone else to edit it.

The other day, I re-read the beginning of the first draft of my novel. It’s garbage. A nonsensical, poorly structured collection of word-vomit. Then I re-read part of my second draft. A little better, but still missing key characters and plot threads. A quick glance at the third draft left me shaking my head, wondering what the hell the character’s motivations were. The fourth draft was finally a decent product, but I wanted my manuscript to be perfect. So I went through it again. And again. And again.

I toyed with the idea of not hiring an editor and just putting the best version of my manuscript online. That would have been a huge mistake. After shopping around a bit, I sent a sample of my book to a professional freelance editor, and she sent it back to me a few days later. I was confident there’d only be a few markups. Wrong. I missed so, so much. But how? I read the dang thing like twenty times! Turns out, I was too focused on the big picture. Narrative, characters, plot holes, etc. Grammatical errors and sentence structure slipped through the cracks because my brain saw what it wanted to see—not what was actually on the page. I didn’t want to put out a subpar product, so I hired the editor and she helped make my novel a million times more readable. 

Hire an editor, folks. It’s worth it. If you don’t have the cash at the moment, then I’d advise hitting the pause button. If you release an unedited book, then any readers you happen to attract might be put off by the lack of polish, and even worse . . . they might not return for the next.

2.) Grab Their Attention and Keep It.

Anyone can self-publish. You need to stand out.

We’ve all heard it: don’t judge a book by its blah, blah, blah . . . Thing is, if your cover art looks like someone opened up Photoshop and slapped the keyboard three times, then potential readers are just going to scroll right by and pick something else that looks more professional. In the massive sea of self-published work, your cover art is the beacon of light that is going to draw people toward shore (the shore is the page where you can buy the book). If you don’t have the graphic design experience to create your own cover, then make sure you hire someone that can assist you. You don’t have to break the bank, but you need something decent. Once you’ve hooked in a potential buyer with a sweet-looking cover, the next step is to entice them with a blurb (make sure an editor looks at it!). If they like the blurb, then they might check out the free preview . . . which means your first chapter better be intriguing.

3.) Keep Writing!

What do you do after you write your first book? Write the next! Sounds obvious, right? However, here’s what I did the entire first week after publishing . . . I constantly refreshed the sales reports, repeatedly checked the Amazon page to see if the first review has been written, and I suffered through dreams about both rave and terrible comments. 

By researching and talking to other self-published authors, I learned that the best thing to do is to move on to the next book, and you should, too. Don’t ignore the ugly behemoth known as advertising, but don’t let its shadow loom over you all day. There’s no one way to be a successful indie author, so keep writing while you try to figure out what works best with your schedule and style.

Keep writing more and more. The freedom of self-publishing means there’s nothing in the way to stop you, so you need to take that momentum and run a 5k with it. You’ve laid the foundation—now build on it. Write, write, and write. I know you can do it.

Read a description of Nathan’s new book: 

In the heart of Pinewood lies GRACIE’s, a clothing store supergiant where Henry Holloway is having trouble keeping his head on straight. Literally. When he wakes up the morning after a rather humdrum shift with nothing between his shoulders but a dark, endless void, all he wants is for someone to acknowledge his abnormality.

Cover art for Nathan's article.jpg

Demanding answers and receiving little to no help regarding his headlessness, Henry turns to his friends, Sarah Rohmer and John Clemmens, only to find they have also undergone dramatic, inexplicable transformations. When they find themselves haunted by a ghostly being from another world and hunted by Pinewood’s neighborly, panini-loving cultists, Henry has no choice but to fight against a seemingly unstoppable force . . .

Headless: Book One of the World Eater is available right here.

Telling the Truth about the Middle East through Cathy Sultan’s New Novel Damascus Street

 Cathy Sultan

Cathy Sultan

By Chloe Ackerman

Writer Cathy Sultan grew up in Washington D.C. where she yearned to know more of the world. In 1969 her wish came true when she met her Lebanese husband and moved with him to Beirut, Lebanon. She quickly fell in love with the city. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out blocks away from their home in 1975, they continued to raise their family in Beirut until it was no longer manageable.

Cathy Sultan uses her experience and unique knowledge of the civil war in Lebanon to write her latest book Damascus Streetthe sequel to The Syrian. Sandy Tolan, author of Children of the Stone, which was a 2015 L.A. TimesBook of the Year finalist, wrote "Her insights into the region's history and politics go far deeper than your average thriller, exploring U.S. imperial meddling, the heartbreak of Palestinian refugee camps, and the complex and fragile construction of Lebanese society. Damascus Street will stay with you."  Damascus Street recounts the story of American physician Andrew Sullivan, whose fiancée is kidnapped by an important Lebanese ex-political figure. This book follows Sullivan’s thrilling mission to get her back. The following is an interview with Cathy Sultan about her latest book.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: Your book Damascus Street tells the story of a man whose fiancée was kidnapped in Syria by a former intelligence chief after a civil war in Lebanon. What is your writing process for such a serious topic 

CATHY SULTAN: I think it is my ability to imagine the impossible. After all, I am writing about the Middle East, and particularly Lebanon, which I know intimately, and where skullduggery is an everyday occurrence.

This book includes many specific dates and historical events that took place in the Middle East; what kind of research was involved while writing this book?

I am a news junkie and so I read extensively about events as they unfold across the Middle East. Most of the research in the book is first-hand knowledge and other than fact-checking on some events and dates, I needed little research. Some of the events in the book, like the explosion that took the life of an important intelligence chief, happened a block from my apartment. Our building shook and I was there to cover it first-hand as the aftermath was reported. He was such a colorful, shady, and important figure with four different passports, and once the rumors began flying about who he actually was and what he did, I began collecting any and all articles I could get my hands on, assuming I would get to use it in some future work. When I got to that part of Damascus Street, I knew it was the right moment to get out my notes and reconstruct his assassination, the details of which, without much invention on my part, were true. 

Are there any challenges you face as both a fiction and a nonfiction writer?

Other than accepting the challenge from my editor to take on fiction, I have not faced many challenges. Writing fiction is actually more fun. No footnotes, no intense fact-checking and I get to use my imagination, which works overtime, due, no doubt, to the exciting life I have had the privilege of living. I don't rule out returning to nonfiction, particularly if Lebanon is attacked, but in the meantime, I feel that fiction gives me the vehicle to tell what I perceive as the truth, only through fiction I get to hook into fast-paced thrillers which makes it easier for the reader to learn something while enjoying a good read.

According to your website, you wrote the memoir A Beirut Heart: A Woman’s War as a project for your children. What made you want to write the novels Damascus Street and the first book The Syrian?

Yes, I began writing A Beirut Heart for my children, but I soon discovered that it was also a way to mourn my loss of a city I loved. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was also discovering a way to combat what came to be called PTSD. For a very long time, I could not even read sections of A Beirut Heart without crying. Over the years I have gotten better but the trauma of war never disappears. On the upside, the experience of war has not only defined my life, it has driven my motivation to better understand the destructive forces of conflict across the Middle East and to place blame where I know it belongs.

The trilogy which includes, to date, The Syrian and Damascus Street, centers on regime change in Syria. The characters involved in carrying out the West's agenda, and those willing to risk their lives to stop such an atrocity, are the people I want to see rule our world. I know for a fact that our mass media has distorted the news coming out of Syria, and I took it as a challenge to refute those reports and incorporate more accurately what is really going on in the region.   

On your website, you explain how it was frustrating before you wrote your memoir that when you wanted to tell stories about your time living in Beirut during civil war, no one seemed to want to listen. Have people approached you since you started writing your books to share any of their stories relating to the Lebanon Civil War? 

I did find it frustrating and at times hurtful when no one initially wanted to hear me talk about my life in Beirut during the war. Once A Beirut Heart was published attitudes changed. People's aversion to things they can't comprehend is part of human nature. I also attribute that attitude to the fact that we as a country have never had to face the challenges of a war. A conflict far from home enables us to "turn it off" and pay it scant attention. When we are confronted with someone who actually lived through one of those wars, it disrupts our complacent lives and makes us uncomfortable. State-side, no one has approached me about their own Beirut stories, but in Beirut, among my friends, we often reminisce about the years we shared together and that forever changed our lives.

What do you hope the readers will take from this book?

I hope my readers will better understand the West's intervention in Syria and the motivations behind such destruction and upheaval. I also hope readers will realize mass media oftentimes, with its close affiliation with the military, industrial complex, has a political agenda in promoting war. Remember Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction lies!

To purchase Damascus Street, visit The Local Store

A Note from the Guild Director: Saying Goodbye To Cirenaica

 The Cirenaica crew.

The Cirenaica crew.

By CVWG Director B.J. Hollars

On the last night of our last summer retreat at Cirenaica, I waved goodbye, wished the writers well, and then slipped out the door into the cricket-filled night.  

What I knew—but what few others did—was that it would be our last night there forever.  

After three glorious summers at Cirenaica, we are saying farewell once and for all.  The property was a perfect fit during our early years, but as our program grows, so too must our venue.  In chats with the property owner, patron of the arts Jill Postlewaite, it seemed the timing was right on both ends.  And so, on that last night, I closed the door, and with it, concluded the last of my magical nights out at the lodge.

I’ve been putting off this article for a while now.  Mostly because by writing it, I’m acknowledging that this chapter of my life is now closed.  And certainly, it’s one of my favorite chapters.  When reflecting on my various professional duties, it’s clear to me now that aside from my time in the classroom, nothing I’ve done—no meeting I’ve attended, no committee I’ve chaired, no anything—has offered me such a rewarding experience.  If you were a part of this magic in any capacity—as a participant, or a writer-in-residence, or a chef, or an assistant arts administrator, or simply as a guest—I want to thank you.  The truth is, you brought that magic.

Of course, that magic’s a little easier to come by when secluded in a beautiful lodge on 43 pristine acres.  But what remains true—and what I was reminded of throughout our combined 16, three-day sessions at Cirenaica—is that the magic resides in the people, not the place.  It’s the spirit of Cirenaica that must live on, and it will.  

Last summer was filled with all the usual fare: great writers, delectable food, and raucous ping-pong battles that raged deep into the night.  But what made this summer different was the way in which the participants seemed to take full ownership of their time there.  If there was a problem they fixed it.  If all was going well, they worked hard to make their time better still.  

One of my fondest memories involves a toilet seat, which, one afternoon, came a bit loose from the bowl.  A quick-thinking participant grabbed his tools, ran to Menards, and replaced the seat without so much as an ask.  And in doing so, he created a brand, new Guild award: The Toilet Seat Award.  After giving it a thorough scrubbing, we began awarding this toilet seat to the participant each week who, in the opinion of Cirenaica staff, best embodied a spirit of generosity.  And week after week, the recipient appeared to be over the moon at the chance to lift that toilet seat high above his or her head.  Yes, it was goofy, and maybe even a little strange.  But for me, it was confirmation of the bond we’d forged together.  In 72 hours, we’d grown comfortable enough to take pride in such a silly thing.  

Which, of course, isn’t a silly thing at all.  In 72 hours, strangers became friends and writers became a writing community.  That so much could be accomplished so quickly is a testament to that aforementioned magic.  Empathy was at the core of everything we did, and that will hold true for everything moving forward.

We’ve got something very, very special in the works for next summer.  And if I were you, I’d block off July 18-21 on your calendar right now. We’ll have more details soon, but for now, just know that though we’re saying goodbye to Cirenaica, we’re holding strong to its spirit.

It’s a spirit that you helped create.  And we’re hopeful you might bring it with you next summer, too.

Be inspired, inspire others,

– B.J. Hollars   

Staying Connected Through the Newsletter, No Matter the Distance


By Erin Stevens

In late February of 2016, I sat in the packed event room at The Local Store for the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild’s first ever craft talk. I remember looking at all the writers and literary-enthusiasts around me, all displaying the same excited expressions on their faces. It was clear that this is what writers in the Chippewa Valley had been waiting for. 

It was definitely what I had been waiting for. 

After graduating from UW-Eau Claire in 2014, I moved to Minneapolis because it seemed like it could provide what I didn’t think Eau Claire could 一 more job opportunities and better chances at finding a writing community post graduation. Because at the time of my graduation, the writing community in Eau Claire seemed pretty limited to what was found in the creative writing program in the English Department at UWEC. I loved that community dearly, but when I graduated I found that community really no longer applied to me, which left me asking where do I (and my writing) go from here? 

While Minneapolis did provide more job opportunities, my expectations for finding a writing community fell flat. Other than one option that proved to be too expensive and not very welcoming, I hadn’t found anything. Even now, four years after my move, I’m still looking. 

Luckily, at the time that the Guild was founded, I had a job that brought me to Eau Claire once a week. I made sure my work trips coincided with craft talk/event days. After the craft talks, I’d make the two hour drive back home, inspired by whatever topic was discussed that evening and motivated to work on my writing. 

But that summer I got a new job, which was ultimately a good thing, but it meant I wouldn’t be coming to Eau Claire as often. It broke my heart knowing that there was this great new organization that was going to change the game for writers in the Chippewa Valley, and I was going to miss out on being part of it.  

That’s where the newsletter comes in. Maybe I couldn’t attend every craft talk, or chat in-person with area writers to pick their brains on various topics, but I could read recaps from the events and read advice from those area writers in the Guild’s newsletter. I, and other Guild members who live outside the Chippewa Valley, could even contribute to that newsletter if I wanted to, adding my voice to the chorus of other writers in the community to remind them that, even though I’m two hours away, I still care deeply about this community.  

When BJ asked if I wanted to help him out as editor of the newsletter, I said yes without hesitation. The idea of helping writers stay connected to the Guild - regardless of their geographic location - seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. Plus I like the idea of being able to read articles before they’re published in the newsletter - it makes me feel special.

And you should feel special, too. Because by reading the newsletter, and catching up with old friends, you can remain a vital part of our organization, too--no matter the distance.

So, if you have an idea or you’ve already written the words that you want to share with our community, send them to I can’t wait to read your work!

Bruce Taylor On His New Book, Breaking Forms, and Fish Chowder

 credit: Justin Patchin

credit: Justin Patchin

by Chloe Ackerman 

I will never stop being amazed by the awe-inspiring power of words. In my studies as a creative writing major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I have consistently found myself motivated by the writing processes of other writers. I was especially excited to have the opportunity to interview Bruce Taylor—former poet laureate of Eau Claire, and professor emeritus at UWEC—about his new book Poetry Sex Love Music Booze & Death. Bruce Taylor will be reading from this book at The Local Store in downtown Eau Claire at 5PM on Monday, October 8th. Be sure to swing by and pick up a copy!

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Chloe Ackerman: Has your poetry style evolved over time? If it has, how has it changed? 

 Bruce Taylor: As a young poet in the 60’s I would say, along with many others, things like “the sonnet is where old poets go to die” What I didn’t know I meant was I wasn’t good enough to write one. It takes a while to get your chops. Formal poetry is easy to do badly but hard to do well. You try.

CA: Have you noticed any changes in the poetry or literary scene around Eau Claire?

BT: I don’t know if more folks are writing across the Chippewa Valley, though it seems so. There are certainly many more venues to share: the readings at places like the library, The Local Store, The Pablo Center, publications such as Local Lit, Barstow & Grand, Twig. And the CVWG is directly responsible for injecting new energy and interest in writing. For a population the size of ours, the CVWG list an extraordinary number of writing groups, and book clubs.

 CA: At what point in the poem writing process do you decide to put it in a form?

 BT: Very early, and you don’t “put” it into a form as much as coax, tease, worry, beat it in that direction. The form can always be abandoned, and the poem turns into something more free (er) verse, and often better. Or you can simply cheat. We call it “pushing the envelope.” I have some 16-line sonnets, 3-line couplets and an envoi-less sestina. A form is only as good as it can be challenged, stretched, adapted. Still only about half of my poems are in traditional forms. The new book brings them together for the first time in one volume.

 CA: What question would you like to be asked that gets at the core of you as a writer and/or your writing?

 BT: You just asked it.

 CA: On October 8th at 5pm you are reading from your new book, Poetry Sex Love Music Booze & Death, at a Local Lit: Off the Page event in the Local Store. What do you hope people will take from this event and other events in the series with other local authors?

 BT: A book.

 CA: Is there anything else you would like to share?

 BT: I make a very good fish chowder.


On Eating Fire, Following the Research Trail, And Enduring, Enduring, Enduring: A Q&A with Tessa Fontaine

 credit: Annie Agnone

credit: Annie Agnone

BJ Hollars

During my time at the University of Alabama, I had the pleasure of sharing the classroom with nonfiction writer Tessa Fontaine, whose debut memoir The Electric Woman, has received rave reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Vogue, among many other venues.  Additionally, her book been named a New York Times Editor's pick, as well as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.  Which is the long way of saying: I’ve got some pretty talented friends.  On October 19, Tessa will host the program “Recklessness, Obsession and Wild Abandon” as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival’s annual dinner at The Lismore Hotel.  Purchase your tickets here.

Read on to learn more about Tessa, her writing, and the books that inspired her own.

 BJ Hollars: In graduate school, your work explored an array of topics—from Alabama ghost stories of hoboes riding the rails to Jacques Cousteau.  Did your interest in immersive journalistic techniques, such as joining the last sideshow, seem like a natural progression, or were you spurred to action due to your mother's health issues?

 Tessa Fontaine: I love writing nonfiction because it gives me permission to follow the trail of something I find interesting as deep into the story as I can go. That's what I loved about those earlier nonfiction projects I was working on, and it's the same thing that prompted the beginning of my investigation into the sideshow. But I think my mom's illness—and her impending trip to Italy, from which I didn't think she'd return—that gave me the final push to actually join up with another life entirely. I didn't really know much about immersive journalism before that, but I was hungry to be swallowed by another world, since the one I knew seemed to be falling apart. 

BH: Over the years, I've regularly taught your essays with students, and they're always astonished by your bravery.  Specifically, your willingness to leave school to pursue a life wholly unknown to you.  Can you describe those first moments when you transitioned from graduate student to fire-eating bally girl?    

TF: The transition from graduate student to fire-eater wasn't immediate. In graduate school, you are valued for your brain, for what kinds of things you can think and write. In the sideshow, while quick wit and a fast tongue are important, the most fundamental skill was a physical ability to endure. So I found myself, in my first few days out with the sideshow, still trying to define myself and connect with people by how I could talk about myself, by my accomplishments. But there was always work to be done. Packing and scrubbing and eating fire. So I quickly adapted, understanding that the way to be valued out on the road is to eat fire with such confidence and allure that the audience can't help but buy tickets for the show inside. To work for hours putting up the circus tent without complaining that you're too tired, or the sun is too hot. It was a shifting of work values and skills, neither one better than the other, but a definite rearrangement. 

BH: In writing about learning to eat fire, you note, “The only way to do it is to do it,” adding later that “There is no trick.”  For me, this seems an apt metaphor for many of life's difficulties.  (Robert Frost's line "The only way out is through" also comes to mind.)  When grappling with the loss of your mother, did you find yourself experiencing a similar sentiment?  Does grief, too, transcend the notion of a trick?     

TF: I think grief absolutely transcends the notion of trick. In the face of a profound and sustained loss, as was happening with my mom for years, there's an understandable desire for things to change. For there to be some shift, some miracle, some departure. I came to understand why so many people find themselves alienated from their loved ones in the face of a long-term debilitating illness—choosing to be distanced. While my mom was sick, I kept waiting for something to change, and the heartbreaking and exhausting reality that she wasn't going to get better was almost impossible to accept. But ultimately, that's all there was to do. There was no trick, nothing to make it easier or faster. There was just this: endure, endure, endure.

BH: Some have compared your spirited prose and adventurous spirit to memoirist Cheryl Strayed's work, in particular, her bestselling book Wild.  Did Strayed's work—or the work of other writers—inform The Electric Woman? 

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TF: Yes! I love Cheryl Strayed's spirit and am honored to be compared to her. I think stories of people—especially women - doing physically amazing things are some of my favorites. I had a lot of other books open near me while I wrote The Electric Woman as well—Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir The Chronology of Water, Justin Torres' novel We the Animals, anything by Anne Carson, Jazz by Toni Morrison—I keep a pretty wide array of books open around me and imitate their prose as best I can. 

BH: What don't readers know about your book or your experience writing it?

TF: For me, writing is one of the greatest exercises in empathy. To write the characters in The Electric Woman, I had to think of them as both real human beings, and also characters, versions of the real people, since it's impossible to show all of who someone is. And to do that, as is necessary with a fictional character as well, you have to show all sides—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The lovely things they do and their flaws. I think it helped me become a better person— to have to think through a person's best sides as well as their mistakes. It created such a swell of empathy, and I'm very grateful for that. 

Craft Talk Preview: Jason Smith on Making Your Stories Stand Out


by Emma O’Shea

I recently had the chance to speak with Jason Smith, the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, and the editor of Wisconsin People and Ideas. We talked storytelling, publishing advice, and more. Check out his advice below, and make sure to attend his Craft Talk this Thursday, September 20th, 7 p.m. at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library! Smith will explore how to craft gripping ledes and incorporate dramatic elements that captivate readers. He will also provide insight on how to translate complex subjects for, and explain abstract ideas to, general audiences.


Emma O’Shea: In your seventeen-plus years of publishing experience, what stands out most to you when choosing writers to publish?

Jason Smith: There are a couple of elements that you look for in good writing, and part of my talk coming up this week is about storytelling. Being able to succinctly tell a good story, something that I call the barstool pitch, is important. If you can summarize what your story is in a brief paragraph; outlining your lead elements, talking about your lead characters, and the conflict or the dramatic element that’s going to carry the reader through, that has a symbolic element that reflects personality traits of the characters and subjects. Talk a little bit about the outcome of what that story might be. People will read this story and once they’re done reading it, they’re really going to have a greater understanding of the experience of this kind of person. Whatever the story is and wherever it takes you, thinking clearly about the outcome and beginning is important. If somebody’s got a really refined idea, then their pitch will have those elements in that.

EO: What would you say is a useful tip for writing a concise, yet resonating article?

JS: The question I think writers (myself included) should ask about their piece is “why this now”? This seems deceptively simple, right? You know, I can ask those questions, but when you start passing your piece through that crucible, through that filter, it really makes you clarify the story you’re telling. It seems the “why” is so obvious 一 because the editor told me to write about this. It’s not always like that. You must find the why in the heart of whatever story you’re writing. What's going to make it compelling, and then how does it fit for this particular publication? How do you make that connection for readers and bring the why right to the front so that they’re really understanding why this piece is sitting in front of their face. There are so many stories, so many different kinds of people. So many interesting ideas out there. What makes this particular one stand out above and beyond everyone else, why is this case exceptional? Here’s where the drama comes in, where you can really lock in the reader’s attention on this story opposed to the 8 million other things that fly before our eyes on a daily basis. The now factor is something that’s tethered to the moment. It can be a cultural movement, something on a local level or a response to a tragedy, but really hitting the timing of the piece is key.

EO: What would you consider the most important skill a writer can hone?


JS: That goes back to storytelling. We tell stories in the way we’ve communicated for thousands of years. Recitation of the facts and an attention to detail is good. It’s really important to get your research right and to be really thorough, so as not to betray the trust of the reader.

EO: How would a writer most effectively avoid clichés on well-covered subjects?

JS: Don’t get stuck in those tropes and archetypes. The story of the up and coming someone doing great work; those stories are familiar and can sometimes border on cliché. The best way to deal with that is to try and find elements that complicate our understanding of these people, rather than follow along the rather rigid plotting character arcs. By complicated, I mean bringing in elements that change our understanding rather than just supply the detail and the things necessary to keep us going on a singular path.

EO: What would you say is vital for writers to know when trying to get published?

JS: This goes back to understanding where writers are pitching to and the mechanics of that magazine. Whether it’s an outdoor magazine or a literary one, really understanding the philosophical underpinnings of it. People all the time look at the contributor’s page, but they haven’t read any of the articles, so it’s helpful for them to go back and read some of our pieces and look at the types of writing and work that we’re doing here at the magazine. We’re looking to shine a light on not just scientific, artistic or literary expertise and innovation, but the ways in which these are used in the service of Wisconsin’s people and places. The second thing to consider is how does this translate some aspect of the creative process and make that process more accessible and intelligible to a general audience. There’s a human story in every story and finding ways to show how a person scientific, artistic, or cultural literary, works reflects the dignity in the work that people do on an everyday basis. So, I’m pulling back the curtain, this isn’t alchemy, or the work of a sheer genius. It’s the collaborative effort of people who are just trying to make their lives and the community that they live in a better place. The third thing is getting back to that notion of complicating our understanding. Getting off of that familiar plot or path line and showing people that it takes all kinds of people to compromise on community. In the case of our magazine, Wisconsin People and Ideas, we want articles that don’t show us this person going on this predictable path. We want to see something kind of unpredictable.

Meet Jason this Thursday at 7PM at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library!

Dispatches from Dan: A Reflection on the Last Day of a Cirenaica Retreat

 photos by  Justin Patchin

photos by Justin Patchin

by Dan Lyksett

July 22, 8:15a.m.

Last Day of the Retreat

I forgot to take my memory pills this morning. It’s been a rough couple days.  Who woulda thought a fiction writers workshop could be so demanding?

Physically demanding. Mentally demanding. Emotionally demanding.

Physically we don’t do a lot of manual labor. A lot of typing and scribbling in notebooks. The physical challenge comes when the hard work is done and lid on the beer cooler is opened and the campfire kindled and we pace around to collect in groups and sit and share and pace around some more and collect in different groups and sit and share. The waking nights last long enough to dance on the deck and attempt to roast cookies in the flames with bare hands. And when there should be sleep there is instead sorting through the various flavors we tasted in the knowledge cake we’ve eaten that day. Cinnamon? Point of view? Anise?


The mental challenge comes with the people, 10 writers, one mentor, assorted ages, occupations and backgrounds with the one common denominator that we write, and we want to write gooder. There is book learning here and there is native talent here. There is success here and the not yet successful here, and each teaches you something. The retired English professor inadvertently reminds you there are words in the language you do not know, and the mentor pleads that your fiction is “Lies, all lies, and the lies must seem real.” And you are forced to consider your hard-earned lies anew.

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The emotional toll comes at the end. Writers live as a solitary species, and so the inevitable separating from the rare herd is difficult. Writing is paddling a canoe upstream, alone, and with a broken paddle. There’s comfort in being within earshot of others fighting the current, scraping rocks, ducking under an overhanging waterfall, and someone to help push you off the sandbar of an awkward transition. I will miss those voices and those helping hands. But if I remember my pills tomorrow, I’ll perhaps remember some of what I’ve learned. I think I’m leaving with a little better paddle and more worthy canoe.

You Get When You Give: A Special Note From Director BJ Hollars


A few months back, after my beloved writers group provided me with some firm but fair feedback on an essay, I wandered back toward my minivan in a haze. I’d spent weeks on that essay, and yet it seemed as if every last word had fallen flat. Frustrated and dejected, I returned to my minivan, collapsing into my seat and putting my key into the ignition. Or rather, I tried to put my key into the ignition, but it wouldn’t fit.

Odd, I thought, taking a closer look. It worked an hour ago.

And it still would have worked had I entered the right minivan. But in the midst of my writerly haze, I’d entered a stranger’s vehicle. That’s right: I’d inadvertently broken into somebody’s van. I leapt out, scanning the darkness for the cops who would surely arrive any minute. 

When I was certain the coast was clear, I began to laugh. Ahead of me, I saw the silhouette of my buddy Ken, who by then was walking toward his own vehicle (and the one he owned, I might add). “Hey Ken!” I called. “I just got into the wrong van!”

He laughed. This was exactly the kind of thing he’d come to expect from a writer like me.

I share this wholly embarrassing anecdote to make a larger point: when we writers spend too much time in our own heads, we lose sight of the larger world. And losing sight of the world—and each other—is a trespass far greater than momentarily entering the wrong van. 

The fix, of course, is to come together as a writing community. To rely on one another so we don’t have to rely fully on ourselves. For the past two and a half years, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild has worked tirelessly to provide such opportunities. Over the past year, we’ve made our greatest strides yet, including grants from the Eau Claire Community Foundation, JAMF Nation Global Foundation, Visit Eau Claire and the Wisconsin Arts Board, as well as a city proclamation, and the formation of 6x6: A Reading Series, Writers Anonymous, and Barstow & Grand and continued partnerships with The UW-Eau Claire Foundation, The Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, the UW-Eau Claire English Department, Blugold Radio, Volume One, Wisconsin Public Radio, the Chippewa valley Book Festival, the Brewing Projekt, and so many other local organizations. In addition to all this, one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of (thanks to the generous support of Dotters Books, the Sultan Family, the Guild, and a pair of anonymous donors) was our ability to offer scholarships to 10% of our Cirenaica participants this summer. We are changing writers’ lives in fundamental ways, and through their writing, changing our world, too. 


I come to you now because we need your financial support. For as little as 5.00 a month, you can ensure the Guild’s long-term sustainability with your tax-deductible donation. Not only that, but by joining at any level (Scribblers, Scribes, Wordsmiths, Practitioners, or Patrons) you’ll be eligible for a wide array of gifts: free Barstow & Grand and Cirenaica submissions, stickers, postcards, as well as being entered to win personalized first-edition copies of books by authors from near and far. You can also receive a consultation on your own writing courtesy of a Barstow & Grand editor.

For complete details, click here, then click the “Give to the Guild” button and direct your gift to the “Chippewa Valley Writers Guild Monthly Sustaining Membership” campaign.

It’s hard to quantify just how significant an impact we’ve made together over the past year. Do we measure our success by books published, words written, or the friendships we’ve forged while pounding at the keys? As for my own success, I’ll rely on a single measure: my ability to avoid entering any minivans that don’t belong to me. 

If you value our work, then help ensure that we can keep doing it. We are here for you, but we need you to be here for us, too. 

Please make your gift today. And then, directly following, let us get back to the important work that warms our souls, enriches our lives, and helps build our community one word at a time.

B.J. Hollars
Executive Director, Chippewa Valley Writers Guild

Chippewa Valley Writers Guild Awards Five Scholarships for 2018 Summer Writing Retreats

Thanks to the support of Dotters Books, the Sultan family, Chippewa Valley Writers Guild donors, and a pair of anonymous donors, this year the Guild was thrilled to award five scholarships for writers to attend Cirenaica, a writers retreat in Fall Creek, Wisconsin.  


This year’s recipient of the Dotters Book Scholarship is Katy Hackworthy of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  She writes, “I feel incredibly humbled to receive this honor from a group of women who I respect and who truly display a passion for literacy and equity in the Chippewa Valley.  This award will help me continue to create works that highlight issues I am passionate about, as well as give me the opportunity to further engage with a community of artists that motivate and inspire me.”  Elizabeth de Cleyre, Margaret Leonard and Jill Heinke Moen of Dotters Books say, “Dotters Books is excited about this opportunity to support a local woman writer and her literary work at the Cirenaica Writers Retreat. As women owners, we aim to promote literacy and equality in literature by creating spaces for other women to create. It is our belief that supporting the literary community will help foster collaboration and creativity within the Chippewa Valley.”


The recipient of the Sultan Scholarship is Sarah Merrill of Sarasota, Florida. “During my time at Cirenaica, I’m hoping to generate new material for a collection of short fiction, set primarily in my home state of Florida. This will be my first time visiting Wisconsin, and I'm excited to broaden my horizons by spending time in a new region of the country. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to connect with fellow writers, as we all strive to delve deeper into our craft.” Author Cathy Sultan, and the scholarship’s underwriter, remarks, “I was very fortunate to have had someone offer help and encouragement in my early writing career. Now it is my turn.”

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The recipient of the CVWG’s Alumni Achievement Award is Dan Lyksett of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  “I'm so grateful to the CVWG for its generosity, allowing me to participate in another Cirenaica workshop. The retreat experience not only directly impacts my writing, but more importantly connects me to new friends and mentors in our growing writing community."


Finally, our Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards go to Caleb Rosenthal (above, right) of Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin) and Andee Erickson (above, left) of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  Caleb writes, “I am thrilled to attend the Cirenaica retreat with Holly Hughes because it will give me the opportunity to immerse myself in an inspiring and creative atmosphere generated by the presence of other passionate writers, and it will allow me the time to focus on growing as an artist and person."  Andee writes, “I applied to a Cirenaica retreat to expand the way writing exists in my life. Writing creatively is a passion I've kept to myself and I'm excited to celebrate the process with a supportive community. And I'm looking forward to learning from Michael Martone about how to care for each part of the story.

Thanks to these generous donors, this summer, 10% of our Cirenaica participants are scholarship recipients.  “We’re moving in the right direction,” says Guild director B.J. Hollars.  “One day I dream of being accessible to 100% of participants.  We welcome any and all local businesses, organizations, and individuals who’d like to help us reach this goal.”

Both the Dotters Book Scholarship and Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards were selected by a blind submission process.  The CVWG’s Alumni Achievement Award was selected by Cirenaica staff.  The Sultan Scholarship was selected by CVWG executive director B.J. Hollars.

Three Books In A Year: A Q&A with Chippewa Falls' Dedicated Writers Society

CFalls Writers.jpg

Few writing groups have flourished as mightily as the Dedicated Writers Society, Chippewa Falls' premier writing group.  The group describes its vibe as "warm and welcoming, supportive and constructive," which seems to be the perfect conditions for a thriving community of writers.  Over the past year, three of its members, Jackie McManus (author of The Earth Mover’s Daughter , Connie Russell (Happily Ever After), and Everin Houkom (author of Crazy Music and Daddy Didn’t Come Home) have published new works.  Read on for a Q&A with the group members.

Tell us about your writing group.  How did it begin?  Can you describe the meetings?

Connie:  After a book talk by BJ Hollars, a discussion I had with him and Joe Niese, Chippewa Falls Public Library director, led me to think we might try a writing group at the library.  We meet from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. the fourth Monday of each month.

What makes it successful?

Ev:  One reason it’s successful is that Connie sees that everyone has a chance to read and respond.  We also welcome anyone who would like to attend.

Connie: I keep my eye on the clock, but so far everyone respects the others’ time.  If there is time before 8 o’clock, a person can take a second turn if they have more they would like to share. People come and go, but there are about six of us who come regularly, and we trust each other to be honest but supportive.

How has the group helped you grow as a writer?

Ev:  We were tentative at first, but we’ve evolved.

Jackie:  As a poet I thought at first I might not come back.  People said they didn’t understand my poetry, and they couldn’t give feedback because as writers of prose, they were unsure how to critique poetry.  But I came back, and they have been helpful and are trying.

Ev:  I’ve gained confidence as a writer here and at Cirenaica.

Connie:  Me too, and knowing we’re meeting on a regular basis keeps me writing.

Ev:  With my first book, I didn’t know how much to bring.  My second book went better. I’ve gained confidence.

For more information on the group (and other regional writing groups!), check out our directory here.


You Can Go Home Again: On Returning to the Midwest and Finding A Community At Cirenaica

 credit: Justin Patchin Photography

credit: Justin Patchin Photography

by Ty Phelps

I grew up in Wisconsin: Summers meant farmer’s market cheese curds on the Capitol Square in Madison, swatting mosquitoes around the campfire at night, the smell of cow manure from the farms, the temperature drop after a thunderstorm. I became moderately comfortable with my adolescent body through the forced nakedness of tick checks and skinny dipping at summer camp. I was a Midwesterner through and through, attending Carleton College in Minnesota, canoeing in the north woods each summer, and even smugly muttering to myself when I traveled in France, yeah, France, you may have the Louvre, and Haute Cuisine, and vineyards up the yang, but where I come from, we’ve got Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark, the Boundary Waters, Walleye on Fridays, and Bob Dylan.

And then I left. I lived on the West Coast for over a decade.

The idea of moving back to Wisconsin had just started percolating in my mind when my mother mailed me an article cut out of a magazine. A review for a book called Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler. Soon I had read it. I’m not sure I’ve ever read any fiction that more perfectly captured the overall feeling of my homeland. I cried after the first few pages, read the rest in a couple of days, and spent the next weeks scratching phantom mosquito bites, craving the North Woods sky and the tepid taste of bad Milwaukee beer.

Soon, I decided to move back. And just before returning, I applied for and was invited to Nick Butler’s weekend fiction workshop at Cirenaica through the Chippewa Valley Writers’ Guild. I couldn’t believe my luck: I was going to meet a Midwestern writing hero of mine.

The weekend was phenomenal. The mixture of writers was delightful: young, old, in-between, teachers and journalists and mothers and fathers. Camaraderie was quickly established among the group as we dove into critique under Nick’s focused but gentle guidance.

Cirenaica itself was lovely, nestled in woodsy farmland, with a beautiful kitchen, comfortable rooms, and ample nooks for writing, thinking, or sipping coffee. It was a productive weekend: I left with multiple friends, excellent feedback, and a complete first draft of a new story.

Also, we ate like kings.

An Interview with Lindsay Starck, 2018 Cirenaica Writer in Residence


By Emilia Hurst

I recently got the chance to chat with Lindsay Starck one of our writers in residence.  Lindsay is a professor at Augsburg University and the author of Noah’s Wife.  Get the chance to work with her at the Cirenaica retreat this summer, “Thickening the Plot: On Creating Tension and Suspense in Fiction” which will run from August 2-5.

Emilia: What would you say are some of your best personal writing experiences? 

Lindsay Starck: I heard another writer say once that 15% of writing happens when you’re sitting down in front of your paper or your computer, and the other 85% happens when you’re out interacting with the world—walking or cooking or talking with friends. 

Some of my best personal writing experiences have occurred when I’ve stepped away from the page and sat down to talk about the craft with fellow readers and writers who are willing to swap ideas and share experiences. 

How would you say writers can look forward to growing in their craft at this retreat? 

Writing is typically considered to be an activity you do in isolation, but this retreat provides the opportunity to reflect on the process and the product with other writers. Participants will share ideas about stories and techniques, and we’ll be able to experiment with new ideas and new styles. Ideally, we’ll all leave the retreat feeling more inspired and excited by our projects than we were when we arrived. 

What's something you'd like to tell us about your own writing? 

My first passion as a writer is for language. When I wrote my first novel, I believed that beautiful sentences would be enough to create a strong story. I revised that manuscript for several years, during which time I learned the importance of narrative elements—tension, rising action, questions—that help keep readers engaged. Now I’m trying to write stories that balance poetry with plot. 

What are some more specific things writers can look forward to at this retreat? 

Plenty of time to work and reflect on the craft; engaging conversations with fellow writers and mentors; delicious meals; insight into the publishing world of literary magazines; a few days free of all other obligations so that you can immerse yourself in the life of a writer. 

What are some things you've been reading and enjoying lately?

I’ve been slowly working my way through Prairie Fires, the new biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book does a wonderful job describing the historical context surrounding the Little House series. It’s also very cool to be reading it while living in the Upper Midwest, since Wilder spent many of her early years in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The most recent novel I read was Jenny Offhill’s Department of Speculation, which was experimental and moving. I might reread Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels this summer, since I enjoyed them so much the first time around. 

How would you describe your writing process? 

I’m very type-A, so I like to plan out my project before I begin it. But once I start writing, the story goes in a different direction. So I have to scrap my plan and come up with a new one. Then I start writing again, and the story slips out of my grasp once more. So the writing process, for me, is a constant balancing act between plotting out the narrative and allowing the story to find its own shape. 

What is one of your favorite places/settings to write in? 

I like to write in coffee shops. Sometimes I put my headphones on and listen to white noise, and other times the din of the coffee shop is white noise enough. Lately I’ve been getting up and writing before doing anything else, like reading my phone or checking my email or even making my breakfast. I heard a writer say that this early morning hour is the perfect time to work because part of you is still in that hazy, vivid dream world, which gives you the space to form fresh sentences and ideas.

What do you do when writing gets tough? 

I spent five years revising my first novel, and I learned from that experience to be patient and have faith in the writing process. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a piece of fiction is leave it alone. Go outside, or clean the house, or play the piano. Let your thoughts wander, and when you come back to your writing, the solution might be waiting right there for you on the page.

8 Questions with Nickolas Butler: Cirenaica Writer-in-Residence


By Emilia Hurst

I sat down with hometown hero and international bestselling novelist Nickolas Butler to chat about his writing as well as his past summers at CVWG’s Cirenaica writer’s retreat.  Here’s what he had to say.

Emilia:  What are some of your favorite memories from Cirenaica?

Nickolas Butler:  Honestly, what springs to mind are the mornings at Cirenaica.  Typically, I'll leave my house and drive over to Cirenaica about eight in the morning.  And even before we begin our first workshop of the day, all the attendees are generally working away quietly, or bouncing ideas off one another.  You can see that it is a very productive time and space; I always expect to find a few of the attendees either sleeping-in or hungover, but that's never happened.  Everyone really utilizes their time.

What have you learned about writing from teaching at Cirenaica?

Just that everyone has a different path, a different vision for what they want to do with their writing.  People are coming from different starting points in terms of how much they've read, how much they've workshopped in the past, how much they've worked on their own craft, what they want for their careers...  It's good for me to be reminded that we all come to Cirenaica because we love writing, and hopefully books.

How would you say writers can look forward to growing in their craft at this retreat?

It can be really difficult to find unbiased readers of your work—folks who will give you honest feedback.  To me, it's rewarding to watch attendees become friends, fans, or at the very least, supporters of one another's work.  And I'm part of that, too.  I'm really honest with attendees; I write every attendee a personalized letter, every attendee gets individual feedback from me, and I read every story over multiple times.  Our workshops are positive, safe places for criticism - we're trying to make the work better.  And sometimes, it's reading another person's work, or witnessing their workshop that really brings into focus some aspect of your own work.

What's something you'd like to tell us about your own writing?

That's a huge open-ended question...I don't know.  I've published three books, my fourth will be published in early 2019...I'm a full-time writer who feels like the luckiest guy on the face of the planet.  I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing as long as I can and hopefully I can get better at it along the way.

What are some more specific things writers can look forward to at this retreat?

Great food, great camaraderie, a cool rural setting, nice people, a restorative blend of work and relaxation, good conversations, cold beer…

What are some things you've been reading and enjoying lately?

I'm really into the Austrian writer, Robert Seethaler.  Check out his books, A Whole Life and The Tobacconist.  

How would you describe your writing process?

I have none.  I write when I can, when I'm inspired, when I'm afraid I'll forget something...  Sometimes I write at the kitchen table, sometimes in my bed, sometimes in a cafe...  Some folks need a routine or a process.  I'm not one of those people.  I'll take 8 months away from writing to just read books or think or work in my garden, and I don't feel guilty about that.  

What is one of your favorite places/settings to write in?

One of my favorite places to write is the L.E. Phillips Public Library in Eau Claire.  My kitchen table has also been a pretty productive spot.


Don’t miss out on the chance to work side by side with this accomplished writer at “Building a Solid Base: Getting Your Fiction Off On The Right Foot,” which runs from July 19-22 at Cirenaica.

See you there!

5 Reasons Why You Should Apply to Michael Martone's Prose Writing Workshop This Minute!

 Credit: Theresa Pappas

Credit: Theresa Pappas

This summer (July 12-15), we’re thrilled to welcome University of Alabama (Roll tide!) professor Michael Martone to Cirenaica, where he’ll host “From Start to Finish: On Beginnings, Endings, and All the Words In Between”.  Michael’s the author of several books, including the newly released essay collection, Brooding.  In addition, he’s also the author of several beloved books, including Four for a Quarter, Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Racing in Place, and Michael Martone (no, that’s not a typo).  Read on for 5 great reasons to sign up for his writers retreat today.

1.)   The Importance of the Parts

The workshop model often attempts to tackle a piece of writing “in total.”  What’s working, what’s not, etc., etc.  But in Michael’s summer retreat, participants will focus on the various parts of a piece of prose.  As the title suggests: beginnings, endings, and all the words in between.  It’s a unique approach sure to get writers thinking more critically about the various part of their work to ensure the improvement of the work at-large.

2.)   The Beloved Writing Teacher

Few writing teachers in America are as beloved as Michael Martone.  Perhaps the best way to describe Michael’s commitment to his students is to speak about his unique way of staying in touch.  For years, Michael has sent thousands of postcards to former students and friends.  He stresses the importance of maintaining connections, and of making new friends along the way.  Sign-up!  There might be a postcard in it for ya!

3.)   Process > Product

In the classroom, Michael stresses the importance of the writing process over the writing product. In short, if one’s writing process is attempted with enough repetition, eventually the product will come.  It’s a philosophy that, for decades, has made writers feel more comfortable with their words.  Like anything, writing is a practice.  And like everything, it becomes easier with time.

4.)   Special guest B.J. Hollars


Full disclosure: B.J. Hollars may (or may not?) be the one writing these words.  And so, it’s rather presumptuous (well, no “rather” about it, really) for him to hype himself in an effort to further hype Michael Martone.  To try to steer clear of that particular can of worms, he’ll just say this: B.J. Hollars studied under Michael Martone while receiving his MFA at the University of Alabama.  Under Michael's tutelage, Hollars learned the importance of experimenting.  From the hermit crab essay to writing in the third person (this paragraph’s a good example…), Hollars’ writing grew dramatically during his time working with Michael.  Michael served as Hollars' thesis advisor as well, and provided vital guidance in what would become Hollars’ first book, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America.  And he's continued to be a major supporter and inspiration for every word since.  Suffice it to say: Hollars looks very forward to the reunion. Click here for a story on Michael and B.J.'s somewhat awkward first meeting.  

5.)   One word: food.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve heard this one before.  But trust us, food is vital at a writers retreat.  If you’ve got good grub, you’ve got good writing fuel.  This summer, we’re proud to welcome chefs Michelle Thiede and Kristen Dexter, co-owners of FORAGE, to the Cirenaica team.  They’re bringing their cooking skills out to the lodge to ensure that we’re all always well fed. From chilled corn soup to pepper crusted tenderloin, there’s something for every taste bud. Click here for the full menu.

The deadline is May 1!  Submit your application this minute by clicking here!

5 Reasons Why You Should Apply to Nickolas Butler’s Fiction Writing Retreat Right Now


This summer, we’re thrilled to welcome back Nickolas Butler, who will host “Building a Solid Base: Getting Your Fiction Off on the Right Foot.”  Nick’s the author of several books, most recently The Hearts of Men. Read on for 5 great reasons to sign up for his writing retreat.

1.)   He’s an award-winning novelist!

If we were to name all of Nick’s accolades, there’s a good chance we’d break the internet.  From the PAGE Prix America Award to the 2014 Great Lakes Great Reads Award, the 2014 Midwest Independent Booksellers Award, the 2015 Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award, the 2015 UW-Whitewater Chancellor's Regional Literary Award, the…okay, better stop there.  Just last week he was the recipient of the Friends of American Writers award for The Hearts of Men. If you haven’t read it, you must!


2.)   Three words: generous, generous, generous.

Ask any of Nick’s past participants about their experiences working with him, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Nick is one generous writer.  For the past two summers, he’s hunkered down with writers of all levels to ensure that they leave his retreats with a clear path forward.  Some of our fondest memories of past summers involve Nick chatting with people on the back deck, providing personalized feedback on their work.  What an honor it is to have Nick’s editorial eyes on your writing.  

3.)   Peter Geye’s the special guest! 

In addition to working with Nick, we’re excited to have a special visit from novelist Peter Geye.  Peter’s the author of several books, most recently Wintering.  Of Wintering, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Russo wrote, “The last time I read a literary thriller so profound Cormac McCarthy’s name was on its spine.”  Not a bad blurb!  Click here to learn more about Peter.

4.)   Scholarships!

Thanks to Dotters Books, the Sultan Family, and an anonymous donor, this summer we’re excited to offer three scholarships.  If you’ve wanted the chance to work with Nick or another writer-in-residence, but the cost proved prohibitive, this could be your chance!  Apply today, and be sure to note your interest in our scholarships!

5.)   One word: food.

Yeah, yeah, this will be our fifth reason to sign up for every retreat.  But for good reason!  Food matters!  And nothing gets writers more ready for the hard work ahead than a wonderful meal prepared by wonderful chefs. This summer, we’re proud to welcome chefs Michelle Thiede and Kristen Dexter, co-owners of FORAGE, to the Cirenaica team.  They’re bringing their cooking skills out to the lodge to ensure that we’re all always well fed. From herb roasted fingerling potatoes to cheese and red pepper risotto, there’s something for every taste bud. Click here for the full menu.

The deadline is May 1!  Submit your application this minute by clicking here!

On Writing "Bend in the River"

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By Emilia Hurst

It’s not easy writing an 8-episode radio drama, but then again, writing of all kinds can be difficult.  Yet writing Bend in the River proved particularly tricky due to its plot line: the story of 25-year-old David Sundy who, while boarding a ferry en route to his grandfather’s funeral, time traveled to 1958. 

Had any of the writers been alive in 1958, things might have been easier.  But since they weren’t, they relied upon research and the audiences’ ability to suspend their disbelief—the latter of which is a staple in science fiction stories.


Co-writer Charlotte Kupsh hopes the radio drama’s science-fiction elements will appeal to listeners. “I actually don't read a ton of sci-fi and fantasy, so writing a podcast about time travel was an exciting and new experience for me. But I think that, broadly, the podcast is echoing the trend in popular literature toward stories that are crossing tonal and genre boundaries. So, our podcast is about time travel and there are definitely some classic sci-fi elements to the plot, but it's also a really funny show. Similarly, we have a lot of laugh lines in there, but we also have quite serious moments where characters are grappling with issues like gender inequity and stereotypes in the late 1950s. We're doing a lot of things at once.”

The radio drama was collaboratively written by local writers Charlotte Kupsh, Jim Rybicki, Ken Szymanski and B.J. Hollars—a process that Charlotte says proved to be a lot of fun.

“Personally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to work collaboratively with BJ, Jim, and Ken,” Charlotte says.  “We all have different strengths as writers, and we functioned really well as a team. We ended up working through a lot of individual scenes together, with all of us in one room bouncing ideas off one another and trying to come up with the right line of dialogue that would really pull a moment or scene together. Those were some of my favorite moments in the writing process.”

Once the words were written, it was up to Blugold Radio station manager Scott Morfitt and his producers, Nathan Baughman and Eli Klatt, to bring those words to life.  Following several recording sessions with a group of talented voice actors, Scott and his team got to work editing.  Asked about his favorite part of the process, Scott didn’t hesitate: “Watching our producers work to mold the amazing work the writers and actors did into one larger piece.”

When asked where she got the inspiration for Bend in the River Charlotte credits the collaborative process.  “I actually got a lot of inspiration from the other writers. BJ is such an energetic person, and that translates to his writing—he's willing to try anything on the page. And Jim is full of great ideas. He has a way of visualizing the inner workings of the plot and figuring out exactly what's missing--he wrote us out of more than one tricky plot hole. And Ken has a really good understanding of what words or phrases just sound right in the script—he did so much to help polish our scripts. With a team like that, it was hard not to be inspired.”

 You can listen to Bend in the River Fridays at 7PM with re-airs on Sundays at noon and Wednesdays at 7PM only on Blugold Radio 99.9. In addition, you can catch up on previous episodes here.  The live dramatic reading of the final episodes will be held at The Metro at 7pm on Saturday, May 5th.  Tickets can be purchased here (10.00 for general admission, 25.00 for VIP).  Don’t worry if you fall behind; the live reading will feature a special recap to ensure that both new and old listeners know everything they need to about the twists and turns in Bend in the River.