Book City: Hedgebrook's director on the allure of fantasy worlds

Amy Wheeler, the director of the Northwest's women only writers retreat, on working with Gloria Steinem and her love of losing herself in literary worlds.
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Amy Wheeler, director of Whidbey Island's Hedgebrook women's writing retreat center.

Amy Wheeler, the director of the Northwest's women only writers retreat, on working with Gloria Steinem and her love of losing herself in literary worlds.

Amy Wheeler is a playwright whose work has been produced in New York, Seattle and Portland. In her day job as executive director of Hedgebrook writing retreat on Whidbey Island, she offers encouragement and hospitality to women writers from around the world.

Valerie Easton: What books are on your nightstand right now?

Amy Wheeler: Abigail Carter’s The Alchemy of Loss, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing In the Rain and my well-worn and beloved copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Alchemy is Abigail’s true story of losing her husband in one of the twin towers on 9/11. To be honest, it took me awhile to open the book. Reading her moving, funny, honest journey through grief  —  going on that ride — I’m reminded of how necessary it is to ‘go there.’

Garth’s novel is a delightful story, beautifully written and my telepathic connection with my dog Matilda is deepening as I read it.

Any book you’ve read lately that caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

Half the Sky by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Powerful stories of women and girls around the world, in developing countries, who are working against the odds to raise their children, get an education, start a business that benefits their village, rescue girls from the sex trade. The authors make the compelling case that as long as half the world’s population (i.e. females) are oppressed, humanity cannot meet our full potential.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The boy in it reminds me of my son. Reading it is helping me understand him and how his mind works.

Has being involved with Hedgebrook changed your reading life?

I read more, but I finish less!  I have a habit of starting a book, then getting interrupted and starting another book. And before I know it, I’m deep into four or five books. I like moving between worlds and stretching my imagination. Also, much of my limited reading time goes to research for the plays I’m working on. I don’t read as much fiction when I’m writing because I need to keep my head in the world that I’m creating.

Do you have a play in the works?

I'm currently working on Atomic Agape, a play that deals with the things that keep me awake at night, like our vulnerability in the face of mother nature's moods and shifts, and our ability to connect with someone all the way across the globe and still be disconnected from the person across the table from us.

People ask me if my plays are political, and they are, but I sort of think of myself as the kid in The Emperor's New Clothes — pointing a finger and saying, "Uh...the dude's naked." Telling the truth to spark a dialogue.

WhIch author has been most exciting to have in residence at Hedgebrook?

Impossible to answer! They are all amazing. So I’ll go with the present moment: Ruth Ozeki is in residence, teaching a Master Class. It’s also such a gift to get to know Gloria Steinem. She’s working on her next book at Hedgebrook, one that spans much of her career and tells the story of her life “on the road,” organizing and lecturing and meeting people.

What were your most cherished books when you were a child? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

Wow. That’s a long list. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder… getting lost in the world of Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, Pa playing his fiddle and Ma teaching them how to make things. I loved those books with a girl character who is adventurous.

Fantasy worlds like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz captivated me. I also loved Beverly Cleary’s books, and actually wrote her a fan letter when I was in fourth grade that she responded to. I told her I wanted to be a writer, and she took me very seriously and wrote me back some advice and good wishes. I’ve never forgotten that.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

There’s a passage in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses that I love — a single sentence that fills most of a page. It begins, “At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past……” It’s also one of my Dad’s favorite books…we share our love of McCarthy’s language.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?

I first read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey as a teenager, and it’s one I’ve gone back to. And Virginia Woolf’s Orlando continues to shape me as a writer. I’m blown away by how brilliantly (and seamlessly) she transitions Orlando’s gender from male to female as she-he moves through time. Woolf is so far ahead of her time, we still haven’t caught up with her!

Do you have any favorite mysteries? Or favorites in another genre?

I’m a big fan of P.D. James and Elizabeth George. I’m also getting into science fiction this year, reading more Ursula LeGuin, Molly Gloss and Karen Joy Fowler (all Hedgebrook alums).

Since I’m a playwright, I love reading plays, too. Ellen McLaughlin’s collection of The Greek Plays is so good, her re-invention of myths from a feminine perspective, like Iphigenia and Other Daughters and Helen are astonishing.

Do you tend to buy books, get them from the library? Download them? How long is your library queue?

I do all of the above, though I’ve not yet invested in a Kindle. I like reading books, and I tire of looking at a screen…which I do for so much of the day. My library queue is always ambitious.

Are you a fast or slow reader? Do you write in the margins, take notes?

Fast, but I have to go back and read things over again. I take notes when I’m researching, but when I’m not, I like to just enjoy the read.

When and where do you settle down to read?

In front of the fireplace, on the couch, in bed.

Is there a book you rely on to cheer yourself up/ comfort yourself?

Not specifically. I sometimes go back to books that meant a lot to me at different times in my life. And I often turn to Pema Chodron, if I’m going through a difficult time, or Thich Nhat Hanh, when I’m trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. Their wise, compassionate voices calm my soul.

What book do you plan to read next?

Well, there’s that stack on my bedside table I plan to get all the way through. Hedgebrook alums send us their books when they come out, so there’s always a new one waiting.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.