Interview with Marie Gerken & Jim Swinehart
The Western Springs Writers’ Society held its inaugural meeting in 2014 after founders Marie Gerken and Jim Swinehart ran into each other at the Printers Row Lit Fest. The two Western Springs residents discovered a mutual interest in finding a writing group that would nurture their creative efforts, and thought the library would be a natural fit for the group. Their successful first meeting drew a crowd of 30 like-minded local writers, and the WSWS has been meeting regularly at the Thomas Ford Library ever since.
What’s it been like: number of people coming, regulars, newcomers, genres represented, evolution, etc.?
Marie Gerken: We have a core group of members who have consistently come since our very first meeting. Each month someone new comes to one of our meetings or emails Jim and me to inquire about the WSWS. One thing I really enjoy is the wide variety of genres among the writers. This keeps things interesting and I hope and believe is helpful to make someone who comes to the group for the first time feel welcome. The writers each have their own reason for writing and personal goals, and it has been wonderful to see members helping and supporting one another over the years. Truly, we have become a family of writers who keep pushing each other forward.
Jim Swinehart: We meet twice a month on the second Thursday and fourth Monday. The turnout varies from four to 12 people, with the usual number around five to eight people. We have a core group; others come occasionally. That is okay. People have busy lives.
We certainly welcome newcomers. In fact, we had a newcomer at our last meeting. She said her name was Ernest Hemingway, but I’m not so sure she was being earnest about that.
The normal drill is that writers bring pieces that they read and receive feedback on—in a constructive way.
Also, all genres are welcome. We have folks that write poems, short stories, memoirs, plays, books. The genres range from mystery, suspense, fantasy to children’s, spiritual, humor, and romance.
What would you say to someone thinking about attending a meeting of the WSWS?
MG: The door is always open. I would kindly say stop thinking about it and carve out the time to come and join a community of writers. I share this quote by Ernest Hemingway a lot with the WSWS, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
JS: Come one and all. Give us a try. We provide an encouraging environment and hope to spur your creativity. And, we can learn from you.
What kind of writing do you yourself do? What are your own writing goals? How has the WSWS influenced your own writing?
MG: If I had to categorize my writing, I would say it is in the area of reflection, inspiration, and spiritual with a touch of poetry. Presently, I have a blog called The Wholly Middle where I share stories about my experience caring for and living with my mom who had Alzheimer’s and our Italian roots. My ultimate writing goal is to finish the book I’ve been writing, get it published, and continue that process. The WSWS has influenced my writing by encouraging me to own up to my writing and continuously work toward improving my craft.
JS: I write fiction: novels and short stories. I tend to write about relationships, which can be about the attraction and enchantment, but is often about the struggle, disappointment, and heartbreak. As I like to say, when I see wrong, I try to write it.
What do you like to read—genres, titles, print, digital, audio?
MG: Truly, I enjoy reading an array of genres. I don’t have a favorite but I do prefer to read a traditionally printed book and one book I read year after year is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
JS: I read a lot of history, with a focus on American history and the presidents. A recent book I enjoyed, which has lessons for today, was The Soul of America by Jon Meacham. One of my favorites is Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas. As far as fiction, I thought Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and Blue Angel by Francine Prose were superb and well written. My all-time favorite book is Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton. A short, simple story but so tender.
How does the Library help with your reading needs?
MG: Sometimes I use the Libby app, especially on the occasion I’m looking for an audio version of a book. But for me, I still enjoy the in-person experience of visiting the library. Once I browse the “what’s new” wall of books, I take note of the “employee picks” and then get lost in the aisles. Sometimes I come looking for a specific book but more times than not, I like to be surprised by what I find.
JS: I just mentioned Goodbye Mr. Chips, which I re-read every three or four years. I take the book out of the library. I think I am the only person who checks it out. Coming full circle, when forming the Western Springs Writers Society, I went to the library and found a book about, you guessed it, starting a writing group.
How long have you lived in Western Springs, and how did you happen to settle here?
MG: I’ve lived in Western Springs for 16.5 years. At the time, I was moving back home to the Midwest from Southern California and while researching Chicago suburbs via the Internet, I ended up finding Western Springs by word of mouth.
JS: My wife, Karen, and I have lived in Western Springs for almost 26 years. We settled in Western Springs because the houses in Eastern Springs were too expensive.
Give us a snapshot of your life: family, work, interests, aspirations…
MG: I have been married for 27 years to my husband, Tim, and we have four children, Sean, Elise, Luke, and Kevin. I work part time at Anthropologie and the Italian leather and accessories store, Mucci di Firenze in Hinsdale. Both feed my interests for fashion, Italy, and the arts. I also love cooking, travel, reading, helping with spiritual retreats, yoga, and running for a cause. I’ve run four Chicago marathons for the Chicago charity, Open Heart Magic and in October I’ll run my second Chicago marathon for the Alzheimer’s Association.
JS: Karen is the center of our family, the sun around which the kids and I rotate. We have three kids. Margaret is a 2017 grad from Notre Dame and is in her first year of teaching (when not on strike) for the Chicago Public Schools. Brendan is in grad school at Clemson, studying real estate development. Maeve is a junior at Notre Dame and is currently studying abroad in Jerusalem. I am active in the Notre Dame Club of Chicago and am currently serving on its Board of Directors. I am the volunteer coordinator for Notre Dame Admissions for Chicago. I also sometimes coach the football team.
Anything else you’d like to say on the Writers Society, or anything else?
MG: Jim and I are grateful to the Library and Rachel Hoover for their continued support of the WSWS and providing a great space for us to meet each month. Thank you!
JS: The Library, as a center of the community, is a great place for us to meet. In September we hosted our first Poetry Slam at the Library and that was a huge success. We had a great turnout and a lot of good work was presented. So, I think we have a good thing going and look forward to more people joining us.
The Western Springs Writers’ Society meets at the Library from 7:00-8:30 p.m. on the second Thursday and last Monday of the month. Upcoming meetings can be found on the Library’s calendar. Writers of all levels and genres are welcome.
“The Ford Member Connection” spotlights Western Springs residents with interesting stories and relationships to the Library. Please let us know whom you’d like to read about.