Author finds niche telling garden tales

Posted: Monday, July 30, 2001

When Anchorage author Carol Sturgulewski told Kenai Peninsula writers and gardeners this week that "it can be done," she knew what she was talking about.

Sturgulewski's success is an inspiring story.

She and Marion Owen of Kodiak were part of a five-member team of writers and editors who worked on "Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul," which was published Feb. 15. Within three days, the book had skyrocketed to The New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for three months.

"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something because you're in Alaska," said Sturgulewski, "That's not true anymore. It might be a little bit harder, but, hey, if we can do this, other people can do it, too."

Alaska and writing are near and dear to this Anchorage author's heart. She's the daughter of Alaska congressman Frank Murkowski and the daughter-in-law of former legislator Arliss Sturgulewski.

"I always claimed that I moved out to the Aleutian Islands so that I wouldn't have to go door to door, campaigning," said the author, who grew up in Fairbanks and has lived in communities around the state. "And with the name 'Murkowski,' I always said I'd marry someone with a noncontroversial name. So what did I do?"

Her sister, Lisa Murkowski, currently serves in the Alaska legislature. Her sister Eileen Van Wyhe also has expressed an interest in politics.

"I'm not really terribly political myself, but I'm very proud of what they're doing," Sturgulewski said, adding that writing was a good place for her. "Nobody else quite knows what I'm doing, but they're all very proud of me."

She began her writing career with the Fairbanks Daily News Miner in 1977. Three years later, she took on a bigger personal challenge.

"I decided to see if I could cut it where I didn't know anyone," said Sturgulewski of a year spent working for a publication in Northern Michigan. "I wanted a year outside just to see. But this is my home."

After returning to Alaska, she worked for the Anchorage Times and other newspapers in the communities where she, husband, Roe, and their three sons have lived. She has been free-lancing since 1988.

In 1990, she met photographer and master gardener Marion Owen. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Owen spent eight years at sea, working on tugs and traveling between Washington state, Alaska, Guam and Hawaii.

"That's the farthest you can be from gardening," said Owen, who now lives in Kodiak. "I didn't really get a strong 'I need to get my hands in the dirt' sort of feeling until I'd been to sea.

"I was tired of missing the seasons. And there's special things that happen when you've been at sea without sight of land and then you approach land. You can smell it. You can smell the green. It's amazing."

After having the opportunity to work together, Sturgulewski and Owen began searching for other opportunities to combine their talents. When Owen struck upon the idea of "Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul," she ran to Sturgulewski's house.

"She answered the door and I asked her what she thought of the idea," Owen said. "She sort of stared at me blankly because she'd never heard of the (Chicken Soup) series before. She's an avid, avid reader, but she'd never heard of the series."

On Feb. 14, 1999, Sturgulewski and Owen submitted their proposal to Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, the authors who began the award-winning "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series in 1993. The two women were unaware that Canfield and Hansen received some 20 proposals each week, including several proposals similar to theirs.

However, Canfield and Hansen also have an eye for success. According to information on the Chicken Soup for the Soul web site, the original book of the series was rejected by 140 publishers before it finally caught the eye of Peter Vegso, president of Health Communica-tions Inc. The series has since sold more than 60 million copies around the world and continues to win awards.

"I never thought I'd do this," Sturgulewski said. "I always thought I'd do a mystery first."

Owen, on the other hand, said she knew their proposal would be accepted.

"You know, deep down inside, looking back, I really had a strong feeling that we were going to get it," she said. "It was cosmic. I just knew it was going to work."

Owen stressed being open and alert to clues "as to the direction we need to follow to grow."

"If you're open to those pointers, you'll move along well," she said.

Sturgulewski said her favorite part of putting the book together was reviewing the 5,000 true stories that were eventually reduced to the 101 that make up "Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul."

"One story in there that we received was written in long hand in pencil on yellow legal paper by a guy who at the time was honestly living under a bridge," said Sturgulewski of a short piece entitled "Gone Fishin'."

"The story and sentence structure weren't 100 percent perfect, but, gee, the story was terrific," she said.

In the end, what the Chicken Soup series, as well as Sturgulewski and Owen's experience, boils down to is the exchange of stories.

"It's been our privilege to be the ones gathering and sharing all the hope, humor and inspiration contained in this book," reads the introduction of the book. Or, as Sturgulewski said, "We learn things from each other's stories. These are our stories."

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