Jill Stukenberg Finds Her Audience

When author Jill Stukenberg won the 2021 Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press for her debut novel, News of the Air, she missed the call. She’s submitted her written work to presses and agents over the years, but she never considered actually getting a call back. 

“It was pretty much a top life feeling to get a call like that,” she said.

Stukenberg had submitted her News of the Air manuscript – then titled Labor Day – to the Big Moose Prize the two years prior. She earned a semifinalist spot with her first attempt and a finalist ranking with her second before taking the cake on her third attempt.

Stukenberg’s book follows a family that moves to Wisconsin’s Northwoods following acts of ecoterrorism in their city. Allie – heavily pregnant at the time – and her husband, Bud, purchase an old fishing resort where they raise their daughter, Cassie. The relative peace of their life is shattered when two kids show up at their docks by canoe. Have the problems of the modern world finally caught up with Allie and her family?

Author Nickolas Butler says of the book, “News of the Air is a dreamy, mysterious novel of the Northwoods. A book about regret and loss, love and friendship – all set in and around a familiar Wisconsin lake resort where the visitors and locals [make up] a compelling cast of characters.”

Stukenberg said life as an educator and student have both played important roles on her journey to publication.

A 1997 graduate of Sturgeon Bay High school, she is now an associate professor at UW-Stevens Point who teaches reading and writing courses. During her time as an undergrad at Marquette University, she was considering entering the journalism field instead of pursuing creative writing, which felt like an intimidating path to pursue. 

“I was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged me to just follow what I love to do, and I could trust that I would find something that I could do,” Stukenberg said.

After getting her B.A. in writing-intensive English, she attended the M.F.A. program at New Mexico State University, where she fell in love with teaching. In addition to her studies, she worked as a teaching assistant to help pay for school.

Stukenberg credits her work as an educator as an important factor in her growth as a writer, and it was a teacher in Sturgeon Bay who helped her to start on her own path to writing.

“I have to thank Dee Paulsen, who was my third-grade teacher at Sunset Elementary,” she said. “She helped me name myself as a writer.”

Stukenberg also credits the late Gretchen Montee, her eighth-grade teacher at TJ Walker Middle School, for teaching her the art of writing sentences – knowing that certain combinations and words could create specific effects in your readers and knowing how to use that to your advantage.

Paulsen was taken by surprise when she found out her former student praised her work as a teacher and the influence she had on Stukenberg.

“She was in a class that was stellar in every way,” Paulsen said. “She was an amazing writer and voracious reader.” She went on to talk about her teaching style, hoping to be an encourager and not just a teacher.

Stukenberg’s own students have influenced her life as a writer and kept her on track during the six years when she was writing News of the Air. Working with young people helps to keep her grounded in what people want from stories and writing.

“When I see how powerful it is for students to feel like they’ve written something, and maybe it’s the first thing they’ve written in a long time, or it’s a two-page essay, they feel empowered when they’re able to get their words on the page,” Stukenberg said. “It reminds me that it’s really a gift that I have in my own free time to make writing a part of my life.”

As a teacher and parent to a growing son, she’s experienced bursts of productivity alternating with periods of inactivity, and even though these inconsistencies have caused some frustration, she thinks they ultimately helped to improve her book.

“The time away from a project helps,” Stukenberg said. “When you come back to it, you can look at it with fresh eyes.”

The biggest piece of advice she has for her students and those looking to pursue creative writing is to find a writing community. What that looks like can be different from person to person or even online. Here in Door County, Stukenberg cites Write On, Door County as a great resource and community for writers.

She has had two residencies with the local organization, spending one of those visits editing her book and the other submitting it to independent publishers and contests.

“Organizations like Write On, Door County are doing that work [of writing communities],” Stukenberg said. “They are helping people feel like we can have writers’ groups, we can hear from visiting authors and we can just have a space where we take ourselves seriously.”

Jill Stukenberg with a stack of copies of her debut novel, News of the Air, at Janke Book Store, the oldest bookstore in Wisconsin. Submitted.

It was during one of her residencies that she decided to submit her manuscript for a third time, seeking to do exactly that: take herself and her work as a writer seriously.

From the moment she got the call from Black Lawrence Press, Stukenberg spent the next year tightening up her story and working with the small publisher to bring her debut novel to life.

Now that it’s published, she’s using her time to start on her next book.

“Winning the Big Moose Prize and having my novel published after so many years of writing it has given me a shot of confidence,” Stukenberg said. “This experience also helps me commit even more to encouraging and promoting other writers – especially new writers – and helping them to find audiences, outlets and publication. I feel a new urgency for my role in all of that work now that I’ve been reminded even more of what finding an audience feels like.”

Where to Buy

News of the Air is available for purchase online through Black Lawrence Press and other major online retailers, but before buying online, please check with your local bookstores first to support smaller and independent book purveyors. An audiobook version is also available. Fun fact: Stukenberg needed to work with the narrator to provide help pronouncing Wisconsin names.