Britt Udesen 

The Cabin's executive director talks about reading, writing and Sherman Alexie

When Britt Udesen graduated from Macalester College in her home state of Minnesota, she had one big dream: to move to Alaska.

"I like to trout fish, I like to hike the mountains and I wanted to be somewhere beautiful," she said. Then her older brother's best friend from college stopped her cold.

"What do you want in Alaska? I can get you all of that in Sun Valley, plus daylight and a symphony," he told Udesen.

Soon thereafter, she took a job at Ketchum's Knob Hill Inn. She stayed in Idaho for a year, left to soothe a restless heart--she was an educator in Atlanta, Minneapolis and even the Czech Republic--but returned to the Gem State in 2004 as director of education and humanities for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.

"And I loved my job in Sun Valley, but I said years ago that the only reason I would leave would be to work at The Cabin," she told Boise Weekly.

Indeed, Udesen became the executive director of The Cabin in Boise in March 2013. With a beautiful painting of northern Minnesota birch trees by artist Paul Bergeron adorning her office at The Cabin, and a patient and friendly border collie named Lou lying nearby, Udesen, 38, talked with BW about her passion for the written and spoken word.

When you took this job in 2013, what did The Cabin's board tell you it was looking for?

To take The Cabin to the next step. The Cabin has well-respected programs. Nobody needs to fix those, but we need to reach out.

Reach out to whom?

Younger people, more children, maybe people who don't know who we are.

And how do you do that?

I'm working on it every day. Maybe we bring in a diversity of voices that we haven't heard before. We're doing a blogging workshop this fall and we're always putting together new camps.

Speaking of which, The Cabin becomes a very different place during the summer.

We're bursting at the seams and it's really fun. We have about 600-700 kids in about eight camps per week. And every Friday afternoon we do two readings on the lawn.

Going forward, how might you want to do things at The Cabin a bit differently?

We want people to know that The Cabin is fun, and storytelling is joyful.

But when some adults hear "fun," they may not think that includes them?

Let me rephrase that. Storytelling is joyful, but it's not necessarily fun, silly or flippant. The same piece of writing can be hilarious and heartbreaking on the next page. Our job is to help people tell those stories, whatever those stories are, and that includes everyone.

You must often hear people say that they're not "real writers."

But they are. I ask them, "Do you tell stories?" We're all real writers and certainly real readers. There's a space here for everyone.

Do people come to The Cabin, hoping to be launched into the world of professional writing?

Sometimes.

You must admit that there is a secret sauce in becoming a professional writer and you can taste that here at The Cabin. Whether someone is paid a lot of money or not to write is almost unimportant. Yes?

Yes, and that's the inspiration part of who we are. We hire a lot of great professional writers here and when you work with professionals, even in an hourlong workshop, you walk away as a better writer than you were before.

We know that The Cabin is a nonprofit, but how do you keep the lights on? Membership?

We have generous members, plus grants, sponsorships, our camps and workshops, and our reading conversation series just about covers the cost of our speakers.

What's your operating budget?

Just under $500,000.

And how about the cabin itself?

The city of Boise owns it and very generously allows us to be here under a 50-year lease.

Let's talk about your Readings and Conversations series. You continue to bring in a stunning list of literary rock stars.

Yes, it's hard and there are some people we may not get, but we have a history of great writers, plus they love our smart audiences.

Not every great writer is a great speaker.

Right. we don't want boring. snooze-fest people. We rely on our community to tell us, "I just saw so-and-so and she was amazing."

Which brings us to Sherman Alexie [who The Cabin will host March 11, 2015].

We started a conversation in March 2013 and it all happened. We started to talk to him before the kerfuffle happened [Idaho made national headlines in April when the Meridian School District pulled an Alexie book from a reading list].

Were you worried that he might back out when the controversy in Meridian erupted?

We didn't want anyone to think we were disrespecting their beliefs. At the same time, I think it's a great book and I stand by that.

Where does The Cabin fall into the community conversation, about this book specifically, and the broader discussion about diversity?

We've not really been invited to be part of a conversation about books in our community.

I'm stunned by that.

Choosing Sherman Alexie was an artistic decision, not a political one.

So, why don't you facilitate that community conversation?

I would love to.

Shouldn't The Cabin be somewhere in the center of that dialogue?

What a great idea. We should do that. Maybe this is the moment to push it forward.

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