How Aspen's Institutions Are Producing America's Best Literary Works

By Kelly J. Hayes | May 19, 2017 | Culture Feature

Writers have long flocked to the Colorado high country for the time, space, and calm to work. Now it's Aspen's literary institutions that are furnishing some of today's finest fiction.

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A romantic may imagine that ideas simply spring from the melting snowfields, that sentences flow ready-formed from the rushing rivers, that epiphanies fall like shooting stars from the night skies. Whatever it is, Aspen has a way of inspiring writers. “I don’t mean to sound cheesy,” says Brooklyn-based ex-Aspenite Carola Lovering, “but something about the majestic, secluded setting made me feel very creatively enabled. And it clarified my goal. I knew I had to write the book.”

That book, The One, is Lovering’s debut novel, set for release next year by Simon & Schuster. The rarefied Rockies have long shown the power to stir passionate wordsmiths to create and share stories that resonate with the outside world as much as within the mountainous walls of the Roaring Fork Valley. From past writer residents, including Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), James Salter (the screenplay for Downhill Racer), and Ted Conover (Whiteout: Lost in Aspen), to today’s innovators, like Linda Lafferty (The Shepherdess of Sienna) and Maria Semple (Today Will Be Different), Aspen has a long history of cradling storytellers. But the community works its magic on visitors as well, those who come to drink from the writing well and find their voice.

Lovering, 28, began writing her novel, a double narrative told from the point of view of a young woman and the “sociopathic guy she can’t get over,” after college as a collection of short stories. “I started writing my book when I was living in New York City, but wrote the bulk of the existing version when I moved to Aspen,” she explains. “Far from the bustle of the city and in the peace of the mountains, I felt very removed and still. The beauty of Colorado has always inspired me, but Aspen’s natural splendor is on another level.” However, Aspen contributed more than scenery on Lovering’s journey to publication.

“Aspen has an incredible literary community—I had no idea until I moved there,” she says. “A close friend of mine works at Aspen Words, so she was a big help in initially getting me involved with the writing community and attending panels and lectures. I remember one especially insightful panel at the Gant featuring several literary agents and editors, most of them based in New York. They offered advice on pitches and querying agents, and it was very helpful to me at that point in my own process.” It was 41 summers ago that Kurt Brown, perhaps too predictably a Jake’s Abbey bartender with a penchant for poetry, launched the Aspen Writers’ Conference.

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Writers in arms: The Roaring Fork Valley and its literary institutions have nurtured writers for decades. Among the latest are novelist and One Story cofounder Hannah Tinti, who finished her latest book during an Aspen Words residency.

In the ensuing decades, the two-week poetry event, a kind of bicentennial slam, morphed into one of America’s longest-running writers’ programs, Aspen Words. Now a significant nonprofit operating under the auspices of the Aspen Institute, Aspen Words attracts writers to town via its Writers in Residence program, encourages future generations by bringing authors into the valley’s public schools, and distributes books by its writers in residence to the community through the Catch and Release program. But its main mission is Aspen Summer Words (see opposite page), a mash-up of juried and nonjuried writer workshops and public events featuring noted authors from around the world.

This year, the organization debuts the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award to a novel or short-story collection published in 2017. The book must be “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.” A five-member jury will select the first winner, whose author will be awarded the prize in 2018 at what will become, thanks to an anonymous grant, an annual affair. Novelist Hannah Tinti knows well the power of participation in Aspen Words. Her new novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (The Dial Press), was published to rave reviews this spring (fellow author Ann Patchett said the book is “one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade, and twelve parts wild innovation”).

The book follows the relationship of a loving, gun-toting father and his coming-of-age daughter during their nomadic travels around the country. Tinti, 43, completed the work while a writer in residence in 2014. “I was able to finish the draft of my book during the month I spent in Woody Creek,” says Tinti, a Brooklynite like Lovering and a cofounder of the literary magazine One Story. “Sense of place is really important in the book, and being in such a rugged and wild landscape really helped me relate and understand that. I still show photos at cocktail parties of the bear that tried to break into my cabin while I was writing,” she laughs.

In Twelve Lives, the protagonist embodies the 12 labors of Hercules, seemingly impossible tasks completed in atonement by the legendary Greek hero. To help herself visualize them as she wrote, Tinti even painted pictures of the labors during her time in Woody Creek. This summer she will be leading one of the juried workshops at Aspen Words, her second stint as a mentor and teacher, following a Beginning Fiction class she headed in 2015.

“I try and teach writers that one of the most important things is building a community. It’s like in mountaineering, where you are all tied together by a rope and when each one moves and takes a step, everyone moves forward,” she says. “I’m always struck at Aspen by how quickly these communities form. People here are so influenced by the landscape and are engaged with nature. I’m really excited to be coming back.” Of course, not all of Aspen’s writers come from Brooklyn. Locally grown and groomed talent Tony Vagneur began writing stories about the Roaring Fork Valley when he was just a young pup on the family ranch.

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Tony Vagneur, author of Aspen:Then and Now: Reflections of a Native Son, who first found literary expression as a columnist for The Aspen Times;

His book, Aspen: Then and Now: Reflections of a Native Son (Woody Creek Press), is not only a love letter to the places he has seen in a life well-lived, but a document of the changes that have taken place in Aspen and the valley beyond. “When I was 9 years old, I got my first rejection slip from the Reader’s Digest,” remembers Vagneur, now 70. “It killed me, and I think I quit writing for a long time after that.” But he had a writing renaissance after he quit his college football team at the University of Northern Colorado. “Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had Ernest Hemingway on the brain.”

Over the next quarter-century, he wrote “business letters and proposals which never seemed to get much notice, and I’d occasionally spout off about something in the local paper that would piss me off,” but it was in January of 2005 that Vagneur began his acclaimed column, “Saddle Sore,” in The Aspen Times. There he painted pictures in words—of the people, the animals, and the places that he embraces with special love and vigor.

It is perhaps the best-written regular newspaper column in the state, and when the opportunity came to produce a collection of short stories in book form, he scoured his 500-plus columns for gems. “As you might have guessed, much of my life is in that book,” he says. “I don’t share everything, but try to lay out the interesting parts in a way that makes sense. In verbal communication, I too often expect people to know what I’m talking about, and I cuss way too much. But in writing, I think I do a better job of communicating.” Up and down the valley, that’s a common trait.

NEW WORDS FOR THE VALLEY
This summer, Aspen Words will present its 2017 Writers in Residence during a series of monthly events at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar (301 E. Hopkins Ave., 970-710-7275) in Aspen, which are free and open to the public (though donations at the door are encouraged). The writers will read from their works in progress and lead public discussions. Here, the summer roster.

GRANT FAULKNER, JULY 18, 5:30 PM
The executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and a cofounder of 100 Word Story.

CHIGOZIE OBIOMA, AUGUST 22, 5:30 PM
A Nigerian writer whose acclaimed debut novel, The Fishermen (Little, Brown, 2015), was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

TATJANA SOLI, SEPTEMBER 19, 5:30 PM
A novelist and short story writer whose third novel, The Last Good Paradise (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), was a Millions Most Anticipated Book for 2015. Also check out readings year-round at Aspen’s beloved Explore Booksellers (221 E. Main St., 970-925-5336). Founded in 1975 by Katharine Thalberg, Explore is among the most important cultural institutions in the valley and regularly hosts authors for events. A must-visit for readers and writers in Aspen.

Categories: Culture Feature

PHOTOGRAPHY BY BKINGFOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (MAROON BELLS); GUVENDEMIR/GETTY IMAGES (TYPEWRITER); PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIELLE SIESS (TINTI); MARY JO VAN DELL/ASPEN HISTORICAL
SOCIETY, COURTESY OF TONY VAGNEUR (VAGNEUR); HANNAH THOMPSON
(LOVERING); COURTESY OF RANDOM HOUSE (THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL
HAWLEY); BY MARGARET WILSON RECKLING (ASPEN: THEN AND NOW)

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