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Renowned Western writers discuss genre with readers

`Longmire' creator among authors in gathering at Arvada Center


Readers and writers filled the large theater at the Arvada Center on Jan. 27 for “Western Reboot: Authors of the Modern West,” where they listened to a panel of accomplished authors and featured speaker Craig Johnson, author of the “Longmire” series, popular on television as well.

The sellout crowd heard about six unique ways to tell stories about the West — with these articulate people, each of whom has developed a style and in many cases a particular central character(s) who carries more than one tale across a particular Western landscape. Since the event sold out early, Jeffco Library livestreamed to a wider audience and took questions from afar, as well as from the audience onsite. (It’s available on the library website at jeffcolibrary.org/western-reboot-livestream.)

Emcee Chris Vanderveen, a 9News reporter, commented that he “does Western storytelling daily.” It’s a long tradition — only now the sheriff drives a truck instead of galloping in on horseback. Vanderveen “herded” these talkative folks into a really well-paced conversation about the power of place and characters with Margaret Coel, Barbara Nickless, Manuel Ramos, Mark Stevens and Kevin Wolf — and after a supper break, the genial Craig Johnson, who ranches in Ucross, Wyoming, pop. 25.

Kevin Wolf, who lives in Littleton, won the 2015 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Debut Western for his “Homeplace.” His second title, “Brokeheart,” was published last fall. “Homeplace” is set in eastern Colorado and Wolf exhibits real skill in describing the land — its grass and trees, sounds and smells — and a cast of characters one could really picture as they interacted in response to the murder of a young basketball player in the early pages. His next book is about a newsman who arrives in the Colorado mining town of Brokeheart to find sinister goings-on. “I really wanted to show the beauty of the plains,” he said, adding the area is not growing — “Kit Carson High School has four graduates this year — but the old-timers are hanging on.”

“What motivates you?” Vanderveen began…

Award-winner Coel is well known for her series of mysteries set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming among the Arapaho people. She comes from a pioneer Colorado family and said she is motivated by the openness and spaciousness of the West, where one can leave structure behind and find independence.

Stevens grew up in Massachusetts, came west in 1980 and was immediately attracted to the vistas. “I love to take a drive and see what’s changing.” Has the genre changed? “Yes, in terms of how the West has changed — you used to always have a guy with a cowboy hat.”

Nickless commented “you walk down the street and people smile back — you’re not in Boston. In the West, people need to support their neighbors … there’s an element of naturalism in Wyoming — nothing’s fake. Are we all who we are because of how we live?”

“There’s a tension between the myth of the West and reality,” Coel added. “I think we are structured by the landscape — a new character has to get used to that landscape …”

About people in that landscape: Coel, as well as audience members, has become very fond of her lead characters, the Arapaho woman lawyer and the priest who lives on the reservation.

Ramos said his first books were about a Chicano lawyer in Denver and “lately about Gus Coral, who was born on Denver’s north side. He was raised on the streets and stories reflect noir-darker aspects, people I know in LoHi, where I live.” Stevens, who commented that there are many woman hunters, writes about a resourceful female hunting guide, who knows her way around in the mountains and is a great puzzle-solver. “She could drink us all under the table.” Nickless’ character is a Marine veteran who “is already used to Western values.” She is a woman in a man’s world.

To Vanderveen’s inquiry about getting going: Coel started with: “What absolutely not to do is plant yourself in the seat of a chair. There are ideas everywhere. Open your mind and ideas will come in …” Stevens suggested “adding a personal note, start to tell stories, finish something and show it to someone else.” Wolf said “a writer’s organization helps. Network. There’s an appeal to closing yourself off, but you can’t do that.” Nickless said “write the best book you can, then shove through an open door.” Ramos observed “a good writer is a good reader — read all kinds of stuff, steal from other good writers — in a good kind of way. Learn from others.” Coel laughed. “It sort of ruins reading pleasure-one is always ready to see how it’s done …”

What about research?

Coel warned against getting carried away, as you read what’s on the page, mark if there’s something missing and follow up. Stevens says he functions like the old reporter he once was when out with wildlife, police officers, etc., then looks for what else needs to be filled in.

Johnson began his segment of the program by celebrating the “Western resurgence in popular culture.” He has written 13 novels and two novellas, which have been adapted for the TV series. “When in my 20s, I fell in love with Ucross, Wyoming,” he said. “I set out to write about a sheriff in the least-populated county in the least-populated state. You really depend on your neighbors. The Western culture means bonding together.” Audience members asked how it is to see your books on television. “It’s like having a house plan and going down one morning and it starts talking to you!” Usually, Hollywood wants to get rid of authors as soon as possible, but producers kept Johnson in the loop, including actors’ auditions for the parts in the series.

They shot the first part in a courthouse in Las Vegas, New Mexico, then built a reproduction for the subsequent films. “The West is about exteriors, not interiors,” he said. “You cannot escape the landscape — always there, always having an effect.”

More than 500 happy readers went home with new ideas for winter entertainment.


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