When we launched SunLit in September, our aim was to provide enticing weekly excerpts of work from some of Colorado’s best authors to add a literary flavor to the journalism we do every day. It’s about building community and exploring a variety of perspectives on Colorado life.
The offerings represented diverse genres of both fiction and non-fiction — and sometimes the disturbing intersection of fiction and reality. In addition, short interviews with the authors revealed some fascinating approaches to their craft. All were Colorado Humanities 2018 Colorado Book Award winners or finalists — the best of the best.
We’ve got wolves, vampires, true stories of immigrants and inspiration, murder mysteries and novels of love and loss anchored to Colorado events and landscapes. So in case you missed some, here’s your opportunity to sit back and enjoy the SunLit Year in Review.
“Wolves are part of our Western heritage. Learning to live again with them in the Rocky Mountains may be one of our most important 21st century lessons in ecology and humility.”
“The Last Stand of the Pack: Critical Edition”
In one of SunLit’s most-read excerpts, Andrew Gulliford builds on the historic writing of Arthur Carhart in making the case for reintroducing a predator that had been erased from the Colorado landscape. From the travels of Lewis and Clark to stories of the last wolves, with names like Old Lefty, Old Whitey and Rags the Digger, this piece contemplates the long-controversial idea of reintroduction while acknowledging the legitimate concerns of those most adversely impacted by the return of the apex predators.
And in the interview, Gulliford explains why he considers bringing back wolves an “ecological necessity.”
“…South handled the bulk of the city’s teenage refugees, for it was primarily children in those families who had significant gaps in their education. War—that was what generally caused children to be unable to attend school for long periods of time.”
Author Helen Thorpe followed the stories of a class of English-language learners at Denver’s South High School to deliver, with great detail, one compelling slice of the immigrant experience in Colorado. She went deep with her characters, even visiting their homelands to explain their backstories.
She added yet another dimension in her interview, which explored her own immigrant past and the way she identifies with newer immigrant communities. “I wanted to write ‘The Newcomers’ to give refugee families back their humanity,” she said, “which was being taken away from them in the toxic nature of the public debate over the questions about whether to continue our longstanding refugee resettlement program.”
“As you try to navigate that turbulence, sometimes trusting it, sometimes desperately fighting it, you realize you’re merely experiencing the effects of inexorable forces swirling and colliding.”
A blind adventurer’s personal account of a stomach-churning run through one of the Colorado River’s most challenging rapids provides all the incentive you need to pick this one up. And the way author Erik Weihenmayer seamlessly employs his outdoor adventure as a metaphor for life’s difficult path through success and failure means his story is sure to stay with you long after you’ve put it down.
In the accompanying Q&A, Weihenmayer describes why he wrote the book as he did, rather than acting as omniscient narrator, and how it was all about “deciphering the messy map we’re all trying to build and navigate, and finding a way to thrive in that imperfect chaos.”
“…Amber is summoned to Hollywood to wrangle insects on film sets, as she did for ‘Heaven Is for Real.’ She convinced the movie’s main star, (Greg) Kinnear, to hold a Rosie—the one we’re now attempting to mate, thus convincing me that heaven is indeed for real.”
Spiders. Tarantulas, no less. Sex. Greg Kinnear. Do we have your attention yet? This excerpt by author David MacNeal explains that there are 1.4 billion insects for every human on the planet, and their lives are woven into our culture. A tarantula named Kinnear provides the focus for spider reproduction. ’Nuff said.
As he explains in his interview, MacNeal became obsessed with insects after dissecting a grasshopper — “removing a jumble of guts.” The rest is literary history.
“When I think of her this way, she is beautiful to me. The missing tooth; the papery skin that looks so much older than its fifty years…all of this is beautiful because this is what is left of the fearless, unpredictable woman who raised me.”
“Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays”
Stephanie G’Schwind’s anthology offers this poignant and perceptive piece by writer Lupe Linares about…teeth. The entire volume creates the human body piece by piece, with each piece telling a different story. But Linares’s beautiful memoir of her parents’ gap-toothed smiles touches the heart in ways you don’t always see coming.
Editor G’Schwind offered this particular segment from her book because, she told us in her interview, she has “a great fear of losing my teeth.” But she also loves how it touches on family, health, anxiety and class.
“The weather didn’t bother him. What bothered him was that he should have moved to Grand Junction by now. The weather was just waking him up, that’s all. It was teaching him a lesson, again and again, one he had yet to heed.”
Many Coloradans have been where the protagonist Flynn has been — battling their way through a fickle mountain snowstorm and hoping to survive it. Author David Hicks takes us there, describes it all in meticulous detail, right down to the way the high country’s splendid isolation and unpredictable weather can trigger introspection.
As we also discover in his responses to SunLit questions, this book is intensely personal. It draws on autobiographical elements that include his kids writing a chapter about a fractured family life from their perspective, and Hicks himself taking on his ex-wife’s point of view.
“…I picked twigs out of my hair and wiped a smudge of dirt from my forearm and let my mind think things like, the only thing grand enough for a human life is to love and this is where wild and gentle get sewn together…”
“The Blue Hour”
The sensual prose of author Laura Pritchett leads the reader through an exploration of sexual love in the most honest way, through characters’ self-examination and acknowledgement of vulnerability and how real life intrudes on imagined ideals.
Pritchett reveals, in her interview, how fan mail from a short story urged her to continue to delve into such honest portrayals of sex in literary works, especially in a society that is “wildly prudish on one hand, and pornographic on the other.”
“Even when I tried to tell her what Caswell let boys do to me, she would not listen and would slap me and scream at me for telling lies about Caswell, who was truly wicked through and through, but she thought he was her most wonderful child.”
“Wishing Caswell Dead”
This heart-wrenching excerpt from Pat Stoltey’s novel tells one slice of the larger story from the vantage point of Jo Mae Proud, whose brother, Caswell, treats her with dismissive cruelty. Even in such a relatively short passage, Stoltey paints an intricate portrait of family dynamics that are both hideous and impossible to look away from.
This novel began as a short story inspired by a dream and originally was conceived as a crime story, as Stoltey explains in her interview. But the characters demanded more of her. And she says that Jo Mae Proud will reappear in her future writing.
“I raised my hand to motion us forward, then froze as six silent figures emerged from the ruins far below and scowled up at me. Six dead men, made that way by my hand months ago.”
Railroad cop Sydney Parnell and her canine partner, Clyde, pick up the scent of foul play in this Colorado Book Award winner for mystery. But author Barbara Nickless takes the narrative deep, exploring the impact of war and violence on a couple of veterans who now fight crime.
The authenticity of Nickless’ writing rings through this excerpt, and in her Q&A we find out one reason why. She attended the FBI’s Citizen’s Academy to help her understand the workings of law enforcement.
“He knew better than to believe what he’d been told about why they wanted a girl—that they were engaging in a college prank—but he wasn’t in a position to ask too many questions. And honestly, he didn’t want to think about it too much.”
When author Peg Brantley began doing research for her novel about human trafficking, she feared that there wouldn’t be much local material from which to draw her narrative. Turned out there was more than enough real trafficking right here, more than she wanted. While much of pop culture focuses on overseas trafficking — we’re looking at you, Liam Neeson — domestic trafficking reveals a dark underside of American life.
In fact, as Brantley notes in her interview, when she told a friend that she was working on a novel about trafficking, the friend implored her not to make the setting “over there.” Indeed, this excerpt strikes uncomfortably close to home.
“There were changes on the ground, torn sod and footprints, as if there’d been a scuffle. They spoke to her. Something’s wrong. The hair on her neck rose about the same time it did on Robo’s. Something bad had happened here; Robo could feel it, and so could she.”
Deputy and faithful canine partner was an effective construct this year. In Margaret Mizushima’s novel, Mattie Cobb and her search dog, Robo, try to sniff out evil doings while Mattie and other characters also battle their personal demons. The third installment in this mystery series examines the overarching issue of mental health.
In fact, Mizushima said in her Q&A that she was suffering from depression as she wrote the first draft of this novel and struggled right along with her characters to keep a positive outlook.
“The closest people to her were several Ukrainian soldiers and the pack of journalists they were keeping at bay near the edge of the road. The nearest soldier was three, maybe four hundred yards away. She estimated she had sixty to seventy seconds before he could reach her.”
In a novel that echoes current affairs, author Chris Goff uses a downed commercial aircraft as the impetus for this Cold War mystery that begins with the protagonist, Raisa Jordan, attempting to recover sensitive material from the body of a U.S. diplomat.
Goff’s research, she told us in her interview, included visits to Ukraine, Poland and Germany to take the pulse of the people and politics to lend authenticity to this thriller. Key parts also take place in China, and the author’s challenge was making those segments just as authentic — without a personal visit.
“Lydia’s body sprung with terror, but instead of running away she was suddenly running toward him, toward Joey, and hugging his lanky legs and trying to hoist him up. She heard someone’s scream curdle through the store and realized it was her own.”
“Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore”
LoDo. The Tattered Cover. Real-life Colorado crime. They’re all here in author Matthew Sullivan’s captivating mystery that will fix local readers with a familiar sense of place. This opening episode sends the protagonist on the way toward unraveling the truth behind an unnerving discovery among the bookshelves.
Sullivan, who worked at the Tattered Cover in the 1990s, draws on the experience and atmosphere of the developing LoDo neighborhood. He also references a particularly notorious multiple murder that, in an odd coincidence, is recently back in the news with the arrest of a suspect.
“July’s mind struggled with the incongruity. He should be five hundred miles to the south, squashed like a bug under a three-thousand pound Prius. The last thing he’d seen before opening his eyes here had been a close-up of the car in mid-roll. Maybe he was dead.”
“A Borrowed Hell”
When protagonist July Davish awakens in an alternate reality in a near-deserted San Francisco — far from his San Diego home — author L.D. Colter launches the reader on a journey between two worlds with a “Twilight Zone”-worthy narrative. Pushing herself to explore new avenues of the fantasy genre, Colter focuses on a character who must relive a difficult past in order to move forward.
The author does painstaking research on her locations, as she explains in her interview, and some of that appears in one of the settings for this excerpt — a curious place called Coit Tower.
“His altered state-of-being afforded him senses beyond the mundane five. He saw the soft orange-yellow presences of the souls of the living. Seeded among them, rare as shooting stars in the night sky—yet more common than they should be—he saw the telltale blue-white presences of lost souls who had not yet crossed.”
Feel like disappearing into another world, a city where vampires and humans coexist (except for the anti-vampire vigilantes) and characters form unusual alliances to ward off an age-old conspiracy? Michael Haspil has got you covered in a novel where the mundane rhythms of everyday life are spiced with the supernatural.
Haspil dreamed this new world — he knows, that’s almost cliche — but when he awoke, he tells us in his interview, he only remembered one line of dialogue: “I used to kill vampires for the NSA, now I work Vice.” His imagination took it from there.
“I’m fortunate in that I’m already connected to the paranormal community, and there’s some crossover there. A lot of us believe we’re looking at similar phenomenon from different perspectives. You get a lot of UFO sightings at certain haunted locations and vice versa.”
“Colorado UFOs” author Richard Estep
This wasn’t an official SunLit offering, but Estep, a Longmont paramedic who explores haunted places as a sideline, took a fascinating detour from his usual subject to examine not only UFO sightings, but the people who claim to have had visual — or closer — contact with extraterrestrials. He sat down with us for an interesting and entertaining chat about UFO phenomena in Colorado, how space ship sightings reflect evolving science fiction and how he approached the accounts of people he considers quite credible, even if their stories seem difficult to swallow.
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