"I was pretty much just getting stoned every single day, probably on the hour—maybe twice an hour—and then I read this book under the influence called Swamplandia! by Karen Russell,” Kyle Dillon Hertz recalls of his personal journey. “Then I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to fuckin’ write.’”
Absorbing the coming of age story that takes place in a Florida alligator-wrestling amusement park marked him. Literally. To the point that he now has a prominent tattoo on his left arm inspired by it.
At 19, Hertz mustered enough confidence to submit a short story to the New Yorker.
"It was about a fake Machu Picchu theme park in San Diego, essentially," he reminisces. "Like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, but a much more racist version of that and appropriation and the monetization of experience."
"People that come here are wanderers."
It didn't get published, but the young author did receive feedback, which let him know he was on the right track.
A stint at UCLA followed, where Hertz met Writing Workshops Los Angeles' Edan Lepucki, who quickly became his mentor.
"We just hit it off," he says. "I was visiting Santa Fe and told her, 'You should open a school here. People fuckin' want it, they really do.'" Her schedule forbidding it, Lepucki suggested her protégé take charge.
The preface set, Hertz now 22, decided to start his own program last January. The Santa Fe Writer's Workshop is located in an industrial complex off Old Pecos Trail inside a nondescript, shared office.
The words "congested subtext," "mania" and "signs and symbols" are scribbled on a whiteboard. A box containing a dozen Whoo's Donuts rests on a Melamine table along with some floral print napkins. A dominant accent wall is freshly painted in a teal hue, removing a previous, standard issue "jail-ish color" and in keeping with what Hertz envisions as an "antique pirate" theme.
Building the school from the ground up, Hertz' idea for the source material was to shy away from expected how-to textbooks like Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, which he dubs 'the worst kind of reading."
"A lot of going to school for creative writing right now is total shit, because they all teach from this one book," he says. "Why would you want to have the same knowledge set that some 5-year-old in Alabama would have just by Googling, 'How can I write?'"
Instead, he sought works by Charles Baxter, Laura van den Berg and even Virginia Wolf "because we live in a contemporary world. We don't live in 20th century England," he says passionately. "Everyone has read Shakespeare when they were in high school; the idea that you would make someone read that in 2014 and say, 'Write like this,' is the most crack pipe idea I've ever encountered."
And why Santa Fe? According to the California import, "because it's different. It allows, I think, experimentation since there are no laws in New Mexico."
"There's less regulation in Santa Fe than any place I've ever lived before," he elaborates. "The things I've seen people doing here, I've only ever seen in Miami at like, 2 am—like, people carrying chickens. I've seen someone just carrying a chicken in their bare hands like it was a baby or a baseball mitt, and that's nuts."
Recognizing Santa Fe for being an experimental art hub, our town's cultural diversity and loving the fact that folks here "drive like they're in Mario Kart," further sealed the deal.
"Here there is such a deeper breadth of experience than there are in other places," he says. "And also, I just think the people that come here are wanderers—they are looking for something that perhaps is not available in the brief experience we get with things. And/or they're avoiding the law."
On the lam or not, Hertz hopes to expand his student numbers this summer, with 10-week-intensives for poetry, memoir, novel and fantasy, as well as four-week-long fiction boot camp sessions "for the non-committal." New courses also include food critique and drink writing sessions, "since writers love to drink."
All the while, Hertz is currently working on a short story collection titled I'm Not Dying, a series that sprung when he was living in the Golden State during the birth of Proposition 8. The series, he says, reflects on "what it means to be gay in our current world."
As far as the Machu Picchu piece, a rewrite is in the works.
"It's now a Twisted Sister, freakishly mutilated cousin," he says. "It's not even the same story anymore."