Art, shmart. Santa Fe is a writers mecca.
The drowsy old town, lying in a sandy valley inclosed [sic] on three sides by
mountain walls, is built of adobes laid in one-story houses, and resembles an extensive brick-yard, with scattered sunburnt kilns ready for the fire. …Yet, dirty and unkempt, swarming with hungry dogs, it has the charm of foreign
flavor, and, like San Antonio, retains some portion of the grace which long lingers about, if indeed it ever forsakes, the spot where Spain has held rule for centuries, and the soft syllables of the Spanish tongue are yet heard.
In 1888, author Susan Elston Wallace, wife of New Mexico Gov. Lew Wallace, wrote the description above in her book,
The Land of the Pueblos.
The author was not Santa Fe's first writer, and she would certainly not be its last. Santa Fe-so famous for its art and high culture-also has an impressive literary heritage and has evolved over the years into a Mecca for writers.
Everyone knows that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy lives here, but the city also is home to dozens of other successful book authors, not to
mention journalists, poets, playwrights, publishers, agents, editors and other literary types. Santa Fe also is the setting for a growing number of readings, lectures, book signings and literary gatherings.
"It's astonishing how many kinds of writing communities there are in Santa Fe," poet Dana Levin, chairwoman of the College of Santa Fe's Creative Writing and Literature program and a 2007 Guggeinheim fellow, says. "Both spoken word performers and page writers-for lack of a better term-thrive here, as well as educational offerings for teens and college students."
Levin cites series such as Lannan's Reading and Conversations program, as well as New Mexico Culture Net's Poetry Jam-readings and workshops geared toward teens-as examples of the diversity of Santa Fe's literary scene.
"In any given month in Santa Fe, you can attend a reading by a former US
Poet Laureate or a Pulitzer winner, theme-based readings presented by Santa Fe's Poet Laureate program, open mics at bars and cafés or cheer writers you've never heard of at local bookstores. The opportunities are mind-boggling for a town of this size," she says, adding, "I know I sound like a city booster, but the lit scene here is one of the reasons I like living in Santa Fe: small town, high culture."
Barbara Harrelson, author of
Walks in Literary Santa Fe: A Guide to Landmarks, Legends, and Lore
, has served for years as historic Santa Fe's
only literary tour guide. She estimates that more than 100 professional
writers have homes in or near Santa Fe-an estimate that is almost certainly conservative. Residents of Eldorado have even claimed their little suburb has more writers per capita than any other community in America.
"Because several of my books have been about history in the American West, Santa Fe always serves as my muse," Sally Denton, author of the nationally
American Massacre: Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September
, says. "Its deep and rich history, its exquisite natural beauty and light, are forever inspiring. I think this was particularly true for my latest book,
Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont, The Couple Whose Power, Politics, and Love Shaped Nineteenth Century America
. John Frémont was
one of the most thorough explorers of the American West-the first to bring sophisticated scientific methodology to the environment-and living in Santa
Fe afforded me with the opportunity to hike into the wilderness and experience what he and his expedition members saw 150 years ago."
For other writers, Santa Fe is an oasis. "Santa Fe gets you away from the
New York literary mind-set, which is vitally important to a writer," Bob Shacochis, the 1985 winner of the National Book Award for First Fiction for his book,
Easy in the Islands
, says. "And Santa Fe has everything. You can never be bored in Santa Fe. If you're bored in Santa Fe, you can go back to wherever you came from, and I'm sure it's so much more interesting there."
For Michael McGarrity, author of the 11-and-counting novels of the popular Kevin Kearney mystery series, Santa Fe's "cultural mix" is one of the city's draws.
"It's an absolute magnet for all kinds of eccentric people," McGarrity says. "Everyone in Santa Fe, from the shopgirl who wants to be a ballerina, to the server who's an artist, everyone wants to be something. In Santa Fe, you've got this universe of people that live here that run the whole cultural, social and economic gamut."
If defining Santa Fe is difficult, defining the reasons it draws writers is even more so. Ask three different writers what brought them here, and you will undoubtedly get three different answers; some will tell of opportunity and a sense of place, others, of heartbreak and starting over.
In 1987, David Morrell and his wife, Donna, lost their 15-year-old son to a
rare form of bone cancer. By 1992, the couple was ready to move from Iowa City, where he had taught at the University of Iowa and they had raised their children.
"We chanced to watch a PBS television show called
This Old House
, which featured a renovation of an adobe-pueblo-style house in Santa Fe," Morrell, best known for 1972's
, the book that introduced the world to Rambo, says. "We were fascinated by the architecture, and when we saw that Santa Fe was in mountains, we made plans to visit the city. The visit was so wonderful that we decided to make Santa Fe our home." Three months later, they were living here. "My wife called it 'The beginning of Act 3,'" Morrell says.
Sallie Bingham, a noted feminist and the author of
, visited Santa Fe in 1990, after being invited by friend and fellow author Sally Denton. Her personal discovery of the city had much to do with finding renewal in the city's natural setting.
"I had a memory of a bright winter morning in the Santa Fe Plaza some three years earlier, at the end of a family ski vacation, when I sat on a bench in the sun-but that was about all," Bingham says. "After visiting Sally, and being appalled and fascinated by the desert, I began to read. The book that meant the most to me-and still does-is Mabel Dodge Luhan's
Winter in Taos
. I decided that Taos was the place I needed to continue my life as a writer. However, a weekend there in the dead of winter, 1991, persuaded me that the severe isolation and the darkness of that town would do me in in short order. I retreated to the relative ease of Santa Fe, and spent the rest of the winter in a rented apartment in a soulless subdivision. But I finished revising my novel, and I walked every afternoon in the presence of the mountains. I have remained for 16 years because Santa Fe provides me with an atmosphere that sustains my creative life."
Lynn Stegner, author of the critically acclaimed new novel
Because a Fire Was in My Head
, is part of a family that's a literary culture in itself. Her late father-in-law was the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Wallace Stegner, and her husband, Page Stegner, is a well-known and
well-reviewed nature writer. The attraction Santa Fe had for them was almost too strong for words-something historic, natural and innate.
"While we didn't move to Santa Fe specifically for its literary scene, we were attracted to the place precisely because it still is a real place," Lynn Stegner says. "Santa Fe has not been homogenized, despite the chain restaurants and big box stores making inroads along its southern reach. The age of the town together with the tripartite culture provide certain resistances to a generic takeover by so-called American culture."
Stegner then quotes W Somerset Maugham, from
Moon and Sixpence
Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.
Santa Fe's contemporary writers are not the first to be drawn to the city.
Writers have come to Santa Fe for decades en masse, for well over a century in a handful of cases, and for many hundreds of years if you include the fragments of myths and history hinted at through rock-pecked petroglyphs. Early Spanish colonists and passers-through described the nascent city in letters, in government documents and in one epic and infamously
melodramatic poem, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's 1610,
Historia de la Nueva México
. Travelers along the Santa Fe Trail described what city life was like under the flag of Mexico in journals and in books. In 1847, one year before Mexico would officially cede New Mexico to the United States, The Santa Fe Republican came into being-the first newspaper in the American West, a newspaper that two years later would merge with The Santa Fe New Mexican. In 1880, Lew Wallace, then-governor of the state, finished writing the final chapters of his novel,
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ
, in Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors, beginning a tradition of writer-governors that would be continued by three more New Mexico governors, including Bill Richardson.
It was not until 1916, however, that enough writers began moving to Santa Fe that people began to refer to them all as a writers colony. It was in 1916 that poet Alice Corbin Henderson first moved to the city, desperately hoping that New Mexico's desert climate would help to dry the tuberculosis from her lungs. As Corbin Henderson recovered, she began inviting her friends to visit her from other states. Many of these friends were poets and writers, and many found themselves strongly influenced by the worlds of the western desert, the exotic mix of cultures and the ancient past that Santa Fe had suddenly shown to them. Years went by, a spirited rivalry with the writers of Taos evolved and writers continued to discover Santa Fe for themselves. Some stayed for years, such as Mary Austin, author of the classic 1903
Land of Little Rain
and poet Witter Bynner, a man perhaps less well known today for such books as
An Ode to Harvard and Other Poems
, than for being openly homosexual in the 1920s, and for pouring a glass of beer over the head of visiting poet Robert Frost in 1935. Others, such as Willa Cather-who found in Santa Fe the inspiration and setting for her controversial classic,
Death Comes for the Archbishop
-stayed merely long enough to get an idea, get motivated or be inspired.
"Santa Fe's just unusual in that a lot of things have come together here to make it unique," Barbara Harrelson says. "It's an evolution. The artists and the writers that came here in the '20s and '30s all had different reasons: Some came for their health, they were tubercular; some were part of a lost generation adrift after World War I, feeling that the Industrial Age had taken them to a point they didn't want to be at and once a few came here, then the word spread. 'You've got to come here-there's sunlight, there's air, there are people…' If you fast-forward and Santa Fe evolves, the reasons writers come here today are surprisingly similar. They fall in love with the culture, the ambience, the freedom."
What was considered to be a sort of writers colony is now generally regarded as something much more loose knit, much more informal and much more focused on actually writing than on any sort of socializing. The number of writers here has remained impressive, but the degree and patterns of interaction between them has evolved into something much freer.
"I think there are fewer writers in New Mexico per square inch than any other place in America-so there are more stories to be written about per square inch," Hampton Sides, author of The New York Times-bestselling
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, says.
"…I think the writers here are sort of like vampires. They don't really like to associate, but they recognize each other across the bar, like, 'Oh, there's another vampire.'"
It's been joked that many writers come to Santa Fe to get away from people, not to make friends, and given the solitary nature of writing-a practice that, at its essence, is all about sitting down alone and writing, typing, editing and writing some more-the joke may have some truth to it. And yet, many of Santa Fe's writers do look to one another for a social exchange of ideas and for a personal connection to other creative and like-minded people.
"I'll run into Sally Denton, Forrest Fenn, [or] Michael McGarrity at literary
functions here and there, grab a burger and talk about old movies or writing with a few writing friends but, at least for me, writers, especially fiction writers, are solitary animals," Johnny D Boggs, the prolific author of more than 20 books of history and historical fiction, says. "We lock ourselves in a room and write."
Lynn Cline is the author of the new book
Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1917-1950
, and has aptly noted a direct connection between the loosely structured literary culture of modern-day Santa Fe and the culture of the city's initial writers colonies.
"The colonies that were here paved the way for what we have today," Cline says. "They found inspiration in the same things that give writers inspiration today-though I think there's a distinct difference between the writers of today and the colonies of the past. The writers who were once here in Santa Fe came together to protect and preserve and
document what they found here-and I don't think that's happening today so much." Instead, Cline says, "writers today tend to write about a much broader range of subjects, to be inspired by Santa Fe, not just to write about Santa Fe. …People kind of see Santa Fe as this image frozen in time, as this place of adobe and sunlight, and I think writers today, they're trying to bring Santa Fe into a different era, to kind of shake off the dust a bit. And I think you see this in literature."
Santa Fe's literary culture incorporates far more than an abundance of writers. A number of influential magazines call the city home, or at least have
offices here, including Outside, Cowboys & Indians, Mothering and New Mexico Magazine. No doubt the most nationally prominent of these periodicals is
Outside, the outdoor-centric magazine credited with launching the careers of Jon Krakauer, author of
Into the Wild
and Sebastian Junger, author of
The Perfect Storm
. Authors Bob Shacochis and Hampton Sides both live around Santa Fe because of Outside, having worked as editors for the magazine, and the magazine has played a role in keeping at least two other noted literary journalists in town: Nick Heil and Kevin Fedarko.
"Outside's been around for quite a while now, and there's a little constellation of freelance writers and pseudo-freelance writers that depend on Outside for assignments," Fedarko, who in addition to writing for the magazine has also edited it, says.
And then, of course, there are the bookstores. In 2004, the American Booksellers Association declared that Santa Fe had more bookstores per household than any other city in America. At bookstores such as Collected
Works, Nicholas Potter Bookseller and Garcia Street Books, readers might be able to quietly glimpse Cormac McCarthy searching for books about chaos theory, bump elbows with screenwriter Kirk Ellis, novelist and television writer Donald Davenport, memoirist Lucy Moore, novelist Jann Arrington Wolcott, architectural critic and historian Elmo Baca or Santa Fe's official poet laureate, Arthur Sze. In rooms lined with bookcases, at cases sagging under gently frayed bindings, one can look through books such as Paul Horgan's imposing
Centuries of Santa Fe
and Peggy Van Hulsteyn's less daunting
Diary of a Santa Fe Cat
. ("Dear Dee," its author wrote in a copy now for sale at Big Star Books, "Bill & I think this will 'amewse' you.")
And if the city's bookstores don't meet your literary needs, Santa Fe's archives almost certainly will. At the Photo Archives of the Palace of
Governors, you can see what the past used to look like. You can peruse early Spanish maps and documents at the Museum of New Mexico and at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, or look through almost any of the state's historic newspapers at the New Mexico State Records Center & Archives.
Santa Fe's literary culture also is bolstered by the presence of multiple literary foundations, such as the Lannan Foundation, which provides writers with grants and fellowships and sponsors public readings; PEN New Mexico, the largest writers' association in the region and Recursos de Santa Fe, whose conferences and readings are considered by many to be the best in the city. Small publishing companies such as Sunstone Press, Museum of New Mexico Press and Clear Light Publishers provide a much-needed public outlet for aspiring authors. The creative writing programs at the College of Santa Fe and the Institute for American Indian Arts give the future writers of Santa Fe a place to hone their skills and learn from the numerous published authors and poets on their faculties.
"The exponential growth of College of Santa Fe's Creative Writing Program from one faculty writer (me) and seven students in 1988, to six faculty writers and 85 students majoring in Creative Writing currently, has had a major impact on Santa Fe's literary culture," Greg Glazner, professor, poet and author of
From the Iron Chair
, a Walt Whitman Award-winning collection of poetry, says. "And just watching my colleagues' and friends' literary careers unfold-the book publications and major awards of Jon Davis, Arthur Sze, Carol Moldow, Dana Levin, Mark Behr, Valerie Martinez, Matt Donovan and Robin Romm, just to mention some, has been richly rewarding."
Even literary agents, perhaps the people most vital to any full-time writers'
career-people once rarely spotted outside of New York-have begun to discover the city. Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli is one such agent; and Donald Lamm-former CEO of WW Norton, America's largest independent publisher-is another.
As more writers have moved to Santa Fe, more opportunities and resources have followed behind them-and nearly everyone has benefited. Professional writers have begun to have agents and publishers, and literary events come right to their doors. Readers have had the thrill of seeing their own hometown inform and color the work of a host of talented authors. And aspiring, generally younger writers, have found themselves in a place where a true desire to improve one's writing can easily be acted upon at any of a number of conferences, events, bookstores or readings-or during an afternoon alone in the mountains.
"There's nothing easy about writing," Lamm says. "But if it's something you feel in your gut or in your brain, pursue it! …There are some very good writers in Santa Fe, for example, that could help a budding writer. Writers seeking professional help can get it in this town."
They can get help, as well as mountains, culture and history.
"I think some of what brings and keeps writers here is the city's natural
beauty," Anne Hillerman, author of the much-praised
Children's Guide to Santa Fe
, and daughter of legendary New Mexico novelist Tony Hillerman, says. "And some of it is Santa Fe's heritage as a place that not only tolerates but embraces eccentrics and lets them have room to be creative and just live their own lives. And that's worth a lot."