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Writers reveal at Festival of Words

Tamara Miller
Vail Daily/Shane Macomber Author Peter Shelton speaks of his work and his personal challenges Saturday during the Festival of Words at the Hayatt in Beaver Creek
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Novelist Kent Nelson isn’t above the typical insecurities writers have about their work, but there are moments, he thinks, when he can tell he’s hit upon something good.

He had such a moment Friday, while reading one of his books on the plane ride to Beaver Creek for this weekend’s Festival of Words literary festival.



“I cry,” Nelson said, during a Friday afternoon interview. “I don’t really know why. It’s silly. But I think if somehow you are hitting the right nerve of the emotion and it affects you, maybe it will have some effect … on other people, too.”

“We are the stories we tell” – that’s the theme of this year’s Festival of Words weekend. While writers hope their work strikes a chord with readers, their work – the Festival of Words supposes – gives readers a glimpse of what moves the writer.



Saturday’s event, An Afternoon with Authors, put the theory to the test by asking five of the event’s participating writers to answer the question: How does your writing define who you are?

Art imitating life



For Haven Kimmel, there’s little question her best-selling book, A Girl Named Zippy, is an autobiographical account of her life growing up in Indiana.

The story follows the adventures and misadventures of a little girl growing up in a small, Midwestern town. But what readers wanted to know Saturday was just how true an account the memoir really is.

With a comic delivery equal to that found in her book, Kimmel gave her answer.

Ask four different people to give their account of the same event and you might get different answers, she pointed out. Their responses may not be factually correct, but they are honest.

“I don’t remember my life any other way,” she said.

Gregory Maguire’s work has a fantastical edge with plenty of social and political commentary. His book, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, retells the Cinderella story in more modern understanding. In Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Maguire takes the story of the famed villain of the Wizard of Oz a little farther.

He plays with toys while he writes – Maguire even gave a slide show presentation of some of his favorites – but building stories around fairy tales has a deeper meaning.

“How will I recognize evil in myself when it bubbles up?” he asked the crowd.

Writing as a healing art

Non-fiction writer and newspaper columnist Peter Shelton maybe best known for his book, Climb to Conquer, a story abut the 10th Mountain Division and its impact on modern-day America. To get a glimpse inside Shelton’s head, you’d be better off reading his columns in the local Telluride newspapers and ski magazines. He shared a few of those columns with the audience Saturday – a 1993 column about coping with his wife’s recovery from breast cancer was one.

Unlike his counterparts in fiction, who create stories to illuminate the mysteries of life, Shelton deals with real life.

“I’m dealing with preserving memory,” he said. “It’s my way of trying to understand the past and the consequences of the past.”

For Gail Tsukiyama, author of Women of the Silk, writing helped her find her own voice. In the event pamphlet, Tsukiyama writes:

“I was always very quiet as a child. I loved to read, my head filled with words that I felt no need to say aloud … It’s interesting to see how life translates into art and vice-versa, the lack of words that defines my character Matsu in The Samurai’s Garden, how everything is in what he doesn’t say. I suppose it’s why I’ve always been drawn to writing – I could mimic the lives of others – put my words into their mouths.”

Susan Zimmerman, the announcer for Saturday’s event, came to writing later in life. After graduating from Yale University with a law degree, she went to work for a downtown Denver law firm. Her life changed after the birth of her oldest child, Katherine, who was diagnosed at age seven with a debilitating genetic disorder called Rett syndrome. Zimmerman began writing about her life with her daughter and it became her first book, Grief Dancers.

A connection to the outside world

The similarities between Nelson’s life and the books he writes are more subtle. He has a particular connection for the outside world and it’s evident in his most recent novel, Land that Moves, Land that Stands Still. Cast against the desolate eastern South Dakota landscape, his story revolves around Mattie Remmel, a farmer’s wife coming to grips with her husband’s recent death and later, the revelation that her husband was secretly gay.

She struggles to keep the family’s alfalfa farm going and enlists the help of her equally troubled daughter and a hired hand – a mysterious woman with a knack for fixing things.

His book contains vivid descriptions of the land and birds – fitting, since Nelson is an avid bird watcher.

A Colorado native – Nelson graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs – he supposes his upbringing might have something to do with his writing.

“I don’t know that it really matters what sort of landscape, it sort of enters your physical being in a way that you probably aren’t even aware of,” he said.

Writing for a living wasn’t always Nelson’s passion. Since high school, his goal was to be governor of Colorado. He had the appropriate major – political science – and even went on to Harvard University afterwards to earn a law degree.

While in college, he took a writing course. It was rigorous – he was required to write 300-word stories every day. But he loved it.

“It struck me that it would be a great way to spend your life, trying to figure out how people did things and why they did things,” he said.

He even won a short story prize but it wasn’t until he had surgery for a spinal tumor that he considered pursuing a writing career, figuring that life was too precious to put off what his heart wanted.

Despite accolades – his book, Language in the Blood, won the Edward Abbey Prize for Eco-fiction – writing for a living hasn’t been easy. To make ends meet, he’s held a number of jobs – he’s been a doorman, a city judge in Ouray, written for a tow-truck magazine and worked as a ranch hand in South Dakota, an experience that became the genesis for his recent work.

Right now, he’s teaching a creative writing course at the University of Texas in Austin. He’s enjoyed the various jobs he’s had, but writing remains his passion.

He and his daughter, Dylan Nelson, have compiled a collection celebrating his love of birds called Birds in the Hand: Fiction and Poetry about Birds. Some of the work featured includes pieces from well-known authors such as T.C. Boyle and Sherman Alexie.

Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: tmiller@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.


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