The Write Stuff: Ten Must-Read Colorado Authors

Kali Fajardo-Anstine's stories have deep roots in both family and place.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine's stories have deep roots in both family and place.
Estavan Ruiz
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While many writers have called this state home, few are identified as truly Colorado authors, talents who capture the people and spirit of the state. But there are exceptions, and if you're looking for Coloradans who have the write stuff, it's hard to beat these ten:

Peter Heller
Peter Heller
Christophe Chammartin from Facebook

Peter Heller
Logging, fishing, construction work. These are the jobs that Peter Heller’s characters tend to have, because they’re the jobs that Heller himself held early in his work life.  Heller might have grown up in the northeastern United States and collected an MFA from the legendary Iowa Writers' Workshop, but it makes sense that he’s adopted Denver as his home: There’s a ruggedness to his prose, a love for the outdoors – and a life truly lived within it — that comes through in his writing, no matter the genre.

And some of his nationally notable fiction shows a real Colorado streak, from the unique post-apocalyptic world of The Dog Stars to the award-winning novel The Painter to his new book, The River. But Heller doesn’t just write novels that become bestsellers; he’s also a poet, an author of nonfiction (he has just as many nonfiction books to his credit as he does fiction), a frequent contributor to NPR, and a former contributing editor for magazines like Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic and more.

In short, if Colorado didn’t already have a Peter Heller, this state surely would want to invent him.

Andrea Gibson
Andrea Gibson

Andrea Gibson
Andrea Gibson eschews labels, including those of gender. Gibson, who uses they/them pronouns, not only identifies as neither of the binary gender options, but has largely made a poetic career out of writing and talking about exactly that.

Much of Gibson's poetry, which has won four Denver Grand Slam titles and top prize at the inaugural Women of the World Poetry Slam, focuses on gender norms, social issues, politics and the cultural challenges of LGBTQ life. Gibson's books, the most recent of which are the collection Lord of the Butterflies and the pro-poetry primer How Poetry Can Change Your Heart, are just as striking as their spoken-word performances. Gibson is equal parts poet and activist, and their career started right here in Denver, at a spoken-word open mic after a move to Boulder in 1999.

So while Gibson may not have been born in Colorado…it’s fair to say that Gibson’s remarkable career was.

Kevin J. Anderson
Science fiction and fantasy can be a demanding business; the sheer output expected from a writer of those genres can be extreme. But Colorado author Kevin J. Anderson has proven that he can handle it, and then some. He’s published more than 140 books, 56 of which became bestsellers. That alone proves that he’s something of a workhorse, no matter the genre.

But genre is important to Anderson, who shows his commitment to sci-fi and its ravenous fans with constant appearances at conventions both small and large, here at home and across the country. Adding to his fan base is the fact that some of his written work has been an important addition to established properties: Star Wars; the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune; The X-Files; and related work with Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and other comics companies.

His latest venture is all his own, though: a return to epic fantasy in a new series, the first book of which is Spine of the Dragon.

Margaret Coel
“Every day, I drink in the West,” Margaret Coel says on her website. And she's not just drinking in the scenery from her writing space at her Boulder home, which looks out upon the mountains and the sky and the animals that share it. It’s also about the state of Colorado, which the Coel family helped to pioneer and where generations have made their home.

The West and its history and the people who have lived here over the years are exactly what inhabit Coel’s many novels, five of which have won a Colorado Book Award, several of which have appeared on bestseller lists. Her Wind River mystery series (the most recent of which was 2016’s Winter’s Child) is beloved by readers, but by no means does it represent all of Coel's accomplishments. Her award-winning nonfiction book Chief Left Hand, a biography of the legendary Arapaho chief, was first published in the early 1980s and has never gone out of print. That shows the longstanding effect that Margaret Coel has had on both the state and its literary scene.

Joseph HutchisonEXPAND
Joseph Hutchison
Amanda Tipton at Facebook

Joseph Hutchison
Joseph Hutchison was born on the western edge of the Great Plains and has built a career in Denver as a poet of note. He has seventeen books to his well-established credit, including his most recent, Eyes of the Cuervo/Ojos del Crow, and a collection named for a local Colfax Avenue institution, The Satire Lounge.

Hutchison directs several programs at the University of Denver — Professional Creative Writing, Arts & Culture Management, and Global Community Engagement — and is just about to conclude his tenure as the Poet Laureate of Colorado; in that role, he's the designated “active advocate for poetry, literacy, and literature,” according to Colorado Humanities & Center for the Book, and serves “by participating in readings and other events at schools, libraries, literary festivals, and the State Capitol.”

Not every state in the Union can boast that it has a poet laureate, but Colorado loves its literature, and this is just one of the many ways that we show it. The next poet laureate will be chosen by Governor Jared Polis (with advice from an esteemed review panel) later this summer, to serve for the next four years.

Manuel Ramos

Any list of Colorado literati should include the writer whom author Luis Alberto Urrea calls “the Godfather of Chicano noir.” Manuel Ramos is a retired lawyer, so it's no surprise that crime novelist would appeal to him as a second career, and that career has gone impressively well over the years. Ramos has garnered several awards, including a Colorado Book Award for his novels The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz and Desperado: A Mile High Noir.

But Ramos's writing hasn’t been limited to crime novels; he’s also written short stories, poems, creative nonfiction and even a handbook on Colorado landlord-tenant law (which is important, but not nearly as fun as a good thriller). Ramos is also the co-founder of, and a regular contributor to, the award-winning online journal La Bloga, which covers Latino literature, culture, news and opinion. Busy guy, Manuel Ramos — and that’s worthy of respect, Godfather references notwithstanding.

Diana Khoi Nguyen
It would be easy to make the case that poetry and multimedia artist Diana Khoi Nguyen belongs on this list just given her recent Colorado Book Award for her poetry collection Ghost Of, which Booklist called “a soaring tribute, a mesmerizing visual feat, and an all-around astonishing debut.” But that’s not where her bona fides begin, and certainly not where they end. Already published widely in esteemed journals like Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, PEN America and The Iowa Review — to name only a handful — she’s also received awards, fellowships and scholarships from institutions such as the Academy of American Poets and Breadloaf.

All of this led her to teach at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and in the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, where she’s currently a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing. Which means Diana Khoi Nguyen is just getting started.

Nick Arvin
Speaking of the Colorado Book Awards, Denver novelist Nick Arvin just won one, too, taking the Literary Fiction prize for his 2018 book Mad Boy: An Account of Henry Phipps in the War of 1812. In its starred review, Kirkus said that Mad Boy was “a masterpiece,” and the Denver Post called it “a finely-honed literary achievement...”

Praise is nothing new for Arvin, an Iowa Workshop alumnus who's published in some of the most prestigious literary journals nationwide. This isn’t his first Colorado Book Award, either. He got one some years back, for his novel Articles of War (a whole different book, whole different war), which was selected for the now-defunct One Book, One Denver program. All that led to a position on the faculty of Lighthouse Writers Workshop as well as more awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Isherwood Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and more. And no wonder: Arvin’s books are both dramatic and accessible, with the benefit of broad looks at history and the narrow focus of character. He’s a novelist in the classic tradition, and his fans — especially here in Colorado — hope that tradition continues.

R. Alan Brooks
R. Alan Brooks

R. Alan Brooks
There are a lot of clichés when it comes to comic-book nerds, including Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, or anyone from the cast of The Big Bang Theory. Not only does R. Alan Brooks defy those stereotypes; he’s devoted a lot of his time and energy to showing his audiences exactly how wrong they are. His podcast Motherf**ker in a Cape showcases the stories of marginalized, non-traditional and relatively unknown fans and creators in the wide world of nerd-dom, from a sex worker who also makes comics to devoted cosplayers to Wayne Winsett of Time Warp Comics, who talked about what it’s like to own a pop-culture shop in this day and age.

But Brooks isn’t just about the podcasting and performance; he writes educational comics and The Adventures of Captain Colorado for Pop Culture Classroom (the nonprofit that also produces Denver Pop Culture Con), and also created the 2016 graphic novel The Burning Metronome.

Kali Fajardo-AnstineEXPAND
Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Kali Fajardo-Anstine's debut collection, Sabrina & Corina, launched her stratospheric rise into the rarefied air of the literati earlier this year. The book has been lauded in many ways and garnered national attention — but it’s also a work of fiction that’s completely and utterly homegrown, much like Fajardo-Anstine herself, who was born and raised in Denver, though she's lived in many other places over the years.

Still, her heart — and her fiction, so far — remains rooted in Denver, honoring the women and the families and the history of the Mile High City while infusing her stories with universal themes. Friendship. Mothers and daughters. Deep roots, family and place.

“Here are stories that blaze like wildfires," praised author Sandra Cisneros, “with characters who made me laugh and broke my heart, believable in everything they said and did. How tragic that American letters hasn’t met these women of the West before, women who were here before America was America.”

Fajardo-Anstine is working to make sure we do meet them and, more important, that they are remembered.

Who are your favorite Colorado authors? Your favorite bookstores and literary places? Post a comment or email editorial@westword.com.

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