There’s no one American West for everyone, but stereotypes abound depending on where you look. Here in Colorado, we get a lot of cracks about Subarus, weed and outdoor sports — clichés that might not apply as cleanly to our neighbors in Wyoming, for example. So it’s silly to try and apply a one-size-fits-all meaning of what it means to live here.
“One reason I chose to write short stories is because you have the opportunity to explore different perspectives,” says Denver author Wendy J. Fox. “Western perspectives are very varied. It’s a diverse place with diverse experiences.”
To discuss this in-depth, Fox will be part of an upcoming two-day panel of women writers exploring these varied perspectives at Boulder Book Store on Feb. 9 and Tattered Cover in Denver on Feb. 10. She’ll be joined by three other authors, Claire Boyles, Jenny Shank and Rachel King — all of whom either live on the Front Range or have set recent collections of short stories in the area.
The themes of the upcoming talks include workplace dynamics, climate change, class anxiety, racial segregation and the “unique texture of experiences people have in Colorado,” particularly on the Front Range.
But geography isn’t the only connective tissue between these story collections. Some share DNA in their exploration of the universal theme of labor. Since how we work can say a lot about our society, while also illuminating someone’s personal traits and habits, both Fox and King follow their characters on the job.
“Most of us are going to spend at least about a third of our life at work, and that’s not even counting commute time,” Fox says. “For me, it becomes an interesting touch point, because sometimes the job that someone does tells you something about them. But if nothing else, it is a large part of where they spend their time — sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly.”
King says her characters are often working low-paying jobs, though they may not be accustomed to that type of struggle.
“A lot of these characters have not chosen to do the work they’re doing; they’ve more fallen into it,” she says. “So, something I was exploring specifically was, ‘How do people in low-wage jobs support one another or not support one another?”
‘Does being a Western American mean anything?’
Crafting fiction is making an untold number of minor and major decisions, including one of the most important: setting. And while some of those myriad choices may connect these collections in the form of shared themes or storytelling strategies, few common threads loom as large as Colorado itself.
To that end, these panelists plan to explore what they learned about the state and its people by placing their stories here. That includes transplants like King, who lived in the Pacific Northwest and the Eastern U.S. before moving to the Centennial State.
“There was something about the culture [in Colorado] that felt like I was coming home. I kept trying to figure out what it was, because I grew up in Western Oregon and the landscape is very different on the Front Range,” says King. “I wanted to ask, ‘Does being a Western American mean anything?’ Some days I think it does, some days, I think it doesn’t.”
When it comes to untangling this elusive meaning, Fox says it’s necessary to confront some common Western clichés, like that of the rugged individual. She also hilariously skewers Coloradans’ tendency to start every conversation by talking about weather, even at parties.
“But it starts to run a little bit deeper. It’s also because people spend a lot of time outside,” she says. “It’s because people in rural areas may be being considerate about their livestock. It may be because there could be an extreme weather event, whether that’s a blizzard in March or, unfortunately these days, a fire in December. So there’s a kind of connectedness that people feel to the natural world. It filters out in things like small talk.”
With a bevy of singular writers attempting to capture the area’s unique flavor without being pigeonholed by it, Fox says the Colorado literary scene is going through a “really interesting time.” She points to the fact that writers here are winning big prizes and transcending the limitations of being seen simply as “Western” or “regional” authors.
“I think it’s really becoming a place for literature,” she says.
ON THE SHELF: Women Writing Colorado panel discussion. 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. $5;
6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Free
Further reading: Four books by Women Writing Colorado panelists
What If We Were Somewhere Else
by Wendy J. Fox
Fox won the 2022 Colorado Book Award for literary fiction with her collection of linked short stories, What If We Were Somewhere Else. The book follows characters who are unified by an office in Denver as they experience fraught friendships, bad bosses, job losses and other common torments of the modern workplace.
by Claire Boyles
Boyles’ collection Site Fidelity, published by W.W. Norton, won the 2022 High Plains Book Award, among other accolades. The stories are set in the American West. Boyles’ primary interest is how resource extraction, including fracking and mining, affects our lives and environment.
by Jenny Shank
Shank won the 2020 George Garrett Fiction Prize for her collection Mixed Company. In it, she juxtaposes the former “cow town” of Denver during the ’80s with the burgeoning city of today.
by Rachel King
King set her collection Bratwurst Haven in Boulder County after living here from 2012 to 2016. The stories follow characters who work in a sausage factory and pull shifts at a bar to fund their art and struggles with booze and pills.