Las Vegas Sun

September 30, 2014

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A Write Turn

They're here and they're taking notes.

Las Vegas writers tap away in the entertainment capital of the world, drawing inspiration from the colorful characters and events that make Las Vegas unique. Among them:

* Richard Wiley, author of six literary fiction novels including "Soldiers in Hiding," which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for best American fiction in 1987, and professor of English and director of the Masters of Fine Arts and Creative Writing program at UNLV.

* Doug Unger, author of four literary fiction novels including "Leaving the Land," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, A professor of English at UNLV and University of Nevada Press board member.

* Lee Barnes, short story and essay author, instructor of English at the Community College of Southern Nevada, and winner of the Clackamas Literary Review Award in 1996.

* Bill Branon, author of two suspense novels, including the New York Times Notable Book of the Year winner for 1992, "Let Us Prey."

* Claudia Keelan, author of two books of poetry who was nominated for the Los Angeles Times' Book Award in 1997, and assistant professor of English at UNLV.

These are a few of the many local writers who have seen national success and who have chosen to live here because of literary opportunities and a growing community awareness of the arts. And, whether it's as the subject of books, the home of authors, the incubator of talent or the base of publishers, Las Vegas is forging an increasing bond with literature.

Vegas as talent incubator

"There are a lot of writers around," Wiley says. "This is such a quirky town ... it draws people. Writers are attracted to the craziness."

Wiley has traveled extensively, using his experiences in Asia, Japan and Africa for writing fodder. In 1989, he took a job at UNLV to begin working on the Masters of Fine Arts program, which he says will open doors for students.

"A lot of writers will be drawn in by the new program," Wiley says.

The three-year, 54-credit program requires a semester abroad in a foreign country where the student is clueless to the language and cut off from easy communication.

"We want them to get lost in another language," Wiley says.

Unger was brought in from Syracuse University in 1991 to help Wiley get the now year-old program off the ground.

"We are growing our base of students," Unger says. "An arts program provides culture to the center of the university. (The program) will bring a lot more readings (of well-known authors) and campus activity in writing."

Because the program has an international angle, Unger says that cultural centers all over the world will take notice of this glittering desert town.

"That interchange will ... bring international writers to Las Vegas and they will take that home," Unger says. "You can meet hundreds of interesting characters (who) are coming in and out." (Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney recently appeared at UNLV.)

What they will take home is as individual as the city.

"It's a baroque city in the modern age -- the gaming and the whole image that it portrays to the world is full of intricate designs and masks," Unger says, "whereas those of us who live in Las Vegas know underneath it is a very different place than what it pretends to be to the world."

Vegas as subject matter

It's also different from what the world expects. Other writers have penned Las Vegas in such a light that the city equals cliche.

"It's a place that sort of stimulates reader interest," Unger says. "This idea of the facade ... that is projected to the world and then, underneath it, there is this sinful place. People like it that way."

Popular authors sometimes use Las Vegas as a backdrop and a metaphor for our decadent society. Stephen King chose Las Vegas as the headquarters of the devil and his minions in his hugely popular novel "The Stand," later made into a TV miniseries.

But Barnes, an "on and off" resident for three decades, disagrees with that portrayal of the city. "If you (live) here, it's a kind of an honest town," Barnes says. "We are all about money and there is no pretense."

"It's very difficult to find the proper metaphor for Las Vegas," Wiley says. "All the (books) out there are very cliche."

But not necessarily the cliche one would think. In the classic "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Hunter S. Thompson presented the city not as a hotbed of hedonism but as the buttoned-down epitome of Richard Nixon's America, a place that seemed to be about wide-open freedom but was really quite conservative.

Keelan notes: "Las Vegas is a metaphor for American society going into the 21st century. That's what makes it so unique."

Local authors may have a harder time explaining their city.

"Living here and writing the truth about it can be a hindrance," Barnes says. "We are too close to it. It doesn't have the glitz and glamour that people expect."

Vegas as publisher

If, as Barnes says, Las Vegas is all about money, a local publishing house is poised to push writers with Las Vegas ties into the big leagues and big bucks.

Anthony Curtis, publisher of Huntington Press, came to Las Vegas to win the biggest game: living cheaply as a professonal gambler. He shared information about the best deals in town -- free rooms, meals, trips -- by publishing his own 36-page mimeographed newsletter, "Las Vegas Advisor," in 1983.

"It was a diary of how I lived off the cheap," Curtis says. It also marked the start of Huntington Press. "I looked around and saw there were no big (publishing) houses and it seemed logical." (Some local writers are self-published, while others go to out-of-state publishers.)

"It was something we had that other publishers don't have and that is a tremendous understanding of the market," says Curtis, who used his professional gambling background to serve as author, editor and publisher of gaming books. "Las Vegas added credibility that we needed in the beginning."

As gaming books took hold, Curtis wanted to expand his subjects.

"I found out quickly that there is a wealth of talent in Las Vegas," he says. "We have this bizarre combination in Vegas. I wish I had seen it before -- a rich body of things to publish."

In his search he found local authors who couldn't get their manuscripts looked at by the traditional, large publishing houses of New York, where agents were buried in manuscripts. But gems are quickly snatched up at Huntington, which now has a dozen authors on its roster.

"(The author) may have had a harder time getting into the door (of New York houses) whereas we got the book out," Curtis says. "How many good books are floating around out there and are unable to get past the large city prejudices put on first-time authors?"

Bill Branon self-published his first book, "Let Us Prey," from his former home in Southern California. The spy book quickly met with kudos and he signed with a New York publisher to do his second novel, "Devil's Hole." Both books were set in Las Vegas.

"I've come out here for visits for 20 years," he says from his home in Summerlin, where he moved in 1994. "I was drawn to Las Vegas."

Retiring to Las Vegas after a Navy career and devoting himself to writing was an obvious choice. "There are more stories per square inch in Las Vegas than anywhere else," Branon says. "It has a vibe to it. There's a lot of people under pressure one way or another and that makes it easier to write about."

Branon's new hobby is perusing casinos to people watch.

"These big casinos just innervate me," he says. "There's still the old movers around town, it's still got that (small) town flavor that won't be here in five years."

Meeting those who made Las Vegas what it is, such as casino pioneers Jackie Gaughan and the Binion family, feeds Branon's muse.

"You don't have more tradition than you can spread on a taco shell here, but it's a very living history."

Branon decided to take his third book, "Timesong" -- an inspirational homage to his mother, Gladys, and wife, Lolly, who had been diagnosed with cancer -- to Huntington Press.

"You have more control," he says, noting that he can be in charge of changes to his work. "The New York publisher wanted to change a major character" and the title from "Spider Snatch" to something else, "and I didn't want that," he says.

Post-script

"People think of Las Vegas as a place that has yet to become something, at least culturally," Keelan says. "But people are exploring the possibilities. They want to come to Las Vegas to study poetry and fiction."

Keelan dedicates herself to the work she does with her students, and to enhancing the local writing scene, which she says is an interesting contrast to the image Las Vegas projects to the world.

"Idealism and creativity," she says, "are alive and well in Las Vegas."

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