Grand County authors share their thoughts on living and working in the area
At the Local Authors Night hosted by Mountain Shire Books & Gifts on Dec. 11, author Martin J. Smith told the audience how Grand County writers have grown from working in isolation to coming together in a collaborative community.
Smith founded the Grand County Community of Writers in 2017 after discussing the idea with the Grand County Library District. Smith enjoyed the camaraderie of writing groups, but there were none locally.
“I said, ‘There’ve got to be writers here … We just haven’t got them in the same room and introduced them to each other,’” Smith said. “So we concocted a way of bringing all them all together.”
Thanks to the Grand County Community of Writers and literary hubs like Mountain Shire, the county now offers a welcoming environment for its authors. At Mountain Shire’s event at Fraser Valley Distilling, six writers were all in the same room, ready to share their work with the audience.
All six authors also gave the audience plenty of writerly advice. They agreed that persistence is key, and voracious readers often become great writers.
Smith, Robert Ruesch, Elizabeth Kurtak, Patrick Brower, Jana Vandelaar, Abigail Wilkes and Cynthia Swanson answered questions from Miriam Roskam, owner of Mountain Shire, and the audience. Attendees also had a chance to purchase the authors’ books or talk one-on-one with them after the discussion panel.
Ruesch lived in Grand County at a pivotal point in its history. As a young man, Ruesch had the opportunity to drive YMCA board members to visit the Just Ranch in Granby in 1969. Ruesch was there when the members, enthralled by the ranch’s beauty, chose it as their future location for YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch. He also fell in love with the area, deciding to work there as soon as the YMCA was founded.
Ruesch chronicled the spirit of Snow Mountain Ranch in his 2019 book, “When We Were Pioneers.”
“It’s about the experiences staff had coming from the cities and finding a binding love of Colorado in the middle of the mountains,” he said.
One moment captured in his book is of a boy watching a moonlight sleigh ride.
“(He) could see the horses breathing and hear sleigh bells and hear the people singing on the sleigh,” Ruesch said. “That type of inspiration only comes from this area. It’s quiet, thundering loud inspiration that allows you to … take this moment, make it special and put it down on paper.”
Ruesch added that Grand’s beauty, whether the valley of Snow Mountain Ranch, or peaks of the Rockies, prompted many of his writings.
“Have you ever seen a Grand County sunrise, then a Grand County sunset?” Ruesch asked. “That creates inspiration.”
Parents looking for a holiday book for their children can also purchase Ruesch’s “The Elf NOT on the Shelf,” where an elf finds joy on Christmas Eve.
Author and humor columnist Jana Vandelaar has formerly lived in the Florida Keys and Lakewood, Colorado — she’s now enjoying retirement in Grand County.
“I kept thinking I should write something about up here, because there’s certain things that are only here, like bear visiting your bird feeders — we didn’t have that in the Keys!” she said.
Her published children’s series, “Jaq’s Wacky Dreams,” combines pieces of her daughter’s life with imaginative nighttime dreams. Her daughter’s love for skiing in Winter Park inspired the book, “Skiing down Chocolate Mountains,” but instead of snow, Jaq swoops down mounds of chocolate ice cream.
Vandelaar has recently finished a fictional manuscript based in Winter Park, called “Mountains of Dough,” which won first place at both the PNWA Writer’s Conference and the Orange Rose Contest for Emerging Writers this year.
Since 2006, Kurtak has run her own art gallery in Fraser, where she creates bright, whimsical depictions of flowers, skis, local architecture and landscapes. She also makes black and white linoleum prints of Colorado landmarks.
In 2012, Kurtak teamed up with Mary Jean Jeanae to create the bedtime picture book “When Everyone Said ‘Thank You.’”
The vibrantly illustrated book focuses on gratitude, gentleness and colors. The two women met when Jeanae began visiting Kurtak’s gallery over the summers.
“She was inspired by my art and she wanted to write this book,” Kurtak said. “It’s a very collaborative project — I couldn’t have done it without her, and she couldn’t have done it without me.”
Jeanae taught elementary school for 50 years and has a Ph.D. in children’s literature, “so she had read pretty much every children’s book ever,” Kurtak said. The two worked together for several years to meld Jeanae’s words with Kurtak’s illustrations. Jeanae died in 2021.
“This book is her legacy … she lives on through this book and through her students,” said Kurtak. “It was my honor to help her manifest this vision.”
Martin J. Smith
Smith found his niche leading workshops through the Grand County Community of Writers. This year, the group helped Kent Gunnufson publish “Rocky Mountains: A Self Portrait.”
“It’s a testament to once you get a community organized and get them moving in the right direction, great things can happen,” Smith said of the book.
Smith has also published his own works. His most recent book is “Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads,” which chronicles the role the town played in the development of gender affirmation surgery.
Originally from southern California, Smith was called to the High Country to experience small-town life.
“Life in Grand County is life on a human scale. You know your neighbors, you know people in the community, you know checkout person at City Market,” he said. “That brought me here and … will keep me here forever, because you connect on a different level here than in big urban environments.”
Wilkes published her debut novel, “Seconds,” in 2021. The young adult fantasy novel follows the story of Miki, who must construct an alternate identity for herself to survive in a society where second-born children are outlawed. Miki is not just a second-born, she’s a fifth-born, making her even more dangerous in the eyes of the law. Wilkes said the novel deals with issues like identity and finding your place in the society, but instead of basing the story in reality, she created an intricate fantasy world.
“It’s fast-paced, it’s really close personal narrative, a little bit of magic … all the fun things I love to read,” she said. “… I love living the story, I get so excited to be in it and writing it.”
Wilkes reflected that her book might not have had the success it did if she wasn’t part of the Grand County community, adding that Roskam supported her by putting “Seconds” on the shelves at Mountain Shire.
“People know you; they’re willing to step out and give your book a shot … come up to you in City Market and (say), ‘I loved your book, I just finished it!’” Wilkes said. “I feel like in a bigger city, you wouldn’t have that.”
Brower, who runs the business consulting company Grand Enterprise Initiative, recognized Roskam for her success with Mountain Shire.
“I work with independent entrepreneurs in Grand County. I’ve worked with over 550 in 10 years,” he said. “One of the best prepared and smartest of all I’ve worked with is Miriam. She’s doing a great job with her shop.”
Brower is also the author of “KILLDOZER: The True Story of the Colorado Bulldozer Rampage.”
In 2004, business owner Marvin Heemeyer, believing he was being targeted by Granby town officials, armored a bulldozer to drive on a rampage destroying buildings throughout Granby. Afterwards, Heemeyer’s potentially deadly attack was glorified, transforming him into a cult hero.
At the time, Brower owned and ran Sky-Hi News, one of the businesses Heemeyer destroyed. Brower decided to set the record straight — to demonstrate that town officials were not set out to ruin Heemeyer’s business and he was not a hero standing up to corrupt government.
“I became so fed up with the continual stream of falsehoods, negativity and just basically incorrect information flying around on the worldwide web,” Brower said on his decision to write “KILLDOZER.”
Swanson is a New York Times-bestselling author who is based in Denver. Her debut novel, “The Bookseller” received several accolades and has an option to become a movie produced by and potentially starring Julia Roberts. Her second novel, “The Glass Forest,” is a psychological thriller. Swanson is also an editor and contributor for the “Denver Noir” anthology, which includes dark, gritty stories — “Things start out bad for the main character and get worse. So don’t buy ‘Denver Noir’ if you’re looking for something cheery, but the authors are amazing!” she said.
Swanson and her family frequently visit their vacation home in Grand County, where she joins events with the Grand County Community of Writers whenever she can.
“I get inspired by this community because I can tell there’s a lot of passion for books here,” she said. “I use my spot up here as a retreat and getaway to write with nobody else around, and I’m fortunate to do that.”
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