As late as 10 years ago, few people would have used the words “Valley” and “literature” in the same sentence. Times have changed.
The Valley has emerged into the 21st century as a major literary center. It is not only home to some of the nation’s biggest-selling authors, but it provides many of the best training programs for authors to be found anywhere.
Arizona State University is building “a creative writing center that will herald to the world that the Valley is a terrific literary destination,” said prize-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes, who teaches creative writing at ASU. “This year alone we are bringing in numerous writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow and U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins.
‘‘Thanks to ASU and other local writing groups, ours is a writing community that is flourishing. Our writers’ conference last year was such a success that we’re planning on making it an annual event.”
The Valley’s writing community is highly varied, too. It incorporates poets, literary authors, suspense and sci-fi writers, children’s authors/illustrators, romance writers, health and self-help gurus, biographers and historians.
Name a literary genre and someone in the Valley works — and is being nationally published — in it.
“When I arrived at ASU in 1986, I could see right away that we could create an apprenticeship that reflected the kind of training that young writers need,” said Ron Carlson, another prize-winning writer and ASU creative writing teacher. “Now we are really going through a writing renaissance. There are opportunities for writing apprenticeships all the way from Estrella to east Mesa, with the East Valley making a particularly strong showing.”
Besides ASU’s prestigious writers’ program, Carlson points to the Valley’s bookstores and flourishing writers' groups. These organizations provide support for established and emerging writers, as well as helping to make the Valley a home-away-from-home for touring writers.
“In the old days, the Valley was a place where touring writers flew over on their way from Denver’s Tattered Cover to the big Los Angeles stores, but not anymore,’’ Carlson said. “Thanks to bookstores like Changing Hands, the Poisoned Pen, and the aggressive marketing by Borders and Barnes & Noble, the Valley is now one of the major authors’ stops in the country.”
Among touring writers recently appearing in the Valley were Isabel Allende, Kent Haruf, Mary Higgins Clark, Deepak Chopra, Barbara Taylor Bradford, David Sedaris, Garrison Keillor, Anne Perry, Sherman Alexie, Susan Isaacs, Brian Jacques, R.L. Stine, Diane Rehm, Robert B. Parker and Julia Alvarez.
“I came here from the New York City area 30 years ago, but where the Valley is concerned, I can assure you that literature is beginning to pop all over the place,” said Pinna Joseph, one of the owners of Changing Hands, which hosts book signings, poetry readings, authors’ discussions, reading groups and writers’ workshops.
“There seem to be writers all over the place here, as well as more and more writing conferences springing up every time you turn around. We encourage writers to visit us, because bookstores are forums for ideas, and the talks that go along with those ideas.”
Famous writers will always find a warm welcome in Valley bookstores, but another former East Coaster, Victor Asaro, community relations manager at Scottsdale Barnes & Noble, is encouraged by the amount of attention the Valley lavishes on its own writers.
“We have one of the most dynamic literary scenes in the entire country,” Asaro said. “We’re an emerging literary hub for the Southwest, like Atlanta is for the South and Boston is for the Northeast. I’ve been struck by the writers here and the work they are producing. There are so many different voices! This is an exciting place for an emerging writer to live.”
Valley publishers also are making their mark on the nation’s literary scene.
In the number of titles published annually, Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen Press is now the second-largest publisher of mysteries in the United States. Amber Communications Group, based in Ahwatukee Foothills, is the largest U.S. publisher of black self-help books and biographies. Phoenix’s Arizona Highways has gained a national reputation for its gorgeous coffee table books.
“We’ve been witness to amazing growth in publishing in the Valley,” said Robert Rosenwald, owner of the multi-award-winning Poisoned Pen Press and current president of the Arizona Book Publishing Association. “Believe it or not, there are around 150 publishers here. Of course, most of them are small presses, but still . . .”
Poisoned Pen Press began publishing mystery novels in 1997 with the publication of “AZ Murder Goes Classic,” a collection of talks delivered at a mystery writers’ convention that took place in Scottsdale. Since then, Poisoned Pen has published almost 200 crime novels and biographies.
“One of the advantages we enjoy over the larger New York houses is that we can move quickly and bring a book to market much faster than they can,” Rosenwald said. “The Internet has been a major factor in that. Our readers (manuscript evaluators) live all over the place, including in England, but maintaining contact is simple. Once we actually accept a manuscript for publication, we can do all the work that needs to be done by passing stuff through the airways. We even get our text re-keyed in India.”
Poisoned Pen Press’ authors come from all over, too. A couple are local, but most represent other states, plus Canada and Great Britain.
“We really don’t have a geographical preference,” Rosenwald said. “If we like a manuscript, we publish it. The only thing that matters to us is the author’s voice and the quality of the writing.”
Among the press’ best sellers are “Desert Noir,” “Not All Tarts are Apple,” “Chasing the Devil’s Tail” and “Mute Witness.”
Another Valley publisher making waves is Amber Communications Group, which also publishes under the imprints of Busta Books, Colossus, Ambrosia and Amber/Wiley. Amber puts a black spin on self-help books, career guides, biographies. Some of their more successful titles have been, “Is Modeling for You? The Handbook and Guide for the Young Aspiring Black Model,” “The African-American Travel Guide” and “How to Get Rich When You Ain’t Got Nothing.”
Their celebrity biographies include those of Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera, Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, Eminem and R. Kelly.
“We have about 28 titles at this point and are looking for more,” said Tony Rose, founder and president of Amber Communications Group. “We began this publishing house when my wife, Yvonne, and I left the music business in New York City and built a home in Ahwatukee. My wife is a former model, so she wanted to write a book on how to get into the business, and that started us off. We’ve gone from that one book to being a thriving national business. We’re even advertising our books on NBC.”
Rose believes that intelligent specialization is the key to publishing success.
“We’ve cornered the market on African-American self-help books,” he said. “We’re in the libraries, we’re in all the chains, we’re everywhere.”
As are numerous other Valley publishers and writers.