Arts March 13, 2017

A Mecca of Prose and Poetry

Boise's literary community is thriving

Their headlights cut through frigid January fog, their snow tires crept through deep, ice-block ruts leading to Surel’s Place.

These hardy souls were resolute. Single digits and foot-deep snow didn’t dampen their resolve to see Diane Raptosh, a College of Idaho professor and Boise’s first poet laureate. She read her work in the warm artists-in-residence space, the former home and studio of artist Surel Mitchell.

Their resolve isn’t surprising. Boise loves its writers, and the literary community is thriving. Book lovers treat authors like rock stars, packing sold-out, sometimes standing-room-only readings at the Egyptian Theatre, Morrison Center and other venues.

World-class Boise writers Anthony Doerr, Alan Heathcock, and Brady Udall are among dozens of authors who’ve have helped put the city on the literary radar.

Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” Close friend Heathcock won a prestigious Whiting Award for “Volt” and is now writing a screenplay for Sycamore Pictures based on his story “The Staying Freight.” Udall’s “The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint” was an international bestseller, translated into 20 languages.

“(Boise) is known as one of the most literary towns in the whole world,” Heathcock said. “The more I travel, I see people recognizing Boise as a literary place.”

Heathcock compared Boise with Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa’s famed creative writing program, the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Doerr, Heathcock and Raptosh are among a close community of published, nationally known fiction writers, memoirists and poets who live and teach here, such as Brady Udall, Janet Holmes and Nicole Cullen.

Doerr recalled a recent night on the town with Heathcock and National Book Award winner Colum McCann, who’d come to read in The Cabin’s Readings and Conversations series. Over cocktails afterward, they were joined by several 20-something Cabin employees, who are carving out their own niche in the literary community, with events such as Ghosts and Projectors, a poetry series.

Doerr said Boise’s literary scene is amazingly strong for a city of its size. “I love that here you can go see Joyce Carol Oates or (fellow Pulitzer winner) Marilyn Robinson, and it’s always full, and people are pumped,” he said.

Doerr points to Boise State’s highly respected Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing and The Cabin as major sparks of Boise’s literary fire, beginning over a decade ago, growing together and complementing one another.

To have a writer like Robert Olmstead as the program’s first director (in 1999) was huge, Doerr said. And when The Cabin brought in David Sedaris and saw how great the response was, the Readings and Conversations program was on its way to what it is today.

Now both entities have expanded, gained notoriety and have led to well-loved spin-offs such as Storyfort and the Modern Hotel’s Campfire Stories produced by Boise State MFA graduate Christian Winn.

“Boise is becoming known as a literary Mecca,” said Mitch Wieland, current director of Boise State’s MFA program, whose recently published novel is “Snow Angels.” “It’s pretty special what’s going on here. We’ve had Salman Rushdie filling the Morrison Center, and we’ve brought in writers like Margaret Atwood.”

Boise State’s faculty now includes each year a Distinguished Visiting Writer, which is taking the program to a new level, Wieland said. Distinguished faculty, including Doerr, National Book Award winner Denis Johnson, and Joy Williams spend a semester teaching students and giving public readings. Distinguished poetry faculty include Pierre Joris and Kerri Webster.

“Denis loved Boise,” Wieland said. “He told me it was the best teaching gig of his whole career.”

Boise State also offers the MFA Reading Series, which brings writers such as Pam Houston, Ann Beattie and Rick Bass in for public readings.

The program’s Idaho Review and Ahsahta Press publications are considered leading national journals that feature the country’s top writers. A recent Idaho Review included works by Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle and Ann Beattie.

The MFA program is set to leave the English department and join the School of Fine Arts and Music. It will be paired with theater arts and filmmaking to include MFAs in playwriting and screenwriting, which is a hotspot for great writing now, said Wieland.

It’s clear Boise State and The Cabin are running with the big dogs of the literary world.

“Other literary organizations like us tend to be in big cities like Austin, Seattle and Portland,” Cabin Executive Director Kurt Zwolfer said. “To have such a robust literary organization in such a small town really speaks well for us.”

Zwolfer also pointed to Story Story Night, Storyfort, Big Tree Arts, and the Death Rattle Writers Festival as evidence of the community’s strong interest in reading and writing. Several of the programs get strong support from groups such as the Boise City Department of Arts and History, the Idaho Commission on the Arts, and the Boise Public Library.

Storyfort arose as a branch of the weeklong Treefort Music Festival. This year’s gathering will feature refugee stories, Storyfort book club, panels that include Idaho Commission on the Arts literary fellows and local journalists, and cocktail stories. Storyfort and Campfire Stories producer Christian Winn was just awarded a three-year Idaho Writer-in-Residence grant. Winn was one of the first students in Boise State’s MFA program. He said it’s amazing how the writing community has grown since he landed here from Seattle.

Rediscovered Books co-owner Laura DeLaney agrees that there is a huge proliferation of writers and readers in the Boise area. Against Barnes and Noble and Amazon odds, the independent bookstore is growing, hosting 150 events a year. And there’s a demand for more. Community support for literary events is so strong the store recently hired an event planner.

The Boise community’s love of storytelling and support for writers has become a vibrant element of the area’s cultural scene. That in itself has become one of the many great reasons to live in the City of Trees and a further draw for those writers pursuing a life in letters.

As Heatcock put it, “The idea that literature and authors are important is woven into the fabric of what people believe here.”

This article appears in the Spring 2017 Issue of Territory Magazine.