Writing the Decent Denver Novel

Writing the Great American Novel seemed out of the question. So instead I set out to write the Decent Denver Novel. Why Denver, you ask? Why not Denver, I say.
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Writing the Great American Novel seemed out of the question. So instead I set out to write the Decent Denver Novel. Why Denver, you ask? Why not Denver, I say. New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, even Santa Fe, Missoula, and Las Vegas have scores of writers telling their stories. There are plenty of authors in Denver writing literary novels, but many of them choose to set their work elsewhere. Why shouldn't Denver be the star?

I grew up in Denver, and I've always loved my hometown unreasonably, so I wanted to honor it by telling a big, sweeping story about its inhabitants. Okay, I'm not the first to write a Denver novel. If you search the Library of Congress catalog for "Denver fiction," you'll find dozens of romances, science fiction novels, and mysteries set in Denver by such writers as Sarah Andrews, Robert Greer, Margaret Coel, Suzanne Proulx, Manuel Ramos, and Michael Stone.

As for literary fiction, there's Carleen Brice and Janis Hallowell, both of whom have set two popular novels here, and Tara Yellen, who set her recent novel After Hours at the Almost Home in a Denver sports bar during a Broncos Super Bowl appearance, which is about as Denver as it gets. Annie Proulx's 2002 novel That Old Ace in the Hole wanders through Denver, but it hardly counts because most critics agree that this is the worst book the accomplished Proulx has produced. (Granted, Proulx's worst effort is a lot better than most people's best, so it still qualifies as a DDN.)

Denver turns up as the villain in Kent Haruf's novel Plainsong -- Victoria Robideaux leaves the ranch of the elderly McPheron brothers behind for a spell to go to Denver with the young man who impregnated her, finds the city terrifying, and quickly returns to the plains. Denver is where one character heads when she abandons her husband and sons. "Mother, are you going to be alright in Denver?" one of the little boys asks. Plainsong has my vote for the best Colorado novel ever, but Denver does not come off well in it.

From Denver's literary past, there's novelist John Fante, who grew up in Denver in the early twentieth century and wrote about the Italian-American experience in the city before heading to Los Angeles. Katherine Anne Porter set her signature novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider here. But come on, Denver has been around for 150 years and I can only think of six literary novelists and a novella writer setting work here? I know I'm leaving some out, but there are bagel shops in Brooklyn that have been the subject of more novels that that. And Denver merits at least two novellas. Possibly three.

When I was growing up here in the '80s, Denver felt a lot emptier than it does now. One of my best friends in elementary school moved to Texas because her dad lost his job in the oil industry, which was fairly common at the time. There wasn't much reason to go downtown -- after work, everyone left. But my parents would take me to see Denver Bears games at the old Mile High Stadium, converted awkwardly in summer into a baseball field, or to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. I loved looking out the window on my way home from these events, marveling at the lights of downtown as we passed by buildings that were mostly empty. I always wondered who the people inside these buildings were, and invented lives for them.

I remember when one of the only buildings south of the Denver Tech Center was Sheplers Western Wear, where we went to buy Wrangler jeans once a year during their Stock Show discount sale. After that, if you kept driving, it was just open fields to Castle Rock. Once when riding the school bus to a field trip, I saw a herd of white-tailed pronghorn leaping through the swaying grass. That makes it sound like I'm some kind of ancient crusty pioneer, but I'm only 34. Who is writing about that last pronghorn to bound through the fields that are now Park Meadows Mall? Lonesome Dan, I'll call him, when I write his story.

When I was a kid, every time the Broncos went to the Super Bowl, local grocery chain King Soopers would sell twisted bright blue and orange bread, and we'd buy it and actually eat it. There's a photo of my family all suited up in Broncos sweatshirts, the garish Broncos bread displayed before us on the table like the Thanksgiving turkey. Why is no one writing about that disgusting Broncos bread? And why is no one writing about King Soopers? Once, during a concert at Denver's Fillmore Auditorium, Morrissey told the audience, "It's so nice to be back in the land of King Soopers." Isn't it though? I can't think of a monarchy I'd rather live in.

In my Denver Public elementary school, hats were banned. But on the Friday before the Super Bowl, we were allowed to wear Broncos gear or sombreros in honor of the "Three Amigos" -- the wide receivers Ricky Nattiel, Mark Jackson and Vance Johnson. I, like so many other Denver kids, wore my sombrero to class. Why is no one writing about legions of Denver kids wearing sombreros to school out of love for the Broncos?

It took me a long time to write my Decent Denver Novel, because sometimes my Denver love got in the way of the story. I had to strike pages of the book in which my protagonist drives down Colorado Boulevard, and I'd describe every building, just because I wanted to see Colorado Boulevard in a novel. And speaking of Colorado Boulevard, let's hear it for Glendale, that tiny one-square-mile principality surrounded by Denver on all sides like it was Monaco or some internal polyp. Glendale used to be the coolest place for all Denver kids because it was the home of Celebrity Sports Center, with its monster slides, bowling lanes, and arcade. Glendale merits a novella.

You see how easy it is for me to digress when I'm talking about my love for Denver? So I really had to reign myself in as I tried to write my Decent Denver Novel, and cut down the loving passages about King Soopers, Colorado Boulevard, and Glendale. If I wanted the novel to be at least decent, those had to go. And there had to be some kind of plot.


Once I stopped mentioning everything I loved about Denver so that I could focus on the characters and plot, I decided that there was room in my Decent Denver Novel for a few descriptions of Colfax Avenue, Denver's longest and most colorful street. I included a fictional ex-Bronco lineman-turned-electronics-store-proprietor in my cast of characters. In retrospect, I should have had him open a steakhouse, as have at least two ex-Broncos in recent years. And John Elway had to be in there, as he still exerts a powerful influence over Denverites' hearts and minds, more than a decade after his retirement.

The actual John Elway doesn't turn up in my novel -- those Forest Gump-like plots in which the protagonist happens to meet every single famous person in the vicinity annoy me. Instead I tried to convey the people of Denver's hope that Elway will still be around to save us from every problem, even when there are only two minutes left on the clock. One Christmas when my little brother ripped off the wrapping paper on a gift to reveal he'd received a Starting Lineup action figure of John Elway, he was so excited he exclaimed, "El Johnway!" Since then I've always thought of Elway as El Johnway, because the title sounds appropriately mythic and grandiose. In my novel I give an El Johnway action figure to a little girl who could use some good luck. She carries El Johnway with her wherever she goes, to ward off trouble. But it's a novel, so the trouble keeps coming. Not even El Johnway can prevent that.

The original title of my novel was Mile High. The working title was not Invesco Field. My agent told me Mile High was no good, and that we had to come up with something catchier, with broader appeal. We settled on The Ringer. But to someone as Denver-besotted as me, it doesn't have the same, well, ring to it.

Alas, there is something that might disqualify me from writing the Decent Denver Novel: I live in Boulder. Even though I live in Boulder, I don't consider myself a citizen of Boulder. I think of myself as doing covert ops here on behalf of Denver. One thing I've learned in my research: there are lots of Boulderites who never set foot in Denver and don't know why anyone would. I encountered people here who weren't aware that the Rockies were in the World Series a few years ago. When I hear someone in Boulder making a dismissive remark about Denver, I consider decking him. Instead, I play along, and record our conversation in my notebook. Later I'll use my anger over this as material to make my Denver novel the most decent it can possibly be.

Another potential disqualifier for me in my quest to write the Decent Denver Novel: I married a non-Denverite. My husband grew up in New York and Paris, and he refers to my hometown as "cute little Denver." Whenever there's a story about Denver in the national news, he points it out. "Look, cute little Denver is in the New York Times." When the French news features a story on Denver, this is a big event in our house. Once we saw a French documentary about the Denver metro area that included a segment on the megachurch pastor Ted Haggard (before his downfall) in which he discussed some theatrical production his church was preparing that involved costumed devils leaping out at the congregation. The French television crew was amused by his antics, you could tell, filming him from below to give him a demonic look. Even though he was from Colorado Springs, they made no distinction -- they cut directly from Haggard to shots of Denver's 16th Street Mall. Okay, I never thought I'd say this, but I'll claim Ted Haggard for Denver. When someone makes fun of Denver, they pick a fight with me. I'll even go this far: Ted Haggard merits a novella. Lonesome Ted, I'll call him.

I like to think that my longing for Denver -- which sits 38 miles from my current home -- helps to fuel my writing. It's like Willa Cather, sitting at her desk in Pittsburgh and remembering Nebraska, writing with love of those prairies of her youth. So many writers have created their best stories out of sheer homesickness. Okay, I could just drive down to Denver and that would take care my longing, but then I'd be without angst, and you've got to have angst to write a decent novel.

My 38-mile separation from Denver must have generated sufficient angst, because most people who've read my novel agree that it is decent. And it's about Denver. See? It's all about setting accomplishable goals. I hope that The Ringer will add to the burgeoning canon of Denver literature. Cute little Denver? No -- Mighty Denver. Long may it roar.

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