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Don Rogers: Gods of letters gather in Squaw

Rock stars don’t do it for me. I’ve enjoyed meeting them, liked their company. But overcome with awe? Not so much.

Big time actors and actresses, then? Nope. Politicians, including an ex-president with real historical weight? Sorry. World leaders, celebrities, intellectuals, generals, biz titans, sports heroes, legends of journalism? No, not even them.

I mean, I should be bowled over. I know this. But I check my gut and it’s just not there.

No, my real rock stars are the authors. I’m a wide-eyed kindergartner with them, the big kids. Entirely gone to jelly.

It was heaven and hell. Heaven for the inspiration. Hell for the other, the intimidation. There’s good reason the wise admonish us not to compare.

Meeting Rachel Howard and Jordan Fisher Smith, authors who live here, were huge thrills. If they noticed my, um, fandom, they were patient and gracious about it.

Their tribe performs alchemy in the truest sense, conjuring new realities and changing our very ways of thinking with mere words. This is the apex of art. Well, to me.

These are the people — before the scientists, prophets and inventors — who shift the direction of civilization. Authors are the ultimate polymaths, bringing all the disciplines and more under one tent. And then spinning yarns out of it all that you and I will hang on, every word.

I paid attention as Howard and Smith each talked up the annual Squaw Valley writers conference, which they attended and later taught at.

So of course I crashed the conference last week, filling two notebooks, absorbing all I could in the public sessions and evening readings.

It was heaven and hell. Heaven for the inspiration. Hell for the other, the intimidation. There’s good reason the wise admonish us not to compare.

Yet I think there’s good reason for gods among us, too, whoever yours may be. Sure we’re cowed, but still we dare to take from their fire, once illuminated.

Sands Hall invited me to her afternoon workshops, perhaps the most valuable of all. They might have been open to the public, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one from the outside who participated with the attendees, let in on precious secrets.

I had met Sands and her sisters Brett and Tracy in the hubbub before one of the evening readings. I mention this because their father, Oakley Hall, then dean of Western writers, started this conference with Blair Fuller in 1969. The sisters are carrying on the legacy, along with Brett’s husband, Louis Jones.

Had I thought Sands’ invitation came from anything beyond plain generosity, which I noted as a central trait observing her, well, I was cheerfully disabused of that notion when she asked me my name again on the stairs after the second time I attended.

And yes, she’s an author, too, as is Jones. Just part of a whole crowd of these folks who kept me in a constant state of awe and something approximating rapture I did my best to hide as unbecoming. I mean, I felt like a preteen at a Beatles concert. Damned if I was going to scream, though.

I know, “famous” authors anymore are folks you’ve never heard of. But Amy Tan and Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer winner, spring to mind as alumni of the program, among many others who went on to publication. Lev Grossman is another, before a novelist one of Time magazine’s stars.

This conference is not merely venerable. Participants have to earn their way in through a culling that eliminates two-thirds of the applicants.

Which probably is why agents on a couple of panel discussions stressed that they’ll take special note in their impossibly busy days of emails titled, “Met you at Squaw.”

Alas ever the journalist, I learned “Saw you at Squaw” didn’t have quite the same pull. I sent an email to Krys Lee’s agent, Susan Golomb, who discovered Jonathan Franzen among others.

I wasn’t pitching any work, just throwing some appreciation her way for how during one of the sessions she interacted so wholly with her client, something close to worship but more helpful than mine. It struck me as special. And why not tell her? Grace is rare enough to bear mention when you see it.

She may have seen my note or not amid an in-box surely stuffed with “Met you at Squaw” subject lines. No matter. These are busy, busy people who no doubt leave the fan mail to the authors, the gods they serve. The ones I read. The ones who really do change the world.

Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 477-4299.

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