Queens of the Page

These six Spokane women are publishing debut books this year, an unprecedented literary landmark

There must be something in the water, they say.

That's surprising, for a city like Spokane, others note. How does it have so many successful authors?

In a remarkable instance of serendipity, 2015 has been a standout year for Spokane writers, especially its female authors. By the end of the year, six of these women will have had book debuts spread across its 12 months.

This trend isn't really surprising or strange. Spokane and the greater Inland Northwest region's writing community is flourishing of late, experiencing a new literary golden age not seen since local icons Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie blazed a trail more than a decade ago. Both names continue to boost Inland Northwest writers' profiles.

Back in January, Spokane-bred authors Sarah Hulse and Sharma Shields released their Western-rooted novels — Black River and The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, respectively — days apart, each attracting large crowds to Auntie's Bookstore readings on chilly winter evenings. Less than a month later, Spokesman-Review columnist Cindy Hval launched her book publishing career with a nonfiction collection, War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation, about couples who met and married around the time of World War II. June saw the stunning debut of 27-year-old librarian and teacher Stephanie Oakes' young adult novel, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, about a teen girl who escapes from an oppressive religious cult. The breakout trend continued the following month with local business owner Kris Dinnison's modern tale of friendship for teen readers, You and Me and Him. And before the year is over, Asa Maria Bradley, a Spokane Falls Community College physics professor and recipient of the YWCA Women of Achievement Award, plans to release her first novel, a paranormal romance titled Viking Warrior Rising.

"I do love that we're unifying in this cool sort of way," remarks Shields, whose magical, metaphorical book excited national magazines and book reviewers several weeks before its release. "Because we're all women of different ages and we all have pretty diverse backgrounds and educations... That's what's great about it — there almost is no explanation."

While all six women call Spokane home now, many of them left the region for their formal writing educations, and all took different paths to getting their writing published. The theme that unifies them lies mostly in the support they've each received from the broader local writing community as they drafted, submitted, edited, rewrote and resubmitted their manuscripts time after time.

"There are so many writers who write in so many different genres, but in the community you kind of know each other even if you don't see each other. It's a very supportive environment," notes Bradley, the romance novelist. "I think also with the success of the female writers there is a sort of sisterhood feeling; people are really happy to see this. People have always been happy about Jess [Walter] and Sherman [Alexie] and Shawn [Vestal], so it's cool to see women on the scene — not that it's boys vs. girls. I think the men are also very supportive," she adds.

Each subsequent debut has further helped solidify Spokane's writing community as a tight-knit and noncompetitive group. As Bradley mentioned, many local writers know and see each other regularly, even if they're not directly reading each other's manuscripts but rather offering sincere advice from experience.

Dinnison, who regularly meets with a local writers' group that includes Shields, along with poets and nonfiction freelancers, sums up the congenial atmosphere that has helped propel so many of her fellow writers to success: "I think Spokane's writing community operates on the fact that if you have success, it raises all boats. If Stephanie Oakes gets starred reviews, then all of us get to be excited for her and she's going to talk about our book, and more people will notice the next time around." ♦


Oct. 9-10


After 17 years of an ever-expanding literary festival geared toward adult readers and writers, Eastern Washington University's Get Lit! festival is expanding to focus on the kids with the new Spokane Youth Book Festival, or SpoYo for short. Day one of the fest brings youth literature authors directly to local classrooms, to read, talk about their lives as writers and inspire students who dream of pursuing work in a creative field. Day two features a full day of workshops, storytimes, book signings, author meet-and-greets and more, with an evening presentation by one of the inaugural event's headliners. So far, the lineup of authors slated to present and host workshops includes New York Times bestsellers Nick Bruel (Boing!, Bad Kitty series), Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet series) and Spokane-based writers Claire Rudolf Murphy and Kelly Milner Halls, among others. Watch for a full schedule of events at getlitfestival.org/spoyo. Bing Crosby Theater, free for youth; $15/adults, All-ages, 7 pm (CS)

Oct. 23


It's been a big year for the Inland Northwest's writing community. So many works have debuted, and many honors have been bestowed upon our region's writers. Humanities Washington's annual gala in Spokane celebrates this creative swell as it raises funds to support programs to bring humanities-centric education to citizens of all ages across the Evergreen State. This year's event theme has a retro-fun vibe: "A Hard Day's Night," and four notable local authors — Kris Dinnison, Sam Ligon, Sharma Shields and Jess Walter (pictured) — are set to debut new short works inspired by this phrase, clearly a 1960s Beatles album/film throwback. Gonzaga University professor and poet Tod Marshall also will be honored at the gala with the presentation of the 2015 Humanities Washington Award for Scholarship and Service. Spokane Club, $75/person, 6 pm registration, 7 pm dinner (CS)

Oct. 28


If you haven't heard of eco-poetry, don't worry; you probably aren't alone. A panel of poets moderated by English professor Paul Lindholdt of Eastern Washington University explores this genre in more depth with an informal discussion on how the poet's craft intertwines with the environment. Eco-poetry is unique in that it is less interested in the traditional praises of the pastoral, but rather aims to investigate the complex relationship between humanity and the natural world. Panelists include eco-poets Megan Kaminski (pictured), Linda Russo, Derek Sheffield and Roger Dunsmore. In addition to this event, Gonzaga hosts an eco-poetry reading in the Cataldo Globe Room featuring the same panelists that evening. Gonzaga University, Foley Library Writing Center, 2:10 pm (panel) and 7:30 pm (reading) (MW)

Oct. 29


This community-wide initiative that encourages readers of all ages to pick up a book and incite connections through literature is on a roll, considering its past two selections, Karen Russell's Swamplandia! and Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette were both fun and thoughtful romps across unlikely settings. This year the festival brings in 36-year-old Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel (pictured), the author of the bestselling National Book Award finalist Station Eleven. Keeping on trend with our current obsession over everything post-apocalyptic, Mandel's novel is set in the near future, after nearly all of humanity is wiped out by a new super flu. Of the few survivors, a traveling band of Shakespearian actors remains, through which Mandel explores themes of friendship, memory, love, material obsession and fame. The author visits Spokane for two events as part of the program, so pick up a copy of the book soon. CenterPlace Event Center, 1 pm; also at the Bing Crosby Theater, 7 pm, both events free (CS)

Nov. 10


When the hell did Shann Ray, Spokane's most endearing polymath, find time to write another book? He's a professor of leadership studies at Gonzaga who has written books of essays about masculinity, a working psychologist, a poet whose collection Balefire was published last summer and a former pro basketball player who still has a jump shot. Ray now has a novel on its way. American Copper spans a period from the 1860s to the 1930s and is set in his native Montana. It tells the story of a woman coming of age during this time, and struggling with the realities of the rugged American West. This book release party features old-time songs and the wit of best-selling author Sherman Alexie, who calls American Copper "tough, poetic and beautiful." Bing Crosby Theater, all ages, 7 pm (MB)

Nov. 12


More than two decades after NPR's broadcast of his Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris is now an established comic voice with a long line of best-selling books, This American Life features, Grammy-nominated albums and off-Broadway-produced plays. Thankfully, the sardonic wit that came through in that early story about working as a department store elf at Christmas has stuck with him, as Sedaris has become a literary giant. His live appearances are a blend of book readings, monologues, stand-up comedy and audience interaction via Q&A sessions, and they always generate laughs, no matter how many times you've seen him previously. Bing Crosby Theater, $45-$50, 7:30 pm (DN)

Nov. 13


This fall, North Idaho native, Boise resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr hosts conversations across the Palouse region about his blockbuster book All the Light We Cannot See. Set in World War II-era Germany and France, the novel follows the lives of 14-year-old French girl Marie Laure and a German boy named Werner. Doerr won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his work, along with the 2015 Carnegie Award for Excellence in Fiction. Readers can catch Doerr in three Palouse locations on Nov. 13: He'll be in Colfax, Pullman and Moscow for back-to-back-to-back presentations as part of the region-wide community reading program. Whitman County Library, Colfax branch (noon); Neill Public Library, Pullman (5:30 pm); Moscow High School Auditorium, (7:30 pm) (MC)

Nov. 14


Character actor Hal Holbrook is instantly recognizable thanks to his decades-long career in film and television, but the man disappears into the skin of Mark Twain for the one-act play Holbrook himself devised back in the 1950s, inspired by a show in which his wife would challenge him to impersonate famous figures from history. Much of the show is dedicated to dramatic recitations of Twain's writing, with the pieces changing based on Holbrook's whim and current events ever since he first started performing as Twain regularly in 1954. More than 60 years later, Holbrook is still paying winning homage to one of America's great authors and humorists, bringing Twain to life for crowds large and small. INB Performing Arts Center, $37.50/$47.50/$67.50/$102.50, 7:30 pm (DN)