Nonfiction, with its flair and insight into humanity’s truest nature, offers a journey around the world. For the first time ever, major players in the genre are descending upon Flagstaff by the hundreds.
With the success of live reading events, the community is thriving next to the literary scene. Uptown Pubhouse’s Narrow Chimney Reading Series gathers weekly attendance upward of 50 patrons, and many others speckle downtown’s landscape most evenings. Locals are again seeing writers’ vibrancy paint the town.
The NonfictioNOW Conference, a regular gathering of more than 400 authors, speakers and guests, hopes to stoke that fire. The multi-faceted nonfiction genre will illuminate with readings and lectures from renowned authors like Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery and many more.
NonfictioNOW takes place at the High Country Conference Center Wednesday, Oct. 28 through Saturday, Oct. 31. The community is invited to see all six keynote speakers for $55. Full conference passes are $205, $95 for students. Learn more at www.nonfictionow.org.
In the beginning
Northern Arizona University Professor of Creative Writing, Nicole Walker, was working on her PhD at the University of Utah in the early 2000s. Her dissertation was in poetry, but her professor, Robin Hemley, ignited a flame within her for creative nonfiction.
“My mind was blown,” Walker said, noting she found a groove between poetic elements and the informational back story she craved.
By 2005, Hemley had conceived the NonfictioNOW Conference at the University of Iowa where it stayed for three years. NonfictioNOW went to Australia in 2012. But Hemley’s film work with Walker’s husband, Erik Sather, brought him to enjoy Flagstaff.
He invited Walker to spearhead the 11-person organization efforts — securing gallons of coffee and ample space for writers and national presses like “Milkweed” and “Georgia Review” to sprawl across 23 tables during the bookfair. Her students even wrote essays about local businesses for attendees to read on Google Maps.
For more than 400 people already registered, sought-after authors, panelists and instructors will present on all topics within nonfiction.
Sci-fi to life
One is renowned Australian scientist, author and researcher, Tim Flannery. In 2007 he was selected Australian of the Year. Through dozens of books and papers, notably 2005’s “The Weather Makers,” he’s allowed non-scientists to discuss climate change.
“The Atmosphere of Hope,” his latest novel out this month, revisits the nucleus of this work. While climate science is almost universally regarded as fact, the author noted it can still be an uphill battle.
His research and scientific influence, including as chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, has caused him to be described as one of the great explorers of our time — a concept he invokes in his writing.
“I’ve been lucky to live in a time and a place where I was really in a bridge between two worlds,” Flannery said in a recent phone interview. He grew up in Australia in the 1950s, and the last uncontacted Aboriginals walked out of the desert in 1978.
“Where I was working up in Papua, New Guinea, I met uncontacted tribes. I was their first contact on occasion,” Flannery said. “I’ve seen that Stone Age world close up, and I live in a nuclear world, so I’m lucky to have experienced that bridge between the very ancient and the very modern, as it were, as a scientist living in Australia.”
While Flannery noted climate change is a “lived reality,” the technology set to improve global outlook on the gigatons of carbon emissions in the atmosphere sounds like the stuff of science-fiction.
In his new book and at the conference, he will speak of new technologies, though they have a long-off implementation date, like carbon-negative cement and plastics made from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“One of the greatest resources is the human imagination when dealing with this,” Flannery said.
Each keynote speaker offers a spectrum of viewpoints. Gay’s nuanced style fosters politically-charged conversation. Nelson’s latest book, “The Argonauts,” poses questions about gender binary.
“Our community is very broad minded…they are mothers, workers and learners and bartenders at the same time — you’re never just that one thing. Flagstaff, to me, exemplifies that,” Walker noted.
Ander Monson and Michael Martone, she explained, feed of one another’s humor and intellect as they speak of pushing creative nonfiction’s boundaries.
Flagstaff will identify with Brian Doyle’s style, Walker said, “Where humans and nature meet, he is able to show that spark that happens between these two things.”
Panelists also discuss writing that lives in the shell of another — “hermit crab essays” — like panelist Jill Talbot’s syllabus-style essay, “The Professor of Longing.” Other panels follow narrative threads through hot-button issues, or making villains sympathetic on the page.
“One’s personal story can mean so much more than talking about policies and borders...that’s when stories really become the thing that can persuade people toward other ways of seeing,” Walker added.
With nightly public events at the Hotel Weatherford, Barefoot Cowgirl Bookstore and Firecreek Coffee Co., Walker said businesses will teem with writers.
“I feel this is a part of that rekindling of excitement about literary activities in Flagstaff,” she said. “I feel like that energy is going to saturate Flagstaff as a town.”