The Ten-Year Inquiry
By Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher
On October 17, 2019, Nevada Humanities and Huntington Press will release A Change Is Gonna Come: Reinvention in the City of Second Chances with a reception beginning at 6 pm and author readings at 7 pm at the Clark County Library in Las Vegas. This anthology of essays, stories, and poems by Las Vegas writers is the tenth volume of Las Vegas Writes, an annual project of the Las Vegas Book Festival that highlights the community’s deep and sustaining literary talent pool and also program of Nevada Humanities.
Since the series’ inception in 2009, Las Vegas Writes has been edited by either Geoff Schumacher or Scott Dickensheets — or both, as it was this year. In this back-and-forth, they reflect on the series.
SCOTT: Well, here we are with the milestone tenth edition, which is also our final spin on this merry-go-round. Someone else takes over next year. Looking back, I have to say I’ve learned quite a bit from the experience, chiefly this: Writers will surprise you.
I took over with volume three, the series’ first all-nonfiction book. Its theme was decay, and I was certain I’d get way too many essays about crumbling neighborhoods and old buildings. What a boring book that would’ve been! Instead, the 10 authors made the most of this rare shot at writerly freedom and filed a robust — and varied (whew!) — batch of pieces examining decay from distinctly different and unexpected perspectives. Social decay. Political decay. Personal decay. Bodily decay. Artistic decay. Even the essay about an old building had a singular personal slant. It was an important lesson: Choose your writers well, give them creative elbow room, and they’ll usually reward your trust.
GEOFF: It is hard to believe we have produced 10 of these anthologies, but the proof is right here on the shelf next to my desk. The quality of the work produced for the series is equally astonishing. I can pick up any edition, open it at random, and find myself immersed in a fascinating piece of writing.
I fondly remember editing the first anthology, Restless City, which was a serial novel in which one narrative was written by seven different writers. What a treacherous challenge! The first chapter, written by H. Lee Barnes, sets the stage by creating a private investigator who is probing a woman’s mysterious death. But where would the next writer take the story? And the next? And how would Vu Tran, who wrote the final chapter, tie up all the loose ends? Boy, that was a nerve-wracking editing experience, but the final product held together amazingly well.
SCOTT: A serial novel was an audacious formal decision — perfect to kick off a series that meant to consolidate a literary pedigree for a city that many people back then didn’t believe had one. Indeed, it’s interesting to review some of the themes and organizing conceits: a volume of stories based on iconic Vegas photos, another based on postcards, a third in which each story incorporated a noteworthy Las Vegas figure. There’s a definite effort there to use the artifacts of the city — whether that means ephemera such as postcards, or the legacies of actual people — to dig toward some fresh new insights into the place. This attempt to wrestle with the city’s various meanings is even more pronounced in some of the themes we’ve employed: progress, lost and found, the weight of the past on the present, last year’s post-October 1 theme of unnatural disasters — and this year’s uber-Vegas theme, reinvention. Those are some of the city’s core concepts. It’s been very satisfying as an editor to see how our writers have bounced off of these themes in unexpected ways.
GEOFF: The writers speak to the reinvention theme in so many interesting ways. The poet Harry Fagel, for example, illustrates the contrast between his 25 years as a police officer — “trying to keep blood off your boots when it’s up to your neck” — with retirement — “no ringing phone/ no lives at risk / no worry to the exponential.” You can feel the abrupt transition in his words, from “fierce intent” to “birdsong and wonder.” Meanwhile, nonfiction pieces by journalists Steve Sebelius and Mike Prevatt explore how and why Las Vegas is such a fertile environment for reinvention. Prevatt describes the city as “a promised land where I could liberate myself in anonymity.” Sebelius, in a profile of Oscar Goodman, sees a city willing to elect a provocative mob defense attorney as its mayor without expecting that individual to reinvent himself for the job. One of my favorite aspects of all the Las Vegas Writes anthologies is they make me think about the city in new and creative ways.
SCOTT: By my count, we’ve used a whopping 80 other writers in these books, a few of them repeats — that number astounds me. So now we have this 10-book fossil record charting southern Nevada’s vast, deep, and continually replenishing literary talent. Boggling! And now future volumes will add to it in ways you and I can’t predict. That will be groovy to see.
Geoff Schumacher is the senior director of content for the Mob Museum, and he is the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.
Scott Dickensheets is deputy editor of Desert Companion, the magazine of Nevada Public Radio.
Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to learn about the 10-year history of Las Vegas Writes.
Join Nevada Humanities and the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District at a special 10th anniversary celebration reception and reading to launch A Change is Gonna Come and to honor all of the Las Vegas Writes project contributors over the past 10 years. The reception, on Thursday, October 17, 2019, begins at 6 pm followed by author readings at 7 pm at the Clark County Library Theatre, 1401 E. Flamingo Road in Las Vegas; the event is free and open to all. The readings will be moderated by anthology co-editors Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher.
Purchase A Change is Gonna Come online at: bit.ly/lasvegaswrites
Images: Nevada Humanities/Geoff Schumacher and Scott Dickensheets
Las Vegas Book Festival/Eric Vozzola