August 6, 2012

20 Contemporary Western Writers You Should Be Reading

by Doug West
Flavorwire recently put up this great post: 10 Contemporary Southern Authors You Should Be Reading.  That got me thinking. Why not do a Contemporary Western Authors?

Of course, by that I mean writers who live in or are from or write a lot about the American West. I don’t mean just authors who write the genre of Westerns. (Why isn’t there a genre called Southerns that includes Gone with the Wind and The March?)

And I couldn’t limit myself to just 10, but I had to stop somewhere, so I limited it to 10 women and 10 men. I’m leaving all kinds of wonderful writers ~ people who haven’t published a lot yet or who are very well established. I wanted to highlight people with whom you may not be familiar.

1. Lucy Jane Bledsoe ~ I first became aware of Lucy through her wonderful and haunting short story “Girl with Boat,” which won the 2009 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, and I had the great good fortune of meeting her at AWP. You might want to check out her novel The Big Bang Symphony, about three women in the Antarctic. Her stories are often women facing deep issues in remote places.

2. Alyson Hagy ~ I took my very first fiction workshop from Alyson. What a great person and wonderful mentor. Her short story collection Ghosts of Wyoming are single-handedly the best Wyoming stories I’ve read, and you also should check out the novel Snow, Ashes. Her new novel Boleto will be coming out soon. She writes with such grace.

3. Eowyn Ivey ~ I can claim her, can’t I? Even though she’s from Alaska? I was wandering down the street at AWP in Denver and came across her and her mom Julie LeMay and we had a great chat while walking to an off-site event. Her new novel The Snow Child is a must-read, which is about homesteading in Alaska and a child from the snow.

4. Aryn Kyle ~ I’ve been a big fan of Aryn’s ever since the short story “Foaling Season” in the Atlantic. This story became her wonderful novel The God of Animals, and she will a new one, Hinterland, coming out soon. Her writing the West is wonderful.

5. Maile Meloy ~ Oh, how I wish I could say I knew Maile Meloy in person! I’ve devoured her short story collections for years, as well as her novels. Her Montana aesthetic is much like my own. If I were you, I’d start with her collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Her writing the West is also wonderful: “If you're white, and you're not rich or poor but somewhere in the middle, it's hard to have worse luck than to be born a girl on a ranch." Her YA novel The Apothecary just won a prize too.

6. MaryJane Nealon ~ I met MaryJane at Bread Loaf last year. Her reading had every single person in the audience with tears streaming down their faces. Her memoir about nursing, Beautiful Unbroken, is so moving and fabulous ~ about nursing AIDS patents at the beginning of the epidemic. She's also a poet, not to mention the smartest and nicest person ever. I look forward to her many great works.

7. Gina Oschner ~ I first read Gina in the New Yorker with her story “The Fractious South.” What a great story. There was another story about a widow that sticks with me, though I can’t recall the name. The collection People I Wanted to Be would be a good place to start. Her stories are Old World and intricate and full of interesting characters.

8. Paisley Rekdal ~ Paisley is a poet and essayist who taught here at UW. She’s so smart and funny and lovely. I’d recommend starting with her poetry collection A Crash of Rhinos or Six Girls Without Pants or her essay collection The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee. She writes about race and identity and sexuality.

9. Lee Ann Roripaugh ~ Lee Ann is the editor of the South Dakota Review and recently took a story of mine (thank you!). I love her playfulness with language and her humor and her “conversations with my Japanese mother.” I would recommend starting with her collection Beyond Heart Mountain or Year of the Snake. She has written about Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center and about mixed race identity, among other things.

10. Cheryl Strayed ~ Who doesn’t love the wonderful Cheryl? She came out on Valentine’s Day as Dear Sugar from Have you read Dear Sugar? Oh, you simply must. A fabulous cross between advice column and personal essay. Cheryl’s memoir The Wild just came out. She lost her mother when she was young, and the memoir is about her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and grieving. It sounds bleak, but you have to know Cheryl’s writing. She’s so supportive but also brave and honest and not at all afraid to call you on your shit.

11. Kevin Canty ~ Kevin belongs to the wonderful tradition of writers of the west like Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane. A down-to-earth spare style and so wonderful. I first met Kevin at AWP, where a bunch of us drank lots of wine and ate lots of Italian food. Fond memories. I would recommend his latest novel Everything.

12. Rick Bass ~ Oh, how I am in love with Rick’s writing! He is a writers’ writer in many ways because of his fabulous use of nature as an the extended metaphor. Mythical, someone called them. One of my very favorite short stories of all time is his “The Hermit’s Story.” I got to see him at a lovely little conference in Cheyenne, and I was rapt the whole time. Pick up anything by him ~ The Hermit’s Story collection is a good place to start.

13. Charles D’Ambrosio ~ I first came across Charles ~ I hesitate to call him Charlie since I don't know him ~ in the New Yorker, his story “The Bone Game.” It’s one of those that I still remember where I was when I read it (in a café, as it happens) and the illustration that accompanied it (her hair). And then “The Screenwriter” is a another wonderful tale. Charles is darkly funny and wonderful. I met him briefly at the Tin House conference and loved his readings. I’d recommend starting with his collection Dead Fish Museum.

14. Anthony Doerr ~ What’s not to love? I’ve been a Tony acolyte for ages, ever since I read his story “The Shell Collector.” Shall I count the ways? This story is actually structured like a shell. Amazing. I got to see him read here in Laramie and I also ran into him at Tin House. He is also a writers’ writer, his prose layered and deep, but his readings are great fun. I’d highly recommend the collection The Shell Collector and also his memoir Four Seasons in Rome about his time there with young twins after winning the Rome Prize.

15. Alan Heathcock ~ One of the nicest guys, with really cool shoes and hats! I met him at Bread Loaf. He writes wonderfully bleak stories. I would recommend picking up his collection Volt.

16. Tom McGuane ~ I love his stories because they cover the territory of my youth ~ ranch life. He nails the language and the characters. I know these people. So many great stories in the New Yorker (“Cowboy,” for example), and I even got to work with him when he visited UW for a bit. You can’t go wrong ~ pick up Gallatin Canyon or The Cadence of Grass.

17. Benjamin Percy ~ Funny story. I read this great short story in the Paris Review called “Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This” and then another story in Swink called “The Bearded Lady Says Goodnight” and then another story in the Paris Review called “Refresh, Refresh” and only then did I put it all together that it was the kickass Benjamin Percy. His stories are haunting ~ “The Caves of Oregon” and one about electrical lines and “James Franco” stick in my memory. And if you go to a reading of his, wow!, he has the voice of GOD. Amazing stuff. I’d recommend the collection Refresh, Refresh or his novel The Wilding.

18. Shann Ray ~ I first became aware of Shann when I entered the Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize and he won. Then I emailed and got to know him that way. Then I had the very great pleasure of being able to hang out with him at Bread Loaf. His work is masculine and violent and dark but with little glimpses of light. He is a professor of foregiveness studies ~ I love that ~ and you can see it permeate his work. You have to read American Masculine. I adore Shann.

19. Luis Alberto Urrea ~ Well, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, of course! Luis is not only a fabulous writer but also a fabulous human being. I was in his workshop at Bread Loaf. He’s so supportive and gives the single most entertaining reading, without a script mind you, of anyone I’ve ever seen. His works are mythical and wonderful folk tales of Mexico. I have to thank Luis from the bottom of my heart for his kind words when I was having a severe crisis of confidence. He is not only a great writer but truly the Rennaissance man.

20. Brad Watson ~ We can claim him here in the West, can’t we? Brad teaches at UW and writes these great southern stories, which almost all have a dog in them. Complex and stylistic yet moving. I love and would recommend his novel The Heaven of Mercury and his short story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives.


  1. Love seeing some of the names on here (especially up at number 2). Rick Collignon has quietly (sadly) published four incredible books set in Guadaloupe, a fictional NM town that should not be missed. And Mitch Wieland, editor of The Idaho Review out of Boise State has also put together a fantastic novel and short story collection set in the West.

    Great new site!

  2. Thank you so much, Dan! That means a lot! We'll have our eyes out for Rick and Mitch's work. Cool.

    And we know you weren't fishing for this, but everyone should know that Dan has a great site called the Emerging Writers Network. Check it out!

  3. Cool list. I know it's getting a fair amount of attention elsewhere, but I wanted to say that Claire Vaye Watkins's Battleborn, which appears to take place largely in the West (Vegas, the Mojave and thereabouts) is incredible thus far. I'm about halfway through, and given the above list I'd pretty sure you'd love her work.

  4. Oh cool! I hadn't heard of Claire. Thank you for introducing her and her book. I'll definitely look it up. (Oh, and she's on tour. Thanks for the tip - we'll put her happenings up here.)

  5. This is a great list! The concept of your blog and the generous voice of your posts are a lovely combination. Thanks for taking the time!