Prize-winning Prescott author K.L. (Kenny) Cook has simple yet solid advice for people who keep stories they want to tell buried inside them.
As an author and professor of creative writing, he has taught people - young and old - from many walks of life who "have never indulged their desire to tell stories," he said. "The hardest thing to do is make the commitment to be a writer," he said. But, he would say to the timid writer, "Put your butt in the chair and do it."
Cook and Mohave Valley, Ariz., poet Natalie Diaz will be the featured speakers Friday at Yavapai College's Literary Southwest series.
The program begins at 7 p.m. in the college library's Susan N. Webb Community Room located in room 147 of building 19 on the Prescott campus.
Cook is a professor at Prescott College and Spalding University's brief-residency master of fine arts writing program. A three-time award winner for his books of fiction, Cook's most recent book, "Love Songs for the Quarantined," a collection of thematically linked stories, won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.
In an excerpt of "Love Songs for the Quarantined," Cook writes, "Most mornings he left for work by five and didn't return until six thirty or seven, later if he happened to stop off at the Armory for drinks or to shoot a little pool, at which he was deceptively skilled, despite his bad eye. When he arrived home on these nights to the house that never seemed to stay clean or uncluttered, the dust growing like moss on the furniture, he often felt the walls squeezing him, a claustrophobic bitterness puddling like acid in his stomach. His wife had grown too thin, with a hostile little smirk nestled in the corners of her mouth, though se wasn't even thirty yet ..."
Cook, now on a sabbatical with time to write, said he was a reader as a child, but because he was from a working class background, "I never though I could be a writer myself," he said. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and was working on his doctorate when he had Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo as a teacher.
The two had "some parallels" in their lives, Cook said, because Russo's roots were also in a working class family.
Russo had "had followed his dream" to write fiction, Cook said, "and he sensed that in me. He said, 'I think you've got promise as a fiction writer," and that prompted Cook to get his master of fine arts degree in creative writing.
Russo's encouragement and the death of his father while he was working on his doctorate were "a sea change for me," he said. He thought, "If I don't write about family, no one will." Yet, he emphasizes that he is not a memoirist nor does he write autobiographical pieces but, "The people I came from captured by imagination, and I wanted to write about that working class life that I had known about my family."
Cook is at work now, revising "The Man Who Fell From the Sky," which was "loosely inspired" by his father's life. He describes his father "as a bit of a con man" who, with his "cronies wanted to buy Costa Rica."
"I am just fascinated by someone who pulled himself out of a legitimate culture to make his millions any way he can. The Costa Rica scheme failed miserably," Cook said.
While Cook's first two books portray his vision of the working class he knew growing up, his later writing is "inspired by things in my own life. I am moving in that direction," he said.
A would-be writer's biggest handicap is making the commitment to do it, Cook said. He would encourage people "to be bold and not feel guilty" about a desire to write. "Leap in," he said.
Jim Natal, director of the Literary Southwest series, describes Diaz as "an amazing young Native American poet."
In "When My Brother Was an Aztec," she wrote: "Angels don't come to the reservation. Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.
Coyotes, too. They all mean the same thing - Death. And death eats angels, I guess, because I haven't seen an angel Fly through this valley ever."
Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, Calif. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia, she completed her master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Old Dominion University in 2007. She directs a Mojave language revitalization program, working with the last speakers of the Mojave language at Fort Mojave.