Plenty of writers have come out of CC, but not all of them have meant to become authors. For these three award-winning and best-selling alumni authors, writing led them each down a unique path of rich and rewarding lives whether they sought it out or not.
Colorado College has many alumni, staff, and faculty authors, including Carola Lovering ’11 whose June 2018 debut novel from Simon & Schuster, “Tell Me Lies,” has been named a Best Book of the Summer by multiple media publications, including Parade, Literary Hub, and Refinery29. To learn more about “Tell Me Lies,” and other books recently published by CC authors, check out our regular feature, “On the Bookshelf”.
The Road Strategically Traveled
John Shors ’91 knew he wanted to write novels when he showed up at CC in the fall of 1987. It’s actually one of the reasons he chose Colorado College. “It seemed to me that the block system would be a really good fit in terms of the best environment for me to study English and creative writing, and just focus on developing skills that I knew I would need to become a successful novelist,” he says.
As a now multiple New York Timesbest-selling, award-winning author with his seventh novel, “Unbound,” out this year, that notion turned out to be true. Shors’ path from CC to successful author was certainly mapped out and happened with quite a bit of strategic planning on his part.
The only missing piece that he stumbled upon at CC was travel. After spending a semester abroad his junior year in the South Pacific, visiting five different countries, he left thinking, “I want to travel the world and I want to write novels and I need to figure out a way to make that work.” That’s when the long game of strategy kicked in for Shors to find the “kind of road that [he] would walk” to become an author.
After graduation, Shors flew to Japan with his best friend from CC to teach English. After a couple of years, they saved up enough to backpack around Southeast Asia and he fell in love with that area. He returned to his home in Iowa and “became a newspaper reporter because I knew that I had to hone my writing skills if I had any chance to be a successful novelist.” He won awards there and then moved on to work in the world of public relations because, again, he “realized early on that in order to be successful or have a chance at success, that I would have to understand advertising and marketing.”
Strategic move No. 2 turned out to be another boon as he helped launch GroundFloor Media, which he says is now one of the largest public relations agencies in Colorado. He left understanding “the best ways to promote a project or product. And those were the skills that I was able to apply to help me successfully launch my first novel.”
Now, all Shors needed was his first story. He set out to travel around Asia again, this time with his wife, looking for his novel. Once they landed at the Taj Mahal and Shors heard the love story that inspired that building, he knew he’d found his story. That story turned out to be the international bestseller, “Beneath a Marble Sky,” which is now being made into a television mini-series. And that process became his MO for finding his next six novels. “[I] identify a unique place that hasn’t been written about, travel there, get to know it, find a story that’s set there, and then dedicate myself to bringing that story back to life on the page.”
When asked how he created such a strategic business plan for his creative success from the grounds of CC where a broad liberal arts education reigns, he says having great professors and small classes taught him how to self-advocate, gain confidence, and be aggressive. “My education at CC helped to greatly improve my non-academic skills. These life skills were crucial to my success, as they helped me evolve as a person and an entrepreneur.”
Up next for Shors is a trilogy of young adult science fiction novels he’s 70 percent of the way through. He’s also busy promoting “Unbound” in both the U.S. and China since his latest bestseller is set along the Great Wall. As he’s done with his other novels, Shors is working on a way to give back with “Unbound,” and create an avenue for its success to benefit a local charity. That’s just the kind of road he prefers to walk.
The Road Accidentally Traveled
“Ruth [Barton] was an enormous influence on me. She was the first person who told me that I could be a writer,” says Michael Nava ’76. The author of the Henry Rios mystery novels, six-time Lambda Literary Award winner, and recipient of the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in LGBT Literature sees his time at Colorado College as the reason he’s been a successful writer. His first class at CC was creative writing with the English professor, and that’s when he started writing poetry.
“I was this poor Chicano kid from a very poor family and the idea that I could be an artist, that was for rich white people,” says Nava. “But [Ruth] said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘You’re a very talented writer and if that’s what you want to do, you can do it.’ I needed permission and she gave it to me.”
Nava went on to win the Bridge Award for poetry three out of his four years at CC, and majored in history, which he’s always been fascinated with, and then attended Stanford Law. At law school the “poetry kind of dried up,” he says, because “I think I knew too much. Every time I’d sit down to write a poem I had like 500 years of Anglo-American tradition on my shoulders. And it got to be kind of intimidating, frankly.”
Nava says he hated law school and nearly dropped out but loved being a lawyer. He eventually got to practice the best parts of the law, which “are sort of the thinking and the researching and the writing without having to deal with clients or the business aspects of it.” Nava wrote opinions for judges within the California Courtsof Appeal. “The last 15 years [of my career] I was at the California Supreme Court where I worked for Carlos Moreno, one of the justices. And I ended up working on death penalty appeals.”
For Nava, it was a 9-to-5 job that gave him time to write nine novels, one non-fiction book, and numerous essays and short stories. His first book was rejected 13 times until a “little publisher of gay books in Boston published it … And it got reviewed in the New York Times.” He hadn’t planned on being a mystery writer but that publisher asked if he could write another one and then an agent called and said he’d represent him, “but you have to keep writing these mysteries.” So Nava’s path was set and “kind of serendipitous.”
Nava now owns the rights to his novels and is going back to rewrite them as historical fiction because, as he says, “This is my time to flesh out the record and to try and get it right.” He’s also covering the AIDS crisis in 1984 San Francisco in a new novel, “Carved in Bone,” which will come out next year, because “somehow I missed it when I was writing the original series.”
There’s a line from his first novel titled “Lay Your Sleeping Head” that he rewrote in 2016, where the main character, Henry Rios, realizes the potential client standing in his office is also gay and that “it was possibleto lower our shields and breathe.”
When asked if he feels like the shields of gay men are starting to lower right now or if they still need to be at the ready, he says, “Well, our world is sadly in transition again. If you’d asked me this question before November 8, 2016, I would have said, life’s a lot easier for younger gay people. And I think that’s still true, although it depends upon where you live. But, the future is uncertain because all gains can be lost. And we live in a time when bigotry of all sorts has been empowered.”
Nava actually started writing “Carved in Bone,” also set in “another dark time with another Republican administration,” the day after the election. “I think my motivation for writing it was just to remind myself, and other people, that we’ve had very dark times and we’ve survived them.”
Nava’s original work definitely helped others during the dark days of AIDS. He recalls, “I would get lots of letters from other gay men who would … thank me for representing what life was like in those days.” And he also inspired other Latinos who thanked him “for doing a fictional representation of a Latino man who was a professional and educated [but] who was not a stereotype.” He adds, “These kids are like me, first-generation college, and they just need to know it can be done.”
When probed about his own literary idols and inspirations, Nava says most of the writers he really admires are poets. “Poetry was my first love. … It’s why most of the titles of my novels are derived from some line of poetry or other. … But in terms of writing, I’ve always liked writers who write very clear, unadorned prose. So, someone like George Orwell or the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Or Jean Stafford, the short story writer.”
Nava’s latest project is turning the first Henry Rios novel, “Lay Your Sleeping Head,” into a 24-hour podcast. “Basically I’m producing a theatrical event, so I had to adapt the book into scripts, which was not as simple as just writing out dialogue. I’ve actually had to rewrite the dialogue.” He’s also hired actors, a director, a composer to write original music, a sound engineer, and a studio to record it all. “It’s been very exciting, kind of overwhelming,” he says. “I think it could be great.”
Nava’s protagonist, Henry Rios, “has always been involved in these issues of race and gender and sexual orientation and always on the receiving end of bigotry. And he’s not a victim, but it’s the study of how a sensitive and decent human being deals with these forces and how he tries to live his life in an honorable way.” It’s a road Michael Nava has been down himself and he hopes his books become his legacy that share the truth in that experience.
The Road Reluctantly Traveled
Jen Sincero ’87 was always a badass, she just didn’t know it for a while. The New York Times best-selling author of “You Are a Badass,” “You Are a Badass at Making Money,” “The Straight Girls Guide to Sleeping With Chicks,” and “Don’t Sleep With Your Drummer,” says she’s written all of her first drafts in 3½ weeks. “I keep trying to give myself more time, and then, if I give myself two months, I spend the first four and a half weeks just screwing around, playing with my lip, and then I start writing. It’s weird. It’s freaky.”
Sincero didn’t know what she wanted to do when she got to CC; she just knew she wanted to attend. “First of all, I didn’t get in to CC. I talked my way in,” she says. “I called them to see how I could get off the wait list, and, unbeknownst to me, they put me on the phone with the dean of admission and we had a lovely hilarious chat.” That badass move got her accepted.
Despite not knowing what she wanted to do, Sincero did end up majoring in English and writing. Professor James Yaffe was “a very important and influential teacher” for her. “He was such a great professor and was so encouraging to me,” she says. “I thought I sucked at writing, but he always did a cartwheel every time I wrote something.”
She spent her time post CC working various jobs like waiting tables at Friendly’s, driving cars for Avis Rent-A-Car, working at a deli in Cape Cod and, eventually, publishing two books. But there was never any real financial success to match her creative success. She also spent time in rock bands, singing and playing guitar, living in places she always wanted to live — even spent a year in Barcelona with a bunch of CC friends.
But one thing Sincero always had was her sense of humor. She was admittedly the class clown in high school and comes from a “very funny family.” “I mean, our dinner table was kind of like a writer’s room. There are four kids in my family. My mom was really funny and we were always just trying to outdo each other. So I got really skilled at getting the fast one-liner in there. It was very competitive, very cutthroat.”
When she got sick of living on a shoestring in her 40s, Sincero took to self-help books, started meditating, and taking all the advice to heart to finally give “myself permission to focus on making money.” She hired a coach to help her get going who suggested she start an online business helping entrepreneurs write book proposals, something she’d already done successfully for herself. And it was the reward of helping these executives change their lives that she loved the most, so she became a coach.
After accruing enough stories of people wishing their lives were different, Sincero wondered why no one had ever written a funny self-help book to get people unstuck. Hence, “You Are a Badass” was born, although a bit reluctantly.
“I am definitely not one of those writers who has to write and has felt called to it, and can’t rest, and process all of my things through writing,” she says. “I actually am very reluctant and rather grouchy about the writing process and have to totally force myself to do it.”
Even so, Sincero says there are more “Badass” books to come and she’s now working on two comedy projects — a TV show and a movie script — so she can “hang out with the people I love and laugh my ass off.”
When pressed for a question no one’s ever asked that she wishes they would, Sincero says, “As woo-woo as it sounds, we are our own worst enemies and we trap ourselves by falling prey to the beliefs that aren’t doing any good. So I think anybody who’s feeling stuck really has to step back and look at how they’re thinking. There are full-blown idiots who are rich and happy and in successful relationships. So, if they can do it, so can you. I really just think it’s important to stop pretending you can’t have what you want.”
The knowledge Sincero now shares with others through her books may just have started back when she was waitlisted for CC: “It sounds super corny but going to Colorado College was a huge life-changer for me. That experience of talking my way in really taught me to not sit around and wait. You gotta get in there and hustle. It also provided me with lifelong friends and that is everything to me.”
It’s a Book Club on the Block Plan!
The Alumni Association Board Engagement Committee, in conjunction with the Office of Alumni and Family Relations, hosts an online book club through Goodreads. Each quarter, CC alumni and parents are invited to read and discuss a book by a CC author, CC faculty member, or visiting speaker. Participants have four to six weeks to read each book, followed by a three-and-a-half-week-long online discussion — the length of a class on the Block Plan. Upcoming selections are:
Aug. 27-Sept. 19, 2018: “Radical Survivor: One Woman’s Path Through Life, Love, and Uncharted Tragedy” by Nancy Saltzman ’74
Oct. 22-Nov. 14, 2018: “You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life” by Jen Sincero ’87
March 25-April 17, 2019: “And Silent Left the Place” by Elizabeth (Betty) Bruce ’74
To join, visit the Goodreads website and create an account. Once you have an account, request to join the Colorado College Alumni Book Club. You’ll have access to the group once approved. Members are responsible for obtaining their own copy of the book.
If you would like your book to be considered for the CC Alumni Book Club, go to www.coloradocollege.edu/alumniauthors. Books are curated by the AAB and Alumni Office.