When you turn 150 years old, it's time to do something special. At least that was the thinking behind A Dozen on Denver, a recently released collection of short stories bringing together 12 notable Colorado authors in honor of the city's sesquicentennial celebration. The stories, commissioned last year by the Rocky Mountain News, were intended to celebrate the newspaper's 150th birthday as well.
"We sort of hoped we were pioneering this idea that would be picked up elsewhere," says novelist Sandra Dallas, the series managing editor who wrote one of the stories, "But, of course, you know what's happened to newspapers.
"The Rocky Mountain News didn't make it. Denver, obviously, did," she adds. "The News shut down a couple of months before it turned 150."
Still, before the newspaper's presses ran for the last time, one of the stories appeared per week in its pages as the city celebrated. And now, despite the daily paper's demise in February, the stories are finding new life in book form.
The idea, inspired by a similar project in a London paper, follows a simple formula: Dallas and 10 other Colorado writers — Margaret Coel, Joanne Greenberg, Pam Houston, Nick Arvin, Connie Willis, Manuel Ramos, Arnold Grossman, Robert Greer, Diane Mott Davidson and Laura Pritchett — each selected a different decade of the city's past for their settings, and agreed to include a reference to Larimer Street. The final story, set in Denver's future, was to be chosen through a writing contest.
Dallas says she and the selection committee read all of the nearly 200 entries. "There were some that were actually quite good — especially one about an electric sheep," she recalls. "Somebody had created a sheep that looked real, but it exploded ... It was really funny, but the one we picked was the best story."
The winner, "Heirlooms," written by Robert Pogue Ziegler, deals with characters struggling to survive in a dystopian Denver landscape.
"Was it an omen?" Dallas says, laughing off the thought. "Well, I don't know, but maybe we were tapping into something."
Rats and paper hats
As the stories from the other writers trickled in to Dallas, she says she was struck by how differently each writer handled the assignment. Some mentioned Larimer Street in passing, others lingered in the area like Dallas' own story, "Lennie's Tavern," set in a fictional 1940s drinking establishment when the street was "a slum."
"We wanted a central theme, and that was Larimer Street, because Denver was founded there," explains Dallas. "It was iconic in the city's history. It grew with Denver during the Victorian era, and then it declined ... and was reborn during urban renewal."
A second, unassigned landmark worked its way into several stories: the Rocky Mountain News itself. In her piece, Dallas mentions printers frequenting the tavern dressed in ink-stained clothing and hats folded from sheets of newsprint.
Dallas, who grew up in the Denver area, remembers encountering the printers when she was a child. "The News was in this little building with a cast-iron front and stairs that went up to the main floor, and you could see through the basement windows," she says. "You could see the presses, and I'm told you could see the rats down there, too, but I don't remember them. Though I do remember those guys wearing their paper hats."
Many familiar locales and characters make appearances in the stories — from early settlers and fortune-seekers arriving in "Denver City," to cowboys and hippies mingling in Union Station during the 1960s. Each story is paired with illustrations created by former News staffer Charles Chamberlain. "He took photographs on Larimer Street and sort of cobbled them together and produced these wonderful images that were very evocative of the place and the time periods we were writing about," says Dallas.
First and last
Though the authors' collective publishing experience numbers in the hundreds of books, the experience yielded some firsts.
"This is the only short story I've written since I graduated from college," confesses Dallas, who has authored eight nonfiction books and 10 novels including some New York Times bestsellers. "And others said the same thing — I think Manual Ramos and Diane Mott Davidson hadn't written one."
But of the writers invited to take part, all but two or three — who cited health concerns or contractual obligations — agreed to be part of the collection. "I have to say, this is the first time I know of that so many Colorado writers of this caliber have been brought together in one book," says Dallas. "And the idea of all of them writing original pieces around a single unifying theme is unique."
However, Dallas is quick to stress that this unity does not imply a lack of variety. "A couple of writers — Diane Davidson and Robert Greer — wrote prequels," she says, using characters from their published series.
And Dallas points to one of her favorite stories as an example of creative diversity: a piece by Greenberg, whose protagonist is the Angel of Death.
"When it was all over — I know you're supposed to say this — but it was something we were all really proud of," says Dallas, "And all of us are grateful to the Rocky Mountain News for doing it."