Since 2002, Nevada Humanities has partnered with the City of Las Vegas to host the Las Vegas Book Festival. Traditionally, it has been a gathering of authors and bibliophiles meeting for poetry readings, book signings, panel discussions and in-person connecting. This year, of course, things are different. The festival has gone virtual for its 18th season, and for 2020 it’s called Virtual Book Week.
We talked to two Northern Nevada participants about what they’re contributing to the festival this year. Terri Farley crafts tales about the old and new West, and Gailmarie Pahmeier pens poems about family and home. Both chatted about what they’ll be sharing with festival fans this year and what it’s like to publish during a pandemic.
How long have you been writing?
I sold my first story when I was 17. It was a horse story. It was called “The Stallion’s Song.” Then, I won a couple small awards in college. What really fired me up was Nevada Magazine knew I would work cheap if I got to do outdoor stories or horse stories. They sent me on a 10-day cattle drive, and it was heaven. Heaven! That experience kind of planted the seed for the Phantom Stallion series. After about four or five rejections, it sold to Harper Collins. I thought it was just one book, but they asked for a three-book contract, which was like—take the top of my head off! Then they wanted three more, and then they asked for eight. That’s when I got the courage up to go, “OK, this is a real job. I can quit [teaching].”
Has writing provided you any other stability besides financial? What else has it done for you?
I still miss teaching, especially now that I can’t be in the classroom. But I realized that I sort of had a bigger classroom in a way.
I taught reading and creative writing and journalism. What I learned was that when kids pick their own reading, they can be just voracious about it. And I found out the value of series books. You know, I’m really lucky that karma didn’t come after me, because I didn’t like my kids when they would do book reports. I didn’t like them to always read the same author or read a series. I was going, “Break out! You should read more!” But series are the gateway drug to reading. I absolutely believe that. At the height of the Phantom Stallion, I was often getting, oh, 70, 80 emails a day from kids. A huge group of them would say, “This is the first book I ever finished.”
Also, I heard from kids that said they’d never read a whole book. One girl told me all about dropping out of high school. The teacher and mom and me, we worked out a deal where if she got her GRE, I would send her like five autographed books, and she did it!
What’s it like to be an author during COVID?
Well, it’s fun to be an author now because you can’t go anyplace or do anything anyway. But I do miss the classroom. There’s certainly a lot of shortcomings. I don’t get to wear my beautiful turquoise boots. Well, I could, but you know, the dog doesn’t care.
I have a horse fossil from the Paleolithic era. And then I have a contemporary horse skull. With Zoom, it’s not like doing a school visit in a gym or even in a classroom. I can show the kids the jaws of these animals! When I wrote Wild at Heart, which is my non-fiction book, I really got into paleontology.
What will you be sharing at the Las Vegas Book Festival?
You know, all of these are my babies. I mean, I love them all. I read part of the Phantom Stallion, and then my school visit for Tanaka Elementary School in Las Vegas is going to be, “What it means to be a mustang.” It’s a STEM workshop, and it is pretty much based on Wild at Heart. I’m going to show them the fossils, and I’m going to talk about predators and prey and stuff like that.
So, what do you hope people take away from your reading at the book festival, your fictional reading, and then also from the non-fiction STEM workshop?
Well, it sounds sappy, but I just want people to get out of their own heads during this pandemic and really up our awareness of our real world. You know, when we’re not in the middle of it, when we’re standing back and looking at, at the mishandling of the pandemic at the racial and social injustice that … it’s just so easy to ignore, when you’re going to work and taking care of your kids and doing laundry. But when you have that time at home to actually read something and think about it, I think it’s good. I think it’s really good.
I do want people to have a break, and my books are all fact-based fiction. I do tons of research. That’s the teacher/journalism part. Fact-based fiction goes down easier for a lot of people than just hard non-fiction or hard journalism. Not only are they fact-based, they have an environmental thread that I hope makes people appreciate the natural world. That’s certainly true for Wild at Heart. It’s part of the story, and I hope people just absorb it. I know that with the Phantom Stallion books that kids learn to appreciate the idea that even if they’ll never see a wild horse in their life, they want the range to be safe for wildlife. They want wild places to be there if they grow up and get to come to Nevada or Wyoming or Montana or Utah. I’m sort of a missionary on that. I want wild places to remain. There’s some horrific stuff going on environmentally. My little legacy, I hope, will be making some people care about the natural world and seeing that there’s a value beyond money for a lot of things. Like I said, sappy, but that’s what I hope to do.
What’s it like to be an author during COVID?
Boy, has the world changed. The goal was we’ll have [the book] out by April for Poetry Month, and that would’ve been a real kick. That would have been fabulous. But of course the world changed drastically in late February, and everything just kind of shut down. I was delayed until summer, and we tried to market it as best we can. It’s hard. This is just not what I do, but poets need to get out and meet their audiences and actually give public readings in order to get books bought and get books and new work into the hands of readers.
How did the new book, Of Bone, Of Ash, Of Ordinary Saints: A Nevada Gospel come about?
I was awarded in 2017 what’s called the Major Project Fellowship [from the Nevada Arts Council], and that gave me the funding to go out into the state parks throughout Nevada and hang out for a two to three-day residency in each park and gather materials for the project, and it became a book.
Generally, how has writing poetry developed you as a person?
I think what it requires of me as a person is that I pay really as much acute attention as possible to the individual words I’m using and the world around me, just to slow down and pay attention to what’s happening around me and how I might render that experience in language.
Living in the Sierra Nevada, I bet you can find quiet to slow down when you want to.
Frankly, that’s why I love being at the parks. I mean, I had lived over 30 years in Nevada and never spent the night in a state park, so this was really joyful for me on all kinds of levels.
Was there a person or state park that stood out in this pilgrimage?
All the parks were just so wonderful. The farthest park south that I think we camped at was Cathedral Gorge State Park, and I didn’t even know how stunningly beautiful that park is. You almost can imagine yourself transported almost to another planet. It’s awe inspiring.
I have a poem in the collection that really kind of celebrates a man that I observed there. We never spoke. He looked like he needed his privacy. I just imagined an encounter with him, and I think that was really liberating for me.
The premise of the whole narrative is we’re traveling to the state parks to spread the ashes of our dead dog—which we did at every park; we spread the ashes of this dog—and so he had a dog with him. And, you know, at least in dog years, that was also an old, old creature. He was like 70 or something, maybe 80s even. I couldn’t stop paying attention to him. Without interrupting him or infringing on his privacy, I just observed him and created a story about him.
What do you want participants to take away from your reading and poetry?
I guess what I would want people to take away is a respect, particularly for these more isolated communities of our state, and I would encourage people to support our state park system. I think it’s some of the lesser known gems of being a Nevadan. These parks are incredible, the people who work there are incredible, and you may meet some interesting people while you’re there.
The Las Vegas Book Festival, this year re-named Virtual Book Week, runs through Oct. 24.
Terri Farley will give a reading at noon on Thurs., Oct. 22. Gailmarie Pahmeier will read from her new book Of Bone, Of Ash, Of Ordinary Saints: A Nevada Gospel Sat., Oct 24 at 1 p.m.
This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.