Aspen Words – Locus Online
ASPEN WORDS was founded in 1976 as a literary center based in Aspen CO. A program of the Aspen Institute, their mission is to encourage writers, inspire readers, and connect people through the power of stories. AW’s year-round programs include Summer Words, a writing conference and literary festival; Winter Words, a series of lectures showcasing the best of contemporary literature; the Aspen Words Literary Prize, an annual $35,000 prize for social impact fiction; as well as a writers in schools program and writing residencies. They recently added a SF/Fantasy workshop to their line-up.
Give us a little history on Aspen Words. When was it founded, and by whom, and what is its mission?
Aspen Words’ mission is to encourage writers, inspire readers, and connect people through the power of stories. The organization’s roots go back to the 1970s, when an ambitious cohort of literary-minded writers and readers created a place for poetry and prose in Aspen’s burgeoning arts scene. Over the years, Aspen Words grew significantly and began offering year-round programming, including an Author Speaker Series each winter, a Literary Award for Social Impact Fiction, a Summer Literary Conference annual and writing residencies and programs for young people, among others. activities and events. In 2009, recognizing an overlap in mission and vision, Aspen Words joined the Aspen Institute, further expanding its audience and raising its profile.
Aspen Words strives to touch the lives of readers, storytellers, students, and writers of all skill levels, from beginner to famous. Famous authors grace the stages of Aspen Words each year, and hundreds of aspiring writers attend our workshops, an impressive number of whom go on to see their work published.
What are some of the programs and scholarships you offer?
Aspen Words offers year-round programming both virtually and throughout Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, as well as in New York City for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (
The Aspen Summer Words Writers Conference and Literary Festival (
Winter Words (
Aspen Words partners with the Catto Shaw Foundation each year to welcome working writers for individual residencies from May through October. Residencies offer writers the opportunity to nurture their creative spirit by providing time, space, and accommodations in the majestic Elk Mountains.
One of the flagship events is the Summer Words Writers Conference, which features advanced workshops with renowned authors and editors. Tell us a bit about the history of the conference and what you have planned for this year.
Recognized as one of the nation’s top literary gatherings, Aspen Summer Words is a six-day celebration of words, stories and ideas held annually in Aspen at the end of June. Advanced workshops led by renowned authors discuss the craft and encourage writers to develop and refine their work. Literary agents and publishers meet individually with workshop participants. Public panel discussions and craft talks are a source of inspiration and insight for writers and readers. Past instructors include Luis Alberto Urrea, Rumaan Alam, Jericho Brown, Peter Ho Davies, Richard Russo, J. Courtney Sullivan and Jess Walter.
The 2022 Summer Words faculty roster includes: Mark Doty (memoir), Terrance Hayes (poetry), Mary Beth Keane (fiction), Robert Kolker (narrative non-fiction), Ayana Mathis (fiction), Natalie Serber (book publishing ) and a medium-level workshop foreman to be announced. New this year is a sci-fi/fantasy workshop, led by Fonda Lee.
Tell us about the decision to include a SF focus in Summer Words, and your collaboration with General Motors’ Future Fiction Collective to improve diversity in genre literature.
Aspen Words had been considering including a sci-fi/fantasy workshop for some time, and when General Motors enthusiastically approached with a partnership vision, the timing aligned. When selecting its faculty, Aspen Words looks for gifted writers who are passionate teachers. Fonda Lee is such a person – an award-winning writer who cares deeply about mentorship. We plan to offer full scholarships for 10 people for the SF/F workshop.
Are there any notable alums or success stories from the workshops?
The following authors are former Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellows: C. Pam Zhang, whose How many of these hills is gold was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Vanessa Hua, whose A river of stars was named best book of 2018 by the Washington Post and NPR books; Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, whose WEB Du Bois Love Songs was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction, finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, shortlisted for the Fiction Center First Novel Award, and nominated for the Aspen Words Literary Prize; EJ Levy, whose The Cape Doctor was a New York Times book review Editors Choice; and Jonathan Escoffery, who won the 2020 Plimpton Prize, and has a forthcoming debut novel by Farrar, Straus, Giroux in 2022.
How has the pandemic impacted your organization and your events?
The pandemic has allowed our programs to reach an even wider audience. Initially, we lamented not being able to meet in person with our community; however, through virtual programming, we have seen an increase in attendance from Aspen Words members across the country, as well as an increase in overall viewership.
As we return to in-person gatherings, we have focused on continuing to provide virtual access to as many elements of our programming as possible. This fall, as part of an in-person writers conference, we hosted a series of crafting panels virtually so people could attend even if they weren’t in Aspen. This winter, we’ve adapted our Winter Words speaker series to include live streaming of all in-person discussions so we can include our growing audience from across the country.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about your organization?
Another pandemic silver lining has grown our social media following and interacted with readers across the country who follow, read and discuss the books on our Aspen Words Literary Award Lists. You can find Aspen Words on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
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