Tom Zoellner Explores Why There's No Great Arizona Novel at Changing Hands in Phoenix

Growing up in Arizona, Tom Zoellner was always surprised to find stories set in Arizona. But the journalist and novelist, now living in Los Angeles where he's an associate professor of English at Chapman University, will champion their cause during a panel discussion at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on Tuesday, August 11. He’s heading a panel exploring Arizona’s literary landscape and why we’ve yet to witness what Zoellner calls “the great Arizona novel.”

It’s a question he’s pondered for many years. “Arizona seemed too new, bright, and untethered from history,” he recalls thinking while growing up here. “Literature seemed like a distinguished practice done in some faraway, rainy country in mahogany drawing rooms with fog rolling over the moors.” By contrast, he says, “Arizona seemed too banal.” Hence his surprise at finding novels that were actually set here — many of which he recounted in a recent essay written for New Times.

“I took it upon myself to read every novel set in the Grand Canyon state,” Zoellner says. Now, he returns to share “a bird’s eye view of the tradition we do have.” But he’s also keen on “pointing out the lack of an Arizona canon.” The essay, he says, is a call to arms — a plea for talented writers to tackle a novel that explains Arizona to both itself and those beyond its borders.

“No novel can capture the entire spirit of a region," Zoellner says. But it can help to convey its unique features. We wouldn’t understand the world of 19th century London without the writings of Charles Dickens, he says, or Chicago without works by Saul Bellow.

“In its highest form, fiction can provide a sense of self, shaping wild incoherent thoughts and promoting social order.” Through story, he says, we come to understand deeper truths about ourselves.

The panel at Changing Hands Bookstore features Greg McNamee (former editor of University of Arizona Press), Bill Wyman (cultural commentator with Al Jazeera America), Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Alvaro Ríos, and Tempe author and New Times contributor Deborah Sussman. They’ll discuss why an author has yet to create the great Arizona novel, and what it might take to make it happen.

Zoellner says several novels have been contenders, but insists the great Arizona novel has yet to be written. Not everyone will agree, he says, but he welcomes the debate. Zoellner says his essay for New Times “was written to start an argument.” Rather than claiming it’s perfect or complete, he suggests it’s a good jumping off point for Tuesday’s discussion.

Riffing on Arizona’s literary heritage, Zoellner notes that the first printing press came to Arizona in 1859. Even after rattling off a list of authors whose novels touch on parts of Arizona’s natural or cultural landscape, he explains that our heritage with the written word involves mainly non-fiction. The time for that singular Arizona novel is now. “A story made up has a laser-like power beyond the ken of non-fiction.”

But how much power does the novel really have in a contemporary culture marked by words and ideas delivered in bits and blurbs? “We all understand the power of a sweeping story,” he says. “Even in the digital age.” For Arizona, he says, that story includes “the depth, breadth, and even violence of the Arizona landscape.”

“Arizona is rich in material yet poor in spirit,” Zoellner says. “The shrill debate we’ve had in the last 15 years has fueled a spiritual hunger, a cry for coherence about who we are as a state rich in ethnic heritage.” For Zoellner, Arizona is more than a state. “It’s sort of a civilization.”

“Ours is a state, almost an archipelago, with population clustered in two main metropolitan areas,” notes Zoellner. “Only a tiny percentage of our soil is tilled, and vast stretches of our soil are barren.” There’s another key characteristic, too. Zoellner describes it as “the rabid and sanguine way the Anglo population came to this part of the earth.”

“A novel can’t save the state of Arizona,” he says. “But it may hold up a mirror to us and force us to confront uncomfortable truths.”

New Times presents “The Great Arizona Novel” panel at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 11, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix. Find more information on the Changing Hands Bookstore website, and learn more about Zoellner on the author’s website.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble