On November 9th, Tod was awarded the Silver Pen Award by the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, which recognizes writers who are mid-career and have shown substantial achievement. Honorees are also selected based upon their body of work, critical recognition and a strong connection to Nevada through the themes of their writing or residence in the state. Below are the remarks he delivered:
Thank you Millie Mitchell, Director of Development, the Selection Committee, Dean of the Library Kathy Ray, the University of Nevada, Reno, President Marc Johnson, and all of the fine sponsors and supporters and friends of the University of Nevada, Reno Library and the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. And what a pleasure it is to be here with Willy – whose music plays in my house almost every single day and, who if he is lucky, will get to hear me sing “Capsized” to him – and Gailmarie whose work I must admit I have only recently become familiar with, but which has already provided me great comfort. Her words “Leave the lights on/You’ll need to see this” pinging in my head this morning.
The last time I was here in Reno, I must say I embarrassed myself. This was in 2000, during the Great Basin Book Festival. I found myself sharing a ride to an event with a nice gentleman who asked me what I did to be invited to the event and I proceeded to tell him, for twenty minutes, because I was 29, about how awesome my first novel was and how great I was…neither of which was particularly true…and other things only 29 years of narcissism would provide …and when I asked him, finally, why he was there, he said, “I won the Nobel Prize a few years ago,” which is when I realized I was making a fool of myself in front of Wole Soyinka. I hope tonight goes better.
I must admit that today began as one of the blackest of my life, as I woke up in a country that has turned its back on intellectualism in favor of bluster and fear, run by a man who hasn’t even read the books he’s written. But here, now, on this beautiful campus, in this building of ideas, surrounded by books and writers and musicians and the woman I love and cherish, I am reminded about why I embarked on this pursuit in the first place, this desire to tell stories about good guys and bad guys, about bad guys and worse guys, about characters who bring order to chaos, imperfect people who fight for a world they believe in. The power of literature has always been about our ability to create empathy and my pledge to you is that tomorrow, when I get back to work on my new book, that will still be my aim. There is a pit in my stomach but a fire in my spirit. I am a writer and I am professor and I have minds to work with and I intend to do just that.
Part of this desire has to do with my relationship to this great state. I wrote my first book here, nearly 20 years ago now, in a crappy apartment in Las Vegas, where my wife and I had moved to get a fresh start. That’s the beautiful thing about the west – the old west and the new west: it has allowed gunslingers and gangsters to become straight guys, but it has also allowed artists to find themselves in the shadow of red rocks, to imagine themselves part of the great American dream, a plot of land to call their own, to be the hero of their own story, to reinvent themselves, to battle the land, but to come out on the other end with something we call a life. No one comes west to make it small, but isn’t that what a life in the arts is about? About making small things that other people find, that become bigger in their minds, occupy a space, and change them? I have been trying to make it small all along, to tell personal stories that mean something to people. That person can be sitting by the pool at the Mirage, or they can be in their bed in Summerlin, or they can be here, in Reno, where the sky seems closer to the ground, but in each case, I hope my stories have been able to transport readers from their lives, to a place that makes them happy, to relieve some burden.
I should say, too, how thankful I am to the wonderful people who brought me back to Nevada after I left: Geoff Schumacher, Scott Dickensheets, and Steve Sebelius, my editors at several defunct Las Vegas newspapers. Geoff let me write a weekly column for five years in the Las Vegas Mercury, where I talked about the things that mattered to me, that mattered to Southern Nevadans, even if that thing was that boy bands might very well be harbingers of the apocalypse, and who knows, maybe they were? – while Scott and Steve both let me explore my other passion, writing book criticism for a decade in Las Vegas CityLife, championing great novels, memoirs, and books of poetry. And also Jarrett Keene, who asked me to write a little short story about Summerlin for a book called Las Vegas Noir, that became my story “Mitzvah” and which, four years later, became my novel of Las Vegas, Gangsterland, and which has become, it seems, a story I will tell for many years to come, about how criminality, suburbia, and religion have become inexorably tied to each other in this state, how we make bargains with morality, how we try to make an inhospitable desert our home, how we find beauty and despair in luck and the pursuit of luck.
I am so heartened by the support of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, by each of you who has come here tonight to celebrate the written word. You’ve emboldened my spirit today, when I needed it most. But I also must say something small and something personal, which is that no writer gets to any stage alone, let alone this stage where I’m standing tonight. And though I’m here tonight for the words I’ve written, I’ve written them all for my wife Wendy. She always gets the dedication in my books, but tonight I’d like to quote another fine writer, just for her, just to say: Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place…