Literary Boroughs #26: Reno/Lake Tahoe, Nevada

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the twenty-sixth post on Reno/Lake Tahoe, Nevada, by Mark Mayanrd. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Quick Info:

Reno and Lake Tahoe share more than just an airport. The region combines the world’s second largest alpine lake (bisected by the California/Nevada state line) with “The Biggest Little City In the World” located a 30-minute drive away via the Interstate 80 freeway or 45 minutes via the winding Mt. Rose Highway, the highest year-round pass in the United States.

What the Area is Known For:

Reno is famous for its smaller-scale Las Vegas style gambling and its libertine laws and lifestyle. It hosts a series of summer events to draw people from around the world, from the Reno Rodeo, the Great Reno Balloon Race, and July’s month-long Artown, to the National Championship Air Races, Hot August Nights’ classic car gathering, and the motorcycle rally Street Vibrations.

The Truckee River flows out of Lake Tahoe and into Pyramid Lake, coursing through Reno’s downtown through a whitewater park, past an island amphitheater, through the casino corridor, alongside a river-walk, behind the outfield wall of a minor league baseball park and finally back out into the desert.

Lake Tahoe, noted for its crystalline waters and outdoor lifestyle, features a mixture of casino nightlife, summer beaches, boating, and a thriving ski industry coupled with ancient cabins and second homes hidden away in the woods. Tahoe supports a vibrant arts community, from its population-dense South Shore, along the wild east shore (home to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival), across the sleepy North Shore, and along the West Shore where the Truckee River meanders from the lake down through the small town of Truckee and then into and through downtown Reno, sustaining and connecting the two communities.

Resident Writers (A Partial List):

Reno and Lake Tahoe both have fairly transient populations and their literary figures have had similar nomadic tastes. What follows is a list of writers who have, at one time or another, written in or spent significant time in Reno/Lake Tahoe.

Mark Twain (who chose his nom de plume in the silver rush boomtown of nearby Virginia City), John Steinbeck (who was a caretaker at Fallen Leaf Lake, and later worked at a Tahoe fish hatchery while writing his first novel “Cup of Gold”), Jack London, Bret Harte, Dan DeQuille (who wrote at Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper alongside Twain), and Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow (who were neighbors at Donner Trail Ranch, a former “divorce ranch” in nearby Verdi); Bellow worked on “Henderson the Rain King” in Verdi, while Miller wrote of his experience in the 1957 Esquire story “The Misfits,” which later became the last film for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable—and was filmed in Reno. Long-term resident writers have included Sarah Winnemucca, Adrian C. Lewis, Walter Von Tillburg Clark, William Stafford, William A. Douglas, Robert Laxalt, Rollan Melton, Oakley Hall (who founded the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley) Ellen Hopkins, , Sarah Weeks, Jane Rule, and Emma Sepulveda.

Literary References:

Mark Twain’s book “Roughing It” chronicles his time in Virginia City and nearby Lake Tahoe while his brother Orion was the Territorial Secretary. Twain wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper and set up a timber camp on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the resources of which he burned down with an out of control campfire. Nevada and California have both laid claim to “Twain’s Cove” the enigmatic site of his camp, and, in a long running dispute that Twain would have loved, the two sides have yet to definitively agree on the exact location.

Sarah Winnemucca’s autobiography “Life Among the Piutes” made her the first Native American woman to have a work copyrighted in the U.S. She was a popular speaker and educator in the late 1800s and her story is one of the definitive narratives of the native people of the Western U.S.

Walter Von Tillburg Clark’s classic western “The Oxbow Incident” is set in Nevada, but it is his “The City of Trembling Leaves” that was the definitive novel of Reno in the early twentieth century.

Robert Laxalt’s “Sweet Promised Land” speaks of Nevada’s rich Basque heritage and tells the story of Laxalt patriarch Dominique’s return, 47 years after immigrating to Nevada, to his Basque homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains. The Laxalt family has been prominent in Nevada culture and politics for decades, Robert as an acclaimed writer and his brother Paul serving as Nevada’s U.S. senator.

Ellen Hopkin’s “Crank” is based on the true story of her own daughter’s descent into crystal meth abuse—the mother and daughter story is set against familiar Reno backdrops including the Air Races.

Other books and stories that are set, at least in part, at Reno or Lake Tahoe include Ben Roger’s “The Flamer,” Clare Vaye Watkins’ “Battle Born,” the 2012 anthology “Tahoe Blues: Short Lit on Life at the Lake,” Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women,” Jane Rule’s “Desert of the Heart,” and Willy Vlautin’s “The Motel Life.”

Where To Learn:

The University of Nevada, Reno offers Masters and PhD degrees in Writing (including an emphasis in Creative Writing), and has a well-respected staff teaching in the B.A., M.A. and doctoral programs, including short story writer and novelist Christopher Coake and poet Gailmarie Pahmeier

Sierra Nevada College, on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore in Incline Village, offers a B.F.A. in Creative Writing  in the English department, led by poet and author June Saraceno.

The new low residency M.F.A. program for Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College  is run by director and poet Brian Turner, author of collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.

The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley has been welcoming poets, screenwriters, and prose writers to the Olympic Valley for the last 44 summers. It counts Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among its many alumni.

The Unnamed Writers Group meets monthly in Reno and also has several active Critque Groups among its members.

Tahoe Writers Works has monthly meetings and frequent lake-wide literary events.

Where to Find Reading Materials:

Sundance Books and Music is the largest independent bookstore in the Reno/Lake Tahoe region, recently celebrating it 27th year. Housed in the historic Levy Mansion in downtown Reno, Sundance hosts author readings, salons and other literary events.

You can also find new and used books in Reno at Dharma Books, Grassroots Books, and Zephyr Books.

The Bookshelf is an independent bookstore in Truckee, California that has a wide selection and specializes in books on the Reno/Lake Tahoe/Truckee area.

The University of Nevada’s new Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center is a fantastic mix of a traditional library combined with some of the latest technology in information storage and retrieval. The Knowledge Center is also host to the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

Where to Get Published:

Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe are home to several literary magazines and book publishers, including The Nevada Review, The Edge, The Sierra Nevada Review, Brushfire, and The Meadow.

Publishers in the region include: The University of Nevada Press, Virginia Ave. Press, and Lake Tahoe’s Bona Fide Books.

Where to Write:

Bibo Coffee Company has three locations and a fourth on the way. Each offers an eclectic, comfortable warren of back rooms into which a writer can hunker down and work for hours.

Walden’s offers great coffee, good breakfasts and lunches and a great atmosphere to listen to live music or poetry at one of their many open mic nights.

Find a quiet spot to sit along Reno’s downtown Riverwalk and find inspiration from the burbling Truckee River, or the bustle of the city that flanks it.

Stop by the historic Old Granite Street Eatery for a meal, or enjoy a cocktail at the well-stocked bar in the building that once housed the kitschy “Heart of Reno Wedding Chapel” where Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher were married.

Lake Tahoe offers writers and poets an endless landscape of Caribbean-like turquoise coves in the summer months that inspired the likes of Mark Twain, and Great Lakes style waves crashing on snowbound shorelines in the winter. Find a quiet cabin nestled in the towering pines, or revel in the quirky sidewalk culture of downtown Truckee, Tahoe City or any of the small towns that perch along Tahoe’s shoreline, bringing together a mix of crusty locals, ski bums and tourists with wealthy second homeowners and celebrities.


Arttown  is held for the entire month of July at numerous venues all over Reno. Visual and performing arts events predominate, but there are many opportunities to enjoy the work of local and nationally recognized poets and writers as well.

Nevada Humanities’ “The Salon” series brings intellectuals, writers, and the general public together to venues like Sundance Books and Music to discuss art and its place in modern society.

Writers in the Woods is an ongoing series of community events bringing visiting writers and poets to Sierra Nevada College for talks, readings and craft workshops. Recent and upcoming participants include Tim O’Brien, Kellie Groom, Laura Wetherington and Patricia Smith.

Lake Tahoe Community College’s LTCC Writers’ Series host and memoirist/travel writer Suzanne Roberts welcomes poets and writers such as Lexa Hillyer, Jeff Knorr, and Tracy Ross to the lake.

A Celebration of Writers Around the Lake is hosted at Lake Tahoe’s historic Valhalla every year by Tahoe Writers Works. Valhalla also hosts the annual Great Gatsby Festival in August.

Mark Maynard lives in Reno, NV and grew up on Lake Tahoe’s north shore. He teaches creative writing and composition at Truckee Meadows Community College and his collection of short stories Grind will be published in December by Torrey House Press. He is the fiction editor for The Meadow literary magazine.


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