Tucson is such a literary city it manages to surprise both the authors and the hopefuls. While many locals may be surprised to know the Pima County Public Library hosts a “Writer in Residence” program, it is the writers in residence themselves who are surprised by the writing talent of those in their community.
Started in 2016, the Pima County Public Library’s Writer in Residence program selects two authors per year—one in spring and one in autumn—to teach writing workshops and conduct open office hours for the community. The Library’s current writer in residence is mystery author J.M. Hayes, known for his “Mad Dog and Englishman” series.
The Pima County Library selected Hayes as its writer in residence in May. Hayes grew up in Kansas before moving to Tucson to conduct graduate work at the University of Arizona. His first novel, “The Grey Pilgrim,” was based in Arizona, as were multiple subsequent books. He said he’s always known Tucson to be a literary city, but his time as writer in residence has surprised as to the extent of the local talent.
“I didn’t expect to see as many people who were at a level past beginner,” Hayes said. “I’ve had several people who strike me as having real possibilities ahead of them.”
As a writer in residence, Hayes conducts one-on-one consultations two days a week, and will present three writing workshops throughout his residency, which lasts three months, ending in July. The program allows him to separate his time between personal writing and helping local writers.
“My expectations were that it wouldn’t be as busy as it is, I mean, it’s summer in Tucson,” Hayes said. “The first day of my office hours, I think I only had one walk-in. But once the word got out, it picked up rapidly. Now I see about eight or nine people each day.”
Hayes’ first workshop as a resident focused on the opening lines and paragraphs of books. He was surprised when roughly 40 people showed up to participate. But Hayes said the most surprising aspect of being a writer in residence is the diversity and talent of those who attend his office hours. While many are retired and looking to write that book they’ve always been meaning to get to, many more are intrepid young hopefuls.
“Some aren’t even sure what they want to write, and some have already been published, it’s all over the board,” Hayes said. “But all of them want and hope to be read.”
While serving as the library resident allows Hayes to help and critique local writers, he said the time has also benefited his own writing. He estimates he’s written 25,000 to 30,000 words during his time as a writer in residence.
“I am somewhat inspired by the people I am seeing on a regular basis,” he said. “I’m very impressed, some of them are quite talented.”
Although it’s not his specialty or background, some of the locals who attend Hayes’ office hours are so skilled he instead helps them get in touch with publishers and editors.
Previous writers in residence include Susan Cummins Miller, Logan Phillips, Alice Hatcher and Janni Lee Simner.
“I’m fond of the program because it embodies so much of the library’s mission,” said Holly Schaffer, community relations manager for the Pima County Public Library. “It allows the community to learn about writing in different styles and genres. It really demystifies the process of writing.”
Schaffer said the most important thing people should know about the program is that it’s free to reserve office hours to speak with the writers in residence.
“The program gives the opportunity to be face-to-face and in dialogue with published authors,” she said. “It’s rare to be able to get that kind of advice free of charge.”
The Writer in Residence program is made possible by the Arizona State Library, a division of the Secretary of State, with federal funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
“The writers in residence are not only stellar community members, but acclaimed, high-caliber authors,” Schaffer said. “It gives a way for authors to give back to the community, and all the authors who’ve participated really love—with capital letters, love—the library.”
Schaffer said that while the program and workshops generally focus on fiction, poetry and memoirs, they can reach in any direction the authors are familiar with, including nonfiction and the publishing process.
“I’ve always felt that Tucson was quite a creative town,” Hayes said. “And I that feel even more so now.”
J.M. Hayes’ next workshop will be “The Art of Writing: Exercises to Stretch Writing Skills” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 13, at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Avenue.