Aspen Words residency brings novelist Sunil Yapa to Woody Creek

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Sunil Yapa's debut novel, "Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist," was published in January. A limited number of free copies will be available at Tuesday's event.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

Who: Sunil Yapa, presented by Aspen Words

Where: Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar, Aspen

When: Tuesday, May 17, 5:30 p.m.

How much: Free

More info: A limited number of copies of Yapa’s “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” are available through Aspen Words’ Catch and Release program at the Woody Creek Community Center and the Aspen Words office in the Red Brick Center.

Sunil Yapa hasn’t been able to slow down much since his debut novel hit bookshelves in January. “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” a multinarrative portrait of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, was received with widespread acclaim and sent the author, 38, on a book tour, onto “Late Night with Seth Myers,” and to a string of panels and conferences though the spring as a literary world it-boy, including an onstage interview (Yapa’s first) with his literary hero Junot Diaz.

Needless to say, Yapa hasn’t done much writing lately. Which is why he’s at the Catto ranch in Woody Creek through May as an Aspen Words writer-in-residence. On Tuesday at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen, Yapa will read from “Your Heart Is a Muscle” and discuss the novel and his residency.

His time in Woody Creek has been one of his first breaks from the post-publication hustle to concentrate on his next project.

“It’s been that fallow time where I’m reading a lot of books and starting to work on something,” he said recently outside the Red Brick Center for the Arts in Aspen.

For the follow-up to his debut, Yapa said, he is thinking about a college basketball story, perhaps looking at the moral dilemmas of a new coach at a powerhouse program.

“It’s sprawling right now, which is typical — it’s the research phase,” he said. “It’s almost becoming a ‘Wire’-like universe. It’s expanding and expanding. But that’s normal for me.”

The six-year process of writing “Your Heart Is a Muscle,” for example, began with a similarly wide-cast net. Begun after Yapa got a Master of Fine Arts from Hunter College — where he studied with former writer-in-residence Colum McCann — early drafts were steeped in research about the WTO protests and followed an unwieldy 60 different characters through the clash. After creating that billion-footed social universe, Yapa pared it down and focused it into a taut novel with seven characters’ perspectives — on both sides of the barricades — following them over the course of just a few days. His characters include protesters, a kid trying to sell pot to them, the chief of police and a delegate to the trade talks from Sri Lanka.

“When you investigate the real world of something, it’s much bigger than can be contained in a book,” he said.

The resulting novel is a book of ideas and big questions — about globalization, capitalism and what kind of society we want to shape in the U.S. — but also is an unabashed page-turner. Yapa is a voracious reader of genre fiction by the likes of Stephen King and Tom Clancy. But, he said, he’s also the son of a Marxist geography professor and a nurse — his father from Sri Lanka, his mother from Montana — who is naturally drawn to service.

“I think it’s important, no matter what we do — and this is the way I was raised — to incorporate some element of service,” he said. “Whether you’re a writer or doctor or mechanic. … I always knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know how those things would come together. In this book, I discovered that’s what I want to do.”

The book happened to land in a cultural moment of heated debate around many of the themes the book touches: police brutality, nonviolent versus violent protest and the globalized economy. This has politicized much of the conversation around “Your Heart Is a Muscle,” though Yapa doesn’t consider it a political book.

“I’m not espousing any political philosophy,” he said. “When we hear the term ‘political novel,’ it’s someone with an ax to grind about a particular issue. And I don’t have one, other than that I find it interesting to have compassion for all of the characters.”

Yapa currently lives in upstate New York but has lived all over the globe — 35 countries and 48 states, by his count. When he first began writing fiction, he worked as a traveling salesman going from college campus to college campus in a truck, hawking dorm-room posters. He’d then use that money to travel internationally.

And the novelist is no stranger to the Roaring Fork Valley. He and a writing partner have been coming to a cabin in Carbondale in recent years for informal residencies. Most recently, they were in a cabin there in early May working on a television project. That idea is about a Silicon Valley litigator who inherits her father’s clean-energy company — a story that Yapa found has more in common with his WTO novel and his college basketball idea than you’d think.

“It’s the same thing of, ‘What is it to be moral in an immoral or amoral world where morality has a lot of consequences?’” he said.

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