Aspen’s Dennis Vaughn publishes new novel
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: Dennis Vaughn reading and book signing
Where: Explore Booksellers
When: Thursday, July 26, 5:30 p.m.
More info: explorebooksellers.com
A visit to Myanmar sent Aspen-based novelist Dennis Vaughn on a decade-long creative journey, ending with the publication of his new book “The Longboat.”
The novel follows two young Burmese boys, with parents on opposite sides of the Burmese conflict of the 1970s, who are brought to the U.S. by a wealthy Los Angeles couple. It tracks the boys from their early days adjusting to American life and through adulthood as their relationship strains.
The seed of the story was planted during a trip to Myanmar that Vaughn took with his wife, Linda, in 2006. They were at Inle Lake, where the locals hold regular “longboat” races, during which some 50 rowers paddle a craft while standing up in an idiosyncratic rowing style with their legs wrapped around an oar. After the races, rowers invite tourists to come aboard and try to paddle the boats.
On a longboat, Vaughn met a young boy who charmed him and reminded him of his youngest grandson. The writer wondered what might happen if such a boy was brought to the U.S. and given the opportunities of an American kid, and “The Longboat” was born.
The novel opens with the same scene, with protagonist Grant Jensen — publisher of the fictional Los Angeles Post — standing in for Vaughn.
“I felt I had the basis of the story — the skeleton of it — in about 72 hours,” Vaughn, who will discuss and sign the self-published title at Explore Booksellers on Thursday, said last week in an interview at his home off Cemetery Lane. “I just couldn’t let go. That was the genesis.”
Over the years that followed, Vaughn — a retired attorney — chipped away at his novel and workshopped it almost annually at Aspen Summer Words with acclaimed novelists like Paul Harding and Luis Alberto Urrea. In the meantime, he released his first novel, the legal thriller “The Price of Revenge,” in 2010.
The family saga of “The Longboat” called on Vaughn to write an epic that would span generations. In his Summer Words workshops, he recalled, his teachers advised him to take his time telling his story.
He recalled Harding urging him, “Slow down! You’re trying to go too fast. Take your time. Who cares if it’s a 1,200-page book?”
The advice was key to the book’s creative success, Vaughn said. He didn’t want to write a 1,200-page book but he had to figure out how to craft this tale at a manageable length. The published version is a marvelously paced epic that takes us from that lake in Burma to the tonier corners of Southern California, into the Los Angeles Post boardroom and beyond — including a few trips to Aspen — as this family drama plays out.
“I got a lot of guidance on that, thanks to Summer Words,” Vaughn said.
In its 250-some pages, the novel tracks the boys’ move to the states and their initial struggles to adapt, and then follows them through their lives and their careers in art and journalism, the mighty struggles in their relationship and through the reverberations of the Saffron Rebellion. It might skip years ahead between chapters, but deftly tracks the boys’ evolutions into adulthood.
Despite its globe-trotting settings and its grand scope, “The Longboat” in the end is about personal relationships, family and the emotional prison of holding resentments.
In the course of his many workshops at Summer Words, Vaughn got deeply involved with the nonprofit now known as Aspen Words, joining its board of trustees and serving for a time as its chairman.
As a lawyer, Vaughn wrote extensively — in his estimation, he spent far more time writing than in courtrooms. But he’d never written fiction until an early 1990s encounter with the late Lorenzo Semple — the longtime Aspenite and screenwriter behind “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Parallax View” and the Adam West “Batman” series. Vaughn recalled Semple knocking on his door and suggesting they co-write a novel.
“I said, ‘Well, Lorenzo, I’m quite complimented but I’ve never written a novel,’” Vaughn recalled.
Semple’s idea was to create a contemporary “Phantom of the Opera,” utilizing Vaughn’s experience as an attorney representing the Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles Music Center to give it the sheen of reality. Vaughn agreed to give it a shot.
“I had been practicing law for 30 or 35 years, so it was appealing,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn was to write the storyline, with Semple penning the prose. That project fizzled after a while, but Vaughn caught the writing bug in the process. Since then, he’s retired from his law practice to focus on writing full time.
“It really has changed my life,” Vaughn said. “It introduced me to something that I really didn’t know anything about. It’s fun and it’s challenging and it’s frustrating. It’s all of those things, and I love it.”
Vaughn did some deep research for “The Longboat” in order to navigate the thorny details of recent Burmese history and the Saffron Rebellion (Vaughn interviewed three Buddhist monks who led the revolution). But much of it also comes from personal experience: some of the ethical dilemmas that play out at the newspaper were drawn from his experiences as attorney for the Los Angeles Times; a deadly encounter with a hippo on the Zambezi River in Africa came from his own (not deadly) run-in with a hippo there; a harrowing knockdown on a sail boat in the Pacific also happened to Vaughn in real life.
The writing was never a bid for bestseller status or fame, Vaughn said, but a devotion to a craft. Vaughn is in the early stages of his third novel, which he said involves medical ethics and a ranch in the San Juan Mountains.
“I didn’t want to be John Grisham, I didn’t want to make a million dollars, I just wanted to be recognized as a competent writer,” Vaughn said. “I hope I’m on my way to that.”