Part 1: Pain
By Andrew Gifford
In November of 1998, my life was a mess.
A few years earlier, I started to experience intense pain in my face. It was like someone was drilling into my head – or maybe trying to drill out of it. I described it to doctors as electric jolts, or a searing, burning sensation. At first, the pain would come in episodes, roughly spaced a month or so apart. It would begin with no clear trigger and vanish just as mysteriously. Doctors labelled it as allergies, or maybe a dental problem, or maybe I was just going crazy and should seek counseling. They gave me antibiotics, nose sprays, and signed me up for root canals and multiple painful oral surgeries.
The doctors were at a loss and, by 1998, the pain no longer came in spaced-out episodes. It was almost always there, and getting worse all the time. A constant, burning agony. In early 1998, I started to become sensitive to pressure. Touch my cheek and it would explode in a white hot pain so intense that, sometimes, I’d black out. Stand under the shower? Turn over in bed? Kiss somebody? Scratch the side of my nose? A subway car barreling through a tunnel? All these things would trigger an explosive, unbearable pain and leave me curled up and weeping on the floor.
The doctors became convinced I was making it up. The scans were clean. Everything looked fine. I was in perfect health…except for this mysterious pain. It seemed that there was no diagnosis and no cure.
So I decided to kill myself.
Perhaps sensing that I was on the edge, an uncle I had rarely spoken to up until that point called me and invited me out to Santa Fe where he had been living since the ‘70s. I flew out in early November of 1998, landing at the Albuquerque Sunport where he greeted me with a hug (unusual in my broken little family) and a cup of excellent Black Mesa coffee. And then he showed me New Mexico – the food, the culture, the scent of pinon smoke lingering in the air, and that big, big southwest sky. In Santa Fe we sat at a bar that had a roaring fire, drinking the evening away, the doors open to a patio where you could go out into the chilly night air and stare up at a sea of stars. My uncle talked to me about pain, about being strong in the face of adversity.
He talked to me about dreams, and how important it was to follow our dreams. He told me that I had always loved writing, so why don’t I become a writer? In high school I had started a “small press” – making Xeroxed chapbooks that were filled with tragic teenage prose and poetry. In my early college years, that teenage lark made enough in sales to keep me afloat and even help out a bit with tuition. I loved the production aspect of books. I loved putting the chapbooks together, curating the work of others. I loved it when strangers bought these items. I imagined them reading these things – letting a new voice into their head, maybe changing their outlook on life, maybe just letting them escape from the harsh world for a few hours.
I said all this to my uncle and he told me that, once upon a time, indie publishers changed the face of publishing. Without people like John Martin at Black Sparrow, we’d have no Bukowski. The alternative tradition had died with the birth of the big box bookstores that only catered to the big publishers. But, he said, indie presses would make a comeback. Readers, whether they knew it or not, craved indie authors. An indie press could do anything. They weren’t bound by rules or market demands. They were free to explore the strangest and most exciting corners of our literary culture.
It was a night for dreaming. A night definitely under the influence. I decided that I would start an indie press. That I would champion authors who were left out in the cold, or unsellable to the big market publishers. I would put out books that challenged the old ways of publishing. Lofty goals, but I threw myself at them with the fervor of a man who, otherwise, was dying on the inside. I saw this opportunity as, maybe, a proof of life.
I started the Santa Fe Writers Project the next day. The name, which I am fated to explain at convention after convention for the next 20 years and counting, had a deeply personal meaning. Santa Fe is where I learned to dream again. And, I think, I’m the “project” part of the name.
The past 20 years have been a strange ride. In 2002, the pain was finally diagnosed as Trigeminal Neuralgia. In 2007, highly invasive brain surgery performed by none other than Dr. Ben Carson cured me. My family quietly imploded and funerals became routine. Through it all, SFWP was there. The project I began in 1998 grew and grew. With over 35 titles that range from memoir to epic fantasy, I refuse to be pinned down to a specific genre. For 18 years we’ve hosted an internationally recognized Literary Awards Program, judged by luminaries such as Jayne Anne Phillips, Benjamin Percy, Robert Olen Butler, Emily St. John Mandel, and many others. Since 2002, we have maintained an online literary journal, the SFWP Quarterly, which provides a home for published and unpublished authors, featuring fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and experimental work. In 2010, we launched our first imprint, Alan Squire Publishing, specializing in poetry and boutique books. In 2017, we launched a second imprint, 2040 Books, with the goal of giving a voice to multicultural authors.
And it all started out there under that big sky. It all started with a dream. But I couldn’t have made it this far without support from all of you – the community of fellow book-lovers and dreamers.
I hope you will join me for SFWP’s next 20 years.
Born and raised in Washington, DC, Andrew Gifford is the founder and director of the Santa Fe Writers Project. He is also the author of the memoir We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford’s Ice Cream Empire.