Spotlight on: Aspen Words

ASPEN WORDS was founded in 1976 as a literary center based in Aspen CO. A program of the Aspen Institute, their mission is to encourage writers, inspire read­ers, and connect people through the power of stories. AW’s year-round programs include Summer Words, a writing conference and liter­ary festival; Winter Words, a speaker series presenting the best of contemporary literature; the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 an­nual award for fiction with social impact; as well as a writers-in-the-schools program and writing residencies. They recently added a SF/Fantasy workshop to their line-up.


Give us some history on Aspen Words. When was it founded, and by whom, and what’s its mission?

The mission of Aspen Words is to encourage writers, inspire readers, and connect people through the power of stories. The organization’s roots date back to the 1970s when an ambitious cohort of literary-minded writers and readers carved out space for poetry and prose in Aspen’s burgeoning art scene. Over the years, Aspen Words grew substantially and began offering year-round programming, including an author speaker series each winter, a literary prize for fiction with a social impact, an annual summer literary conference, and writing residencies and programs for youth, among other activities and events. In 2009, recognizing an overlap in mis­sion and vision, Aspen Words joined the Aspen Institute, further expanding its audience and raising its profile.

Aspen Words endeavors to touch the lives of readers, storytellers, students, and writers of every level, from fledgling to famous. Celebrated authors grace Aspen Words’ stages each year, and hundreds of aspiring writers participate in our workshops, an impressive number of whom go on to see their work published.

What are some of the programs and fellow­ships that you offer?

Aspen Words offers year-round programming both virtually and throughout Colorado’s Roar­ing Fork Valley, as well as in New York City for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (<>). The Prize, now in its fifth year, is a $35,000 annual award for an influential work of fiction focused on vital contemporary issues.

The Aspen Summer Words writers confer­ence and literary festival (<>) is an annual gathering of writers from across the country and was named ‘‘a top 10 literary gathering’’ by USA Today. Aspen Words provides Emerg­ing Writer Fellowships to writers demonstrating exceptional talent and promise. Fellows receive a full scholarship to Aspen Summer Words in June, including tuition, airfare, lodging, and some meals.

Winter Words (<­grams/winter-words>) brings the most respected and celebrated literary luminaries to speak in Aspen, including Pulitzer Prize winners, New York Times best-sellers, poet laureates, and more.

Aspen Words partners annually with the Catto Shaw Foundation to host working writers for individual residencies from May through October. The residencies offer authors an opportunity to nurture their creative spirit by providing time, space, and living accommodations in the majestic Elk Mountains.

One of the signature events is the Summer Words Writers Conference, featuring ad­vanced workshops with acclaimed authors and editors. Tell us a bit about the history of the conference, and what you have planned for this year.

Recognized as one of the nation’s top literary gatherings, Aspen Summer Words is a six-day celebration of words, stories, and ideas held annually in Aspen at the end of June. Advanced workshops led by renowned authors discuss craft and encourage writers to further develop and re­fine their work. Literary agents and editors meet one-on-one with workshop participants. Public panel discussions and craft talks provide inspira­tion and insight for writers and readers alike. Past instructors include Luis Alberto Urrea, Rumaan Alam, Jericho Brown, Peter Ho Davies, Richard Russo, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Jess Walter.

The 2022 Summer Words faculty lineup in­cludes: Mark Doty (memoir), Terrance Hayes (poetry), Mary Beth Keane (fiction), Robert Kolker (narrative nonfiction), Ayana Mathis (fiction), Natalie Serber (book editing), and a middle-grade workshop leader to be announced. A new offering this year is a sci-fi/fantasy work­shop, led by Fonda Lee.

Tell us about the decision to include a focus on SF at Summer Words, and your collaboration with General Motors’ Future Fiction Collec­tive, with its aim to improve diversity in genre literature.

Aspen Words had been considering including a sci-fi/fantasy workshop for some time, and when General Motors approached enthusiastically with a vision for a partnership, the timing lined up. When selecting its faculty, Aspen Words looks for gifted writers who are impassioned teachers. Fonda Lee is just such a person – an award-win­ning writer who cares deeply about mentorship. We plan to offer full scholarships for 10 people for the SF/F workshop.

Are there any notable alums or success stories from the workshops?

The following authors are former Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellows: C. Pam Zhang, whose How Much of These Hills Is Gold was longlisted for the Booker Prize; Vanessa Hua, whose A River of Stars was named a best book of 2018 by the Washington Post and NPR books; Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, whose Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was longlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, a finalist for the Kirkus prize for fiction, shortlisted for the center for fiction first novel prize, and nominated for the Aspen Words Literary Prize; EJ Levy, whose The Cape Doctor was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; and Jonathan Escoffery, who was a 2020 Plimpton Prize winner, and has a debut novel forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux in 2022.

How has the pandemic impacted your organi­zation and your events?

The pandemic has enabled our programs to reach an even wider audience. Initially, we lamented not being able to gather in person with our com­munity; however, through virtual programming, we saw an increase in participation from Aspen Words members from across the country, as well as a rise in overall audience numbers.

As we return to in-person gatherings, we have put a premium on continuing to offer virtual ac­cess to as many elements of our programming as possible. This fall, as part of an in-person writers conference, we held a series of craft panels virtually so people could attend even if they were not located in Aspen. This winter we have adapted our Winter Words speaker series to include a livestream of all in-person talks so that we can include our growing audience from across the country.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about your organization?

Another pandemic silver lining has been grow­ing our social media audience and engaging with readers around the country who are following along, reading and discussing the books on our Aspen Words Literary Prize lists. You can find Aspen Words on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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