Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography Courtesy of the Desert Foothills Book Festival
There are few things on this planet that a good book cannot solve. From providing you with a source of entertainment or mental stimulation to widening your cultural perspective or palate, books possess just about everything you can possibly desire to know or experience.
That is especially true of books written by Arizona authors.
“Arizona authors are a vibrant, varied and caring bunch, eager to share their craft and enrich the lives of those in our community and beyond,” says Caren Cantrell, a children’s book author and Cave Creek resident. “Whether you are looking to escape into a world of fantasy and fiction or you want to know you are not alone in the problems you face, an Arizona author has what you need.”
Cantrell is the committee chairperson for the Desert Foothills Book Festival, a new free event conceived by a small group of local authors who desired to connect personally with book lovers and to promote an appreciation of reading and the literary arts.
“With the Tucson Book Festival to the south and the Payson and Prescott book festivals to the north, [we] felt the greater Phoenix, Scottsdale, Cave Creek and Carefree areas were missing a valuable opportunity to meet and engage with local authors from all genres,” Cantrell says.
Set for Saturday, June 4 at the Holland Center, the Desert Foothills Book Festival will begin with a storytime during which a local actress will read passages from children’s books written by some of the festival’s authors. The actress will return later during the event to read passages from adult fiction and nonfiction books.
Among the many local authors who will be in attendance at the festival are Victorian historical mysteries writer Karen Odden and western, thriller and paranormal writer Dan Baldwin. The event will also feature a free raffle as well as an opportunity to purchase additional raffle tickets for gift baskets and other prizes while net proceeds from the festival will benefit local literacy programs.
Cantrell recalls being very shy as a child.
“Books became my friends — a world I could immerse myself in with no judgments or criticisms and no fear of failure,” she says. “They taught me compassion, empathy and different ways to interact with the world around me. I knew I wanted to be able to do that for other children.”
Cantrell spent 30 years as a banker, ending her career as an executive vice president in charge of operations with 600 employees in five states. Having never lost her love for books, she then founded 102nd Place — a publishing services company with which she helps other authors self-publish their books.
It was that role — and the role of grandmother — that convinced her to finally realize her earlier aspirations of authoring children’s books.
“Aside from the challenges I faced as a child, I feel the best teacher for me has been becoming a grandmother,” Cantrell says. “I have ten grandchildren and each one of them is unique and interesting. Watching them grow, listening to what they say and seeing them interacting with the world has given me so much more insight than any writing class ever could.”
Cantrell has found that her earlier career also benefits her writing, having naturally honed her creative problem-solving skills.
“In writing picture books, the child has to confront at least three obstacles before finally solving their problem,” Cantrell says. “Having experienced all kinds of issues in operations and employee relationships, I can apply unique solutions to situations.”
Cantrell recently expanded her repertoire to include a middle-grade science-fantasy novel, “The Sun Thief,” but most of her works are picture books for children such as “The Fastest Dinosaur” — which, the author says, are more challenging to write than you might think.
“A picture book has to have all of the same elements as any other story or novel and you have to do it in 500 words or less,” she explains. “You have to be concise and use a single descriptive word rather than a string of adjectives.”
Cantrell believes that the effort is well worth it, though, especially if it ends up providing children with friends in her books — just as she had when she was a child — and the encouragement to keep reading.
“I am very concerned with the low literacy rate among kids, particularly here in Arizona,” Cantrell says. “If I can write something that inspires a child to keep reading, that is a good thing. Kids who read grow up to be adults who think.”
Some kids who read also grow up to be adults to write — as is the case with Odden, whose favorite books as a child included “Anne of Green Gables,” “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” “Julie of the Wolves” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” as well as the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series.
“When I was about 11, I went through a horse-crazy phase, reading ‘Black Beauty,’ ‘Misty of Chincoteague’ and the entire Black Stallion series that had belonged to my father,” Odden says. “These books magically transported me to worlds where I owned and trained horses, and there came a point when I wanted to create some of that magic myself.
“So one day, I hunkered down over my notebook and wrote some poems about horses. They were very earnest — and bad — with my horse-crazy ‘wishing’ rhyming with the horse’s tail ‘swishing.’ But I spent several hours working over them, trying to get them just right. When I finished, I wrote them out in my neatest handwriting, stapled them inside a shiny blue cover and showed them to my English teacher the next day.”
Odden adds that her teacher was very supportive.
She and her family moved from the New York City area to Scottsdale 18 years ago at which point Odden immediately fell in love with “the big blue inverted bowl of sky and the vibrant desert.”
Having previously worked in publishing, marketing and sales, Odden made the leap to author in 2006.
“But it felt as if I landed in wet cement because it was years before I made any progress toward being published,” she says. “When I leapt, I was at home with two small children and my brain felt like it was getting a bit mushy. So I wrote my first novel, thought I had finished it and started querying, only to receive dozens of rejections from agents. It was disheartening, but I had been told to be ready for rejection and open to learning.”
Odden took some classes and read books on craft, rewrote the novel and queried again.
“Still, I received only rejections, and somewhere around the 50th one, I nearly abandoned the entire endeavor,” she says. “But I had a friend who insisted that instead of giving up, I find someone to help me.”
Odden enlisted Masie Cochran — now an editor with Tin House Press — to help her reshape the novel and finally found an agent. After another nine months of trying to find a publisher, the Alibi division of Random House bought her book — “A Lady in the Smoke” — and it went on to become a bestseller. Since then, she has written three more novels — “A Dangerous Duet,” “A Trace of Deceit” and “Down a Dark River.”
“I write historical mysteries and historical fiction,” Odden says. “Mysteries have life and death stakes and provide ample opportunity to explore themes of injustice, dysfunctional families, socioeconomic inequality, political upheaval and so on. Crimes and murders, in particular, are often driven by some combination of love, revenge, greed and fear, which occupy some of the darkest corners in the human heart.”
Odden adds that setting her stories in 1870s London enables her to address contemporary issues at one remove.
“That is, I can explore contemporary racism by displacing it to 1870s London, where there was vicious anti-Irish sentiment in certain parts of England,” Odden explains.
The author adds that she spent several years in therapy during her 20s — an experience that has greatly benefitted her writing as it required her to reflect upon her past and present and represent it in words, effectively developing her own character arc.
“Therapy also required examining relationships and interactions; emotions and motives; and actions and responses,” Odden says. “That is what I do in my books as I explore relationships among characters and consider how the ways we behave affect others and how beliefs derived from our past shape the ways we perceive events in our present and sometimes drive us to act in ways that are not always healthy or in our best interest.
“These themes fascinate me. While my work in therapy helped me understand myself, it also showed me how to build characters from the inside out and to be open to exploring our human vulnerabilities.”
While the time and place of Odden’s novels are inspired by her experiences writing a college dissertation about Victorian literature and history and working at Christie’s auction house in New York, she says that the specific stories themselves often drop into her lap as demanding attention “in the manner of an exuberant puppy or a ticking bomb.”
For example, “Down a Dark River” was inspired by a nonfiction article Odden had read that got her thinking about how revenge is more complicated than the rather glib phrase “an eye for an eye” suggests.
“Revenge can be a form of communication, a last-ditch entreaty for empathy, a demand for understanding,” she explains. “So I wanted to write a book about revenge and the role empathy plays in bringing justice and mercy to our world. That book became ‘Down a Dark River.’”
Its sequel — “Under a Veiled Moon” — is scheduled for release this November.
When Odden is not writing, she is hiking Arizona’s trails with friends — both the real ones and the characters she makes up in her mind.
Baldwin says that he also enjoys playing with his “imaginary friends,” noting that, as a writer, he trusts completely in his own subconscious and the characters it creates.
“I am always surprised and sometimes startled to learn what my characters tell me,” Baldwin explains. “In a sense, I do not write; I transcribe.”
After initially aspiring, as a third-grader, to become a playwright, Baldwin went on to earn a degree in journalism. He spent much of his life working in advertising, learning how to write good copy quickly and under pressure — skills that would eventually become serviceable to his career as an author.
“Also, working with clients in an amazingly varied group of businesses and industries and with an equally varied group of people offered experiences few people in single-career work get,” he adds. “Working closely with grunts in the field, men and women on the line and upper management and CEOs has given me an incredible insight into the human condition. Much of that experience is inspiring; some of it gut-wrenching, but always invaluable.”
Having won ad awards, Baldwin’s foray into writing books began when he was offered the opportunity to ghostwrite a sales book for Tom Hopkins Institute in Scottsdale. He was inspired to venture into writing novels while hiking at the foot of Weaver’s Needle and thinking that it would make for a great setting in a story.
“I am an avid hiker and camper with a love of nature and landscape photography,” says Baldwin, who is a Mesa resident. “I call the Superstition Mountains ‘Lil’ Danny’s Big Ol’ Sandbox’ because it is such a joy to explore. Several of my western novels employ specific places in the Superstitions and other Arizona locations.”
However, western novels are just the tip of the iceberg for Baldwin, who also writes thrillers, short story collections and paranormal nonfiction — the last of which has provided him an opportunity to “explore the furthest reaches of the human experience with other souls unafraid to break out of the box of conventional thinking.”
“Truthfully, there is an ‘out there’ out there,” Baldwin says. “And I want to explore as much of it as the human mind can handle.”
That is perhaps why Baldwin’s books — which include “The Ad Club: Quest for the Phoenix Award,” “Sparky and the Twins,” “A Stalking Death” and “The Paranormal Pendulum: Dowsing the Departed” — often transcend the very concept of genre.
“I am committed to writing my books my way and therefore write whatever genre I want to write,” Baldwin says. “For example, I began my current novel-in-progress, ‘Gabby Durango and His Rangy Texans,’ as something I thought would be a western. After writing the obligatory, ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ I found Gabby and friends in 1919 Arizona making a stag film. Where this thing will end, I do not know, but it will be one hell of a fun ride.”
Desert Foothills Book Festival // Saturday, June 4 // 9 a.m.–2 p.m. // The Holland Center // 34250 N. 60th St., Scottsdale // Free // desertfoothillsbookfestival.com