No one’s suggesting the creative writing program at American River College has the cachet of the University of Iowa or Fresno State.
But it might not be long before someone does. The creative writing department at the Carmichael campus has the right stuff to become a literary mecca: a faculty of experienced writers, an award-winning literary magazine, a writing festival and a college-supported literary press, Ad Lumen, Latin for “to light.”
Ad Lumen’s second book – ARC English professor Michael Spurgeon’s debut novel, “Let the Water Hold Me Down” – was released in July and became a best-selling fiction book for Small Press Distribution, the nonprofit clearinghouse for independent publishers.
“Ad Lumen is a byproduct of the creative juices that flow within the English department,” said department dean Tammy Montgomery. “The professors who are not creative writers are cheerleaders for this program.”
“We’ve got a good English department, but we’ve got the best creative writing department anywhere,” said Christian Kiefer, an English professor and Ad Lumen’s executive editor. Kiefer’s debut novel, “The Infinite Tides,” was published last year by Bloomsbury USA.
Spurgeon’s novel is based loosely on his personal experience – he lived in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, during the initial Zapatista uprising in 1994. “Let the Water Hold Me Down” is a sprawling story of class and racial conflict told through the eyes of an American man.
Hank Singer, the narrator, goes to San Cristóbal to visit his old college roommate, the scion of a landowning dynasty in Chiapas, in search of emotional recovery from the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter. Once there, he stumbles into a romance with a local woman, even though his friend warns that she is bad news.
This move “from one dark love story to another,” Spurgeon said, lets Hank wallow in his emotions while remaining unaware of both how the situation in Chiapas is unfolding and his friend’s role in it. But as the situation grows more dangerous – rebels in the zócalo, followed by the Mexican Army and martial law, then murder squads assassinating rebel supporters – Hank is forced to confront the reality around him.
“This character is pretty wrapped up in American privilege,” Spurgeon said. “His world really is all about himself and his own grief, and he doesn’t look very far beyond that until it’s too late.”
Spurgeon’s time in San Cristóbal is reflected in the lush descriptions of the city, the mistreatment of the indigenous population and the events of the rebellion, including the way women swooned over the Zapatistas’ masked leader.
“We actually heard a woman singing a love ballad to Subcomandante Marcos,” Spurgeon said, describing the scene from an apartment overlooking the zócalo and across from the administration building where the Zapatistas and the Mexican authorities were negotiating a cease-fire.
“Let the Water Hold Me Down” is, Kiefer said, a novel that fulfills Ad Lumen’s mission to provide “literary works of very high quality that reflect American River College’s diversity.”
It was Kiefer and a group of fellow faculty members who proposed adding Ad Lumen Press and the SummerWords writing festival to both the college and the Los Rios Community College District.
The big issue, as it always is with publishing, was money.
“We were able to get a little grant money from the (American River College) Foundation,” Kiefer said. The English department at ARC provides board members, editors and volunteers.
The SummerWords festival, which has featured as keynote speakers former U.S. poet laureate Phillip Levine and the noted fiction writer T.C. Boyle, has helped spread the word about the press.
Ad Lumen’s first project was a collection of works by participants in 2012’s inaugural SummerWords. The electronic anthology was provided free to event attendees.
That was followed by its first official release, “Burning the Little Candle: An Anthology of Writing from the Faculty & Staff of American River College,” which included poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and a play.
While “Let the Water Hold Me Down” is Ad Lumen’s first novel, it won’t be its last.
“We’ll be looking for books in all genres, except textbooks,” said Kiefer, noting that a poetry book and a collection of short stories are next in the publishing queue.
The print version of “Let the Water Hold Me Down” costs $17, but Kiefer pointed out that Ad Lumen prices all its e-book versions at $5.99.
“We’re a community college-based publisher, and we’re dedicated to getting some good work out there and getting it to people,” he said.