By James Tipton
Over the decades many writers have found their way to this tropical Eden, where those seeds they held inside so long suddenly found the soil they had been secretly seeking. The Ajijic Writers Group provides a home for many of these writers. But how did the Ajijic Writers Group first come about?
Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez, a screenwriter/film director in Hollywood, came here in ‘87. “One day a woman said to me, ‘Grattan, I hear that you have sold several screenplays in Hollywood. Would you co-sponsor a writers group here in Ajijic?’ So we put up flyers and to my surprise about 35 people showed up at the Old Posada for the meeting. That was in June of 1988.
“That woman attended the first meeting but never came back. When I saw her some two years later, I asked her why she had never returned. She replied, ‘When I showed up that first morning and saw what we had brought together, the rowdies, the drunks, the dregs of local society, I realized we had created a Frankenstein.’”
The “Frankenstein” she thought they had created has continued to meet twice a month ever since that first gathering. In those early years, there was usually a special guest speaker. These guests were not necessarily writers but simply people who would relate to the Ajijic Writers’ Group what they looked for in books, what held their attention, what made a “great” book. Guadalajara writer Michael Hogan, author of the excellent The Irish Soldiers of Mexico (which inspired the fine film, One Man’s Hero, starring Tom Berenger) and Molly Malone and the San Patricios spoke a few times, as well as did members like Ray Rigby, who had won the British version of the Oscar for writing the The Hill, starring Sean Connery.
Published novelist Barbara Bickmore often attended. While living here she wrote two books which made the New York Times best-seller list. Her work has been translated into twelve different languages. Deep in the Heart and Beyond the Promise are two of the more recent ones. Grattan says “She is a wonderful story teller, with a marvelous feel for the right background and characterization.”
Jim Tuck was a charter member. Writing under the name of “Irving O’Malley,” he sold stories to magazines like Confidential, True Adventures, and Climax. Those stories in later years made him wince, with titles like “Veracruz—Steaming Port of Call (Girls)” and “I Am the Love Slave of a Voodoo Princess.”
Later, he became associated with Fodor Guides and served as their regional editor in Mexico. Afterward, he wrote critically-acclaimed books about Pancho Villa and John Reed, as well as about the Cristero Rebellion.
Marilyn P. Davis was another early member. Henry Holt & Son published her book, Mexican Voices American Dreams: An Oral History of Mexican Immigration to the United States. She passed away shortly after her piece on Mother’s Day in Mexico appeared in Living at Lake Chapala.
Mildred Boyd, who now spends much of her time with the Children’s Art Program at LCS, used to attend regularly. Mildred has written (and continues to write) about Mexican history and anthropology. Her books include, The Silent Cities: Civilizations Lost and Found; Black Flags and Pieces of Eight; Rulers in Petticoats; and Man, Myth & Magic.
Ed Tasca, a humorist and playwright, was a runner-up two years in a row in the Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Contest.
Another Ed, the late Ed Lusch, wrote the award-winning column “One Man’s Stew” for El Ojo del Lago, as well as several books, including the classic, Comprehensive Guide to Western Game Fish.
Ken Clarke has entertained us reading from Seven Years a Mariner, but lately has been reading from his true story of noble British soldiers in Afghanistan in the late 19th century. Woven throughout is a Clarke poem in the Rudyard Kipling style, brilliantly done I might add.
Michael McLaughlin regales us with his humor and has “carpet bombed” literary magazines with his stories. Over a dozen of his Irish tales have been printed in such curiously titled publications as Pens on Fire and The Barfing Frog.
Neil McKinnon, another humorist, recently spent many months on the road in Canada and the US promoting his published collection of short stories entitled Tuckahoo Slidebottle, which was considered for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Award for Humor.
Allen McGill, active in theatre at Lakeside, also writes and publishes short stories and haiku poetry internationally. He received 3rd place for one of his haiku in the 11th International Kusamakura (Japan) Haiku Competition.
Jim Collums has self-published a collection of stories called Coming Events at the Eternal Flame Baptist Church, and has read some of his stories on NPR.
Karen Blue wrote Midlife Mavericks, about several women who left established lives and roots in the United States and Canada and relocated to Mexico to reinvent their lives. Blue and Judy King founded Living at Lake Chapala.
The person most associated with the group, Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez, screenwriter, director, editor of El Ojo del Lago and novelist (seven written and published) would take much more than a page here, and so I refer you to a long article of mine published in Living at Lake Chapala (September 2006) “Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez: Lake Chapala’s Charismatic ‘Man of Character.’” A few of Grattan’s novels are in over a thousand libraries in the US and Canada.
Famous writers who have lived here in the past include D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, and Tennessee Williams. In 1923, D. H. Lawrence wrote his novel The Plumed Serpent, with its not particularly flattering descriptions of the Lake Chapala area. In the late 1930s Somerset Maugham lived in Ajijic while finishing his novel, The Razor’s Edge. Tennessee Williams lived here in the 1940s and played poker every night at the Old Posada (which was a real celebrity hangout in the 50s and 60s, hosting such film stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn). Those poker nights inspired Williams to write a short story, “The Poker Game,” that became A Streetcar Named Desire, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
Neill James, whose home and property was bequeathed to the Lake Chapala Society, was a popular travel writer in the 1940s. She wrote a series of books known as the “Petticoat Vagabond” stories, and one novel, Dust on My Heart, is about life at Lakeside many decades ago.
But back to the Ajijic Writers Group. Grattan says that “The best thing we never did was establish by-laws, dues, limit on membership, or officers. It has kept us from becoming factionalized.”
The format is simple. The 1st and 3rd Fridays of each month the group gathers at 10:00am at the Nueva Posada, and for two hours members read from their works-in-progress, followed by comments, sometimes scathing, such as the one an elderly woman made to Grattan many years ago after he had read the initial chapter of his first published novel. “Sir, I think you should burn it.”
Following the meetings, the writers (and listeners) move outside to the patio at the Nueva Posada where they continue talking about the merits and demerits of the various works presented that morning by characters profane, angelic (well, rarely), strange, familiar, elegant, crude, colorful.
· Ken Clarke has been a member for the past four years: “When I first came along I knew nothing about writing and now I have a miniscule understanding of it. If you sort out what makes sense, you really learn a lot.”
· Thomas Hally, a published poet, says “Coming here I’ve gotten to know a lot of very bright people.”
· Zofia Barisas started coming fifteen years ago. “Especially in the past year the quality of work has gotten so much better. I’m impressed and inspired. The success of other people inspires me to work more.”
· Vivian Levy says “Coming here, reading, and getting criticism is most helpful. The people who make up this group are wonderful.”
· Jeannette Saylor, poetess, says, “I’ve been coming here for six years, as long as I’ve been here. I like it when people give useful comments.”
· Jim Rambo, a deputy state attorney general, says he “loved to write in high school but put down creative writing in favor of legal briefs. Writing and the writers group is probably what I enjoy the most in Mexico.”
· Mike Mercer says, “The writers group is a basic ingredient in my life. Without it, I’m not sure I would be here.”
There are also a couple of smaller groups, one a women’s group started initially by Judy Dykstra-Brown. In June of 2005 that group, the Lake Chapala Women Writers, published their fine book, Agave Marías, which includes people like Harriet Hart, Gloria Marthai, Nina Discombe, Susan Miller, Judy Dykstra-Brown, Zofia Barisas, Gloria Palazzo and Teresa Kendrick. (Teresa wrote the popular Mexico’s Lake Chapala & Ajijic, The Insider’s Guide.)
The other group is Jocotepec-based. Mike Mercer, Sofia Barisas and some of the Ajijic group who live out toward that end of the lake meet the last Wednesday of each month for lunch at Mi Pueblito.
Lakeside continues to be home to many expatriate writers. For some, talents that have long lain dormant finally surface. Lives that have been put on hold to satisfy the demands of conventional careers suddenly are on hold no longer. And for others, who have written most of their lives, it is more of the same—and thank God for that!