I sat down with Patricia Calhoun, co-founder of Westword and longtime editor, to talk about the Denver arts & literature scene, and to solicit some advice on managing a team of creatives.
She greeted me at the Westword offices, her purse slung over her shoulder, ready to go out for a beer. My first impression: This lady’s got style. I took note of what she refers to as her ‘Granny Clampett gets a BeDazzler’ ensemble, complete with cowgirl boots and denim skirt, and thought: This is going to be fun.
You’re known for working around the clock with Westword. How do you spend your downtime?
Some friends and I just bought a crazy tower outside Lymon. It’s the World’s Wonderview Tower in Genoa, Colorado. It’s a 90-year-old tourist attraction that was falling down, so we bought it to save it, but we don’t know quite how we’re going to do that.
Do you ever get caught up in fantasy, or are you mostly realistic and analytical?
I think reality is much more interesting than anything coming out of my brain. Much more important than imagination is the ability to be surprised. You have to be willing to give up everything you thought going into a story because it might be very different. You’ve got to listen for nuance, look for detail, make connections, especially if you’re doing news and investigative reporting.
Any addictions that get you through the day?
Drinking is a time-honored tradition, especially in newspapers. When you go to a bar, you meet people who aren’t in your everyday life, and you find stories you wouldn’t find otherwise. Also, if you’re having a difficult conversation with someone it’s a lot easier to do it over a beer. I don’t like to drink alone, which might be why I’m not alone that often.
I read too much, if that’s a vice. I read everything I can get my hands on. I love the fact that neighborhood papers and niche publications still seem to be doing pretty well compared to daily papers, which are dying right and left.
What’s your take on the Denver underground magazines like Birdy, Barf, Cherry and Suspect Press?
Really it’s similar to what it’s been over the last forty years. There’ve been a lot of zines and independent art publications; they don’t necessarily last that long, music ones especially, but I love it when people are trying to do it. But it’s hard to make a living at. You have to love what you’re doing.
Do you see any of the art scenes in Denver expanding outside the state?
It’s really cyclical. Sometimes bands are hitting it big, like Nathaniel Rateliff. You’ll have times when comedy is really strong. A lot of it depends on who’s running a venue. The writing area’s boomed a lot because of publications like Birdy and Suspect Press and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. But the book pub industry is so tough. You’ve got to have a strong writer’s community just so you can have people to commiserate with. I think the bigger change right now is people who think they can’t afford to stay in Denver, so they’re not necessarily moving to make it bigger, but just to survive and still be able to do their art, and that’s a depressing development.
Have you had to make changes at Westword to evolve with an ever-changing Denver?
The changes in Westword have a lot less to do with Denver itself than the media in general. Westword is one of a group of papers that evolved in the seventies called alternative papers, so we took that name because we weren’t the daily mainstream press, but now, most of the mainstream press is gone, or they’ve changed so much…What are we an alternative to now? A very tiny Denver Post? So now we’re really just a local media outlet.
What advice would you give a new editor in chief?
Absolutely be as clear as you can with people about why a story works or why it doesn’t. But the other thing is, always give yourself enough time to sleep on it, or at least walk around the block because, especially when you’re doing creative things, with a little time and distance the solution will float into your head. Also, get ready for everyone to lie to you and make up the most creative excuses for missing a deadline. I’ve heard about more sick cats—even from people with cats I know died months earlier.
How do you justify pissing someone off in order to stand by what you think is best?
As an editor, you’re working for the story, and the reader, so you want the story to be the best it can be. At Westword we’re either disappointing or hurting people, or making them mad because we’re telling stories they might not want told, because they’re true. It might be the easy thing to not run that story, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.
People hating you can be energizing. Sometimes the haters are right. If we make mistakes and people call us on it, more power to them. I love when readers care enough to even say that.
One of our editors—and a former writer for Westword—asked me to ask you: What was it like dating James Eckhouse, the guy who played Jim Walsh on 90210?
He and I both played the violin, so we shared a stand in junior high, and both completely faked what we were supposed to be playing because neither of us ever practiced. It’s funny when one of your early boyfriends is not the hunk on Beverly Hills 90210—he’s the dad.