Follow the road into a cleft in the rocks made by the Little Elk Creek and you’ll reach Sphinx Park, Colorado where novelist John Williams owned a cabin he used for writing.
It’s easy to miss the turn that takes you up to Sphinx Park, an hour west of Denver, because first you have to go into the dog-eared town of Pine. If you get as far as Zoka’s restaurant, turn around — you’ve gone too far. Go back and take a hard right by the Pine Library (open 1 – 3 pm). You might think you’re pulling into a kind of dusty alley, but that’s the beginning of the road— keep going. Within a few minutes, you’ll begin seeing houses and cabins clinging to the rock faces high above, on both sides, and if it weren’t for the wide creek bubbling along beside you, you’d get the impression that you’re heading into a real tight spot where you won’t be able to turn around.
But keep going…
You’ll be able to turn around outside the Bucksnort Tavern— a favorite of bikers, families on vacation, and where Williams used to drink Coors beer (his brand), while smoking a cigarette and making small talk, just to interrupt the loneliness of writing.
Williams, a professor of English at the University of Denver began coming up to Sphinx Park in 1960s. He rented a place for fishing trips, sometimes bringing his son Jonathan. Then after the publication Stoner in 1965, he purchased a cabin for longer stays. “There was a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom,” Jonathan says, “and then there was kind of a porch along the whole thing, and then there’s two storage rooms, kind of a split-level. But you only lived on one level. You’d walk into the kitchen, then go to the living room and then there would be a back bedroom. And then on the very back of that, along the whole thing was a porch— built-in porch. And that’s where he did most of the writing.”
By then Williams was at work on Augustus, which covers the life of the Roman emperor, youth until death, through a series of letters and journal entries written by figures of the time: Julius Caesar, Marcus Agrippa, Maecenas, Cicero, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Strabo, Nicolaus of Damascus, Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Augustus’s daughter Julia. The structure Williams was giving the novel he called “webbed… [it will] not be straightforwardly chronological, but will cut back and forth in time, getting at Augustus’s character from many different angles and points of view.”
He took the fall quarter off in 1967 from the University of Denver to work on the novel for days at a time. And as autumn turned to winter, he could imagine from the windows of the porch that the deep, snow-covered conifer forests cleaving to the slopes were the tree-covered Alban Hills south of Rome, or the Teutoburg Forest where the Gauls lay in ambush for the brutal commander Varus and his legions!
In 1973, Augustus won the National Book Award for fiction, splitting it with John Barth’s Chimera— a first in that category, which nearly put an end to the judging all together. But that’s another story.
John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Prefect Novel will be published by Lebowski in the Netherlands in 2017.