Local author Paul Andersen revives and revises short stories of Aspen’s history
Author and journalist Paul Andersen has been living and writing in the Roaring Fork Valley for nearly four decades. Now, he has produced a second, revised edition of “Moonlight Over Pearl,” a collection of short stories rich with Aspen history that went out of print after he first published it in 2010.
Andersen will share the background of the stories at Explore Booksellers on Friday at 5 p.m. He spoke with reporter Kaya Williams earlier this month about the book he calls an “orientation” to Aspen, and about the community that inspired it.
There's a lot of lament right now about the soul of Aspen. Where is it? Does it exist? What is community, and what is the benefit of feeling a belonging to a sense of community? I think it’s huge, and I had that here.Paul Andersen, Roaring Fork Valley author of "Moonlight Over Pearl"
Paul Andersen: This book really is kind of an orientation, if you look at it that way. It's got historic stories. It's got stories that I think are sort of timeless, and I think anybody who wants to understand Aspen could benefit greatly from reading these stories and getting a background, especially some of the cultural background, like my story about the ‘living saint’ Albert Schweitzer, when he came here in 1949. What was it like in Aspen then? I try to really characterize the town and environs historically.
Kaya Williams: This is presented as a work, a collection of short stories, mostly first names involved, some first person accounts. How much of this is fiction and how much of this is reality?
Andersen: It's about half and half really. I wove each story into maybe a more fluid account than actually happened, but these are real stories, and these are real people with different names, but people who have lived in Aspen, and died here over the last 100 years or more, 150 years, so there's a strong element of truth in these fiction stories.
Williams: And as you were returning to these stories for the second edition, did you come to any new “aha” moments or come up with any new ideas while you were tinkering?
Andersen: Yeah, more appreciation for living here. This is an incredible place to live. I've been here now for almost 40 years, having come over from Crested Butte in 1984. And working at the Aspen Times when Mary [Eshbaugh] Hayes and Bil Dunaway were running the paper, it was a golden era to be in Aspen and The Aspen Times was a key that unlocked every door that I approached here.
So I had an incredible privilege to experience Aspen as a deep insider, and so the “aha” moment is just how appreciative I am for the years I've spent here, and also for those who guided me, [like] Mary Hayes, my editor.
The first assignment I received was to interview Matt Oblock, who was born of mining heritage in Aspen, his father was a silver miner. And he grew up in old Aspen, and I came to appreciate the history through personal accounts. Sepp Uhl was another one I interviewed about his experience in the German army in World War II, where he served on the Russian front and walked from the east, all the way back to Garmisch, where he was from.
And you hear stories like that, and it just makes the past come alive, so I try to make the past come alive in these stories.
Williams: You said that that was a “golden era” when you first came here. What era do you think we're in now?
Andersen: I hesitate to say. It's really hard to say. Maybe I'm sort of a nostalgic person. I always look back at the past as being richer than maybe the present or the future.
But I think also, there were more people living here who I knew. And that sense of community, sense of place — you know, there's a lot of lament right now about the soul of Aspen. Where is it? Does it exist? What is community, and what is the benefit of feeling a belonging to a sense of community? I think it’s huge, and I had that here.
So now I live five miles up the Fryingpan [River valley] at 7 Castles [Ranch] out of Basalt, and separating from Aspen when I left here, it was heartbreaking in a way. I felt a real loss.
So I think the era we're living in now is more fractured, it's more divisive. I'm not sensing the unity that I felt before. And that's a lament that I have, but I think it's remedy-able, and with real caring, and maybe some direction that can be enhanced.
Williams: Did returning to this book and working on it again help you feel a little bit more connected to this community that you've been a part of for so long?
Andersen: Yes, absolutely. It brought me back to so many experiences I've had, life experiences that have really, as I said before, just been so enriching and given me so much gratitude about being here and it's still deep in my heart. I mean, I moved away 25 miles, but I really never left. I still feel a real kinship here, and I have certain places in Aspen that really bring me back to that sense of belonging.
The bust of Albert Schweitzer in Paepke Park is like a shrine to me. I skied Aspen Mountain today and standing on Aspen Mountain at various points and looking around, there's a sense of familiarity for me. The Aspen Meadows is the same thing. It gives me a familiar sense of belonging. The [Benedict] Music Tent, where I spent so many hours in just rapture, really, listening to beautiful music — these things have all given me a sense of place, and they still exist, and I'm grateful for that.
But as these kind of iconic places are affected by other changes in the community, like the loss of certain restaurants, [it] has been a loss of character to me. And I think that's the important thing about Aspen is that we all identify with when we got here and when those things were changed, we feel a loss for continuity. So that's why I think Aspenites are so particular about change here.
Williams: To that point, there are a lot of cultural institutions mentioned in here, places like the Aspen Institute, the [Aspen] Music Festival [and School] that still very much exist to this day and are very robust. And some of the response to the “soul of Aspen” has been, “well, hey, all of this stuff is still here.” I'm curious if you think that the Aspen of today is a place where the characters in this book would still exist and thrive?
Andersen: I don't know. Probably. But separating characters from their eras, I think, is difficult. There's a sort of a dualism then and to really be authentic to your time and your place, I think you have to really gravitate to what's happening in the here and now. So I don't know. Time changes everything and, and maybe that's something that I have to still accept, is that change is the only constant.
This interview has been edited and condensed.