No wonder Tim Sandlin’s novels are host to such a variety of characters; one only need spend a single afternoon in the reading room of the Teton County Library, or at Picnic’s mid-day café hustle-bustle--both regular Sandlin haunts--to watch a series of small dramas transpire. Once you start paying attention in Jackson, you notice Tim here and there doing what we all hope novelists do: quietly observing our best, our oddest, our humanity. And turning them all into stories.
To peruse someone’s bookshelves, to ask what is on their nightstand and how they organize what they read, is to shine light on where they choose to be taken, outside of the here and now, by fact and by fiction. Sandlin lives with his wife, teenage daughter and a dog named Louie in a cozy home that looks over much of Jackson. Tim admits that the one place he spoiled his daughter was in never denying her a book, and so it is only recently that she has learned the challenge of purging a collection to make room for more reads to come. The entire family reads, but it’s clear that Tim is the keeper (and collector) of most books in the house. As we perused his many shelves, he provided a summary of the contents: “Books by me...books I like...books by people I know....and the books that taught me to be a writer.” Here and there were some older volumes inherited from the author’s mother, as well as beautiful first editions, which Sandlin used to collect, including pretty-covered classics by Diary of a Dude Wrangler author Struthers Burt.
The collection began in the living room and extended through hallways, the basement, and into the garage. Tim claimed 11 shelving units as well as 7 desks (there was also mention of 5 porch swings). Recalling that Foxtail Books helps book lovers organize and keep track of sprawling collections, he at one point asked me what I would do with his. There is always work to be done in a house full of books. It seems, though, that Sandlin is his own librarian: he is opinionated about what he wants to read, he has a clear organization scheme, and he is confident that he knows where every book is in the house. The only peril he mentioned was post-purging regret when, for example, he wants to write about a particular sort of scene and needs to reference how another writer went about the task.
At Sandlin’s home I learned about his life with books, but I also learned about his life in Jackson Hole. Tim first became a patron of our local public library back when his family lived here seasonally, his father working for Grand Teton National Park. He still has a 3-digit library card to show for it (compared to the 14 digits in my wallet). Floor-to-ceiling shelves in the basement were acquired from the old log cabin home of the Teton County Library just before it moved to its current home. Tim doesn’t read a lot of contemporary work, unless it’s through the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference (of which he is Executive Director). When the literature of the Tetons came up, he reminded me that it was writers that first identified the specialness of this place: before the artists and the musicians and the movie stars, it was authors and New York Times journalists that fell in love with dude ranches beneath jagged peaks. The author bought his first Writer’s Market in 1964 from The Valley Shop (which later turned into Valley Books). His first novel was sold in 1988, with 9 more to come in the following decades (not to mention an anthology from his local newspaper column and 11 screenplays, 3 of which have been produced into film). He has all but finished his most recent novel.
Sandlin cannot claim one favorite book. He encounters to-be-read books on his own meandering literary path. “I’m not big on suggestions,” he said, and he doesn’t read reviews. “I’ll discover a writer and go through everything that he wrote. I just come by things, or one leads to another.” For example a recent penchant for books from the golden age of mysteries between 1930 and 1950 began with a book on a list of the top 100 American Novels. He recently read Lord of the Flies, alongside his daughter, for the first time. He is also on a streak of early 20th Century Japanese fiction.
I always ask a reader whether the books lining a room are mostly to-be-read, for personal reference, for a reminder of accomplishments and favorites, or a mix. Tim hasn’t read everything on his shelves, but at least part of most of them. Not one to finish everything he starts if it doesn’t strike his fancy, he stands by public library icon Nancy Pearl’s rule for when one is allowed to quit reading something: after 100 pages minus your age. If he has one concern for his books, it’s that he has just about run out of space--in a house he says they bought, in a way, to hold his always-growing collection. “My wife makes me get rid of one when I add one.”
At the end of one long row of bookshelves in the lower level of the house is a green wall with framed book covers, one for each edition of Tim’s novels (a British version here, a Chinese translation there). He called it the “wall of pretension,” but I’ll call it a much-deserved point of pride. As a successful author, a writer, a reader, and a character of Jackson Hole who could rival those in his books, Mr. Sandlin is as humble and gracious as they come.