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First novel takes pre-dawn grit

By Carrie Seidman
Tribune Reporter

February 18, 2005

Since deciding, at the tender age of 4, to become a writer, Sharon Niederman says she has followed what Mark Twain called "the path of the hack."

She has written college textbooks, served as the managing editor of a fan magazine, published articles in countless magazines, newspapers and brochures, worked as a ghostwriter and crafted more press releases than she cares to remember.

"I like to say I've done every kind of writing for money there is except write pornography for a dollar a page like Anais Nin did," says Niederman, a longtime Albuquerque resident whose name is familiar to those who read bylines on local publications. "I got whatever writing jobs I could where I could make a living and learn at the same time."

But after more than two decades of published work, including several books of nonfiction, Niederman had never tackled a novel.

"I always had this idea that, 'Oh, everyone else can do that but not me,' " says Niederman, 56. "I always wanted to, but I kept it on such a pedestal that it was very difficult to approach it."

Now, proudly holding a copy of "Return to Abo" as she sits down with a cup of coffee at a restaurant, Niederman doesn't regret the delay in producing her first novel.

"I'm glad I waited until I could publish the best book I possibly could," she says. "I can let it go out and have the best life possible because I know it's a complete story."

That story is about Maggie Chilton, a burned-out San Francisco journalist, who returns to the fictional New Mexico town of Monte Alto where she grew up, to attend a funeral. Intending a brief visit, Chilton remains to make peace with her dying mother, a recalcitrant teenage daughter and the ghosts of her past, both real and imagined.

The nearly 300-page novel is "absolutely not" autobiographical, says the New Jersey native, although anyone who has been to the small town of Mountainair will recognize distinct similarities. It does draw enormously, Niederman admits, on the hundreds of interviews with New Mexican ranchwomen she completed during the course of her journalism work.

"I want to be storyteller, but I have no desire to tell my own story," Niederman says. "New Mexico is my muse, it feeds my creative imagination. For 20 years I've loved sitting in cafes and listening to the language - simple, pure, to the point and loaded with pathos and humor - that has actually helped form my style."

The book was written across a decade and "primarily at 4 in the morning," says Niederman, who had to eke out time between freelance assignments. Joining a Santa Fe writing group, which meets once a month, kept the pressure on.

"I remember her saying, 'If I write a page a day, in a year I'll have a novel,' and we all thought, 'Well, that's practical,' " says Julia Goldberg, an original member of the group, who is now editor of the Santa Fe Reporter. "Sharon has such an incredible work ethic. Think about it . . . so I wrote all day and now I'm going do go home and write again?"

Yet that's exactly what Niederman did. And when at last she had a completed manuscript, it took her nearly as long to find a publisher. After years of dead ends, she finally built up the courage to call local author Max Evans, someone who'd been complimentary of her journalism work but whom she didn't know personally.

Ultimately, Evans told her she had written "a little New Mexico classic" and helped create a connection with his own publisher, the University of New Mexico Press, which ultimately offered her a contract.

"I felt that it touched the experiences, the dedication to giving and the sacrifices that women had made here in the Southwest with more thoroughness than anything I'd read in years," says Evans, who downplays his role in getting the novel published. "That's a part of our world we seem to sell short - the enormity of the contribution of women to the West."

Niederman hopes to continue making her own contribution, working on a second novel from the North Valley home she shares with Trouper, an English springer spaniel she adopted two years ago after he wandered into her yard.

The next book will also have "a New Mexico panorama and landscape, a great deal of history and an interesting woman's story," Niederman says. But she doesn't plan to write this one at 4 a.m., and she figures not having to find a publisher will save her about five years.

Still, she doesn't kid herself that it will be easy. The stretch from "the path of the hack" to published novelist has taught her that.

"You can make something beautiful or entertaining without ever leaving your comfort zone," Niederman says. "But making art requires sacrifice. That's just the way it is."

This article first appeared in the La Vida section of the Albuquerque Tribune and was reprinted with permission. Copyright resides with the Albuquerque Tribune. Visit the Albuquerque Tribune online at

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