The People of Letters

Seven Years of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop

BY NICHOLAS TRIOLO

A plump guanabana falls from the canopy, thuds on a table encircled by poets. It’s the second day of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop, and Christopher Merrill sits at the table’s end, grinning and unperturbed by falling fruit. His wire-frame eyeglasses, square jawbone, and khaki vest liken him to a literary Indiana Jones: the ever-curious, disheveled wayfarer carrying important papers in a beat-up messenger bag.

As workshop leader, Merrill positions himself not quite at the end of the table but more at its corner, a nod to humility that makes the conversation less about him and more about writing. He hands out packets of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin, and Octavio Paz, and everyone unfurls their notebooks: Jeff, a teacher from Los Angeles; Gretchen, a university professor from Michigan; Laura, an environmental educator from upstate New York; Jenny, British-born owner of a boutique hotel here in Todos Santos; Tamsin, a published poet from San Francisco; and Bianca, a seasonal resident of this fishing and farming village by the Pacific, about an hour north of Cabo.

By late morning, all twenty-two workshop participants settle into their genre pods in the semi-tropical backyard of an old, two-story adobe brick house: Gordon Chaplin, leading his fiction group under a hundred-year-old fig; Jeanne McCulloch, memoirist, with her troop under the kitchen palapa; author Karen Karbo leading the second memoir class in the orange grove with her disciples; and poetry, under loose guanabana, with Christopher Merrill, who is otherwise employed as the director of the University of Iowa’s renowned International Writing Program.

The week-long writing retreat follows a simple structure: three hours of group work each morning, midday break for siesta or almuerzo of regional cuisine at Café La Esquina, or whale-watching only a short stroll away. An evening program offers readings, panels, and craft lectures, some open to the public. Each day provides ample time to hone craft, to read, rest, and meet one-on-one with the workshop’s faculty.

Gypsy, the resident mutt, roams the many nooks and crannies of Casa Dracula. Constructed in 1852, the building’s charming, 5,000-square-foot crumble of adobe brick and plaster, surrounded by walled-in gardens, is one of the oldest structures in the region. It was originally owned and operated by Don Antonio Domingues, a great sugar baron, during the nineteenth-century boom, when valleys here grew sugar cane, with eight mills grinding day and night to produce sugar sold around the world.

Abandoned when the town’s water table dropped, along with the price of sugar, the imposing structure acquired the local nickname Casa Dracula, inspired by Mexican cinema’s popular genre of vampire and the bats taking residence in the rafters and gothic windows. Todosanteños swore of paranormal sightings and sounds emitting from its interior.

In 1985, the Domingues family eventually sold Casa Dracula to a group of writers, artists, and filmmakers from New York and Los Angeles. Among these Norteamericanos were Gordon Chaplin and Rex Weiner, its proprietors to this day. Gordon is an established novelist and journalist, his wife Sarah a New York City filmmaker and activist, occupying the upstairs apartment for part of the year with their teenaged daughter, Rosie. Gordon—a surfer and seagoing sailor much of his life—haunts this property, shuffling around as slowly as he talks, deliberate and thoughtful. Scars and skin grafts on his arms codify a life of adventure and loss.

Rex Weiner first visited Todos Santos in the early 1980s and now comes and goes from a creative life in Los Angeles. He is the workshop’s Executive Director, a gonzo-style journalist and screenwriter with interesting credits—The Paris Review, The New Yorker, an episode of Miami Vice on TV, the Italian edition of Rolling Stone, co-founding editor of High Times. Think Wiley-Coyote-meets-Hunter-S.-Thompson. Rex lopes around with his clipboard pinched in legal pads and conducts a class in screenwriting. After nearly four decades of making yahoo trips down the peninsula, Rex’s love for Baja holds pure. This workshop thrives under his direction, alongside the leadership of Chaplin and McCulloch.

Chaplin, Weiner, and, literary heavyweight Jeanne McCulloch (Tin House, The Paris Review, Vogue, and a memoir out from Harper Collins) launched the Todos Santos Writers Workshop in 2014, wanting to share their lifetimes of craft experience with others. Using Casa Dracula as headquarters, the workshop now hosts writers each winter for a week of craft, offering refuge and recharging stations to think, feel, and create anew for the past seven years. Hosted every late-January, early-Feb, and booked into the town’s various boutique hotels, most participants arrive looking like scurvy exiles from the North, but once through customs at Los Cabos airport and the hour drive up the Pacific, a three-part reaction occurs: First deep breaths, then a singular sigh of release at warmth, open space and saltwater air. Then comes astonishment at the sight of whales breaching offshore, humpbacks and greys on their migrations triggering gasps of awe. Migratory birds arrive, too, flashing orange-yellow coverts and napes. And so it is, a winter convergence of migrations on Baja’s southernmost tip. Time to write. 

The Todos Santos Writers Workshop offers a nighttime faculty reading in the gardens of Casa Dracula, open to the public Monday, Feb. 3, 7 - 9 p.m., and also offers a panel discussion on writing craft in the Casa Dracula courtyard, open to the public, Thursday, Feb. 6, 3 - 5 p.m. For more information lookup: www.todossantoswritersworkshop.com