Meet the 2023 Conference Chair

Rachel Santino

I am a new member of Women Writing the West. Having joined in the middle of 2021, very few of you reading this blog know who the heck I am. I thought it would be nice to introduce myself and share a little bit about how I ended up here as the current conference chair.

I was born in Virginia in the 1970s. When I wasn’t out chasing fireflies or riding in the back of a pickup counting deer, I was getting lost in the pages of a book. My mother always said I should be a writer, but doing what she wanted me to do was very often the opposite of what I did do. However, when I graduated from college, I began working as an editor, taking a job as a contractor for the government in Washington, DC. After a few uneventful of years of that, I changed things up and moved to rural Japan for a two-year stint teaching English. Fast forward to how I eventually ended up in California in 2009. I had lost my job during the economic recession, and like many pioneering women of the West before me, I followed the fella I was married to, to a land of promises. He promptly deserted me, but I wanted to stay in California and to make a life for myself outside of what I was used to back East. Suddenly on my own, I decided to get a job working as a bartender in the heart of San Francisco. I like to think of myself then as a modern-day version of a Harvey Girl. Just over a decade later, in 2020, like most of the world, the hospitality industry was shut down and I was faced with the reality of switching professional gears once again to make a living. I decided to get back into editing. This time, I wanted to do it for myself. I took a refresher course and figured it would be best to choose a specialty. Just being “an editor” can mean anything. I decided being a “western editor” meant I would probably have a little less competition from my new circle of editor friends. I was right. I was also introduced to a wonderful and fascinating group of passionate writers—western writers.

The toughest part after deciding what to do with my career was how to meet the people with whom I wanted to start working. It was 2020; the world was still closed. Everything was quiet. I joined Facebook and found the Western Writers of America group. Perfect. I registered for their summer convention in Loveland, Colorado. I was ready to meet the writers in person, hopefully make new friends, and to get to work! I shuddered at the thought of walking into a big room of old cowboys. I was nervous, but also excited to see what this would be like. I had my business cards, the Armadillo Proofreading pens I had made, and my ever-supportive big, friendly, bearded husband at my side, ready to start networking. We were greeted with open arms. The first night, we found ourselves an empty table and were joined and welcomed by some of what turned out to be the “big guns,” like Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, Larry Martin and Mike Bray (who I nervously asked if he wanted a promotional pen. He did not want a pen. It was my embarrassing freshman moment). We had a blast. Chris Enss was president, the whole group was energized, the mood was encouraging, and I was enthralled. I really felt like I had found my place.

It was through these new connections I made at the WWA that I first heard of Women Writing the West. So I joined in July of 2021. In the meantime, I also made a connection with author and current president, Lynn Downey. It turns out I had lived for a year in the same neighborhood where she grew up, and I became a fast admirer of her past career as in-house archivist and historian for Levi Strauss & Co. So I started reading her books. After another move, I happened to end up in her town of Sonoma. Then with her election to incoming president, she tapped me as conference chair. A terrifying but thrilling ask … 

In the next blog installment, more about my experience as a western fiction editor and my new side job as conference chair for Women Writing the West. 

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