The Conference began for real on Thursday morning, with 17 different sessions scheduled in the 9:00 – 10:15 time slot.
The one I chose was “Shaping a Short Story Collection” with Ellen Litman, Daphne Kalotay, Deb Olin Unferth, Steve Almond and Brian Evenson. I thought they did a very good job and I took two lessons away from the discussion. First, no matter what order you’ve chosen for your collection, if an agent or publisher wants to see two or three stories, don’t send the first two or three as you’ve arranged them, but send your two or three strongest stories. Second, given the reluctance of agents to take on story collections because the big publishers are reluctant to buy them, consider sending a collection to small presses. I knew both of these lessons, but for some reason I hadn’t really internalized them.
Next I went to a discussion between Sara Nelson of Publishers’ Weekly and Russell Banks, whose new book The Reserve came out last week. It was billed as the CLMP Keynote Address, for some reason. Banks was one of the founders of CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses) back when it was called the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines.
No time for lunch, and at Noon I went to “Off the Page: Writers Talk About the American Landscape.” The panel, moderated by Carole Burns, included Charles Baxter, Alice McDermott, Margot Livesey and Thisbe Nissen. Although it is always interesting to hear writers of this caliber talk about the craft, I can’t say I learned much. The basic lesson was: make the setting exist to serve the story, not for its own sake. It’s good to be reminded of this from time to time.
I had planned to attend a session at 1:30, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I made my initial pass at the Bookfair, a colossal affair on three floors that was a bit overwhelming at first.
At 3:00 I went to “Don’t Go There: The Question of Silence.” This panel included Sven Birkets, Susan Cheever, Bob Shacochis, Dinah Lenney and Liesl Schwabe and dealt with what one can use from one’s own life when writing memoir. It’s a difficult question, particularly for those who have horrific experiences, or very painful experiences, that they’re writing about. Shacochis, for example, is writing a fictionalized account of events in his family, even though he is a noted non-fiction writer, because he can’t bring himself to tell the true story.
At 4:30 there was a “Reading and Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates,” which was great. She spoke at some length, and then had a conversation with Bret Anthony Johnston.
After a quick dinner out with friends, I went to the Keynote Address by John Irving, which was fantastic. He spoke about his writing process, which is to settle on the endings – of the book as a whole and of each chapter along the way – and then beginning the work on the book/chapter knowing where he’s headed. Irving then read to us the last lines of the new book he’s working on (“Last Night in Twisted River”) and also the first chapter. That was followed by a conversation with Susan Cheever that was funny but not particularly useful.
And then the parties began . . .