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Writers Seminar Began as a 'Drunken Evening'

August 11, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Oakley Hall remembers spending many a "drunken evening" sitting around with fellow novelist Blair Fuller in a Squaw Valley summer home in the late '60s talking about starting a writers conference.

Those libation-inspired evenings gave birth to the Squaw Valley Writers Community, a weeklong writers conference in the Sierra Nevada ski resort where writers spend from morning until night attending writing workshops and mingling with successful authors, editors and agents.

Fifty writers showed up for the first installment of the annual literary event, gleaning tips on fiction writing from the likes of Herb Gold, Max Steele, Barnaby Conrad, Blair and Hall, who is director of the graduate and undergraduate writing programs at UC Irvine.

That was the Woodstock summer of 1969.

Over the years, the Squaw Valley Writers Community has become a highly respected literary event, serving as a powerful magnet for a number of writers who have gone on to literary fame and glory: Richard Ford, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon of Laguna Beach and Jay Gummerman of San Clemente, to name a few.

This week, as the Squaw Valley Valley Writers Community celebrates its 20th anniversary, 115 writers are participating in the fiction program (20 of them from Orange County) and 16 in the screen-writing program. To accommodate the 54 poets who were accepted at the conference this year, the poetry program for the first time was held separately in July.

"I don't think we ever anticipated (lasting) 20 years," said Hall before the start of the conference last Saturday. "I've been directing it for the last five or six years and really co-directing it before that--and complaining all the way. It's not that the work is so much, but the worry is, is the staff going to show up?"

Hall, who happily reported this week that "everybody showed up," describes this year's 27-member fiction staff as "the best we've had."

Among the more well-known names are novelists Robert Stone, Michael Chabon and Kem Nunn of Huntington Beach. Also: short-story writer Ethan Canin, New Yorker writer Bill Barich and San Francisco Examiner columnist Cyra McFadden. That's not to mention a handful of literary agents and editors, who also run workshops.

Staff members and guests in the screen-writing program include Academy Award winners Jeremy Larner ("The Candidate") and Frank Pierson ("Dog Day Afternoon").

This year the poetry program was taught by Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman. Unlike the writers in the fiction and screen-writing programs who bring manuscripts and screen plays-in-progress with them for workshop critiquing, the participating poets are required to write while they are there.

"They write every day and present it the next morning," Hall said. "There's a lot of pressure on them. They whine and cry a lot, but apparently some remarkable results are had."

With so many agents and publishing house representatives in attendance, making valuable contacts is a goal of many of the participants. In fact, Hall said, his own agent, Don Congdon, attends just to read manuscripts and talk to the participants.

"The primary purpose (of the conference) is to make people make a better manuscript," Hall said. "But the whole networking thing--making contacts--is certainly of importance."

The Squaw Valley Writers Community is where first-time novelist Robert Ferrigno met Del Mar literary agent Sandra Dijkstra last summer. The former Orange County Register feature writer later sent her a copy of his incomplete manuscript, and Dijkstra wound up landing him a $150,000 advance with William Morrow/Avon. And Ferrigno wasn't even a conference participant. He was there as a free-lance journalist doing a piece for the Register. (In the prophetic last line of his article, Ferrigno wrote: "A good time was had by all. Someone might even get famous.")

In order to attend the conference, writers are required to submit a couple of short stories or pieces of a novel. Novelist Carolyn Doty, who runs the fiction program, reads the submissions and selects those who will attend. The cost for the entire week, including evening meals and housing in rented condominiums, private houses and cabins, is $450.

While saying they like to see "some evidence of talent or seriousness of purpose" in applicants' writing, Hall said, "I don't want to be too discriminatory because I think it's good for beginners."

Participants spend mornings in workshops, which are limited to 12 students each. Manuscripts are copied and distributed in advance and, over the course of the week, each writer's manuscript will be examined in the workshop.

Afternoon sessions, which are held in the ski lodge bar, are devoted to "open workshops," talks and panel discussions on editing, publishing and agents. In the evenings, it's back to the bar for more of the same, including formal readings and viewings of film clips, with discussions, by the guest screenwriters.

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