Posts Tagged ‘eric d. goodman’

In 2009, the DC-based one day writers conference called Conversations & Connections was dealt a blow when their keynote speaker, Amy Hempel, called in sick the morning of the event. Hempel’s appearance had been a big draw—the conference sold out early—and it was expected to bestow instant prestige. Her presence would convey a writing-from-the-academy endorsement to scoot the fledgling conference down the path to success. Despite her absence (which prompted the on-site booksellers to bail early), the conference was marvelous, but its organizers were shaken. In 2010 they took a gap year to recover and rethink.

April 16, 2011 marked the stunning return of Conversations and Connections. Held at Johns Hopkins DC campus  and organized by The Baltimore Review, Barrelhouse, and  Potomac Review, this year’s C & C was unlike any conference I’ve ever attended. For one thing, Steve Almond was the keynote speaker, and he blew us away. I won’t give a blow-by-blow account here, but the event focused on art, communication, and support in a way that is especially pertinent to people like me who want nothing more or less than to be part of new literature. I know that’s a fuzzy explanation, so perhaps it helps to point out that I only encountered one intellectual property troll.

If the 2011 program suggests a trajectory of cool for the future of Conversations & Connections, then I think we all benefited from Hempel’s head cold.  I asked Dave Housley, one of the editors at Barrelhouse, if he thought so too. This is a long answer, but damned worth it:

Susan Muaddi-Darraj (Baltimore Review) and I talked about this a little bit on Saturday, and one thing is that as conference organizers we’ve pretty much been through the worst case scenario (I’m not sure if you were there, but we were standing there ready to do the opening welcome when Amy Hempel called in sick). As a result, I think we try to plan a little harder, but also roll with the punches a little easier. If we got through that, we can get through, say, the book/coffee people totally flaking out the day before the conference (which they did this year, and after Susan reamed them out, we made up a plan B on Friday afternoon and went with it and for the most part it worked out fine).

Dave in 2009. This is his pissed smile.

I hope there’s a relaxed and generous vibe that comes from us on down through the panelists and volunteers to the attendees. To some extent, that’s just a thing we’ve always tried to do — to be inclusive, friendly, make it clear that we’re all in this together, no matter where we are in our own writing endeavors. So hopefully there’s at least some of that that’s just in the DNA of the conference.

To reference Steve Almond’s keynote a little, I think you’re right that the Amy Hempel experience also really influenced the decisions we’re making as organizers. We’ve tried to identify people who are accomplished and interesting and have something to say about writing, but we also really try to make sure those people are cool. Part of that is luck. We had never met most of the folks on Dylan Landis‘ panel, Debut Writers and How They Got There, because Dylan did all the organizing on her own (thanks Dylan!). So the fact that Robin Black and Janice Shapiro and Eric D. Goodman were there was great. We knew they were accomplished and had written some awesome books. The fact that they were cool — generous and knowledgeable and approachable – was kind of a stroke of good luck.

There were also a few people who I contacted about a few panels and got a real high maintenance vibe. I don’t know if this connects to the 2009 thing or not, but now that I think about it, I just didn’t pursue those people any further as panelists, and they were not there on Saturday. Maybe we really did screen out the assholes, as one of the conference evaluations stated.

Some of that, again, is experience. We know that Mark Drew from Gettysburg Review was probably the most high profile editor there. What we also know, from having him at all the other conferences, is that he’s also interesting and reliable and generous. He’s one of the people who have participated in each conference, I think, and if you look at that core group that we always ask back, I suppose they’re all people who match that same description: cool and reliable and generous.

You’re right, too, that working outside the academy might be a good thing for us. I should note that we are supported by Johns Hopkins. They provide the facilities, so in a lot of ways, they’re making the entire thing possible, and a huge thanks to David Everett at JHU, who has been super supportive but never, ever intrusive. I suppose that’s a unique thing, too. Because we’re lit mag people (Barrelhouse, Baltimore Review, and the Potomac Review), we’re totally coming at it from an indie lit/emerging writer point of view. That gives us connections to the local lit mags, and to the folks who are doing cool indie lit stuff, but not necessarily in DC. I’m always so happy that we get so many Baltimore people, or that Erin Fitzgerald comes down from Connecticut — that just seems like a great indicator that we’re doing something right. We also really try to make sure the panels are useful. The goal is that people walk out of every single panel with something they can take back to their own writing. Again, I think that comes from the indie approach, but also from experience — the first year, especially, we had a bunch of panels like “writing the novel,” and we didn’t think too much about the moderators or what would actually happen after we got the people in the room. Now we do. We actually took a different approach this year, where we got in touch with cool people (like, um, Laura Ellen Scott) and asked if they had any ideas. From this, we got some awesome stuff, and most of what were the best-attended panels on Saturday.

We also made a conscious decision early on that our featured books (the books attendees can choose from as part of their registration fee) would be from indie presses. The big presses just don’t need our help. We pay $12 directly to the presses for each book, so it’s a pretty good deal for them. That’s how Matt Bell, Steve Himmer, Kim Kupperman, and Gregg Mosson were there this time around, and I know those are some names that resonate in the indie lit community (probably especially Matt and Steve, who came in from Ann Arbor and Boston, respectively, and both run literary magazines in addition to being writers with new books out).

We also got so lucky with Steve Almond. I had spoken with him a little bit via email about the kinds of things I thought the attendees would be receptive to, or the kind of things I thought would be good for them to hear. What he came up with, and how he did it, was just absolutely perfect for our audience. I don’t think anything about it could have been any better. Again, we made that decision to bring him in partially based on the fact that we knew he was cool (a few mutual friends), on the fact that he’s a great, well-known writer, but also because he’s doing this interesting stuff with these little books that he self-publishes, and he’s still engaged and supportive of the lit mag scene. We don’t want somebody who is going to give a keynote about how to negotiate the terms of your ten book deal, or your movie rights, you know? From everything we knew about Steve, he wasn’t going to be that guy. We also had no right to expect that he’d be as awesome as he was, though, so there we got a little lucky.

So yeah — you may be on to something there! I think that 2009 event helped us make good decisions this time around, and probably unconsciously, helped us make decisions that were going to steer us toward working with cool people who are going to spread that inclusive, generous vibe.


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