Cover Story

Sanibel Island Writers Conference

Top storytellers gather in paradise

By: Yohana de la Torre, Chief Editor

Being a writer can be a “lonely” experience, says Thomas DeMarchi, Florida Gulf Coast University English Instructor.

“But imagine a summer camp full of bookish, smart, curious people, many of whom are used to typing sentences alone in a room for hours every day.  Now, throw all those people together for a weekend of fellowship and for a lot of them, it’s revelatory to find their tribe,” DeMarchi explains.

He’s talking about the “tribe” gathering November 3 – 6 for the 11th Annual Sanibel Island Writers Conference (SIWC).

“Last year Steve Almond, one of our core faculty, wrote a beautiful introduction to our program that included this line: ‘[The Sanibel Island Writers Conference is] the only conference I’ve ever been to that manages to become larger and more intimate over time.’  That intimacy, that sense of community, is a direct extension of the attitude of openness and curiosity and humility that everyone brings— authors, faculty, support staff, volunteers, and the participants,” DeMarchi adds.

As the conference Director, DeMarchi has nurtured this informative and fun event into an opportunity for aspiring writers and experienced writers, alike, to improve their craft and meld with other creative minds.

The three-day event is all about “the story” in one of the world’s most premier and idyllic locations– Sanibel Island.  It’s about fiction, poetry, memoir, creative nonfiction, screenwriting and songwriting.  And this year, the SIWC has added food, travel and writing for television.  

Participants will have the opportunity to enjoy a variety of workshops, panels, lectures and readings— all celebrating the rich literary legacy of the written word.  And DeMarchi assures the event will again bring together the best of the best this year.

The list of authors, editors and agents includes literary giants such as keynote speaker, Sue Monk Kidd, Sandra Beasley, Richard Blanco, Stephen Elliot, Gina Frangello, Nathan Hill, Joyce Maynard, Rhett Miller, Christopher Schelling, Sarah Tomlinson and Robert Wilder to name a few. 

“All of the presenters joining us are exceptionally good at what they do,” says DeMarchi.  “I hope [the conference] gets more people reading and reminds them of the power and importance of books.  I also hope it demystifies the writing process a bit.  Everyone has stories worth sharing.  Maybe the conference helps people tell those stories so they can find an audience.  And maybe they and their readers can feel a little bit less alone.”

GCT caught up with a few of the talents from this year’s Sanibel Island Writers Conference and this is what they had to say:

SUE MONK KIDD

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd

Bestselling author Sue Monk Kidd knows how to tug at a reader’s heartstrings.  Her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees spent more than one hundred weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, sold nearly 6 million copies, was chosen as the 2004 Book Sense Paperback Book of the Year, and was also made into an award-winning movie.  In her latest novel, The Invention of Wings a story about two unforgettable American women is woven into a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.  

Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early nineteenth-century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimké household.  The Grimké’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.  We follow the girls remarkable journeys over thirty-five years, as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

YD: The real Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, inspired this work of historical fiction.  How did you discover them and what was it about them that inspired this novel? 

SK: “The novel began with a vague notion that I wanted to write a story about two sisters.  I didn’t know initially, who the sisters might be or when and where they lived.  Then, while visiting Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, I came upon the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimké on the Heritage Panels, which list women who’ve made important contributions to history.  I discovered they were sisters from Charleston, the same city in which I was living.  Embarrassingly enough, I’d never heard of them.  Perhaps the most radical females to come out of the antebellum south, they were the first female abolition agents in the country and among the earliest pioneers for women’s rights, and yet they seemed only marginally known.  As I began to read about Sarah’s and Angelina’s lives, I became certain they were the sisters I wanted to write about.”

YD: The book contains two narrators.  How did you approach writing an enslaved character and find voices for both Sarah and Hetty?  

SK: “From the moment I decided to write about the historical figure of Sarah Grimké, I was compelled to also create the story of an enslaved character that could be entwined with Sarah’s.  In fact, I felt that I couldn’t write the novel otherwise, that both worlds would have to be represented.  Then, I discovered that at the age of eleven, Sarah was given a ten-year-old slave named Hetty to be her handmaid.  According to Sarah, they became close, and she defied the laws of South Carolina by teaching Hetty to read, for which they were both punished.  Nothing further is known of Hetty except that she died of an unspecified disease a short while later.  I knew immediately that this was the other half of the story.  I wanted to try to bring Hetty to life again and imagine what might have been.” 

“The voice of Sarah turned out to be one of my biggest challenges. I rewrote her chapters in the early part of the book over and over before I felt like I found her voice. I’d read the real life Grimké sisters’ diaries and essays, and they gave me an extraordinary glimpse into their lives, but their writing was rendered in nineteenth century language, wrapped in rhetoric, piety and stilted phrases.  I knew I had to bring some modern sensibility to it.  So, I decided that my task was to tap into her inner life and set her free to speak from that timeless place, as well as from the time in which she lived.

“By comparison, Hetty’s voice came with considerable more ease.  I was certain only that I didn’t want it to be weighed heavily with dialect, and that it must have traces of humor.  I read a great many first person slave narratives from the nineteenth century and they gave me a lot of valuable insights.  And I think Handful’s voice must surely carry traces of the African-American women from my own childhood whose voices go on resonating in me.  But in the end, what I most wanted was for Handful’s voice to be all her own — the voice of a slave who has learned to read and write, one marked with her particular idiosyncrasies and formed from the workings of her character.”

YD: In both The Invention of Wings and Bees you address issues of and explore racial relations.  What inspires this interest?

SK: “During my childhood in the South in the fifties and sixties, I witnessed terrible racial injustices and divides.  I grew up amid the backdrop of separate water fountains, black maids riding in the back seats of white ladies’ cars, Rosa Parks, and Civil Rights marches.  One of my earliest memories is seeing the Ku Klux Klan on the street in my small hometown in Georgia and the absolute terror I felt.  I was thirteen when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in the town where I was born, twenty miles from where I then lived.  I graduated from the first integrated class at my high school, and I can still see the barrage of balled up notebook paper that was thrown at black students as they walked to class, a scene that ended up in the pages of The Secret Life of Bees.  This is the stuff of my childhood and adolescence; it’s the stuff of my history.

“I imagine there’s always some mystery involved in why novelists gravitate to certain subjects, but I believe I’ve been drawn to write about racial themes because they are part of me, and also because they matter deeply to me.  I can’t help but feel a social responsibility about it as a writer.  Racism is the great wound and sin of the South and indeed, the great wound and original sin of America.  Two hundred and forty-six years of slavery was an American holocaust, and its legacy is racism.  I don’t think we’ve fully healed the wound or eradicated the sin.  For all the great strides we’ve made, that legacy still lingers.” 

YD: What do you feel writers conference like SIWC do for aspiring writers and established writers as yourself?

SK: “For me, it’s always a real gift to be able to interact with other writers.  I love the community of writers and I really don’t often do these events, but these conferences can be very informative and inspiring.  What I’ve discovered is that the hardest part of writing really is courage.  So, we have to find some piece in ourselves that motivates, helps us believe in what we’re doing.  And I have found that the interaction at writer’s conferences can ignite that courage and make a real difference about putting our voice out in the world.”

ROBERT WILDER

Robert Wilder

Robert Wilder

Young adult fiction writer, Robert Wilder knows a thing or two about impact, and his latest novel Nickel is a “classic coming-of-age narrative with a ferocious storytelling voice.”

Being a teenager is hard enough without your mother in rehab and your slightly inept stepfather doing his best not to screw things up.  But at least, Coy has Monroe.  Coy is a quirky teenage boy and his best friend Monroe is a girl who is just as odd and funny and obsessed with 80’s culture as he is.  So when Monroe comes down with a mysterious illness, his inner turmoil only grows.  As Monroe gets sicker and Coy gets a girlfriend from another social crowd, the balance tips and Coy has to figure out how not to give up on his friend, his family, or himself. 

Nickel is a hilarious, heartbreaking and honest portrayal of the complicated world of being a teenager today.  It is a story about loss, love and loyalty “based on over twenty years teaching teenagers as well as having two of my own,” Wilder says. 

YD: Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?

RW: “I grew up in two places: Point Lookout on the east end of Long Island and Westport, Connecticut.  When we lived in Point Lookout (population: 1500), my brothers and I had to endure an eternal bus ride to and from Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hempstead.  I was a quiet kid (and terrified of nuns), so I had ample time to stare out the window and daydream during that 90-minute drive.  Like many writers, I suppose, I still like to stare out windows and daydream.”

YD: What’s the story behind your latest book, NICKEL

RW: “Nickel is based on over twenty years teaching teenagers, as well as having two of my own.  One of the most rewarding moments as a teacher is when you read the work of a quiet or quirky kid and you see that he or she has this wild (and often quite funny) interior life.  I’ve also witnessed how much my students have had to deal with— divorce, death, illness, violence, loneliness, neglect, and I marveled at how they coped.  When I started writing Nickel, I heard Coy’s voice as an amalgamation of so many of intriguing kids I’ve known over the decades.  I just followed that voice as honestly as I could.”

YD: What do you admire most about today’s teenagers?

RW: “So much.  I love: 1) the way my daughter Poppy can send me a song by some obscure band that is exactly what I need to hear at the time, 2) the deep-rooted empathy of my son London, 3) the incredible creativity and possibility of a young artist, 4) the way a sharp kid can spot a liar a mile away, 5) the ability of a student to discover something new in a text I’ve read over 20 times, 6) teenage fortitude to withstand formidable challenges without complaining, 8) how hard a LD kid can work just to learn or do as well as their peers, 7) the unbridled passion, joy, honesty, sadness, and silliness.”

YD: What is the greatest joy of writing for you? 

RW: “I think most writers will say that joy comes from process rather than the product.  Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply proud of Nickel, and I love what Leaf Storm has done with the book.  I’m very excited to hear what readers think though.  However, when I am at my dining room table in the early morning hours, lost in a world I’ve created, trying to get things as right as possible, and the sun is streaking yellow and red across the sky, I am in heaven. I fight hard for that time; I feel lucky to be alive.”

YD: What are you looking forward to most from the Sanibel Island Writers Conference?

RW: “The Sanibel Island Writers Conference offers writers of all types a chance to exchange ideas and issues of craft and technique.  I’ve been to the conference twice before, and I love it!  I don’t know if there’s another writing conference that is so relaxed and in such a beautiful setting.  Besides catching up with old friends, I’m excited to meet new faculty members and participants.  I’m also looking forward to waking up and hitting the beach (since I live in the desert), and seeing so many people ensconced in the “Sanibel Stoop.”  The first time I saw all those bending bodies, I thought everyone on the island had scoliosis.  But I’m truly looking forward to reading Nickel.  In the past, I’ve only shared comedic nonfiction, so I’m excited to hear what people have to say about my fiction.” 

NATHAN HILL

Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill understands fiction is a stylistic and resonating fashion for a debut writer.  In his recently released novel, The Nix, Hill flexes his storytelling muscles in a masterful mother-son psychodrama and tragicomedy.

From the suburban Midwest to New York City to the 1968 riots that rocked Chicago and beyond, The Nix explores— with sharp humor and a fierce tenderness— the resilience of love and home, even in times of radical change.

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson— college professor, stalled writer— has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye.  He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy.  Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country.  The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart.  Which version of his mother is true?  Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help. 

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix.  As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

YD: At the heart of The Nix are a mother and son who have not seen each other in decades reunited by some very strange twists of fate.  What made you want to explore this particular relationship?

NH: “I didn’t set out to write a story about an estranged mother— it’s more like that was the result of many small choices made over a period of years.  I started with a basic premise that had a nice symmetry to it: a mother who attends the ’68 DNC protest, and her son who attends the ’04 RNC protest.  That’s all I really had at the beginning.  Then I started asking questions: Why did they both attend their respective protests? What happened to them there?  And so on.  The writing I did during this time could probably best be described as exploratory.  Almost none of it survived into the novel, but I don’t think I could have come up with the plot any other way.”

YD: Faye is an amazing character— deeply unsympathetic at first meeting and then full of surprises and complexities.  Was she hard to write?

NH: “She was actually really fun to write— it’s always a pleasure when you find a character who so obviously contains multitudes.  Faye’s basic problem is that she’s haunted by choices she made in her past.  She essentially lives two lives: her real life, and the fantasy life in her mind. This is an extreme case of something that I think is actually pretty common: that just about everyone has two lives going on roughly simultaneously.  We have the life that’s actually happening to us each day, but then next to that we have all these other versions of our lives that exist in our imaginations.  Each time our life forks there’s the ghost of the choice not taken.  Some people—the most sane and well-adjusted among us— are more or less satisfied with their choices and these questions don’t linger very heavily upon them.  Others, though, feel the weight of these unlived lives pressingly and urgently.  Faye is one of these people, who’s haunted by fantasies of what could have been.”

YD: The Nix moves back and forth in time and different historical events.  What sort of research went into this novel?

NH: “Between 2006 and 2010, I read a lot of books about 1968 and the protests of the DNC, and talked to people who were there.  I spent many long days at the Chicago History Museum, going through their archives of photographs and broadsides and pamphlets and newspapers. (This process is made inordinately more difficult and time-consuming by the white cotton gloves they make you wear to touch this stuff, gloves that are allegedly one-size-fits-all but are really so tiny that your hands feel like little frictionless claws.)” 

“Anyway, yes, I spent a long time researching this period before I felt comfortable writing about it.  Musicians have a phrase that I like, one they use to describe practicing a piece: “Getting it under my fingers.”  It means that they’re practicing it so that the notes are almost in the body, so that they can play the part without thinking about the part too much.  That’s sort of what I was doing.  I wanted to do research until the research was under my fingers.  When I felt like I could render a scene with authority without having to consult all manner of outside texts, that’s when I started really writing.”

YD: When Samuel reflects on his youthful ambitions to write the great American novel he says “You believe that becoming a writer is the life-equivalent of wearing the most creative and interesting Halloween costume at the party.”  What do you think of that assessment, after publishing your first novel?

NH: “I think he’s pretty misguided.  Samuel’s primary motivation for becoming a writer is that he thinks it will impress certain important people, that it will legitimate him socially.  He sees writing as a tool that will help him get what he wants.  The problem of course is that this is a formula for generating some pretty bad writing.  I learned this earlier in my career.  After I had finished grad school and began thinking of myself as a quote-unquote “writer” for the first time, I wrote for all sorts of terrible reasons: because I felt in competition with the other writers I went to school with, or because I needed to fatten up my CV to get access to jobs and grants, or because if I published in a certain tier of journal then maybe agents and editors would begin paying attention to me.  I did a lot of writing, and a lot of it was okay, but it lacked a fundamental warmth and truth, I think.  It lacked heart and intimacy.  Paradoxically, trying to impress people with my writing guaranteed that my writing was pretty unimpressive.  When I began writing The Nix in earnest, I decided to drop out of the whole competitive querying-and-publishing thing.  I just wrote, and I didn’t tell anyone about it.  For years, nobody had any idea what I was doing.  Sometimes you just have to block those voices out; it’s the only way you’ll do anything that’s idiosyncratically you.”

YD: Any insight on what conferences like this do for writers?

NH: “Writing tends to be a pretty solitary activity, so conferences like the SIWC are a great opportunity to meet other people who also practice this crazy, lonely craft.  Plus, it’s just always nice to hang out with book people…imagine a whole beach full of them!” 

– The 11th Annual Sanibel Island Writers Conference will take place on November 3 – 6 at BIG Arts and the Sanibel Island Public Library.  For a full schedule of events or to register for the conference, visit www.fgcu.edu/siwc.