Monday, June 06, 2011
First Annual Writers’ Conference. Hunter College.
By Doug Holder
As you would expect whenever I am in New York City I do a lot of walking. As it happens I was invited to be on a small press panel at the First Annual Writer’s Conference at Hunter College in NYC, founded by Lewis Burke Frumkes. It was a picture perfect day in June, so I walked from my brother’s apartment on 20th Street in the Chelsea section of the city, to 68th and Lexington—the home of Hunter College. I stopped at my favorite diner on the way—the “Malibu Diner’—an unlikely name for an eatery in the middle of a gritty thoroughfare. I ordered my lox and bagel and listened to the well-honed staccato chatter of a counterman from central casting with a regular:
“What’s it gonnna be sonny-boy?”
“ Sunnyside up- don’t make ‘em weep.”
“ Gotcha. What’s your pick tonight?”
“ Not a china man’s chance.”
But I digress. Since my own panel was not until 2PM, I had a veritable literary buffet of speakers and panels to sample from. On the Memoir Panel listing I noticed Malachy McCourt author of: “Singing Him My Song” and other authors were participating. We had McCourt at the Somerville News Writers Festival last year—so I wanted to drop by. Also on the panel were Sidney Offit—curator emeritus of the George Polk Journalism Awards, Patricia Volk author of the memoir “ Stuffed,” Sir Gilbert Levine “The Pope’s Maestro,” and Lucette Lagnado, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.”
As always I found McCourt to be a genuine and inspirational speaker. McCourt offered his advice to memoir writers in the audience. He feels the memoirist should write about what he or she is truly “ashamed of.” All of the panelists agreed on the importance of documentation—the inclusion of dialogue to make a more compelling memoir. McCourt, a fine dramatist in his own right, emphasized that the memoir provides freedom to dramatize; it is all about impressions; it does not have to be strictly factually accurate.
Lunch was held in the faculty dining room that had a panoramic view of the city. The speaker was Nelson DeMille, a popular mystery-action writer, who penned such novels as “The Charm School,” “The Gold Coast,” and many others. In his conversation with the audience he recounted his years as a major player on the literary landscape.
He was asked by an audience member if he ever was involved with screenwriting in Hollywood. He said, “Writers get more respect in New York. Hollywood eats you up. In Hollywood you are simply a writer for hire. You have very little control of your work." When he worked with Dino de Laurentis on a script, he found that after 6 months and all the various interventions by other writers, etc… he didn’t know what he was writing about. He recalled: "When I got back to New York I felt dirty. I felt I needed to take a bath.”
DeMille reads a lot of non-fiction to research his books, but he rarely reads other novels—especially when he is working. “He said, “Reading novels can skew you—really mess up your own work.” The author feels it is best to control his own voice and style when he is writing.
The small press panel was well-attended and presided over by the well-known, New York writer and co-author of “What May Have Been” (Cervena Barva Press) Susan Tepper. On the panel were yours truly, Steve Glines of the ISCS Press and Wilderness House Press, Jim Schuette of the Marion St. Press, and Roa Lynn, author of "Farewell Rio.” We all discussed the opportunities small presses and little magazines offer the author outside of the mainstream publishing industry. There were also frank discussions of self-publishing, and a review some the new publishing technologies.
Finally Susan Tepper and I went to the “Birth of a Book Panel” that was presided over by Jerry Gross, the author of “Editors on Editing.” Also on the panel were Stephanie Abou agent, Foundry Literary & Media, Hilma Wolitzer author of “Summer Reading”, Pamela Dorman, editor of Pamela Dorman Books, and Doug Jones, Senior V.P. of Sales at Harper Collins.
Jerry Gross, the consummate book doctor talked about how editing is more than marking up the page but involves what “could” be on the page. He emphasized the creativity of a good editor.
Abou, the agent, talked about the importance of the query letter—it should be short and sweet and to the point. And make sure you proof it as well as you would your beloved manuscript. A poorly written query letter will stop an agent in his or her tracks.
Jones, the Sales V.P. at Harper Collins talked about the importance of indie bookstores to create a buzz. The book sales they create are secondary—but if the independent likes the book, and gets excited about it—then sales in general will often gain momentum.
Hilma Wolitzer had an interesting anecdote about her start as a writer many years ago. It seems she gave a short story to a friend of hers who slipped into her jacket pocket. The friend was wearing that same jacket at a cocktail party where she was chatting with the agent of John Steinbeck. She handed the agent Wolitzer’s short story—the agent read it-loved it— and eventually she got her first book published.
After the event I had dinner at an Italian joint in the ‘hood with family and friends. Later I saw the sun set amidst a canyon of skyscrapers; I saw a fat guy with a fat cigar argue with a skinny cabdriver sporting a flowing beard and a turban and the wind lifted a beautiful woman’s skirt!—ah yes—New York!