The featured speakers were Michael David Lukas, author of The Oracle of Stamboul, and Cara Black, author of the Aimée Leduc mystery series, set in Paris. Along with giving workshops, Lukas and Black both delivered informative, inspiring talks for the whole group. I’d guess there were about fifty people total attending, which was a perfect number for us to get lots of individual attention in the workshops and to have a chance to speak one-on-one with the featured writers.
If you haven’t read Lukas’s Oracle of Stamboul, do. It’s his first novel, and it’s beautiful. There are lots of reviews out there already, so I’ll just say that I read it in two days — sorry for the cliché, but I couldn’t put it down. Since I love Latin American literature, I’ve read my share of magical realism, but his novel, set in Istanbul, is a unique blend of history, strong characterization, and enchantment. Beautiful birds play their part, too, as a flock of hoopoes weaves it way through the plot. During the conference’s opening picnic dinner, Lukas and I got to talking about those exotic birds and discovered one of life’s little convergences (warning! Hoopoe-inspired sidebar approaching). Nearly ten years earlier, I saw hoopoes on the campus of Cairo University, causing my host a bit of embarrassment when I freaked out with pleasure over how pretty they are; Lukas, an adventurous traveler, had studied for a semester at the American University of Cairo, which I’d also visited (no hoopoes there, alas). In fact, Lukas’s next book is about the Jewish communities of Cairo — keep an eye out for it!
When he wasn’t talking birds, Lukas was offering sound advice about having faith in your capacity to improve your work with serious revision. This isn’t revolutionary news, but it’s always interesting to hear to specific pathways an author has taken to his or her success. Lukas completely redrafted his novel seven times. It’s not unusual to go through lots of revision, of course. But having the courage to completely let go of an entire draft — to start over again on page one, to let your previous attempt become nothing more than an echo that resonates within your new vision — that, I think, is what separates a great writer from a good one. How many of us have the nerve to really revise? Too often we’re committed to the early stages of our work and just can’t manage to cast off — we shuffle our old paragraphs, cut a bit here or there, tweak some sentences, and call it good. I hope I have the courage to take Lukas’s advice to heart for my next book.
Conference attendees also got to hear Cara Black speak about what lead her to write her popular series. Murder in the Marais, her first Aimée Leduc mystery, was inspired by a true story about German-occupied Paris that had haunted Black for years. More than a decade later, she’s now poised to publish Aimée’s twelfth adventure. Black shared nuts and bolts information about her publisher and also stressed the importance of research. Her series is fabulous — smart, intriguing, and very tightly written. When she gave her workshop, she emphasized how important it is to compress your images and your detail, to offer a distillation of what you’ve learned in researching your work, rather than subjecting your readers to an information dump. A half-day interview with a subject in Paris, she told us, boiled down into a single line in one of her novels — but it was a single line that worked, that captured a vital essence, that needed to be there. I didn’t get to discuss hoopoes with her, but she was very friendly, articulate, and approachable; we chatted over dinner about Latin America, her travels outside of Paris, and the benefits of a good web presence.
A number of organizers worked together to make the conference happen, but as I understand it, best-selling author Antoinette May (The Sacred Well; Pilate’s Wife) was largely responsible for assuring the wonderful range of workshops offered by a variety of authors. We had the opportunity to attend sessions on setting, on characterization, on developing a pitch to agents or magazines — even on “The Joy of Writing Sex,” by May herself. Historical novelist Gillian Bagwell gave a hugely useful workshop on reading your work aloud. Her years of theater experience made her the perfect person to help writers (who may be confident on the page but not-so-much on the stage) prepare for public readings of their work. It was no surprise that a woman who’d write about a king’s mistress in a work called The Darling Strumpet would turn out to be warm, very encouraging to less experienced writers, and a bit naughty (she wrote a hilarious inscription in a copy of her Strumpet that I plan to give a friend).
When I’d found a private minute to speak with another of the writers (who shall remain anonymous here), I’d asked about writing groups, since so many of the speakers emphasized the importance of sharing work within an writing community. “It’s very important,” the author acknowledged, then added in a lowered voice: “But be careful. Take yourself seriously and work with people who are at or near your own level.” You can waste a lot of time, the writer cautioned, if you fall in with people who aren’t really serious about writing, people more interested in socializing than in honing their craft and understanding the publishing world. I really appreciated the honesty.
Along with the practical, inspiring talks, what the conference also had going for it was location, location, location. Mokelumne Hill, CA, is a town of 646 people in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada — it’s quaint and folksy, surrounded by (and perched itself upon) rolling, vibrantly green hills. The talks took place either in the charming little public library or in the Hotel Leger, an attractive, rambling 19th-century structure that is, for good measure, haunted.
2013 will be the 8th annual Gold Rush Writer’s Conference — come if you can! But maybe you don’t live close enough to the foothills of California. Maybe you won’t be able to stop by Antoinette May’s gracious house or head to the cozy little library for open mic night. But wherever you live, there’s bound to be some kind of writers conference reasonably nearby. My advice: start looking.
I’ll bet I can tell you already what kind of messages you’ll get there: Have faith in your work. Take yourself seriously. Keep trying. Make time for your writing. Yes, you already know these things. But writing conferences aren’t just about the information — they’re about the experience. They’re about discussing birds with an author whose work you find ravishing — experimenting with writing exercises in a group of people energized to be together — sitting back over a good dinner and hearing what websites are useful to consult, what blog spots to visit, why setting up a twitter account matters — about feeling so encouraged by helpful writers that you can’t wait to get your laptop open again so you can dive back into your work (or start something new). Conferences aren’t just about information — they’re about inspiration. Go get some.