Image: Chip Cooper
It’s a long journey from the sad courtyards of St. Petersburg, Russia, to a book deal
with Simon & Schuster. But participating in the Southampton Writers Conference a decade ago is part of what made that journey possible for Elena Gorokhova, author of the memoir, Russian Tattoo.
“It began in 2004,” she recalled. “I took a memoir workshop with Frank McCourt.
Alan Alda and Anne Bancroft were auditing it. What an unusual class that was! Frank was brilliant of course, a great storyteller. But more importantly, he validated me as a writer and gave me the confidence to submit little stories about growing up in Russia to literary magazines.”
More classes at other conferences followed, with McCourt, Matt Klam and Roger Rosenblatt; and Gorokhova’s work increasingly found homes in a number of magazines. The result? A Mountain of Crumbs, published in 2009 by Simon & Schuster. “Southampton was the place that launched me as a writer,” she said.
This is the kind of story that demonstrates why the Southampton Writers Conference is unique in the world of American letters. Every year there are a number of literary conferences held around the country and, like Southampton, the top ones possess a decidedly celebrity feel to them. But the Southampton Writers Conference’s reputation is big. It’s built on the cachet of the Hamptons, but it’s still the chance to spend what organizers call “the cheapest 12 days you can have in the Hamptons.”
“It’s summer—people spend mornings at the beach, workshop with some amazing people and meet agents and editors,” said Julie Sheehan, conference director. “They go for a stroll after dinner, come back to the salon for a glass of wine in the golden light and go to a fantastic reading. People come here from all over the country and make lifelong friends.”
Then there’s the reputation the conference has built for bringing workshop participants face-to-face with the special kind of luminaries who have called the
Hamptons home over the decades. How luminary? Try Alan Alda, Jules Feiffer and Gary Trudeau. Frank McCourt and Anne Bancroft, Joe Pintauro, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow. Try Joyce Carol Oates and Lanford Wilson.
While their names may not be known quite so far and wide as some of the marquee presenters, the core group of faculty at the conference—like Matthew Klam, Roger Rosenblatt, Meg Wolitzer and poet Billy Collins (former US poet laureate)— have been instrumental in building a loyal family for the affair.
“The conference is a great week of readings and work- shops,” said Justin Kramon, who won a fellowship to attend and has since published two novels. “It’s the combination of being in a place as beautiful as the Hamptons, plus working with the people I wanted to. The nicest aspect for me was the chance to develop a personal relationship with writers on the faculty like Melissa Bank and Matt Klam. I don’t think you can get better than that.”
“There’s something for everyone,” added Barbara Branca, communications manager at New York Sea Grant and a Long Island poet. “The lecturers are all approachable, even if you’re not in their class. I really enjoyed Ursula Hegi, who will teach a novel class this year. Her craft lecture last summer was powerful and inspiring—as was that of National Book Award winner Julia Glass, who was funny and generous about her own very personal process.”
In addition to Hegi, author of the best selling novel Stone from the River, this year’s faculty also includes poet Vijay Seshadri who won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for 2014 for a volume of work described by the committee as a compelling collection that examines the human consciousness “from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.”
Sheehan says there’s no shortage of talent coming this summer, and no telling what memories are likely to come out of this year’s 40th conference. Speaking of memories, stories about Frank McCourt’s tenure are legend. “His read- ings—he would just start telling a story, never get to the text,” said Sheehan. “He would have the audience weeping with laughter.” Another time McCourt stole the show by hiring a Hollywood director to help him film his introduc- tion of another author—with a white linen jacket over his shoulder and smoking a cigar while a film crew patted pancake makeup on his face. “In the film, Frank apologized, saying how sorry he was that he couldn’t be there in person for the introduction,” she recalled. “And then at the end of the film, he was there!”
Then there was the year Paul Muldoon— current poetry editor at the New Yorker—was giving a talk about how our parents speak to us in poetry, and how his mother sung to him in Gaelic.
Suddenly he threw back his head and, in a wonderfully spontaneous moment, began to sing a song about a witch. With every year producing its anecdotes and surprises, 2015 should be no exception.
Of course since it’s the conference’s 40th anniversary, organizers hope to put on something of a show this summer, said Sheehan. “We intend for it to be a big birthday party. We’ll do lobster dinners, the wine will flow. In fact, we’ll knock ourselves out to make it the commemorative event it should be.”
Still, despite their sterling reputation for drawing people from all over the country, don’t expect organizers to actually go out and buy a red carpet. “The conference is relaxed, that’s part of what makes it glamorous,” said Sheehan. “With the kind of faculty we bring in, all we have to do is make sure we ‘do no harm.’ When it comes to laughter and having fun, Southampton wins hands down.”