Friday, August 12, 2011

Peer to peer

Authors, readers and writers convene

Express Staff Writer

Courtesy photo Reva Tooley leaned on pals from her journalism days and her love of reading to facilitate a small group of readers and writers back in 1993 that is today’s Sun Valley Writers’ Conference.

Nearly everyone who enjoys reading has their own literary hero, someone who inspired them sometime in their lives. They might see interviews on television, or catch a lecture at a university, but very few get to meet them. Fewer still can spend a weekend beside them, swapping stories, sharing ideas and getting the inside scoop on how they wrote what they did, and why.

Two women chatting about books over coffee at Java recently give no sense of airs even though most of the lofty, award-winning authors they are speaking about are close personal friends. The pair has commiserated like this for nearly 16 years now, hashing out the details for an annual reunion, an experience, say guests, that feels like a homecoming.

And that's exactly the vibe that's wanted by Writers' Conference Board Chair Reva Tooley and Executive Director Robin Eidsmo, backed by a passionate network of writers and readers across the nation. No matter how grand the celebrity invitee or why a ticket-holder has come to see them, The Sun Valley Writers' Conference is a level playing field like no other related to the publishing world.

From Friday, Aug. 19, to Monday, Aug. 22, about 850 people will collect each day at Sun Valley Lodge to listen to lectures, attend intimate discussion groups, exchange thoughts and lunch with the likes of David Brooks, whose book "The Social Animal" attempts to decipher who is successful and why. Kathryn Stockett, whose best-selling novel "The Help," will talk about how it feels to see her book become a major motion picture. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, will share the genesis of his book on cancer called "The Emperor of All Maladies," which began with one frightened patient's query about a diagnosis.

On a lighter note, Mark Salzman, stay-at-home writer and dad, will relate to parents and their struggle to make the best of that job in "Battle Hymn of the Bunny Dad," his counterpoint to the controversial Amy Chua's parenting manifesto of her experience as a "tiger mother."

Tooley and Eidsmo appear unflustered with only a few weeks to go before the conference. That's largely because planning began soon after they processed comments received from participants immediately following the previous year's event.

"One of my favorite notes came from (novelist) E.L. Doctorow," Tooley said. "He said 'It's the best summer camp for writers I've ever been to.'"

"They," Eidsmo said of the audiences and the author, "definitely become bonded by the experience. There's a certain alchemy that occurs with this conference that we are told doesn't happen anywhere else."

Of course there's a ton of reading that goes along with the job, but Tooley, a longtime journalist and editor, is determined to see worthy writers succeed, even if they aren't on anyone's best seller list—yet.

There is a firm criterion, Tooley said: "Intelligent, articulate, prime writer who is a really nice person. If someone has an attitude, we can move on because the audience is so nice."

Publicity has never been a part of things, not to make the event seem out of reach—like the mysterious gathering that is the annual Allen & Co. conference—but to promote an unfettered dialogue without the distractions of selling oneself.

"We keep it a manageable size so we can protect the conversations between the audience and the authors," Tooley said. "The business of writing is not what we are here to talk about."

Still, many an author has been launched since the conference started from its humble beginnings in child-sized chairs in a classroom at the Community School to the intellectual confab of the season.

"A point of pride is that this conference sustains itself," Tooley said. "Even though it wasn't designed as a permanent fixture, it's now a part of the Sun Valley fabric. It's organized to last into the future."

Eidsmo offers her son as a perfect example of the loyalty the conference engenders. He started out watering plants for the conference for 25 cents an hour and now is one of the 90 or so local volunteers that clamor for any job every year.

That writing is a powerful instrument for changing one's destiny is most aptly demonstrated by the Fulfillment Fund, a scholarship program given to a handful of young men and women "with challenged backgrounds, but who show real potential," Eidsmo said. Tooley meets with them all and debriefs them on the expectations for their preparation to participate in the conference. That includes reading the authors (which all ticket holders are encouraged to do). They mingle with young, strong starting published writers as well as the established authors. The exchange is priceless.

"They get to meet their heroes," Eidsmo said. "And, the [established] authors are often humbled and inspired by the young ones."

"Ours is about ideas," Tooley said. "We bring together some of the most influential people around and put them together here and allow them to engage. The trick is to get an unexpected rhythm of ideas."

For information on ticket availability, visit

Jennifer Liebrum:

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