The Martha’s Vineyard Times–sponsored conference Islanders Write returned to Featherstone Center for the Arts last weekend, after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus.
Attendees of five panel discussions held on Sunday heard the expertise, advice, and candor of writers, creatives, and publishing executives, who offered a way forward in an industry that can be daunting and isolating. Below are a few highlights from each of the panel discussions.
The World of Writing for Kids
Children’s book authors Richard Michelson and Marc Brown discussed navigating the process from writing to publishing.
When Brown got started, he hadn’t planned on becoming a children’s book author and illustrator. After telling his son a bedtime story about an aardvark named Arthur, he wrote down and illustrated the story, brought it to an editor at Little, Brown in Boston, and found himself a new career.
Michelson pointed out that this kind of publishing looks different today. “You can’t just walk the streets of New York … knock on a door, and go to an editor anymore. It’s a long and involved process,” he said.
Michelson, who does not illustrate his own books, emphasized the power of collective creativity. “When a picture book really works, it is two totally different visions coming together to create a greater whole,” he said.
Sequels, Prequels, and Demanding Audiences
Sometimes readers cannot get enough of a book. They vocalize their feelings on social media, at live events, or in writing. In 2020, a TikTok video featured E. Lockhart’s 2014 novel “We Were Liars,” bumping it to bestseller lists, where it has since stayed. “I never had readers like this before, which is why I wrote a prequel,” Lockhart said.
Bestselling author Gregory Mone writes sequels to meet the demands of his young audience who have latched onto his writing.
Nicole Galland, who collaborated on a novel with bestselling phenom Neal Stephenson but wrote the sequel to the book without Stephenson as a co-writer, noted the writing process and intricacies of marketing of the sequel.
Moderator Jennifer Smith Turner found enough support and sales online for her debut novel, which was published during the pandemic, to write a sequel; she said she is thrilled to be doing live events with her readers: “You feel the reactions. You get the energy back.”
The Pitch Panel
Editor Gretchen Young, agent Rosemary Stimola, novelist John Hough, Jr., and publishing executive Torrey Oberfest critiqued five writers who gave three-minute pitches for their books.
On the fiction side, advice focused on encouraging the writers to get to know their characters, and bring readers in through building the tone, voice, and tensions in the characters’ lives.
Young said, “We need to know the characters in the pitch, the house they live in, where they work, their families. These details will make us care. And their issues have to be organic.” Stimola worded it, “Put the characters in the front seat.” She added that editors need to see full stories to get to know the characters.
Hough gave another tip about characterization. He said, “It’s essential for characters to be playing against something to express who the character is.”
How to Write About Grief
Writing about grief requires a taxing form of honesty, recollection, and perhaps most painfully, the articulation of a broken heart, according to Nancy Slonim Aronie, Merissa Nathan Gerson, and Elizabeth Benedict.
Gerson said, “Grief transforms people. We pretend it’s not real. We work extremely well with denial. To write it, we come to witness it, and we can let it go.”
Aronie said that the trauma of grief can stay within the body. For her, writing became a way to take it out and put it on the page.
“You have a higher responsibility when you write,” panel moderator Elizabeth Benedict said. “If you want people to read what you write, you have to offer them something original.”
Aronie added, “You need moments of lightness to get through, need to weave humor through misery, or it is too intense.”
Writing Behind the Scenes
“We are lucky that there are accomplished people who can’t write,” James Dale said during the last panel of the day. Dale, Fran Schumer, and Laura Holmes Haddad explained what it is that ghost writers and co-writers do. While Dale insists on having his name on the book jacket, Schumer has co-written books where her name doesn’t appear anywhere.
Schumer, who began her career as a journalist, said, “I love hearing confessions and asking people about themselves.”
Haddad worked in LA and wrote cookbooks for celebrity chefs, and said that it is important to like the subject of the book. “It is like a relationship,” she said. “You are looking at a relationship of two to three years.”
Writing the Nontraditional Memoir: Where to Put the Me In Memoir
What is the purpose of a memoir? Does it allow the writer to explore their past and their own personal accounts of history? Maybe they’re more a method of illustrating emotions, thoughts, and feelings about the world. For presenters Philip Weinstein, Frank Bergon, and Joshunda Sanders, each has their own unique reason for writing memoirs. For Weinstein, part of writing a memoir is a sort of unburdening, where the writer scrapes at some hidden truth with a pen in hopes of putting that truth into words on the page. At the same time, Weinstein said, writing a memoir with the end goal of publication seems rather pointless if no one is going to read it. “You betray yourself if you only ask yourself, ‘What do they want to read,’” Weinstein said. “You have to somehow thread that needle, and I think that’s what kept me going — the conviction that if this really mattered to you, it could potentially matter to a reader.”
Sanders said she grew up in a time when several confessional memoirs were emerging, and the kind of hard-knock rags-to-riches story of an African American woman growing up in the inner city was becoming common in the world of literature. When Sanders’ parents died, she was the sole writer in her family, and she felt a responsibility to share their story, along with her own: “I felt really indebted to the memory of both my parents, as well as that part of my life which had also sort of ended with their deaths. I wanted to codify our story.”
All About Auto-Fiction: What Is It, and What Are the Rules?
For presenters Hanna Halperin, Peter Kramer, Susan Wilson, and Mathea Morais, auto-fiction allows them to find a deeper truth about themselves by shaking off the constraints of traditional autobiographies and offering a little more wiggle room for creative expression. Through adding a few fictive details and some omissions here and there, or through injecting details from the author’s life into a story spun with care, Kramer said, auto-fiction takes on many forms. According to Kramer, you need a certain amount of fictional art to convey a more authentic truth, but the purpose of the integrated fiction element is what matters. “I think the strength of auto-fiction is it really raises this question of good faith. Are you changing things because you want to lie and make yourself look good? Or are you changing things because you really want to convey the emotional truth of the moment?” Kramer said.
Morais said auto-fiction is a space for a writer to actually rewrite themselves through literary character. Through drawing on emotions and experiences, she said, authors can create stories that reflect deep elements of their lives, while forming convincing and compelling characters. “It’s the emotions that we feel that are true. That is what we pull from when we write — our own reactions and responses to the world.”
A Conversation about Food Writing: The Plot Thickens
For food writers Dawn Davis, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, and Tina Miller, writing about food means writing about their lifelong passion. It’s something they use to express themselves in much the same way as putting pen to paper. According to Harris, food plays a major cultural and societal role everywhere in the world, and in America, that influence can be represented by a braid. “The foundational food of the United States is a braid. Native American food, European American foods, specifically in order of arrival — the Spanish, the British, the Dutch, to whom we owe cookies, waffles, and God help us all, coleslaw, and the French,” Harris said. “Of course, the final braid is African American.” For all three women, the cuisine of Martha’s Vineyard has played a significant role in their writing and in their lives. Harris said she has been summering on the Island ever since she was 9 years old, when she would find mussels along the beach, and eventually encountered her first salad bar at Munro’s Boston House on Circuit Avenue. Nowadays, Harris is a “farmers market junkie,” and recalls the charm of tiny farmstands, local fishermen, and artisan fudge shops in her 2007 book “Martha’s Vineyard Table.”
Politics and Race: Truth and Revisionism — How Do You Write about It?
In a world where important issues surrounding politics and race are aired online, and much of the dialogue happens in a digital space, writing books is a way to ground society in truth and fact. For presenters Callie Crossley and Patricia Williams, there is still immense value in the printed word when it comes to politics and race. “A print version of the New York Times is different from the online version of the New York Times,” Williams said. “The online version learns from what I’ve read before, but the print version gives you a broader perspective.” Williams stated that censorship of certain views and persecution of some because of their views has created an era “that would make McCarthy proud,” where political and ideological factions are turned against each other. But, for Williams, writing using the knowledge of the past and a factual basis of the present can form a more valuable discussion that steers away from emotional influence. Crossley said it becomes more difficult to combat falsehoods and propaganda with writing when the perspectives of some are so deeply ingrained in who they are, and so deeply divorced from reality. “I don’t know how to constantly fend against these ideals, and try to write using facts and empirical research when, in the back of all the heads that are driving these campaigns, the country looks very different,” Crossley said.
Historical Fiction: Exploring Today Through Writing about Yesterday
Writing about history through a fictional lens allows authors to explore the multiple paths of truth that exist in the past, while also weaving their own story into the mix and conveying personal observations about major historical events and figures. For presenters Geraldine Brooks, Nicole Galland, Elisa Speranza, Katherine Sherbrooke, and Misan Sagay, historical fiction allows for a deep understanding of social norms, manners, customs, and traditions via a fabricated storyline. According to Brooks, the research aspect of historical fiction comes when she starts to write and finds something she doesn’t know. “I just get enough under my belt to start writing, then go find things out as they come up,” Brooks said. “You must let the story tell you what you need to know.”
Sherbrooke said as she was researching her book, she began to discover some disturbing truths about figures from the past, and she began to get concerned that she might be “throwing them under the bus.” But she eventually realized that holding two opposing truths in her mind while she writes makes her realize that incorporating multiple perspectives into historical fiction is what really illustrates the complexity of the past. “Yes, there are people who have done great things in history, and they have made some terrible mistakes, and it’s time to also tell that story,” Sherbrooke said.