A day of community, inspiration, and motivation took place at this year’s Islanders Write festival at Featherstone Center for the Arts. Founded in 2014 and sponsored by The Martha’s Vineyard Times and their M.V. Arts & Ideas magazine, the festival features authors, speakers, industry professionals, and workshop facilitators, all of whom have a personal connection to the Island, discussing the art, craft, and business of writing. Featuring some of the Island’s brightest literary stars, both those already risen and those rising, as well as working professionals in the publishing industry, Islanders Write is free to attend, and a wonderful resource for the Island’s writing community.
The festival kicked off with evening programming on Sunday night, and continued into a full day Monday, starting with a writing workshop at 8:15 am.
Event organizer Kate Feiffer opened the day Monday with a warm welcome to the strong turnout for the 9 am panel discussion.
“The Martha’s Vineyard Times and Martha’s Vineyard Arts & Ideas magazine are delighted to be here with you again for Islanders Write 2023,” Feiffer said.
Panel discussions took place from 9 am to 4:30 pm in the Francine Kelly Gallery on the Featherstone campus, with book sales from Edgartown Books and signings with authors. The Scottish Bakehouse provided food and drinks. The panels and workshops covered topics for fiction and nonfiction writers at varying stages of the book publishing process, from craft talks that spoke to development and the art of writing to a panel where agents and editors discussed do’s and don’ts of how to get a book on the right track to being noticed.
In the craft talk, “Character and Plot: Who Drives What,” authors Nicole Galland, Hanna Halperin, Peter Kramer, and Katherine Sherbrooke discussed what comes first, character or plot. According to the writers, it can be either, or both at the same time. Halperin, author of “Something Wild” and “I Could Live Here Forever,” said that both combine to become the thing that “tricks the reader to keep reading.”
“A lot of times when we’re writing, I don’t know how conscious we are that those are the things that we’re writing about, whether it’s character or plot,” said Halperin. In her book, it’s the characters’ wants that drive the plot, said Halperin.
A notable panel of the day was the “Pitch Panel,” where five preselected writers had the chance to pitch their book projects to publishing industry professionals for feedback and advice. The pitch panel, moderated by publishing professional Torrey Oberfest, included author John Hough, Jr., editor Gretchen Young, and literary agent Rosemary Stimola, who all gave feedback on the book concepts and pitches. Deb Dunn, Jess Shapiro, Norman Birnbach, Loren Ghiglione, and Linda Silva Thompson were the five writers selected to pitch their fiction and nonfiction books for the panel and in front of the large audience.
The universal advice on pitching was for writers to ask themselves, “Why does the world need this book now?” and “Why am I the person to write this book?” At the end of the session, panelist Gretchen Young tipped her hat to the writers. “I applaud all the pitchers, just terrific, smart,” she said, before encouraging all the writers and creatives in the room to keep writing.
“Thinking in Ink with Two New Yorker Cartoonists” provided an enlightening and humorous look into the minds of Paul Karasik and Mick Stevens, who walked the audience through a collection of their work. The presentation, which felt something like a witty and hilarious podcast, brought up plenty of laughs from the crowd. Karasik also broke down the anatomy of a cartoon, walking the audience through the very purposeful construction of a drawing within its box of lines.
Karasik, an Island resident, said the festival provided insight on just how many creatives there are that call this Island home: “Islanders Write is a wonderful opportunity, particularly for people who come here for a short period in the summer, to see what richness is in the community. I live here, and I’m a New Yorker cartoonist. I think people don’t realize that there’s a lot of creativity here. There’s a lot of hardworking artists throughout the year trying to make it happen.” Karasik has been an Island resident since 1989. He started selling his cartoons to the New Yorker in 1999, while residing on the Island. Karasik’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Washington Post.
The midday panelist discussion, “Editors and Agents on Publishing,” included editor, author, and Island resident Emma Brodie, literary agent Susan Golomb, literary agent Adriana Stimola, editor Gretchen Young, and moderator and author Jennifer Smith Turner. They discussed the current state of the publishing industry. Literary agent Susan Golomb of Writers House literary agency said that though times may be tough to sell in the industry, now is a good strategic time to be writing.
The panel discussed artificial intelligence in publishing, with Gretchen Young calling it “a major disruptor” for the industry. They discussed the dangers for authors of AI language models training on authors’ existing works, as there were never any legal protections in contracts against AI in the past. Literary agent and Island resident Adriana Stimola said she was “worried for authors,” and hoped authors would be contractually protected in the future. “Authors should know their voice isn’t going to appear in some book published by a computer,” said Stimola.
Patricia J. Williams moderated a panel discussion about writing across racial lines with NAACP Image awardwinning filmmaker Misan Sagay and best-selling novelist Richard North Patterson, whose most recent novel, “Trial,” is about a racially charged incident involving a young Black man and a white sheriff’s deputy.
Lively discussion developed, with all the panelists making important points regarding writing about race and getting books about race published these days. Some discussion surrounding whether or not white authors should or shouldn’t write about Black topics or characters took place.
“If we assume that white people can’t write about Black people, gay people can’t write about straight people … then we frighten anybody who wants to write,” Sagay said. “Maybe it’s a matter of overcorrection.” Patterson suggested what is needed are more Black publishers, lending itself to reform of the business. Sagay urged folks to give Black people some space; it’s been 300 years of Black voices not being heard and in the film industry, she said; they are just starting to be heard.
The next discussion featured author and activist Rose Styron and director, playwright, and screenwriter James Lapine, who have developed a friendship over the past several years. One result is a new documentary made by Lapine titled “In the Company of Rose.” Meanwhile, Styron has written a memoir, “Beyond This Harbor: Adventurous Tales of the Heart” — a first for the poet. They spoke about their experiences in an afternoon Islanders Write panel discussion. They asked each other questions this time around, with Lapine leading with, “When you started your book, how did you begin?”
“I always wrote poetry, I didn’t keep journals of any kind,” Styron said. “When COVID arrived, I took one of my husband’s old yellow pads and started to scribble. It was very different … scribbling from memory. I had never thought about the past because I’ve always gone forward.”
Styron turned the tables and asked Lapine about his book, “Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park with George,’”
“I love talking to people and interviewing people,” Lapine said. “I should’ve been Charlie Rose’s replacement, but they didn’t call me. My book is going back with a lot of interviews with people, and it turned out to be interesting, looking back, at what the memory does … what I remember and then talking to people and getting a completely different perspective.”
The two friends chatted so comfortably together that it appeared they could’ve gone on much longer. They shared writing stories, and talked a bit about the new documentary.
“I did this documentary as an excuse to be with Rose,” Lapine said. “We basically put the camera to the side and just talked. We had 22 hours of Rose footage, and one camera.”
Authors Geraldine Brooks and Nicole Galland followed Styron and Lapine. The two talked about dialogue and its importance in moving a story along, in the last panel discussion of the day. Brooks and Galland used dialogue from “Julius Caesar” to illustrate how conversations can be perceived by audiences. Brooks also read a sample of dialogue from Galland’s novel “On the Same Page.” The conversation has a simple premise: the main character, Joanna, has returned to the Island to care for her uncle who raised her — he’s broken his ankle badly. Joanna is going to make a cup of tea, and the two characters go back and forth about a jar of honey gathering dust in his cupboard. The tone of the dialogue helps the reader understand the personality of the two characters, just by the simple but pointed exchange they have over this inanimate object.
Galland asked Brooks how she goes about creating dialogue for historical novels. Brooks explained that such dialogue often involves people who were unheard at the time. She talked about trying to write about a young girl growing up in the 1660s, as was the case in her book “Caleb’s Crossing.” Brooks explained that she discovered the way that women would have spoken by studying court transcripts from the time. Creating dialogue is less complicated when it comes from the writer’s actual experience. The key, they agreed, is keeping the dialogue alive and relevant to the story. There’s nothing worse to trudge through than a boring back-and-forth, they concluded.
Again, with this discussion, friendship shone through. Islanders Write brings together people who are interested in the process of writing — people who enjoy talking about writing and are trying to better understand the craft.
For more information about Islanders Write, visit mvartsandideas.com/islanders-write.