I attended the 2005 Association for Mormon Letters Writer’s Conference, which was held Saturday at Westminster College in Salt Lake. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend half of it because, for some reason, the conference was scheduled on the same day as the single biggest event in the state of Utah ““ the BYU vs. Utah football game. I imagine it wasn’t much of a conflict for most of the conference’s audience, but it had to be for some. I’m not sure that it was due to the game, or whether the speakers, location, or other factors played in, but I did notice that total attendance was way down from the last time I went, two years ago in Provo. Those not in attendance missed out because the half day that I was there for was really good. A few comments on the sessions I attended:
Keynote speaker: Dean Hughes, author of the Children of the Promise series, among many others.
With a good deal of humor, Dean Hughes spent the majority of the time downplaying the significance of the author ““ not the significance of what the author creates, but the author himself. He spoke of once believing that being a published author would make him important, but has realized that even being known as an author doesn’t make you somebody. He mentioned being upset with people he thought should have recognized his name, being upset with bookstores that didn’t keep his books stocked, and even recounted an experience after first discovering he had a cancer, wherein his first thought was whether he would be able to finish the books he wanted to write. He soon realized his priorities were out of whack, and spoke of finding value in the writing experience itself, rather than the prestige of having published. He didn’t back down from the importance of the written word itself, however, saying that the creation of genuine spiritual experiences in fiction is one of the most powerful things we can do in print.
Presentation on the personal essay: Robert Kirby, Salt Lake Tribune humor columnist.
Robert Kirby was just as enjoyable to listen to, recounting his journey from police officer to essay writer. He told us about the day he decided he wanted to be a writer. Taking an English class as a part-time student while working as a police officer, he completed an assignment to write a personal story that was then read to the class. In a class of freshmen, he told a story about investigating a suicide in Salt Lake, and staying with the bloody man as he died ““ and then picking bits of the man’s rib out of his shoe in church later that day. Kirby then explained that he got more attention from his classmates while reading his story than he had gotten from anyone in all his years as an officer ““ he knew then he wanted to be a writer. Kirby emphasized the need to get your work out and make connections. Making sure your work is getting read by editors, he explained, is almost as important as good writing itself.
Panel on writing historical fiction: Robert Kirby, who is writing a novel about the murder of some police officers in Utah in the 1930’s, Eric Swedin, who has written a novel about the pioneer days of Utah, Emily Watts, a Deseret Book editor who has worked with historical fiction, and Dean Hughes.
Dean Hughes pointed out the interesting phenomenon among Mormons that many read historical fiction with the primary intent of learning actual history, a fact which makes it all the more important that LDS historical fiction writers get their facts straight. The panel also discussed the problem, probably rather particular to the LDS market, of including words that are historically necessary or that were once inoffensive that are now offensive. Eric Swedin noted that Cedar Fort replaced his every use of “nigger” with “n–“. Everyone on the panel agreed that historical fiction should be about the story instead of the history. It was mentioned that when authors do the research for a story, they tend to want to include every interesting bit of history in the story, and Emily Watts noted having to encourage authors to tone down the historical aspects. Robert Kirby reminded us that the characters are what the books are about anyways, and that they should be a novel’s focus.