awp conference

Six Great Things That Happened at the AWP Conference

Lacy Johnson, a memoirist whose candid panel was an AWP highlight this year. Photo: John Carrithers

Early last week at Kennedy Airport, a woman on her cell considered aloud whether to take a high-powered position at a major publishing house. “I mean, I could do that for ten years, but then what?” On Alaska Flight 449 to PDX, a man in a newsboy cap underlined seemingly all of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front. Two rows back, a shoeless author chatted with a staff member of a residency program. A flight attendant said to the two women, “Are you here for AWP? I live in Portland; I’m so excited.”

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs holds the biggest literary conference in North America in a different city every year. Turnout was down last year in Tampa, because Tampa. Unsurprisingly, attendance bounced back last week in Portland, “a hotbed of small bookstores” and also Powell’s, the largest independent bookstore in the world. The weather was good, the Lyft drivers were chatty, and Colson Whitehead’s keynote was actually funny.

A boozy streak always runs through the conference, but this year a newly legal chemical threatened to displace the drug of choice. During a “martini lunch” co-hosted by strange bedfellows Electric Lit, the Amazon Literary Partnership, and the National Book Foundation, one panel moderator debated whether to consume her edible before or after the talk. It was suggested that she should dose the audience instead.

Below are several high points from a buzzy conference.

Happy Tears at Graywolf Press

It was pouring rain in Portland last Wednesday night, but the mood was bright inside the Ace Hotel, where Graywolf Press was kicking off the conference with a 45th anniversary bash. It felt like a victory party for a small-market baseball team that keeps beating the Yankees. (You’ll know what I mean if you’ve heard of Claudia Rankine or Leslie Jamison or Carmen Maria Machado.)

Fiona McCrae, the press’s director and publisher since 1994, boasted gently, Britishly, about Graywolf’s overloaded trophy case. “The awards are lovely, and we relish them,” she said. “But I’m most proud of the conversations we’ve started.” All Graywolf had ever pursued or prioritized in its hunt for talent, McCrae said, were singular voices.

The owners of said voices were mostly in the room, raising a glass. The poet Paul Lisicky, in a black flannel and flat brim hat, snapped a selfie with Carl Phillips, Mark Wunderlich, and Mat Johnson. Tess Gallagher, whose 1976 Instructions to the Double was Graywolf’s first full-length poetry collection, gave a speech paying tribute to the very recently departed Linda Gregg, whose work Gallagher had championed.

In the party’s most poignant moment, Graywolf poet Mary Szybist read from Gregg’s poem, “We Manage Most When We Manage Small.” She closed on a lighter note, relaying an exchange overheard at a previous AWP: One writer said to another, “No press is perfect.” The other writer agreed, sighing — then reconsidered.

“Well,” they said, “maybe Graywolf.”  —Evan Allgood

Show Me the Credit Card Debt

The author Emily Gould arrived late to her own panel* on Thursday — appropriately enough for an event about keeping your freelance life together (“Show Me the Money: Making Ends Meet in the Literary World”). The discussion that followed was refreshingly transparent — and sobering.

Marisa Siegel was able to buy the Rumpus in 2017, thanks to a lump sum inheritance from her father, but now she works 80 hours per week on the site for no money. (Her staff are unpaid except for one employee, who makes $1,000 a month.) Jennifer Baker saw just one-third of the $50,000 advance she got for editing the short-story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life. The rest went to contributors and taxes.

Michele Filgate, who teaches a Catapult class for online freelancers, cautions her students not to quit their day jobs unless they have a massive network of editors. “I should have taken your class,” said the young writer Dennis Norris II. “I recently quit my day job. My situation is chaos.” Immediately after an April writing residency, Norris plans to visit a temp agency.

Along with their tales of woe, the panelists sprinkled in some helpful tips: Don’t be afraid to ask other writers what they make. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Always ask for more. Hire an accountant (if you can). “Deduct everything, y’all,” Baker said, pounding the table. “Deduct your socks. Just don’t tell the government I told you to do it.”  —E.A.

Let’s Talk About Race, Baby; Let’s Talk About You and Me

This discussion won the expectations game, because the above was its actual title, and the premise was just as tricky: Several writers of color and a Russian Jew, Irina Reyn, talking about one of the hardest things to talk about. What a relief it was to come away from it with concrete experiences and lessons and even some hope.

All of the panelists spoke of being endlessly misunderstood. Moderator Jean Kwok had labored on a novel for ten years, and when she finally turned it in, her agent “dumped my butt,” telling her there was no market for a book about poor Chinese immigrants. Mira Jacob submitted her latest, a graphic memoir about race, to her writers’ group just after the 2016 election. “What I was told by three people in that group was, ‘This is the kind of work that is ruining America,’” she said. And just two weeks ago, Mitchell S. Jackson, whose memoir Survival Math is about growing up black in Portland, was at a book festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a waitress refused to seat him.

But for every depressing anecdote, there was a moment of triumph. Kwok made an aggressive push to find another agent, who then sold her “unmarketable” book in a hot auction. “No one knows what the hell they’re doing in publishing,” Kwok said. “You’ve got to remember that.”

Mira Jacob left her writing group and wound up working with the pioneering black editor Chris Jackson. “Only you can imagine who you are,” said Jacob. “No publisher, no agent, no one is going to be able to figure that out.” Mitchell Jackson will turn his Charlottesville experience into an essay. “You have to pick your battles, but keep taking notes, write essays,” he said. “Oh, and hold grudges!”  —Boris Kachka

Memoirists Really, Truly Tell All

When Sophia Shalmiyev was writing her memoir, Mother Winter, her father told her he didn’t mind if she wrote about him breaking her spine, “as long as you say I did it out of frustration.” It was the first of many mind-blowing moments during the Saturday panel “The Other Side of the Story,” which served a standing-room audience of nearly 300 with answers to a burning question: How do memoirists manage relationships with their friends and family after telling all?

Revelations clustered in two areas: personal fallout and legal complications. Melissa Febos said she’d warned the publisher of her memoirs: “assume every person will sue me.” I Love Dick author Chris Kraus, famous for naming names, said things got rocky with her ex-husband and collaborator, Sylvère Lotringer, after she wrote about his youth during the Holocaust. Then she recited a gossipy letter that she’d been legally forced to remove from her biography, After Kathy Acker — “But I’m happy to read it here!”

The most painful stories — personal and legal — came from Lacy Johnson, whose memoir The Other Side chronicled her own kidnapping, rape and near murder. She and her father have gone six months without speaking, partly because she made a chronological error that put him in a bad light. And after she did a long interview with Cosmopolitan, the magazine’s lawyer asked her to waive her confidentially and provide a police report as evidence.
“I gave a silent answer,” she said, holding up both middle fingers. Cosmo killed the story, which in this case was a happy ending. —B.K.

Real Women Don’t Behave

Male protagonists, like actual men, get away with a lot. Their abhorrent behavior somehow gets filed under Complex, Passionate, Difficult, or that old standby, Anti-Heroic. Ladies don’t have this luxury.

“I would like to ban from the discourse the word ‘unlikable,’” Tayari Jones said during a public conversation with fellow novelist Rebecca Makkai. “You’re not having brunch [with these characters].” She said it was much much harder to write the female lead (Celestial) than the male (Roy) in her novel, An American Marriage.

“I felt so much pressure to make her behave,” Jones said. “In real life, women don’t behave.” Makkai agreed; she also finds it easier to write men. That’s doubly unfortunate when you consider that good behavior is not conducive to good drama. “By the end of a story,” Makkai said, “your characters should be doing things they wouldn’t have done at the beginning.”

With An American Marriage, in which Roy is wrongfully imprisoned for rape, Jones set out to write about two people who are innocent of crimes but also deeply flawed. Readers of Jones’s early drafts kept suggesting ways for her to make the novel more conventional, via a happy ending or a clear villain. Eventually, Jones just stopped showing it to them. Then Oprah championed it, and on Saturday, An American Marriage won the NAACP Image Award for Fiction.  —E.A.

Paging Sherman Alexie …

The atmosphere at the panel, “What Now? When Good Writers Act Awful,” was almost funereal, like a collective wake for problematic writers’ work. Yet closure was hard to come by, in part because not all of the panelists were ready to banish their erstwhile idols.

John Freeman, a former editor at Granta, said that the literary community is like a family, and that it’s difficult to exile even a problematic family member. (His partner, Nicole Aragi, is Junot Díaz’s agent.) Excommunicating these writers would leave a void, he said (the better to fill it in with a more moral artist, I’d say).

Bonnie Nadzam argued for interrogation over censorship. Michael Croley, a teacher at Denison University, stressed listening to students. Tomás Q. Morín said that he will no longer financially or professionally support problematic artists whom he used to revere. But it was the poet, novelist, and essayist Erika Sánchez who spoke with the most eloquence and clarity.

“Men do a lot of harm,” she said, “and I don’t have the capacity in my heart to give those men any space. Some things are unforgivable.” She argued that the idea of separating the art from the artist is both privileged and ridiculous. “A person created that work, not a machine. Most of the people who advocate for this separation are white men.”

One thing Sánchez and Freeman agreed on was that there is plenty worth analyzing that wasn’t written by scumbags. But an audience member raised her hand to ask if she could keep teaching Sherman Alexie, whom her Native American students so adored. “I wish he would say something,” she said. “I want to know why he did what he did.” —E.A.

*Update, April 2: Emily Gould gave an ironically germane explanation for her lateness on Twitter.

Six Great Things That Happened at the AWP Conference