San Miguel de Allende is an interesting city that never fails to surprise. It’s at once colonial and modern, with old walls and narrow cobblestoned streets hiding hip restaurants and beautiful courtyards. It’s both Mexican and international, with a huge community of expats mingling comfortably with locals. And you’ll find everyone hanging out in the central Jardin at all hours of the day and night, where you might see tourists with maps, expats sipping coffee, and locals singing along late at night with a mariachi band.
All in all it’s a perfect setting for a writer’s conference – both exotic and comfortable, with a close-knit expat community comprised of very interesting individuals who have lived varied and colorful lives. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that memoir was by far the most popular genre here.
I heard many interesting keynotes – Chuck Adams from Algonquin talked about the publishing philosophy that has delivered hits like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and 6 bestsellers out of the 20 books they published last year. They focus only on the titles they know they can publish well, and they throw all of their energy into them.
Memoirist and poet Judith Barrington talked about the memoir as map – sometimes memories are lost in the folds, creases, and tears, and it’s up to the memoirist to reconstruct the events. Memoir isn’t autobiography but rather based on memory, which both science and experience tells us is faulty, swayed by emotion, and ever-evolving. (If you’re interested in a how-to on memoir, check out her very popular WRITING THE MEMOIR.)
Agent Rosemary Stimola (who represents Suzanne Collins, among others) talked about the history of language and storytelling, and shared some terrific quotes by Socrates and Martin Luther, who feared the alphabet and printing press, respectively. People have always feared change, but the state of literature is no worse for wear.
My own speech was about why I’m optimistic about the future of books, which boils down to: yes, we’re going through a time of some tumultuous change, but books didn’t go away when movies came along, they didn’t go away when TV came along, and they’re not going away just because we have the Internet. As long as we still have books there will be authors to write them, agents to represent them, and publishers to publish them, even if how we obtain and read them changes.
And beloved author Barbara Kingsolver talked about the origins of her novel THE LACUNA, ten years in the making, which arose alternately out of a long-ago trip to Mexico, notes she thought she’d leave behind for a future historian, and the post-9/11 political climate of America. She had answered the question to the press before, but never felt as if she could tell the whole story without time to delve into the different points of origin.
The conference was punctuated by some seriously incredible fiestas – one in an estate up on the hill above the city, where we were serenaded by a mariachi band, ate fabulous food from many different stations, hit a pinata, and watched a fireworks display dedicated to THE LACUNA. The next night we were shuttled to a speakeasy-themed party, where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lookalikes were on hand to make us feel as if we were back in time.
What an incredible introduction to Mexico, and thanks so much to the organizers for putting on such a fabulous conference, and to the Oasis for their fantastic accommodations.