For most of the past week, I participated in a terrific short story conference in North Little Rock, Arkansas. The conference, The International Conference on the Short Story, is the brainchild and baby of Maurice Lee, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Central Arkansas. For over twenty years now, it has been held in far flung metropoles like Alcalá de Henares (Spain), Cork (Ireland), Lisbon (Portugal), and Toronto. This year the conference returned, after a break of several years, to America. It is one of the most unique literary conferences I have ever been to, for various reasons. First, it's the only conference I can think of that features presenters and guests that divide equally between writers and scholars. (And of course some attendees are both writers and scholars.) One can and does move freely between academic discussions of the story form and ideas on how to teach it to sessions in which superb story writers read from their own work. Each day the entire conference gathers in the afternoon for a plenary session. Groups that in many circumstances frown on each other's disciplines and occasionally are at each other's throats, listen to and learn from each other. Unlike a few jam-packed, hyper-rushed, steroids-driven conferences I can think of, at this conference plenty of time is allowed for coffee and conversation; for cordiality; for getting to know and understand other peoples. The food is plentiful. The conversations are thoughtful. The spirit is genuine. It became quickly clear how many of the attendees return to this conference time after time; so much so they have become old friends: to themselves and to the conference.
Perhaps the best aspect of the International Conference on the Short Story is the most obvious: its international flavor. Most literary conferences I attend are entirely, or almost entirely, America-centered. While America was well respresented in North Little Rock, so too was the rest of the world. Very good writers, thoughtful teachers, and energetic scholars who I otherwise would never have known about are now names I refuse to forget as well as professional friendships I hope to maintain. The other day at lunch at the wonderful Starving Artist Cafe I was sitting with a Scotsman who now lives in Australia, a Bosnian who now lives in Sweden, and a South African who nows lives in Ireland. It was fantastic to hear their life stories and about their creative projects as well as to hear about how creative writing--and creative writing teaching--gets on in their adopted countries. I learned a great deal in a mere hour of conversation, far more than in the hurry up/eat and run/back to networking lunches I've experienced at other American conferences. The hightlight reading at Friday's lunch featured a prominent Canadian writer; the highlight reading at Friday's dinner featured a Jamaican writer, an Indian writer, a New Orleans writer, and a New York writer.
I can happily report that I had the pleasure, in a Thursday afternoon session, of introducing not only my friend and colleague Garry Craig Powell but the amazing Xu Xi from Hong Kong. What Xu read compelled me to purchase Access, her most recent story collection, and to invite her to submit to Toad Suck Review, which I serve as Associate Editor. I can even more happily report that in my session on Wednesday afternoon, the historical short story I read (one of the Nantucket stories featured in my collection-in-progress, Island Fog) wowed none other than the eminent Robert Olen Butler, who happened to be there to hear the other presenter. He made the point of telling me afterward how much he had enjoyed the story and asked several energized questions about the collection, which--as I said to a friend--now means I can die happy.
Whatever kind of stories you write, historical or otherwise, I urge you to attend the International Conference on the Short Story when it next gathers in 2014. (The conference is held every two years.) Where will it be? Berlin? Hong Kong? Lisbon again? They have not yet announced the destination, but I guarantee that if you can get there you'll say it was worth it.