When Scribes Convene

“The Santa Barbara Writers Conference (SBWC) is the exclamation point of my year,” so said former Los Angeles Times book critic Charles Champlain during all the many years he was on the faculty. I wonder if founders Barnaby and Mary Conrad ever thought when they began the Writers Conference that it would become so prestigious and still going 35 years later. Though the Conrads are still connected, the current owner and Executive Director is Marcia Meier. Since the demise of the Miramar – with a short stop at Westmont College campus – the Conference has found a new home at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.

One of the evening lectures open to the public was by author Carolyn See. The ever gracious and funny Fannie Flagg (Fannie was never published before attending SBWC. Her second book was “Fried Green Tomatoes”) introduced Carolyn saying, “I feel like Minnie Mouse introducing Einstein. She is a literary Grande Dame.”

Carolyn has written ten books and her latest bestseller is “There Will Never Be Another You.” She is a book critic for The Washington Post and has won both Guggenheim and Getty Fellowships. Her advice to the wannabes in the audience: “Write a thousand words a day (three pages) five days a week with two hours of revision.” As she exclaimed, “Who would want to be like Dean Koontz and work from 8 am to 6 pm? Why would you want to be a writer?” Her talk was like the Comedy Hour, as Ms See kept the audience laughing while passing out good advice.

Another evening I went to see local lady Gayle Lynds who I had known for 30 years before she married author Dennis Lynds (pen name Michael Collins) and became a best-selling thriller writer. Publishers Weekly lists her work among the top ten spy novels of all time including her latest, “The Last Spymaster.” She co-wrote several thrillers with Robert Ludlum shortly before he died. Gayle is an alum of the Conference and her late husband taught workshops for SBWC for many years. That’s where they met and their romance began. The Conrads were there to present Gayle with the 3rd Annual Barnaby and Mary Conrad Founders Award for Fiction. It was a leather-bound first edition of her first thriller, “Masquerade.”

One of the newest big success stories this year is Selden Edwards, a former private-school headmaster who has attended the conference many times and worked on his novel – “Fin de Siecle” – for 30 years. It’s about a 1970s rock star who finds himself in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna. After numerous rejections, Edwards finally landed an agent; two weeks later, Dutton bought the novel. The movie rights are being peddled in Hollywood as we speak.

As Marcia said, “Who comes to our conference? This year we have attendees from as far away as Tanzania and Sudan. We have writers as young as twelve and as old (classic) as ninety-eight.” Some are published, other are novices. There is something for everyone, with over 30 workshops and Agents & Editors Day, plus successful published authors’ lectures every evening and pirate workshops every night.

I don’t usually write about parties that never happened but I must make an exception. For at least 30 years Mary and Barnaby gave a tony, crowded, always-fun party at their Rincon Beach home for writers and faculty during the Conference. I was there for all of them and it was an exclamation point of my year. Their last was 2006, so thanks for the memories and a toast to Marcia who is creating new memories for all of us.

Listen & Learn

Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) held its second annual fundraising luncheon at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. In the mid-1940s, when it was founded to help blind servicemen returning from World War II, it was called Recording for the Blind. Since then, those that suffer with dyslexia also benefit from audio textbooks and the name was changed in 1995. Mary Lee and a dozen volunteers founded the Santa Barbara Unit in 1976.

Superintendent of the Santa Barbara School Districts J. Brian Sarvis welcomed the roomful of guests and thanked event coordinator Kathy Wertheim. Also to be thanked were the Dream Builders who make a five-year commitment of at least $1,000 per year. Currently they are Susan Bowers, Kelly Hale, Cliff Kearsley, Mark Lee, Gilda Ludwig, Mike Nissenson, Tim Owens, Ruth Scolin, Tom Thomas, Volentine Foundation and Kathy Wertheim.

Executive Director Tim Owens reminded the audience that, “This organization has provided hundred of thousands of students with equal access to the printed word.” RFB&D books are mostly educational texts with special navigational features by page and chapter, so one can study just like a sighted person with a book. “Here in Santa Barbara our two-hundred weekly volunteers contributed over fourteen-thousand hours of their time to record one hundred and fifty books last year… Unfortunately for every one student served,” he continued, “there are another fifteen that are unserved.” He informed us that coordinators and an educational outreach director are being hired “to get out in the trenches and reach these people.”

Teen Kallie Stolz was there with Mom Peggy. Kallie won an RFB&D Scholarship in 2005 and has been using audio books since age 15 because of complications from two brain surgeries. She spoke of how these books changed her life and allowed her to go to college and keep up with her peers. Board Member Mike Nissenson remembered, “I first volunteered to read to a blind person more than fifty years ago, when I was in high school.” The luncheon was billed as free, and it was, but Mike reminded us, “There is no free lunch! Now we ask for money.” People reached into their pockets and contributed; RFB&D is solely supported by donations.

Each year they hold a Record-A-Thon. Among those reading have been film director Andy Davis (“The Fugitive”) and producer Lowell Blank, the reigning Ms Senior California and Miss Teen California, local writers, reporters, members of the Speaking of Stories repertory company and many others.

If you would like to help RFB&D’s learning through listening program call 681-0531 for information.