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Writers’ conference makes magic happen — with a lot of hard work

Posted: June 5, 2014 - 11:25am
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Photo by Stephen Nowers
Palmer writer Eowyn Ivey is one of the speakers at this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, which starts next week, June 13.

In the whirlwind week of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, emerging and established writers and poets come together to learn, share ideas and form a community. As attendees say year after year in response comments, the conference provides camaraderie and support — the feeling that in their solitary craft, writers are not alone.

Sometimes, writers even jump-start their careers.

That’s the experience of Palmer writer Eowyn Ivey, who met and was offered representation by an agent, Jeff Kleinman, at the 2008 conference. Ivey, 41, went on to work with Kleinman and sell her first published novel, “The Snow Child,” a Pulitzer Prize nominated book set in 19th century Alaska.

On June 17, the last day of this year’s conference, Ivey will be part of a panel discussion, “Home/Land,” about how relationships with place shape writing. She also presents closing remarks, “It Started Here,” at the last luncheon, and will discuss how the conference helped her career. Both events are open only to attendees of the conference, held June 13-17 at Land’s End Resort. Registration is still open, but is close to selling out, said conference director Carol Swartz.

In a phone interview, Ivey said she didn’t come to the conference with the idea of pitching her book. She had written about 200 pages of the “The Snow Child” and knew agents and editors generally want to see complete manuscripts from new writers. Ivey came with her mother, Julie LeMay, a poet. Ivey grew up in Palmer and had worked as journalist with the Frontiersman for 10 years. She quit to work at Fireside Books in Palmer and devote more energy and time to her fiction.

“Really, our plan entirely was to meet up with other writers,” she said. “I think conferences are a great way to do that. It was a way of committing and saying ‘I’m a writer and I want to talk to other writers.’”

At the conference, participants can sign up for short consultations with editors or agents. Ivey hadn’t planned to do that with Kleinman, but her mother pushed her to do it.

“It was really the idea to get some feedback about the process,” Ivey said. “You go in, give your spiel about what you’re working on. I thought that would be the end of it.”

Kleinman, one of the founders of Folio Literary Agency, New York, said he goes to about six conferences a year, but doesn’t really like the one-on-one sessions.

“I tend to find them not effective,” he said. “You can talk or pitch all you want, but what it all boils down to is ‘Is the premise interesting and can the writer deliver on the premise?’”

Ivey talked about “The Snow Child” and another novel she worked on. Kleinman said the idea of a fairy tale that comes alive in 19th century Alaska intrigued him. He asked for 100 pages. Ivey hadn’t even brought her book with her and had to scramble to get him pages.

“This is sort of the basic way you do things as an agent. If it sounds interesting, you ask to see it,” Kleinman said. “There’s nothing magical about it.”

Well, there was a bit of magic going on. The Alaska summer light kept Kleinman up and he couldn’t get to sleep. He got bored with the novel he had brought to read.

“Eowyn’s novel came in. I picked it up and started reading it,” he said. “I fell head over heels in love.”

Kleinman printed up a copy of a retainer and the next day went looking for Ivey. 

“It was the only Hollywood thing I did,” he said. “I found her and handed her the retainer agreement. Her knees got weak.”

“I had to sit down,” Ivey said.

Lest anyone think that moment led to instant success, a lot of work came in between.

“She spent months, another year writing that novel,” Kleinman said.

Part of that writing process also involved talking with Kleinman about the book and ways it could be improved.

“He was a very good editor,” Ivey said. “I didn’t realize agents had that role.”

When they had a finished manuscript, Kleinman tortured Ivey some more. He told her to wait for the market to improve and wait a year.

“It was excruciating. I had a finished book I was excited about. I wanted to get on with my life,” Ivey said. “He said, ‘Let’s work on the next one.’”

In 2010, Kleinman and Ivey sold “The Snow Child” to Little Brown. It’s since been published in 32 different countries and received wide critical acclaim.

Ivey wasn’t the only Alaska writer Kleinman met and offered to represent at the 2008 conference. He also had heard Homer poet and writer Eva Saulitis read during the annual Festival of Readings, public readings by faculty associated with the conference.

“I pursued her,” he said. “She was like a rock star — a standing room only crowd. People wept.”

Kleinman wound up representing Saulitis for her nonfiction memoir about orca whale research, “Into Great Silence.”

“There’s a lot of great writing in Homer. That’s something to be celebrated,” Kleinman said. “Now all I want to do is come back.”

Finding two writers to represent at a conference is extremely rare, Kleinman said — the only time it’s happened. Agents generally connect with writers through the slush pile — unsolicited manuscripts sent cold — or by pursuing writers they’ve noticed. Agents also get referrals from editors or other writers.

“The odds are crazy,” he said. “I think the writing abilities in Alaska are somehow a bit stronger than other places.”

Ivey acknowledges that the odds are not great for meeting an agent the way she did, but it is possible.

“I think that there were things that aligned. You have to have the book written. You have to do the best you can,” she said.

“You have to have really terrific writing ability,” Kleinman said. “You have to make it work. That’s what you’re looking for in a writer.”

Ivey said she also got more out of the 2008 conference than meeting Kleinman.

“It can be helpful, just the chance to validate you’re a writer and be inspired by writers,” she said. “That’s the really valuable element of conferences.”

At the conference, writers can connect with and learn from editors and agents, but they also connect with other writers.

“I think most of us are a little more introverted. I think it’s amazing how writers reach out to each other and support each other,” Ivey said. “The actual writing process is solitary and in your head, but then you get these chances. You realize there are all these people in the same boat. It’s empowering to get together with writers.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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