A Non-Fiction Writer is Mayborn Every Minute During Annual Conference

Bob Shacochis on the cover of the Mayborn's mag

There’s an awful lot of pressure on this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest. After all, the ruckus Nan Talese caused at last year’s conference, when she unleashed her double-barreled comments about Oprah Winfrey and her fans skewering of James Frey’s memoirnovel A Million Little Pieces, made national headlines. Then the conference earned a nod for Best Literary Festival of 2007 from the paper version of Unfair Park.

Sure, last year will be hard to top, but, with National Book Award winner Bob Shacochis as one of the keynote speakers, you never know what might happen. In 1994, he wrote the hilarious introduction to the anthology Drinking, Smoking and Screwing: Great Writers on Good Times. Lately, he’s been struggling to finish a monstrous novel he started back in 2002, and he closed an essay he wrote about his “Fear and Loathing in a Writer’s Cabin” for the first issue of Mayborn magazine with: “Send women, guns and money.”

We do hope he’ll make it through security at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and over to the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center in Grapevine, where the conference is running from July 18 through the 20. The gathering has been hailed as the best of its kind for writers, and readers, to discover and discuss all forms of literary nonfiction with some of the genre's most talented practitioners.

Thankfully, this isn’t a tea and crumpets event -- more like beer and barbecue. And, like last year, Friday night’s schedule includes a “Texas-Style Reception” at Austin Ranch. Following Shacochis’ keynote address, there’s also a party scheduled to last from “9:45 p.m. ’til the roosters crow.” The evening soirees provide conferees a chance to swig a few beers and rub elbows with the speakers. If you play your cards right, you could end up at a table drinking cocktails with Shacochis.

And, that’s the magical thing about a gathering like the Mayborn Conference. One minute you’re listening to someone like Gay Talese, Hampton Sides or Mary Roach lecture; the next, you’re waiting in line behind them for coffee and a Danish.

Unfair Park caught up with George Getschow, the Mayborn writer-in-residence, for a Q&A about the conference.

Obviously, last year’s conference set a high watermark. How do you think this year’s gathering will stack up to years past?

I’m excited about this year’s conference, because each year has gotten better and better. This year, I think the quality of the conference can best be expressed by talking about who is coming back. Some of last year’s speakers are returning this year as conferees. Erik Calonius, who wrote The Wanderer and has written for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune, is coming back as an ordinary conferee, because he believes the Mayborn Conference can help his storytelling skills. Also, Kevin Fedarko, who spoke at the conference last year, was a long-time editor of Outside magazine and has traveled around the world writing travel stories, and he’s coming back this year.

The keynote addresses by Mary Roach and Joyce Carol Oates last year were, well, unforgettable. Who are the keynote speakers this year?

This year, we have N. Scott Momaday, who really catapulted Native American literature into the mainstream when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn. He’s a big voice in the West. It’s a major thing for the conference to have some one of his stature. Also we have Bob Shacochis. He’s a literary journalist in the tradition of Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion. He wrote a book called The Immaculate Invasion that has been compared to Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Bob’s a real heavyweight in the world of literary nonfiction. Also, Candace Millard’s wrote a huge book about Theodore Roosevelt called The River of Doubt, which has sold over a million copies. She will talk about the five rules for non-fiction writing, and I think it will have a huge impact. But, of course, all the other writers will bring something important to the tribe.

Ben Montgomery, the founder of whose goal, or mission, is “prolonging the slow death of newspapers” is going to be there. What will his lecture be about?

His lecture is titled “The Breakneck Narrative: Storytelling at High Speeds." He’s going to be talking about how to know what’s important and why it’s important in a story and why complexity is important even in a deadline narrative. And he’ll talk about how these stories, these richly textured and richly nuanced stories, can be done on deadline in the newsrooms. It’s an important lecture, especially today with newspapers going through what can only be described as a Titanic situation, papers are jettisoning writers left and right, their retrenching, doing wholesale buyouts, layoffs and so on. He’s going to address the question of how narratives can prolong the slow death of newspapers by giving the readers something important and meaningful -- something transcendent. These are stories that people will remember not just that day but next week and next year.

The conference costs $295, and the price includes meals. And where else am I going to learn how to write blog posts that people will remember in a year? Also, we'd be quite remiss if we didn't note that Andy Van De Voorde, the executive associate editor of mothership Village Voice Media, will discuss “How Village Voice Media Writers Push the Edge of the Long-Form Envelope.” Wait, we thought the future of journalism was in the short-form blog item. --Daniel Rodrigue