As usual, the Woodstock Writers Festival begins its sixth year with the ever-popular story slam competition on the evening of Thursday, March 19, and ends on Sunday, March 22, with the signature panel Memoir-A-Go-Go, reflecting organizer Martha Frankel’s passion for the form. In between, an assortment of workshops, panels, readings, and interviews feature published writers of all kinds, including Chris Stein of the pop group “Blondie,” novelist Jane Smiley, memoirist Abigail Thomas, and many more.
Bestselling novelist and Woodstock resident Gail Godwin will participate in the panel “Tales of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Publishing is Alive,” scheduled for Saturday March 20, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts. Publishing professionals and authors will discuss how technology has altered the business in recent years, why it persists despite incursions from self-publishing, and tips on what it takes to get published in the modern world.
The long view will come from Godwin, whose book Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir (Bloomsbury, January 2015) discusses her nearly five decades of authorship, mapping the changes in publishing and relating stories of her teachers and colleagues, including Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving. At the other end of the career spectrum, thriller writer Jenny Milchman will talk about her own drive to be published, and how she succeeded after eleven years of determined struggle. Top editor Nan Gatewood Satter will moderate the panel, which also includes Mary Cummings, vice president and editorial director of digital publisher Diversion Books; Sara Carder, editorial director of the Penguin Random House imprint Jeremy P. Tarcher; and literary agent Ned Leavitt.
When asked if she’s nostalgic for the old days of publishing, Godwin, author of such literary novels as The Good Husband, Unfinished Desires, and Evensong, replied, “I’m not nostalgic, but I do feel relieved that I was as fortunate as I was under the circumstances. I’m not sure, given the kind of work I do, and the kind of introverted personality I have, that I could have done as well in this environment.”
The challenge of the modern world for writers, she feels, is how to balance between the private time needed for writing and the demands of building an Internet presence. While Godwin is not on Twitter or Facebook, she does have a website to interface with readers. “How much time do I give to the excess of information out there,” she mused, “and how much to absolutely honorable, frightening solitude? I think it was John Updike who said if he knew he had to go to the dentist in a week, he was building toward that, and it was affecting his work. I’m building toward this panel, which I think is going to be best panel I’ve ever been on.”
Godwin praised Satter, who she said is well-prepared and has “put on paper for us what our best gifts are to give to an audience. I’m the wise old grey eminence, and I’m going to talk about the element of fear in today’s publishing, which I write about in my book.”
Her advice to aspiring authors is to put the emphasis on the writing. “There are so many people out there who want to write, who write little blogs about wanting to write. But if you care about writing and think it’s your vocation, you do that first, then you go out and seek an audience. That quiet, deep time is so important. Go for that deep, deep well.”
Godwin’s first publication came through Knopf scouts who visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1958, looking for new talent, when she was a student there. A sharply contrasting route to publication greeted Milchman, whose third thriller, As Night Falls, will be out from Random House in June. Despite the temptation to bypass the gatekeepers and print her own books, Milchman pursued legacy publishing for eleven years without making a penny. “Why did I do that?” she asked. “If traditional publishing is not as good as the new shiny alternative, if it’s a dying industry, why would I stay in it so long if there’s another option? Granted, there are problems, but there’s wisdom accumulated in the publishing industry. We throw that away at our peril.”
Leavitt, who will provide the agent’s perspective, looks forward to a panel that will give an overview of the business. “Some of the panelists represent the old guard who know the history of publishing,” he said. “Our experiences are parallel in terms of the people we knew in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, before Amazon and digital books.” He’s interested in the contrast to be provided by Milchman, who is “attuned to opportunities that exist for her and for writers who might not make it to traditional publishers. Everyone would like to go the traditional route, but you have some people who are pretty vociferous about other opportunities.”
As an agent, he welcomes the alternatives. “It’s a relief to know that if I can’t place a book, I can say to the author that there’s another option that’s realistically priced.”
The Woodstock Writers Festival will be held Thursday, March 18, through Sunday, March 22. Most panels will take place at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock, while workshops, parties, and a breakfast discussion will occur elsewhere. For a complete schedule of events, locations, and tickets, see https://ulsterpub.staging.wpenginewriters.com.