At the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference

San Miguel de Allende

Last week I went down to the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference. All I can say is: Wow!

After selling books my whole adult life, I still don’t understand this  one mystery: Why do writers write? I’m fascinated by all writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to old geezers puttering around with  memoirs of their exploits at The Battle of the Bulge.  In particular  I’m puzzled and amazed at the minds of fiction writers. I can’t imagine   inventing stories. It’s hard enough to lie to Leslie about how I let  the gold fish die while she and Hayley  were visiting  Disneyland for the weekend.  Almost all the novelists I speak with say that the stories keep pouring out of their heads like water from a broken faucet. I think it must have something to do with the subconscious. When I try to understand it, the phrase that keeps coming into my mind is “touched by the muse”.  I don’t even believe in the muse. But I don’t know how else to explain it.

Fascinating and exciting though they may be, most writers conferences – how shall I say this? – aren’t easily monetized. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t usually come away with a lot of new clients. But I have to tell you. To paraphrase Mitt Romney, there was some severe talent down in San Miguel de Allende.  I asked  to read  a lot of manuscripts from the writers down there. And I know that some of them are going to end up on the front tables at Book Passage.

A lot of writers conferences have their primary  focus on how to get published. Pitching to the agents is always  the highlight of the conference.  Prior to the pitch sessions, participants go to workshops where they are instructed  with excruciating detail on the nuances of the  perfect pitch.  I would imagine it feels a little  like learning the rules of etiquette at the court of Louis the XIV.   I don’t believe in any of this. I tell the writers that I just want to have a conversation about what they are writing about. I like to think that a bad pitch won’t kill a good project and a good pitch won’t save a bad one.

San Miguel de Allende  was more about writing than learning how to get published and networking with agents.   The agents played a more subordinate role, which was all for the best.   There were only four agents there. We did have the usual agent panel where we tried to explain the ins and outs of getting published. Before the panel started, I introduced myself to the agent sitting to my right, Kathleen Anderson. She’s a very successful agent in New York. I decided to try to impress her by telling her that I sold a book earlier in the day. She responded that she did as well.  Hers was the collected unpublished writings of James Joyce.  Mine wasn’t.   So ended the conversation. It turns out that Kathleen was not your usual snooty New York agent though. We’ll get to that in a few minutes.

Speaking of James Joyce, I spent a lot of time talking to Susan Sutliff  Brown. Susan is a freelance editor – book doctor – ghost writer.  And a very good one too. She’s  also a retired James Joyce scholar. Susan told me entre nous (and I really shouldn’t be repeating this in a blog) that she loves reading junk fiction. I attended her fiction workshop where she attempted to explain  what Joyce, William Faulkner,  and  mystery writer James Lee Burke have in common.  More than you might imagine, according to Susan. She also brought up Scruples  by Judith Krantz. I was doodling on my legal pad, so I wasn’t paying attention at that moment.  Susan might have been saying that Krantz’s first novel had a lot in common with Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, but I might have heard it wrong.

I went to another fiction writing session conducted by C.M. Mayo, an award winning writer living in Mexico City. She talked a lot about first lines in literature. At the end of the class we all attempted to compose a great first line.  A lot of them sounded like bad imitations of Henry James.  I took a different approach. I wrote something about diarrhea at the art opening.  More  Charles Bukowski than Portrait of a Lady. And, like Bukowski, my genius was not understood or appreciated at the time.

I  was off and on engaged in a running conversation/argument with Rikki Ducornet  about  how writers write and how story tellers tell stories.  Rikki has written 8 novels and has won about a zillion literary awards. Right now she is writing a libretto to an opera based on The Gilgamesh Epic. I can’t exactly remember what  we talked about but I do recall  bringing up Nietzsche’s notion of the union of the spirit of Apollo and Dionysus in Greek tragedy. It was as if I was back in my sophomore year at Brandeis.

The highlight of the entire conference  was an over-top-fiesta that conference director Susan Page put on in a huge 18th Century mansion. There was a phalanx of mariachi players. A few of them looked suspiciously like retired Jews from New York. Whatever.  My favorite thing  there was a real burro wearing a straw hat with plastic flowers.

La Cucaracha Bar

At the Fiesta, Kathleen Anderson, Kristen Iversen, Christine Wettlaufer, and I decided it was time to act like real writers and head for the bars. Christine had spent some time in San Miguel de Allende and insisted that we go to La Cucaracha, a bar with certain literary pretensions. It is said that Neal Cassady had his fatal accident on the train tracks outside of town after getting drunk at La Cucaracha. Legend has it that the bar has one of the 10 skankiest ladies’ rooms in the world. We ordered some margaritas there, and looked around at the clientele. Some of them  seemed like they might be over the hill “D” rated  Hollywood actors. There were a lot of TVs around the room. But instead of showing football, they had looping videos of go-go dancers in g-strings.

We decided it was time to move on, so we left and walked along the cobblestone streets to the plaza and found another bar, a little less, how shall we say, picturesque.  This time I ordered  the  true beverage of great writers — a scotch on the rocks. The waitress couldn’t speak English and none of us could really explain what we wanted in Spanish. Finally  I asked for Scotch con helado, which I later  discovered to my dismay meant “scotch and ice cream”.

Kristen Iversen is the director of the MFA program for writing at the University of Memphis. She was one of the keynote speakers at the conference. She was also once the student of Rikki Ducornet. Kristen’s forthcoming book is called Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. 22 publishers bid on it at auction. It’s being published by Crown Books this summer.   Of course, all of us wanted to know how much money Kristen got, but we were too embarrassed to ask. When Kristen went to the bathroom, though, we talked about it a lot. Christine is Kristen’s star student and probably knows how big the advance was, but she wouldn’t tell us except to say that Kristen probably doesn’t have to teach any more. Christine has written a memoir about her 24 years in the military. She’s good and I told her I wanted to represent her, but the book is a finalist for the Bakeless Award. If it wins, it automatically gets published by Graywolf  Press. So there isn’t much help I can give her.  Of course if it loses……

We all went bar hopping again on Saturday night along with some other authors whom I think I would like to sign up as well. We went to Harry’s Bar. It was “Bikini Night”. Anyone coming to the bar in a bikini got in free. They had a 12 foot high bare breasted papier-mâché female figure at the entrance. Somewhere in Kristen’s camera is a picture of me fondling it. She tells me the picture may have gotten lost. I hope she’s right.

I loved that writers conference. It was a lot of fun. I made some good friends. I got to hang out with writers. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

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12 Responses to “At the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference”

  1. At the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference | Mexico Discovery Says:

    [...] San Miguel de Allende – Google Blog Search February 26th, 2012 | Category: [...]

  2. Clare Wheeler-Brandt Says:

    Fun blog. Maybe even informative. Interested in hearing what your take is on Amazon. Pardon my text but wtf do they think they’re going to win by making writers want to turn the tables by writers boycotting Amazon?

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Good question Claire. If you look at my previous post, you will see pretty much everything I have to say about Amazon. It used to be “the Earth’s largest bookstore” until they started yanking books from their site.

  3. mikerol Says:

    i imagine i could find out for you mr. ross whether “the hammer” had his last tequilas at la cucaracha, a group of beat hippies among them the woman in whose arms “the hammer” is said to have expired showed up back in n.y. in the late 60s, among them my friend and author, the also actor michael locascio, who is still associated with la mama, and i heard from him, last year, that j.b., that girl, was still alive, to my immense surprise. i used that troupe for a while during the initial ny performances of peter handke;’s OFFENDING THE AUDIENCE + SELF ACCUSATION. > http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name

  4. C.M. Mayo Says:

    I think everyone LOVED your opening line!! (And I thought many of the others were terrific… Henry James?!?!)

    It was fun to read your wrap-up of this terrific conference.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thank you so much. Even though I am not a writer, I have to evaluate fiction every day. That is why I came to your workshop. And it was for me, in many ways, a revelation. I just couldn’t resist the Henry James line. (or the Bukowski)

  5. Guilie Says:

    I so wanted to go to this conference this year. I ended up at the SF writers’ conference, which was a great experience (especially since it was my first), but next year it’ll be San Miguel for sure. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  6. Katie Pickard Fawcett Says:

    San Miguel sort of grows on you… It’s one of my favorite places and this year’s conference was, indeed, great fun! Hope you got to Mama Mia and some of the other fun spots around the Jardin. If not…well, there’s always next year.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I have lived in SMA for many years but this year was my first time attending the Writers Conference. I agree– it was wonderful. Just a bit of historical info for you. The “Cucaracha” bar you wished to experience, the one where Neal Cassidy, Bob Dylan, etc. hung out no longer exists- only in the minds and memories of some aging locals who possibly could write a book called “Blame It On the Cucaracha.” It was housed in the former Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal on the jardin. The bank Banamex bought the building in 1981 and restored it. Unfortunately, you were about thirty or forty years too late.

  8. Irene Kessler Says:

    Loved your rendition of your experience. I’ve never been there but maybe next year. Although it’s kind of far from the East Coast, but worth it. Sounds like a lot of fun – after the hard work, of course.

  9. Stacy Clark Says:

    LOVE this blog. Andy! I smiled the whole way through…
    Thank you!

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