KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 25, 2018 – In its 12th year, the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Writing Conference is again bringing together aspiring writers of all ages and levels with accomplished poets, novelists, nonfiction writers, editors and publishers on the Kingston campus.
The three-day conference from Oct. 25-27 will feature nonfiction writer, memoirist and short-story writer Dawn Raffel, whose latest book, “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney,” was released in July and selected a New & Noteworthy book by the New York Times Book Review. It has also garnered praise from NPR, The Chicago Tribune, The Times of London, The New York Post and Oprah.com. – and been optioned for a movie.
Having spent much of the last four years “in the trenches” doing research for the book, Raffel is looking forward to teaching at the conference. Besides running a workshop on creative nonfiction, she will do a reading Oct. 25 at 3:30 p.m. in the Green Hall Great Room.
“I think one of the best things about these gatherings is they demystify the writing process,” said Raffel, a longtime magazine editor who helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine. “The biggest key to success is to just keep working – there is much more elbow grease than magic, or perhaps the magic arises out of elbow grease. Conferences are also places where, in addition to connecting with teachers, you can begin lifelong friendships with other emerging writers.”
As in past years, the Ocean State Writing Conference will include daily workshops in poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing, allowing attendees more than eight hours of intensive instruction from acclaimed writers who also are experienced teachers. There will also be craft talks and panel discussions on aspects of writing,and a chance for attendees to present their work during a participants reading on the conference’s final day.
“For me, every year there is just such a good feeling of fellowship and camaraderie,” said Tina Egnoski, in her third year as conference director. “It’s not in any way a competitive atmosphere, and the writers and featured speakers are very open, in the off hours, to sitting and talking with attendees.”
Along with Raffel, two other award-winning writers, poet Dorianne Laux and novelist Martha Southgate, will give featured readings and lead workshops.
Laux is the author of five collections of poetry, including “The Book of Men” (2012), which was awarded The Paterson Prize. Her 2007 book, “Facts About the Moon,” captured the Oregon Book Award and was short listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux’s reading is Oct. 26 at 1 p.m. in the Green Hall Great Room.
Southgate has written four adult and young adult novels, including “The Taste of Salt,” selected one of the best novels of 2011 by The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe. Her 2006 book, “Third Girl from the Left,” was named Best Novel of the Year by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Southgate will present the Robert Leuci Memorial Reading on Oct. 27 at 1 p.m. in the Agnes B. Doody Auditorium in Swan Hall.
The readings by Raffel, Laux and Southgate are free and open to the public. All other events are limited to conference attendees.
Raffel came across the idea for her book while going through her father’s papers and finding a reference to Century of Progress World’s Fair, staged in Chicago in 1933 and ’34. It eventually led her to a picture of Martin Couney’s exhibit of premature babies in incubators. Couney, a European émigré of mysterious origin, opened his first sideshow in Coney Island around 1903, attracting curious gawkers for $25 a pop. But his work, at a time when hospital care for preemies was nearly nonexistent, saved thousands of infants by the time he closed his last sideshow in 1943.
“The Strange Case of Dr. Couney,” her first nonfiction book, was unlike anything she’d written.
“With fiction and to an extent with memoir, you can allow the composition itself to drive the narrative,” said Raffel. “With narrative nonfiction, you apply the same principles of good sentence writing and composition, but the facts have to drive the story – and you can’t add a delicious twist that has just popped into your head.”
And those facts come with research – which, in a Chicago Tribune story, Raffel compared to falling down a rabbit hole for four years.
“There were many days when I came away with nothing more than a headache from sitting in a dusty archive,” she says. “Happily, most rabbit holes do have a few rabbits, even if they’re not the particular critter you’re looking for … and some days I found interesting surrounding color or gained a stronger sense of the times Couney lived in. And the highs on the days when I finally found real clues were spectacular.”
The best response Raffel has received has been the reaction from Couney’s former patients. “I spoke with some of them while writing the book, and more found me after the publication. The oldest is 98.”
Along with the author readings, conference highlights include:
On Oct. 25, Mira T. Lee, Dariel Suarez and Rhode Island author Maria Mutch discussing their experiences in the last year publishing their first books of fiction. Mutch, author of the 2014 memoir “Know the Night,” had her collection of short stories, “When We Were Birds,” published this spring by Simon & Schuster. Lee’s debut novel, “Everything Here is Beautiful,” has been chosen a top indie selection by the American Booksellers Association. And Suarez’s “A Kind of Solitude,” winner of a 2017 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, is forthcoming from Willow Springs Books.
Acclaimed poets Lee Briccetti, executive director of the Poets House in New York, and Tina Cane, Rhode Island poet laureate, on blending the worlds advocacy and poetry during a panel discussion Oct. 26.
Also that day, URI alumna Vikki Warner, of Providence, author of 2018’s “Tenemental: Adventures of a Reluctant Landlady,” talking about the craft of memoir writing.
On Oct. 27, Trends in publishing, a popular panel discussion, featuring literary agent Tara Gelsomino, Jeffery Levine, founder of Tupelo Press, and Dan Pope, founder of Roundabout Press.
“I’m really excited about the publishing panel,” Egnoski said, “because we have two publishers of really strong independent presses in New England.”
For schedule and registration, visit Ocean State Writing Conference. An early-registration discount is offered through Sept. 26. Discounts are also available for URI students, alumni and faculty.