Today I am thrilled to interview two of the organizers of the Geneva Writers’ Conference, authors Daniela Norris and Katie Hayoz, and to present a behind-the-scenes look at the work and rewards of organizing a successful conference.
Daniela is a former diplomat, turned writer. She’s been involved with the Geneva Writers’ Group since 2007 first as a member, later as a steering-committee member and now as Assistant Director for the Geneva Writers’ Conference. Her stories, articles and essays have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, and her first collection of short stories, ‘The Year Spring Turned into Winter’ was out in 2008. Crossing Qalandiya – Exchanges Across the Israeli Palestinian Divide, co-authored with Shireen Anabtawi, was published in the UK in 2010, and her upcoming book On Dragonfly Wings: a skeptic’s journey to mediumship, will be out from Axis Mundi in May 2014. I first heard about Daniela’s book at Shakespeare & Company, where the events organizer raved about it.
Katie has been active on either the steering committee or the conference committee of the Geneva Writers’ Group, where she has helped to organize panels, workshops and readings. She also directs the biennial Meet the Agents event, is assistant director of the Geneva Writers’ Conference and was part of the editorial committee for Offshoots 12. Her young adult novel, Untethered, took second place in the Mslexia children’s novel competition, and she is currently finishing another novel as well as working on other writing projects. I still remember Katie’s fabulous reading, so witty and clever, from the 2006 conference, and it remains one of my best memories of all the readings and events I’ve been to.
I am a big fan of the Geneva Writers’ Conference because I drafted the first lines of my novel in the train while traveling to Geneva in 2006, met and pitched it to my agent there in 2008, and read from Moonlight in Odessa, the published work, at the 2010 conference. The atmosphere is warm and supportive, and I made great friends and contacts, learned a lot from the instructors, and the inspiration I took home from the weekend lasted months. I highly recommend to writers of all levels!
What are some of the challenges of organizing a writing conference?
Daniela: This is the first time I am an assistant director at a writing conference, so it is a learning curve for me – one that I am enjoying very much. Our objective is to accommodate all the GWG members who’d like to attend, while bringing in other writers from other places, too. The international ambiance is very important to us, as it reflects the spirit of the Geneva Writers’ Group – writers from all over the globe meeting in this multicultural, fascinating city.
Katie: Like any event, the biggest challenges arise out of things you can’t control – weather and instructor flights, unexpected emergencies and accidents, undelivered books or supplies, etc. A challenge specific to the Geneva Writers’ Conference is trying to please absolutely everyone. I’ve worked on several conferences with Susan Tiberghien, and Susan makes a Herculean effort to offer the best experience to each and every participant – from placing people in certain groups for optimal networking to personally responding to their needs. The atmosphere at the GWC is warm, supportive and encouraging, and we strive to keep it that way.
What are the rewards?
Daniela: Writing is a lonely occupation so it is always a pleasure to meet more like-minded people who are interested in reading, in writing and in anything book-related. While as organizers we might not have much free time to attend courses, we do get to meet many interesting participants and tutors and make friendships and contacts that will hopefully last a long time and help us to develop as people, and as writers.
Katie: To be completely honest, I volunteer to organize because I love the warm fuzzies I get during and after the conference. Yes, it’s a large amount of work beforehand. And no, organizers don’t always get to participate fully in the classes themselves. But it’s amazing to see 200 other people enjoying themselves, developing their craft and meeting other writers all because of something you helped to put into place!
Why should writers attend a writing conference?
Daniela: It is a wonderful opportunity to meet other writers (and of course, also agents and publishers) and to hone your craft. Like any other craft, writing improves with practice and I do not believe that writing talent is something one is necessarily born with. It can certainly be developed, and attending conferences also gives us as writers a more realistic view as to what to expect when trying to get our writing out there into the wide world.
Katie: I would add that there is such a sense of community among writers when they get together, it confirms for us that what we are doing is worthwhile and we are supported. Plus, it helps to hear others’ experiences – not just the big, splashy success stories we read about in the news.
Tell us about the first conference you attended?
Daniela: My first writing conference was Swanwick Writers Summer School in Derbyshire, in summer 2007. I met many wonderful people who’ve turned out to be good friends, and learned so much about writing, about editing and about publishing. No two writing conferences are the same so make sure you know where you’re going and what you want to achieve during a conference – is it learning to improve your writing? Is it developing a new skill or a new kind of writing genre? Is it networking? You can do all of these things and more, but it is important to prioritize.
Katie: I don’t specifically remember my first writing conference – when I was at university I worked in both the health office and the writing center and attended conference after conference with my jobs. But what I can tell you is that a good conference will do two things: 1. Make you sad it’s over, but… 2. Make you excited to go home and write! A writing conference should remind you why you love to write and get you to fall in love with it all over again.
What were your goals in attending?
Daniela: I wanted to learn more about the publishing process, as I had a couple of short stories published in non-paying publications but I wanted to become more professional about writing and to learn more about where and how to send my work out. Dozens of short stories and two books later, I can certainly trace the roots of these published pieces to that first conference I attended and to the confidence I gained there about sending my work out.
Katie: My goals would have been less about publishing and more about meeting other writers. Actually, the very first Geneva Writers’ Conference I attended was in 2004. There, three other women and I got to talking and ended up forming a small critiquing group. Though the membership has changed somewhat, that critiquing group still exists today! It has without a doubt been vital to the growth of my craft. And it started with a writing conference.
Tell us about the upcoming conference.
Daniela: The Geneva Writers’ Conference brings together over 200 writers from Switzerland,France, and the rest of Europe. We even had some people coming from theUS – and one wonderful writer made her way all the way fromIran! We hope to see her again this year.
There will be workshops about writing fiction and non-fiction, young adult and essays, poetry, panels about publishing and about social media, and much more. Meeting interesting people and networking is as important as attending classes, and there will be plenty of that, too. We hope to see you there!
Katie: We have a stellar staff of sixteen writers, instructors, editors and agents coming this year!There are four two-hour workshop sessions over the weekend, with Q & A periods in between. We also have moments for participants to network with each other and staff over cocktails and snacks, as well as two nights of readings. Plus, any participant or staff member can sell their books in the bookstore as long as they sign up ahead of time. It’s a conference for writers by writers to celebrate writing and all that goes with it.