From his room in a hospice care facility, Joe Rantz related his tale — a story rife with the turmoil of abandonment and the Great Depression and a story glistening with the gold-medal victory of his 1936 Olympic rowing team’s win against aristocrats and the Nazi state.
The listener, author Daniel James Brown, was mesmerized.
Nearly 80 years after Rantz and his teammates made their defiant and historic row, the story of “The Boys in the Boat” has commanded the attention of readers across America, topping both the L.A. Times and New York Times bestseller lists and winning the American Booksellers Association nonfiction book of the year.
“I like to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” said Brown. “There is just something uplifting about people faced with extreme situations like survival or situations that call for (them) to reach beyond.”
Brown, author of “The Boys in the Boat,” as well as two other novels, “The Indifferent Stars Above” and “Under a Flaming Sky,” will be the keynote speaker of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts 16th annual Whidbey Island Writers Conference being held this weekend at various locations in Coupeville.
Though Brown’s bestselling and most recent novel has earned him numerous accolades, he said his success did not come unprecedented by years of receiving rejection letters “like anybody else,” explaining that he will refer to the history of his own writing career as an educational tool for fellow writers during the conference.
“It is not impossible if you stick to it and are constantly trying to improve your craft,” said Brown.
The conference features presentations by a number of Pacific Northwest writers as well as workshops, pitch sessions, consultations and Chat House sessions.
“Our unique Chat House format is informal, friendly and welcoming,” said Terry Persun, conference director, in a recent press release. “There are two instructors for each chat house, so attendees get a variety of ideas and perspectives, which makes for lively, illuminating conversation. Everything is geared to help attendees feel comfortable working with professionals who can help them achieve their writing goals.”
Whidbey Island Writers Conference best-selling authors include Brown, Aaron Patterson, Robert Dugoni, Nicole J.Persun, Emily Clanton, Chantelle Aimée, Pam Binder, Anita K. Boyle, Gerald Braude, Janet Lee Carey, Kerry Colburn and Jennifer Worick, Kelly Davio, Paul Hanson, Bill Kenower, Deb Lund, Sarah Martinez, Stefon Mears, Jennifer D. Munro, David Ossman, Terry Persun, Laurel Saville, Katherine Sears, Steven W. White, Susan Wingate and Sarah Zale.
Deb Lund, a Greenbank resident who grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota, said she never thought she could be a writer.
“I figured being a writer was something you were anointed with instead of something you learned,” she said.
Lund, who previously worked as an elementary school librarian and music teacher, always told herself and others she simply “didn’t have time” to pursue her authorial passions. It was when she became pregnant at age 40, said Lund, that she realized she would need to make the time she desired. Now a successful children’s book author of such titles as “Dinosailors” and “Monsters on Machines,” Lund also works as a creativity coach, assisting others in overcoming their own obstacles.
“A lot of people say they don’t have the time, but after talking with them there is usually an underlying reason, like that they don’t think they are good enough,” she said. “If I could start a revolution or have a mission, it would be to get everybody to claim their creative birthright.”
During the conference, Lund will instruct writers in quick ways to create conflict and suspense in stories.
“I get so excited,” Lund said of the moment when she helps a writer succeed. “You’d think it was me instead of them.”
Freeland residents David Ossman and spouse Judith Walcutt are returning to this year’s conference to discuss adaptation and appropriation. Ossman explained that the couple will be discussing appropriation in the sense of “using found work from the New York Times, a guidebook, a postcard … to discover hidden poetry in language.”
Ossman and Walcutt work primarily in radio writing — it was during a radio drama workshop that the two met in San Francisco — though each has worked in other mediums including poetry and prose.
Ossman is best known for his work with Firesign Theatre as well as “A Bug’s Life” and audio theatre broadcasts for NPR. Walcutt is an educator and CEO of Otherworld Media, an independent media production company for public broadcasting, educational media, theatre and alternative technology. Both have performed in various radio plays including a four-hour all-star cast production of “The Wizard of Oz” for the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles featuring Annette Bening, John Goodman and Phyllis Diller, and have worked together on various educational projects.
The conference also features a special program for young writers, the Young Writers Conference.
Regarding her advice to burgeoning writers, Walcutt said, “Be prepared to do a lot of writing … and be prepared to throw about 80 percent of it away and to not feel bad about it. … You have to be willing to write, and write and write and face the shame of not liking what you have written, because after you get over the shame of not liking what you’ve written, you finally get to the good stuff.”
Whidbey Island middle and high school students are invited to attend the conference at no cost.
For more information about the conference, visit nila.edu/wiwc