The best-kept literary secret in Canada

I recently returned from Surrey, BC, where I attend the Surrey International Writers Conference every year, on the weekend closest to October 23rd. This was my twenty-second consecutive appearance there and I’ll be there again next time, God willing, because it’s the most exciting event, and the fastest-flying four days, of my entire year.

The moment I arrive they put me to work, starting with a pre-conference Master Class on Thursday for writers struggling with various aspects of manuscript development. That’s a competitive, submission-based affair, limited to 12 participants. Then, when the Conference proper begins on Friday, I move on to present writing workshops, dole out editing/revision/fine-tuning advice, and take part in a series of panel and group discussions throughout the weekend that follows. And invariably by mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the affair winds up, I’m exhausted.

Somehow, though, beyond the physical fatigue from four days of non-stop activities, (sessions start at 9:00 am and can go on until midnight,) I’m thoroughly reinvigorated, too, my enthusiasm for writing renewed and totally refreshed and my batteries fully recharged for the year ahead of me.

People often ask what it is that keeps me going back there, year after year, and I have a stock answer: “There’s nothing else quite like it. Anywhere.” Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of my first novel, and in the intervening years, as is expected of a career novelist, I’ve attended literary gatherings all over North America—festivals, conferences, symposia, book fairs and trade shows. They are all different from one another, and each has its own distinguishing characteristics, but none of them shares that special, magical aura that has drawn me back consistently to Surrey for decades.

I think of the annual event there as the best kept literary secret in Canada—though its reputation is well and truly established beyond our borders. Editors and literary agents come there from all over, looking for new material and hoping to discover the next great literary Star. They come mainly from the major publishing centres of North America, but many of them travel from as far away as Britain, South America and Australia to attend, and the main element of the gathering’s success is that every person in attendance—and there are about 600 of them—is a writer at some stage of development. Many of them are already international stars, published and successful; other are working on a not-yet-published work; others are only just starting out and they’re hungry for input into the techniques and the Craft of being a good author.

But they are not all novelists. Many of them are writing non-fiction, on an amazing and bewildering spectrum of diverse and esoteric subjects. Others are playwrights and poets, and more and more every year are exploring the new and expanding worlds of Blogging, Social Media and writing for the Internet, while an increasing number every year are studying screenwriting for film and television. But they’re all avid and enthusiastic and insatiable in their pursuit of improvement in what they do and what they’ve done to date, and they all thrive on having direct and ongoing access to the presenters who come to share their knowledge and expertise every year—teachers, authors, editors and agents who work with them all day, every day.

There is no Star system at this conference, which is refreshing and very different. Everything takes place in a single location—the Sheraton Surrey Guildford Hotel, which sells out months in advance of the event—and everyone mingles with everyone else for the duration of the conference. It’s chaotic sometimes, and it’s tough to find a quiet place to take five, but it’s exhilarating as all get out.

There’s a central cadre of “old-timers” there who are invited back year after year, and I have the privilege of being one of those, along with Diana Gabaldon, whose books are the basis of TV’s celebrated “Outlander” series, the English historical novelist Anne Perry, and legal thriller writers Michael Slade and Robert Dugoni. Hugo Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal joined us this year from Chicago, as did Jasper Fforde, the wildly successful 14-novel wunderkind from England, and Canada’s 2008 Stephen Leacock Award winner, Terry Fallis. NYT Bestseller Vicki Petterson flew in from Texas and Susanna Kearsley, a former museum curator whose bestselling books are now translated into 20 languages, was there as well.

And so it goes, from year to year, with unheralded appearances in past years from people with household names like Jean Auel, Bernard Cornwell, Ian Rankin, Terry Brooks, Robert McCammon, Beverley Jenkins, Scott Turow, Hallie Ephron, C.C. Humphreys, and Cecilia Holland, who wrote Jerusalem, the best novel I have ever read about a Templar Knight.

I met them all at Surrey, and that, I suppose, is part of what keeps me going back, year after year.