February always brings back memories for me of the now defunct Florida Suncoast Writers Conference, held toward the end of the month for many years on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida.
While the conference was started in the mid-’70 by my colleague and good friend in the English department at USF, Edgar Hirshberg, I didn’t come on board until 1990. Edgar had built the conference into a well-respected, mostly regional event enrolling about 100 participants each year. Local writers were hired to conduct workshops and — when funds were available for honoraria —the occasional well-known headliner.
Edgar’s literary interests centered on crime and detective fiction, and the conference reflected those interests. He had written a book on John D. McDonald and the two had become casual friends. And while John D. never made it to the conference, many of his circle of Florida mystery writers did, including Stuart Woods, Harry Crews, Randy Wayne White and, a number of years later, Carl Hiassen.
In the ’90s, Edgar and I broadened our focus and soon built Suncoast into one of the top-rated and most popular conferences in the country. We gradually raised enrollment fees. (I think throughout the ’80s the cost of the three-day event remained at about $50.) And along with higher rates and some financial support from the university and the Florida Humanities Council we were able to attract some of the country’s (indeed the world’s) most talented novelists, dramatists, poets, editors, and agents.
The list of speakers and workshop leaders over the years included, in addition to those mentioned above, such luminaries as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Derrick Walcott, Lady P.D. James, William Styron, Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Jane Smiley, Edward Albee, Mary Higgins Clark, Yevgeney Yevtenshenko, Carolyn Fourche, Tony Hillerman, Nikki Giovanni, Wally Lamb, Frank McCourt, Ann Hood, Tim O’Brien, Li-Young Lee, Octavia E. Butler, Billy Collins, Tobias Wolfe, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marge Piercy and Tom Robbins, among many others. Word spread; conference enrollment eventually peaked at more than 400, and registration closed earlier and earlier each year.
As the saying goes, those most talented are often the most modest. And that was true for the great majority of Suncoast Writers faculty. Most (although not all) were compelling speakers, gifted teachers, conscientious workshop leaders, and — most importantly for our participants — warm, generous, and congenial. John Updike brought his golf clubs and played a round with one of our colleagues. (He also signed my books and drew little drawings in the margins!) Tim O’Brien talked way into the night with whomever was willing to listen and stay awake. Margaret Atwood entertained an impromptu crowd at lunch, regaling us with stories and personal anecdotes and had to be reminded that it was time for her speaking engagement. William Styron was likewise entertaining and held court in the hotel bar on several occasions. It was, year after year, an exciting and inspiring experience for the thousands of writers, would-be writers, and fans of the literary world who attended.
When Edgar retired, Loretta Lenker of USF’s continuing education program and Betty Moss in the English department capably and efficiently stepped in. When I left for a position out of state, they carried on ably. But the conference eventually closed for various reasons: lack of support from the university, greater competition from a proliferation of writers conferences around the country, prohibitive rates at area hotels for participants, etc.
But for all of us involved over the years — directors, participants, writers and editors — the experience was a memorable one. Every year and for many years after, letters and postcards would arrive (this was before emails and texts!) from past participants in far-flung places, telling us about their own publication successes and thanking us for providing an environment that fostered their own talents and aspirations.
So about this time of year, I reflect on all Suncoast accomplished over the years and what the conference gave in such abundance to those attending: the opportunity to learn, to be inspired, to practice one’s craft, and yes, to rub elbows with some of the most gifted writers of the 20th century. I think back on those years nostalgically, but also with gratitude for being part of something that was so meaningful to so many, myself included.
Steven J. Rubin served as Florida Sunshine Writers Conference director from 1990-2002. He is the former chair of the Department of English at the University of South Florida and former dean at Adelphi University, Garden City, NY.