Book lovers, rejoice: there’s a good chance one of your favorite authors will be out and about in Seattle next week. You might even catch them giving a free talk at one of your local bars or cafes. From March 8-11, more than 8,000 writers, poets, teachers and editors will descend on the newly reopened Seattle Convention Center to attend the largest literary conference in the United States: the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair.
Keynote by Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko
The conference, which is produced by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is held in a different city each year. This year’s event boasts around 1,500 speakers spread over 350 events, including a keynote by My Jin Leeauthor of Pachinko and Free food for millionaires. Those interested in attending the conference can still purchase a pass. There are reduced rates for students and seniors, and a special Saturday pass for $25, which gives attendees access to the entire event for one day, including the book fair, which the conference says is a big draw.
Seattle’s reputation as a literary hub has only grown in recent years. In 2017, it was named a UNESCO City of Literature for having a vibrant network of independent booksellers, publishers, educational programs and a generally supportive community for writers
“It’s almost like tricks for adults,” said an AWP representative. “There are all these wonderful publications and presses and students who are excited about what they’re doing.”
In addition to the official conference, which offers a wide range of in-person and virtual events about the craft and business of writing, local organizations will host more than 240 other events at eateries, bookstores and other locations throughout the city. Although these events are not produced by AWP, the organization lists them on their website, acknowledging that they are a big part of what makes the weekend exciting. Readers and fans are welcome at many of these gatherings, most of which are free or inexpensive.
For local writers, it is a matter of pride to have the conference in Seattle. “It’s an incredible thing to have all these brilliant, creative minds under one roof,” said the author and Seattle University professor Sonora Jha, whose third book, The laughterr, was published in February.
Jha will speak on a panel, “Writing Motherhood in Post-Roe America,” along with other Seattle writers Claire Dederer and Angela Garbesas well as Chicago-based author Jessamine Cha. Jha believes that having the conference here will only strengthen the city’s already strong literary scene. “People who come in will see how many writers and literary organizations we have here—that we have writing residencies and so much support and excitement for writers, as well as such a strong readership.”
Seattle’s reputation as a literary hub
Seattle’s reputation as a literary hub has only grown in recent years. In 2017, it was named a UNESCO City of Literature for having a vibrant network of independent bookstores, publishers, educational programs, and a generally supportive community for writers—an honor it shares with dozens of cities worldwide, but only one other in the U.S. States: Iowa City.
Jha said she feels incredibly supported by Seattle’s literary community. While she came to novel writing later in life, she started by taking courses at Hugo House, where she went on to become writer-in-residence and regular teacher. Hugo House is a key partner of AWP, along with other Northwest organizations, including Seattle Arts & Lectures, Copper Canyon Press, Seattle City of Lit, Literary Arts, and the Lyceum Agency. AWP also supports the PONGO Poetry Project, a local nonprofit that uses personal poetry to facilitate healing among youth coping with trauma.
Support from other writers is a big part of what brings both seasoned and aspiring literary professionals to AWP. While the conference offers a lot of good advice, the participants say that the experience is just as much about emotional support and solidarity. Dederer, who has spoken at AWP several times before, says that part of what makes the conference interesting is how unusual it is for writers to gather.
“Our work is so lonely. So there’s a sense of a jailbreak, but also, everybody’s freaked out because they’re introverts all together. It’s a kind of psychologically complicated event.”
Lee says she has become known as a bit of a “patron saint of procrastination” to other writers because she pursued the craft for nearly 30 years before publishing a best-selling novel.
“As a general group, we writers are kind of difficult,” Lee said on a call. “And yet I also feel a genuine sense of affection for all of us who are in the struggle. For me, the struggle is less lonely and worrisome because I know there are other people who are good and kind-hearted, who care about the bigger things, and who struggles with me.”
While events like AWP can empower writers, they happen amid an unfortunate paradox: despite our thriving arts scene, artists themselves are finding it increasingly difficult to support themselves here.
“A lot of artists and writers are being driven out of the main city,” says Jha. “And yet so much of the literary activity is focused here. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done around that, both with income and racial justice, because a lot of people are being driven out from gentrification, with Amazon and other organizations taking up so much of the property.”
Injection of cash
Beyond the intangible benefits of supporting the arts in a given city, business owners and decision makers would do well to note the economic case as well. The injection of cash that 8,000 visitors can bring to downtown hotels and restaurants is significant. Year-round, artists are known to patronize coffee shops to do their work. Jha says she wrote a lot of her novels at Ada’s Technical Books and Café and Victrola Coffee and Art on Capitol Hill. Given how much discussion there has been in recent years about the city’s flagging downtown, it seems that major conferences and events can play an important role in breathing new life into the district. Who knows – it might even inspire the next best-selling author to set a novel here.
Learn more about the AWP conference here.
Annie Midori Atherton is a freelance writer covering culture, careers, parenting and more. Her writing has appeared on The Atlantic, BBC, Insider and elsewhere. She lives in South Seattle with her husband and toddler.