Organizers of writers event aim to position isle as literary jewel

KAPALUA – Organizers of the inaugural Aloha Writers Conference – which is set to wrap up today in Kapalua – say they’re cautious of the pitfalls suffered by the event’s predecessor, and instead want to maintain a grass-roots conference that can help position Maui as “a literary jewel of the Pacific.”

Keiki O Ka ‘Aina – a Native Hawaiian nonprofit with a mission “to educate children, strengthen families, enrich communities and perpetuate culture” – sponsored the event.

“People may wonder why a Native Hawaiian nonprofit is doing a writers conference,” said Director of Development Vicki Draeger. “It’s because our focus is on literacy. Every component of our mission can be accomplished through through this conference.”

All proceeds from the writers conference will go to support the organization’s free programs, which service more than 200 families statewide.

“Sometimes when you’re successful you get a little too top-heavy,” Draeger said of the former writers conference.

The now-defunct Hawaii Writers Foundation, which did business as the Hawaii Writers Conference and previously as the Maui Writers Conference, shut down in 2009 after 17 years in business.

The event had a reputation for its glitz and glam, and would draw big-name filmmakers and writers. A private concert planned in 2009 was to feature singer Norah Jones as a fundraising event, with tickets priced as high as $500, but it was ultimately canceled for lack of ticket sales.

“We want to keep this grass roots,” Draeger said of the Aloha Writers Conference. “We want it to be the ‘Goldilocks’ of writing conferences: Not too big, not too small, but just right. We want to make Maui a literary jewel in the Pacific.”

The four-day Aloha Writers Conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, attracted approximately 150 paying attendees.

Draeger said somewhere in the range of 300 to 350 attendees would be an ideal crowd.

Keiki O Ka ‘Aina used a federal grant to provide scholarships to the full conference for about 20 public school teachers. (The cost to attend the conference was $720.)

Draeger said that next year she hopes to include a student component for middle- and high-school students to participate.

Conference attendees had the opportunity to meet and greet with about 30 published authors, screenwriters and agents.

Speakers included New York Times best-selling author and Haiku resident Rebecca Walker; author Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose novel “The Descendants” was turned into a blockbuster film starring George Clooney; and screenwriter Diane Lake, who wrote the Academy Award-winning film “Frida.”

Georja Skinner, who oversees Hawaii’s creative industries for the state, was in attendance and said that the event is helping fill a void.

“It was unfortunate that the Maui Writers Conference, and then the Hawaii’s Writers Conference, ceased business. But I think this new incarnation of the event is off to a great start and is filling a void,” said Skinner, chief officer of the state’s Creative Industries Division under the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

“I think this event is grounded in some great principles, particularly the grounding of the culture,” she added. “It provides aspiring writers and accomplished writers the opportunity to meet with those in the industry.”

Hemmings, despite her novel’s success, said that she personally found the conference program “informative and authentic.”

Hemmings was the keynote speaker at a Sunday-morning session, during which she read a passage from “The Descendants.”

She said afterward that she differentiates her own success from that of the film, and still considers herself a struggling writer, noting that her next novel – which she anticipates will be published later this year – was a hard sell.

“I like that difficulty. I don’t want to just put anything out.

. . . You don’t want an easy ride,” she said.

In speaking to an audience that included teachers, Hemmings said that her advice for young writers is simple: Read.

“That’s my biggest advice for young writers is to get your hands on everything, on different kinds of books, and to just sort of devour them,” she said. “It’s a free teacher and it’s free throughout your whole life – books; libraries. And they continue to be my teacher and guide me.”

The Aloha Writers Retreat will follow the conference from Tuesday to Sunday at the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina. There, aspiring authors can work under established writers.

Draeger – who herself has had 12 children’s books published and self-published a novel for young adults – described the retreat as “boot camp,” where participants will be able to ask questions, have their work edited and be assigned homework.

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