Looking for thoughts on narrative from big names in a small setting? We spoke last week with Isabel Wilkerson, director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University’s College of Communication, about the upcoming conference “The Power of Narrative: Timeless Art in an Urgent Age.” Taking place at the University’s Photonics Center April 23 – 24, the event will include high-profile storytellers in a fairly intimate venue. Here are some excerpts from our talk with Wilkerson, in which she discusses bringing novelists and screenwriters into the mix, as well as what kind of attendees they’re looking for.
Tell me a little about the weekend you have planned.
We’re excited because we have Gay Talese, who is a legend. We have Bill Keller, who is executive editor of The New York Times and is actually a wonderful writer in his own right—in addition to having a great say over the future of narrative. And we also have Adam Hochschild, who is a steadying force in our work as well and just a wonderful man.
And we’re excited about being able to mix things up a little bit. We have one panel in which we are going to put a novelist and a nonfiction writer on the same stage to talk about what is it that one discipline can learn from the other, how narrative is in some ways the glue, the thing that we all have in common as we try to reach that greater truth and connect with readers.
It should be really interesting, because each side often thinks in terms of the limits on possibilities of what they do. This way, we’ll get a chance to hear both sides talk about it. That panel will have Gay Talese and Adam Hochschild on the nonfiction side, and we’ll have Ha Jin and Allegra Goodman as novelists talking about the challenges they face. Both of them have done work in nonfiction, too, so it will be interesting to see the difference in approach.
Obviously, the main difference is that we have to—and are happy for the opportunity to—write about facts. But the challenges of telling a story are probably quite similar when it comes to structure and character and pacing. All those things have to be thought about whether you’re doing nonfiction or fiction. We’re excited to see what happens when you put the two different disciplines on the same stage.
What do you hope to accomplish with the conference?
The conference is an opportunity to have a small and intimate celebration of what it is that we do: the challenges, the hard work and the joy that comes from all the hard work. It’s not a big mega-conference. This is intended to be a boutique conference, you might say. We don’t have a huge roster of speakers all speaking on concurrent panels. We have a series of discussions and conversations where one segueways into the next in a more intimate way than at many other conferences. It gives people a chance to talk with and get to know the speakers, for the speakers to interact with attendees, and for the speakers to get time with each other.
A lot of times at these events, you come in and you’re at your panel, and it can be hard to get to see other people. The way we’re doing it will ensure that everyone will get a chance to mingle.
Who are you hoping will come? Who will most benefit from the schedule you have set up?
We’re looking for people who are serious about the work, people who are doing the work and people who are interested in beginning the work. We’re interested in people who are at all stages of reporting and writing narratives.
We would expect that there would be many journalists who are interested in and have done longer pieces and want to get inspiration to do more. We’re looking for people who are at different points in the journey. I think that the people on our panel represent that.
We have Gay Talese, who is clearly someone we grew up reading and admiring—maybe some might say worshipping. We have others who have been doing the work for a long time and have established a name for themselves as well. I just completed my first book, and I’m going to be there behind the scenes. I’ll be doing some work, but I won’t be delivering a keynote. So we have people at very different places along the spectrum of this very difficult, challenging and joyous thing that we call narrative.
I see you’ve got David Himmelstein, a screenwriter, as a presenter, but it looks as if you’ve kept the focus of the weekend largely on print narratives. Can you talk about that decision?
We clearly have a roster of people who have done a lot of things in print. But in today’s world, The New York Times is one of the companies that is setting the standard for multimedia, because it’s one of the most effective Web sites of all media companies, so we feel like we are going to be able to touch on different genres.
By bringing in David Himmelstein, we wanted to see how you might take the same topic and see how it is approached as narrative through different genres. That’s why he is on that panel and Larry Tye is on that panel. We’ll talk about the different ways that narrative is used across platforms.
One of the things about nonfiction books is that many times we find ourselves working with documentary filmmakers anyway. You have a lot of books that then get translated into other media, which is where Buzz Bissinger comes in, for example. There’s still a lot of cross-germination and translating that goes on. A piece may start as a book and then migrate into something else. That’s all a wonderful thing. It’s storytelling, wherever it may appear.