Write On

Posted online: July 2017


By Joan Tapper

The date was June 22, 1972. The place was the Cate School in Carpinteria. And writer, artist, restaurateur, raconteur Barnaby Conrad was welcoming the first students to the opening of the week-long Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Among the speakers that inaugural year were Ray Bradbury, Ross Macdonald, Budd Schulberg, and Jessica Mitford, literary notables that Conrad had brought together thanks to his wide-ranging friendships and the force of his larger-than-life personality.


Mary and Barnaby Conrad ready to hit the road

The book was a labor of love says Pallamary, a longtime conference workshop leader. It grew out of the decades of albums, video, and audiotapes that Mary had safeguarded. “I had pictures and press—everything, including the parties,” she says, adding that she wanted to “have people know that this happened in Santa Barbara.”

It was an auspicious beginning. Conrad, with his wife, Mary, went on to run the conference for 32 years, inviting such famous figures as Charles “Sparky” Schulz, Elmore Leonard, Eudora Welty, Julia Child, Alex Haley, Joan Didion, Artie Shaw, Amy Tan, and scores of others who inspired generations of writers—novices and veterans alike. Now those decades have been commemorated with clippings, photos, and reminiscences in Mary Conrad, Y. Armando Nieto, and Matthew J. Pallamary’s Santa Barbara Writers Conference Scrapbook (Mystic Ink Publishing, $29.99).

The three collaborators worked on the project for a year and a half, organizing the book chronologically and trying to catch the essence of each annual conference. Each chapter is a kind of time capsule, highlighting world events, listing the hot books of the season, and recounting the speakers’ public presentations as well as behind-the-scenes events in the workshops and late-night “pirate” sessions. So there is William Styron in 1980, talking about how he came to write Sophie’s Choice and Elmore Leonard in 1996, discussing how his book Get Shorty was being transferred to the silver screen. Ray Bradbury gave the keynote address from the first year on, and Sparky Schulz was a perennial participant, as Snoopy became the conference logo.

For most of the first three decades, SBWC took place at the Miramar Hotel, and that resort’s comfortably bohemian atmosphere added to the informality and accessibility for which the conference is famous. “There’s a wonderful rubbing of elbows,” says Mary. “We’re all writers and peers,” adds Pallamary. “There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

Alex Haley, 1984

That feeling permeates the documentary movie that has grown out of the scrapbook project. Suggested by Lisa Angle, the director of Literary Gumbo, the film is a collaboration between Mystic Ink and Ninety Degrees Media. It blends archival clips and photos with recent interviews with conference speakers and workshop leaders who pay homage to Barnaby Conrad and pinpoint the encouragement and mentorship they experienced. Among them is Fannie Flagg, who started out decades ago as a participant and aspiring writer, based her first novel on a short story written at the conference and has gone on to many best-sellers and multiple appearances at SBWC as a speaker. “I went there with trepidation in 1975,” she remembers, “and because I had so much encouragement, that gave me the confidence to start a whole new career. Ten books later I’m ready to retire!”

Flagg will return to give the opening address at this year’s conference, to be held June 18 through 23 at the Hyatt Santa Barbara. Since 2010, Charles Schulz’s son, Monte, has owned SBWC and he is keeping the conference true to its roots.

“Our great asset,” says conference director Grace Rachow, “is our rich history and the fact that it feels like a family.” Speakers often return as teachers, including this year’s new workshop leaders Jervey Tervalon and Gar Anthony Haywood. “Writers are solitary creatures,” Rachow adds. “It’s hard to know if you’re good. To have a place where there’s support and a safe environment and honest feedback is amazing.”



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