Destinations

In the write place

Against a stunning backdrop, Sirenland brings five-star appeal and world-class talent to the creative-writing conference. Maria Shollenbarger tells the story.

September 21 2011
Maria Shollenbarger

It started, like so many good Italian things do, over dinner – even if in this case the dinner in question was a small gathering in Litchfield County, Connecticut, roughly 4,000 miles from the Italian peninsula. The Sirenland writers’ conference was born in 2006, when the novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro, whose books Slow Motion and Devotion are national bestsellers, happened to be seated next to Antonio Sersale, the owner of Le Sirenuse, the hotel in Positano that is one of the most gorgeously situated and impeccably run places to lay one’s head in Italy (which, arguably, means the world).

Shapiro knew from her hostess that the Sersales – Antonio, his wife, Carla, and his father, Franco – were great readers, voracious consumers of literature. The two hit it off; on the way home, she said to her husband, the screenwriter Michael Maren, “I have a feeling. We are going to know those people.” About two weeks later, she received an e-mail: “Ciao from Positano” read the subject bar. In the e-mail, Sersale suggested that Shapiro and Maren gather up a dozen or so writers, and the Sersales would host them at the hotel the week before the season got going – “to simply converse, with us and each other, maybe about what they’re working on, maybe not. The idea was very unstructured, very easy,” Shapiro says.

From that invitation evolved what is one of the most highly regarded creative-writing workshops in its milieu. Each year at the end of March, 29 participants, selected by Shapiro, convene in this almost absurdly photogenic Amalfi Coast town in its hushed, introspective, lovely off-season. They break into three groups to spend an intimate, at times emotionally fraught, week: three hours each morning, laying open their work for assessment, criticism and occasional deconstruction and reconstitution by Shapiro and other noted writers: the likes of Jonathan Burnham Schwartz (the author of Reservation Road, who taught in 2008); Jim Shepard, a National Book Award finalist and New Yorker contributor; and Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief (inspiration for the film Adaptation), who will lead a non-fiction workshop in 2012.

Overseeing and collaborating with all three is Sirenland’s third founder, Hannah Tinti, editor of the New York short-story journal One Story. “As we reverse-engineered this from just an invitation to a legitimate conference,” says Maren, “it was clear we wanted the association – the imprimatur – of a very good literary magazine. Hannah had been a student of Dani’s and had just published her own novel; she was immediately on it, e-mailing her authors and subscribers, getting them to apply and spread the word.”

The concept, and the industry, of the writers’ conference are singularly American, and it was the US that pioneered advanced degrees in creative writing, which are offered by some of its top universities, including Columbia, Brown, Johns Hopkins and Cornell. The best conferences often retain authors of international stature on their rotating teaching faculties; apart from the prestige and near-guaranteed student adulation, they are also attracted by the hefty fee, often in the five figures, which they can command for a week or so on site, leading workshops for a couple of hours a day. Among the better-known events are the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, held during the summer at Middlebury College in Vermont; the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, sponsored by the literary journal of the same name; and the annual Zoetrope Short-Story Workshop, under the aegis of the quarterly founded by Francis Ford Coppola, which meets at Blancaneaux Lodge, his eco-resort in Belize.

But Sirenland has a few unique selling points. One is the quality of its leadership. The authors who participate enjoy considerable renown among the literary class, but they also have reputations as being among the country’s best teachers. Shapiro has been on the creative-writing faculties at Columbia University and New York’s New School, and was a professor at Wesleyan University; Shepard runs the creative-writing programme at Williams College in Massachusetts (like Middlebury, one of the “Little Ivies” – the most competitive small liberal arts colleges in America). “Writers who teach develop reputations among students, colleagues and peers,” says Shapiro. “It’s a small world; over time you come to know who is world-class. We’ve had seriously famous authors express interest in being part of Sirenland, but they just didn’t have the teaching bona-fides.”

The students themselves also stand out as a surprisingly catholic, international mix. This is largely the result of two factors: the conference’s fee (at $3,600, not including transportation, most meals or any extras, it does filter out certain aspirants); and the importance attached to the applicant’s quality of work and statement of purpose as opposed to their track record in getting their work published. Thus, over the past three years participants have included a 30-something Irish securities analyst based in London; a middle-aged intuitive healer from suburban Connecticut; a Dallas art philanthropist and socialite; an Inuit woman who travelled 5,350 miles from Anchorage, Alaska (three times, workshopping a different chapter of her book each year); an 81-year-old retired advertising executive from New York; and a 35-year-old who heads up a creative arts programme in Qatar. There have been superior-court judges and magazine editors, homemakers and successful screenwriters, and, predictably, a smattering of MFA students. The common denominator is the shared commitment to the writing life.

Then there is the degree of access students have to their teachers. Shepard, who has taught at both Bread Loaf and Tin House, observes that a successful conference requires a fairly precise alchemy of rigour and support. “Things go drastically wrong when there’s a diminution of either. You can get an alienating teacher-student hierarchy. You know: ‘I’m in the boat, you’re in the water; show me what you’ve got.’ Or you’re all just doing a group hug, because you’ll probably never see these people again, so why not go easy on them and say nice things about their writing? Which is, incidentally, precisely what I imagine the European suspicions are about what goes on at American writing conferences. Sirenland is genuinely, unusually communal. My students talk to Dani, and hers to me; we’ll go have a pizza by the beach together and break down a problem they’re having. They conspire with us to make it supportive, by which I mean optimistic – optimism being a crucial quality in a rigorous reader.”

And literary agents are conspicuous by their absence at Sirenland; they are expressly not invited. One Story’s Tinti holds a private conference with each student, offering advice in the practical aspects of publishing; but, says Maren, “We have a sort of mission statement we adhere to: ‘It’s about the writing.’ Not the book deal, or the business-card exchange: the writing.” That said, many of the participants are published authors, and quite a few already have editors and/or agents; indeed, one 2011 Sirenlander, Karen Thompson Walker, secured a whopping $1m advance for her first novel, The Age of Miracles, just before arriving in Positano.

And then, of course, there is the setting. Sirenland’s participants and teachers (and, if they tag along, various significant others) live for the week in one of the few hotels that qualifies as a legend in its own right. Le Sirenuse is as much an idea as a place, a cynosure of both the signal glamour and the profligate beauty made famous by this town and stretch of coastline, with a guest list that reads like a Who’s Who of the transatlantic and Hollywood beaux mondes. It takes its name from Li Galli, the trio of islets visible half a mile offshore (known in antiquity as Le Sirenuse), one of the apocryphal homes of the sirens who sought to lure Odysseus to his death. (The conference’s name is instead a nod to Norman Douglas’s 1911 travelogue Siren Land, about the changing life along the southern Italian coast.) In 1953, John Steinbeck wrote of Positano’s colourful and delightfully haphazard cascade down a narrow inlet to the Tyrrhenian sea: “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” (He less famously predicted that “it is never likely to attract the organdie-and-white-linen tourist”; those paying upwards of £700 a night for a room in the high season and dropping another £250 for a bikini at the Missoni boutique on the Via Cristoforo Colombo would beg to differ.)

Two years earlier, in 1951, the Marchese Paolo Sersale had opened his aristocratic Neopolitan family’s summer villa as an eight-room hotel; Steinbeck described it as “first class… spotless and cool, with grape arbours over its outside dining rooms. Every room has its little balcony and looks out over the blue sea to the islands of the sirens.” Today, the rooms and suites number 59, and under the arbours there’s a champagne and oyster bar with the hardest-to-secure seats in town during July and September. But the Sersales’ own Piranesi etchings and 17th-century antique maps still hang in the rooms and public spaces; and the family still patrols the corridors and holds court at dinner, charmingly overseeing every detail and interaction (along with their 100-plus staff).

So to have the run of the place during Positano’s off-season, when Le Sirenuse is polished and gleaming but not yet open to paying guests, is a very special experience – suffused, even for some of the more mature among Sirenland’s participants, with a slightly subversive Eloise-at-The-Plaza thrill. (Full disclosure: I was a student at Sirenland 2009, and have also spent idyllic days and nights at the hotel in the swing of summer, so can attest to the contrast.) The bar is open in the evenings for aperitivi; the tiny but perfectly formed spa is there as well, if you fancy a massage or a steam between the morning workshops and afternoon outings to Ravello or Herculaneum or a hike to Montepertuso in the hills above town. There is a yoga instructor on site who teaches daily; she also gives private lessons, rolling out a mat across the lemon-yellow and cerulean-tiled floor of your hotel room, in front of French doors leading to your sun-suffused terrace facing the sea. The restaurant, La Sponda, is lit entirely by candlelight when the Sersales host dinner, just as it is during the season. Such evenings are often preceded by teachers’ readings of their work; or ones by writers in residence at the American Academy in Rome, or ones Shapiro and Maren happen to know are in the area, who are invited down for an evening to participate. Other nights, students and teachers descend in groups to the seafront, to Positano stalwarts Chez Black or La Pergola, for shared pizzas or grilled fish or spaghetti alle vongole.

Permeating all of this – the soul-baring intensity of the workshops, the camaraderie of the evenings, the luxurious surroundings and attentions of the staff – is the particular quality of being in this place at this time of year. The town’s configuration recalls a cradle, sitting as it does in a cleft of valley, embraced by steep mountain and cliff, giving gently into a placid sea. There is one road in, one road out. In March it is an awakening, fledgling place, virtually devoid of tourists. “This place is so precarious,” notes Shapiro, “this incredibly precarious accretion of buildings and houses almost falling down the mountainside – and yet so gorgeous. And strangely nurturing. There’s a real magic to being here out of season. That ends up working beautifully with what we’re doing here. People are making themselves very vulnerable by showing their work; it helps to feel so cosseted.”