Look back about two decades, if you will, and focus upon Italy, up in the northeast corner where floats lovely Lake Garda, not far from better-known Lake Como. See: there on the eastern shore, that charming village of Torri del Benaco? Recognize anybody? Yes, of course. There by the water sit Elaine and Bill Petrocelli, owners of Book Passage in faraway Corte Madera, California, down from their house in the walled, hilly hamlet of Albisano. They sip a little something red; perhaps a glass of Bardolino from the town down the road. What are they talking about, do you think? Did you hear the word “conference”? Very possibly.
Almost the first thing on the Petrocellis’ to-do list following their vacation in 1991 was to seek out Don George, then travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, and to ask his help in creating an annual Travel Writers Conference.
Done. Nineteen years ago in August, the Petrocellis gave birth to an annual Travel Writers Conference that later added the discipline of making pictures under the generalship of Robert Holmes, and in 2010 has matured into the Travel, Food & Photography Conference, on stage at Book Passage from Aug. 12 through 15. This may just be the most highly honed conference of its kind anywhere.
What happens? Students select a morning session of intensive study in one of seven workshops: Newspaper & Magazine Writing, Personal Essay, Longer Narrative, Guidebook Writing, Travel Photography, Advanced Newspaper Writing, Advanced Magazine Writing.
In the afternoons workshops are open to all students, with nine temptations: Travel Photography for Writers, Selling That First Story, Writing for Guidebooks, Making a Living as a Freelancer, On-Line Publishing and Resources, Working With a Book Agent, Photographing People, Advice for Published Writers, and The Business of Travel Photography.
If you tend to be star-struck by literary lions, consider rubbing elbows and ideas with the notable writers who have taken part in this conference: Isabel Allende, Bill Bryson, Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, Peter Matthiessen, Peter Mayle, Jan Morris, Amy Tan, Simon Winchester, and more of that talented tribe.
In the evenings – oh, the evenings! Renowned writers tell tales (some of them tall), faculty folk join students in lively (if not always entirely logical) divertissements in the café and on the patio, and a remarkable fusion occurs as former strangers become friends.
And who knows? If you submit a sensational story to the writing contest, you might win a trip around the world during the closing ceremonies!
Thomas Swick of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel put it best back in 2005: “If good Americans go to Paris when they die, good American travel writers go to Corte Madera.”
— Georgia I. Hesse