The Sun Valley Writer’s Conference has always been one of my favorite events of the year. I planned carefully and purchased my tickets months in advance. I reserved my room at the Sun Valley Lodge one year ahead. It is truly an intellectually stimulating weekend with brilliant thinkers, provocative ideas, and a time to reflect on one’s life as well as enjoy the magnificent scenery and weather of Sun Valley (not to mention the many good friends I love). I attended one of the first conferences when they were held in the local community school. I sat behind my school desk as a young student and listened to Mitch Albom read from his new book, Tuesdays with Morrie. No one had ever heard of the book. I think it subsequently spent nearly five years on the best-seller list. It was the first time I had ever cried when an author read from a book. I was hooked.
I have attended approximately 17 of these conferences and each year I am blown away. This year was no exception. The start of the conference for me was the brilliant author and cellist, Mark Salzman, playing everything with his beautiful young daughters as soprano and alto accompanying him. Interspersed in his serene performance were readings from a seventh-grader in Los Angeles, a prisoner, and a Chinese medical student from his travels in China.
The first evening’s presentation came from my favorite biographer and friend, A. Scott Berg. He spends nearly ten years preparing his biographies. His latest is on Woodrow Wilson. I never knew much about his presidency until I heard Scott speak about him and learned to appreciate Wilson’s many talents. Woodrow Wilson was the most educated of any American president. He also was not a politician. Scott’s Friday night presentation centered around World War I, the various causes that led us there and America’s reaction to it, as well as President Wilson’s subsequent work on the League of Nations. It was all so relevant to today, dealing with racial injustice at the time of our returning 400,000 black troops, as well as the question of when we should enter a war. Interspersed in his presentation were musical interludes from the period by talented artists. What a great start to the conference!
The next morning, I heard Arlie Hochschild, a professor from the University of California at Berkeley who set out five years ago to study the Tea Party in Louisiana. Her book Strangers in their Own Land was a New York Times best-seller. She spent many, many months getting to know a group of 50 people in Louisiana. She chose Louisiana because 40% of their state budget comes from the federal government, yet the people there have a great deal of disdain for government as they are one of the poorest states in the union. She left her liberal university bubble and wanted to explore people who held different views and why. Her presentation was brilliant and I learned so much. There are 70 organizations in America attempting to bridge today’s divide of political differences. One is called Living Room Conversations and another Hi from the Other Side. There’s some encouraging news: a congressman from Silicon Valley created an interchange with a congressman from Kentucky and 30 computer coders went to Kentucky to teach unemployed coal miners how to code; also, George Soros joined with the Koch brothers in an environmental initiative. I came away thinking there is hope in bridging the gap and creating a strong middle ground.
Next up, we traveled again to the big pavilion for a main presentation which started with a short reading by my favorite poet, Billy Collins, and then we heard from Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, one of the most celebrated novels of literature in recent years. He reimagines the institution of slavery through the fantastical journey of Cora, a runaway slave. He brought his novel alive with poignant readings and shared the story of his journey to become a writer. Colson’s book was a #1 best-seller on The New York Times list, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 as well as the National Book Award–the first novel to do that since 1994. His articulate presentation and dynamic presence left me breathless.
Next up in the pavilion was Helen Macdonald, who recounts the story of how, in the wake of losing her beloved father, she withdraws from the human world. A longtime falconer, she decides to raise a young goshawk, a vicious and massive bird of prey notoriously difficult to train. Helen spent seven years with this bird and her original memoir, H is for Hawk, chronicles her experiences. It is hard for me to imagine sitting in a living room, watching television with your hawk sitting next to you. After her presentation, there were several falconers with hawks for demonstrations with Helen.
Then, I headed to the Gail Severn Gallery in downtown Ketchum to have a look at the beautiful sculptures that we had seen on the grounds of the Sun Valley Lodge. Her gallery is a must-stop when traveling to Sun Valley. After a quick lunch on the go, we headed to a breakout session. I had chosen to listen to Anne Taylor Fleming, Associate Director of the conference, interview Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, about Trump, Putin, and the New World disorder. Brilliant observations about the war in Syria, the Kremlin’s strategy of weakening alliances like NATO, as well as the disarray in Europe.
Next stop was Lynsey Addario who has photographed so many war zones over the past 20 years for The New York Times, National Geographic and TIME Magazine. She has given us indelible images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the genocide in Darfur, the refugee crisis, and the civil war in Libya, where she was kidnapped and beaten by pro-Gaddafi forces in 2011. She published a recent memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. As she recounts her incredible experiences, I can’t help but wonder about her amazing courage that gives us the opportunity to peek into the tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man. The last presentation of the day came from Jeffrey Toobin, longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, CNN senior legal analyst, and author of seven books, including The Nine, his captivating examination of the people who decide the law of the land on the Supreme Court. His observations, as well as sense of humor transfixed the audience. I learned so much about the Supreme Court that the next time I go to Washington, I’m making it a point to get a seat in the audience.
I chose my Sunday morning breakout session with Brad Stone, who wrote a wonderful biography, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. I met Jeff and his wife many years ago in Beverly Hills and Jeff spoke about the beginnings of Amazon, which takes its name from the power and strength of the Amazon River. Brad tells the story of the creation of the Kindle and mentions that Amazon is now the 4th largest company in the world. Because of Jeff’s tremendous vision and leadership, Brad predicts Amazon will one day be #1.
Next up was an interesting presentation by Andrew Solomon, who has won the National Book Award and is a travel author who has visited 87 countries. He gives us a true portrait of our world. He speaks with such passion about the importance of travel and understanding people who are different and how we all should be citizens of the world in today’s global village. Andrew has spent over 25 years making himself an incredible observer of human nature. He received a cheering standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk, which included a video of an exorcism where he was the subject.
After a wonderful lunch with friends, I headed to Liberty Imperiled. Laura K. Donahue is the author of The Future of Foreign Intelligence: Privacy and Surveillance in a Digital Age as well as a Professor of Law at Georgetown University and one of the five public advocates to FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), which gives law enforcement warrants. She talks about the importance of our Fourth Amendment and how with today’s technology and federal powers, the future of privacy in the United States is in jeopardy. They demonstrated a drone that could photograph someone in the audience and map every one of their relationships, their entire life, their grandparents’ histories, and almost every single fact you could imagine, all of this pulled from the computer in a matter of three minutes. It was horrifying. I wonder how we can ever solve this problem.
Later, we had a chance to see Muslims in America: A Playwright’s Compendium of Characters. No playwright has challenged our perception of Muslims in America as boldly, and with such dramatic vigor, as Ayad Akhtar, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced, the most produced play of the season. Incredibly talented actors portrayed portions of his play; the monologues were amazing and brought reality and humor to the stage.
The final presentation on Sunday came from one of my favorite authors, David Brooks, formerly with The Wall Street Journal and a columnist with The New York Times since 2003. He is the author of many books, his most recent, the #1 best-seller, The Road to Character, was in fact the theme of the entire conference. David has been traveling around America hoping to go beyond the raging partisan political wars and find out what really matters to Americans. He says people are looking for connections with each other, their families, their communities, and trying to figure out how to live a meaningful life of moral worth. In a talk on the importance of happiness and enlightenment, and with great humor, he gave an articulate presentation directing his audience toward the most worthwhile of goals.
A million thank yous to the literary team, John Burnham Schwartz, Literary Director and author of five novels, Anne Taylor Fleming, Associate Director, and Liaquat Ahamed, Literary Advisor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, who spend the year creating this wonderful weekend, along with an impressive list of conference advisors and fabulous staff.