by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
Among many other notable presences, the 28th Sewanee Writers’ Conference (SWC) welcomed poet Charles Martin and fiction writer Tim O’Brien, both who served on the faculty at the first SWC in 1990.
“Aside from Wyatt [founding director Wyatt Prunty], Charles and I are the only survivors of that first conference,” O’Brien said. Since then, O’Brien’s served on the faculty every other year, and similarly, Martin counted this year’s event as his 14th SWC. Martin has also served frequently on the faculty at the School of Letters.
“Since 2008, Sewanee has become a steady summer thing for me. I’ve had a presence at the conference or the School of Letters or both,” Martin said.
“Dry boxes of cereal were the only food late at night,” Martin laughed, recalling the first SWC when he stayed at Rebel’s Rest, a Sewanee landmark that burned in 2014. But all joking aside, Martin’s humor quickly takes a backseat to his awestruck admiration of Sewanee.
Martin knew SWC founding director Prunty from John Hopkins University where they both served on the writing seminars faculty. Martin had never visited the South before coming to the 1990 conference, and he spent a day in Nashville before travelling on to Sewanee.
“Driving up to the plateau was like going into another kingdom. Sewanee is unlike any other place in the world. It’s the kind of University the hobbits would have built, twinkling cabins in the woods, the deafening chorus of cicadas,” said Martin.
O’Brien agrees. He and his family live in Austin, Texas, a hubbub of freeways, congestion and crowds. “Sewanee was love at first sight, the air, the University, the mountain top feel—it’s a perfect setting for conversation. Sewanee is probably my favorite place on earth.”
O’Brien knew Prunty from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. When Prunty asked him to serve on the faculty at the first SWC, O’Brien said, “Yeah, sure. Wyatt’s my friend, a generous kind person who loves people. I didn’t even ask how much I was going to get paid.” The wage turned out to be far more than O’Brien expected thanks to the generosity of the Walter E. Dakin Memorial Fund, a bequest from the estate of the late Tennessee Williams that has made the SWC one of the top ranking writers’ meccas in the nation.
O’Brien recalls Prunty giving a reading at an early conference when the mischievous staff filled his water glass at the podium with vodka. “Wyatt took a huge slug. He couldn’t spit it out and swallowed, scanning the room for the culprit.” Others might have gotten angry, O’Brien said, praising Prunty for his generosity of spirit in all things.
For the faculty, the conference schedule is demanding. “The conference is a very intense experience, and I never left campus much until I began teaching at the School of Letters when my wife and I had time to drive around the area,” Martin said.
O’Brien concurs. “You have nine student manuscripts to evaluate. That’s a lot of pages, and you need to read them attentively like an editor and pay attention to every line—I’m anal that way.”
Five years ago, Martin who has taught since his graduate school days in the 60s, decided to retire from teaching to devote himself to writing full time. He turned in the manuscript for his sixth poetry collection, “Future Perfect,” Scheduled for release in 2018, two weeks before this conference. Also the author of three translations, fine arts books, and a historical perspective on the work of the Roman poet Catullus, Martin plans to turn his attention next to craft lecture essays.
“I like to switch it up,” Martin said. “I’m really happy with the decision to write full time.”
For O’Brien, as well, writing is his full time profession. “I live in my office in my underwear, and I write. At Sewanee, I’m around people, and I enjoy it.”
O’Brien, who has published nine book-length works of fiction is also working on a series of craft essays. Of the things he’s written, his favorite is a new piece on the experience of fatherhood, “Papa” Ernest Hemingway, and his two young sons. “My favorite is always what I’m working on now. You love the new infant, feel protective.”
Both men have kept in touch with some of their students. “This year, a student I had eight years ago returned, and she’s just published a novel,” O’Brien said.
“There are more activities than there were in 1990,” Martin noted. “I’m teaching a translation workshop, for example. But most of the changes are external like the new Sewanee Inn.”
O’Brien confessed, “I was afraid of Charles for the first 10 years. Charles is so quiet and a poet. I didn’t want to interrupt his reverie. Then one evening, we ended up in side by side rocking chairs at the French House.” Martin gave him a copy of a manuscript he was working on, a reminiscence on Nabokov. “It was incredibly moving and well written,” O’Brien said. “We talked about Nabokov for hours and became fast friends.”
O’Brien, too, sees little change since 1990, remarking instead on the “abiding feeling of decency, civility and kindness.” Asked to sum up the SWC experience in five words, O’Brien said, “The world should be Sewanee.”