Arts July 10, 2024

From A(twood) to Z(ygar)

Sun Valley Writers Conference celebrates 30 years

The Sun Valley Writers’ Conference (SVWC) celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer at the Sun Valley Resort and Pavilion. From Saturday, July 20 through Monday, July 22, some of the world’s best writers (fiction, nonfiction, poetry and journalism) will share their ideas and inspirations with sold-out audiences. This year’s all-star lineup includes Margaret Atwood (recipient of the 2024 SVWC Writer in the World Award), Judy Blume, Justice Stephen Breyer, Niall Ferguson, Kristin Hannah, Erik Larson, Padma Lakshmi, Maggie O’Farrell, Tommy Orange, John Vaillant, and many more.

Like all great stories, SVWC began with an idea. “Years ago, when I was hired as a reporter at The Arizona Republic,” says founder Reva Tooley, “I inherited the responsibility for a popular Books & Authors Luncheon, sponsored by the newspaper.  Some years later–after marriage, motherhood, and a home in Ketchum–I got the idea that Sun Valley might embrace a similar sort of event.”

speaker at Sun Valley Writer's Conference

Reva was right. The Conference soon blossomed into an annual affair, with the help of a number of people. “Fortunately, a few locals, including Diane Peavey, Barbi Reed, and Linda Sherwood, helped me think through the possibilities,” Reva continues. “The magic sauce came from Jon and Leslie Maksik of The Community School, who not only offered the school campus as the first venue, but also talked one of the school’s Board members, entrepreneur Gordon Russell, into funding the experiment.”

Reva remembers those first stages fondly, saying, “We wanted to kick off our fledgling project with respected writers. Ridley Pearson and Ethan Canin, along with a few of their fiction and nonfiction writer pals, agreed to give talks in the school classrooms. In those early days, SVWC felt like a great little summer camp. My son James, who was a Community School senior, volunteered to work at the event, as did our cousin, Robin Eidsmo, who sold $2 lunch tickets from Perry’s to the 110 attendees who turned up.”

During the inaugural SVWC in 1995, Bruce Willis and Richard Dreyfuss read stories to a group of young children spread out on the grass; short-story writer and physician Ethan Canin spoke about his acclaimed first book, Emperor of the Air; Freida Lee Mock showed her Oscar-winning documentary film on Maya Lin and the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.; novelist Mark Salzman accompanied his remarks by playing sublime cello interludes; and iconic journalist David Halberstam and the two-time president of CBS News, Van Gordon Sauter, shared their insights with attendees. The novelist E.L. Doctorow soon dubbed SVWC the “best-ever summer camp for writers.” In just three years, the Conference grew from 12 writers and 100 readers to 30 writers and 600 attendees, and its numbers are still growing.

people at the Sun Valley Writer's Conference

Since its inception 30 years ago, the SVWC has been able to draw large crowds.

Presently, Robin Eidsmo has taken position as the Executive Director and James Tooley as the Creative Director, working closely with longtime Literary Director John Burnhan Schwartz and Associate Program Director Anne Taylor Fleming. “I’m so grateful to them, the Sun Valley Company, the Board members, our donors, the writers who trust us, and several generations of staff and volunteers from the community and beyond who have worked at the Conference over the last three decades,” says Reva. “And I’m still somewhat astonished and grateful that it has all turned out so well.”

The enthusiastic response from the literary community continues as well–SVWC passes sold out this year in less than 15 minutes. A limited number of single event tickets to individual presentations featuring Paul Muldoon, Margaret Atwood with Ayad Akhtar, Niall Ferguson with Evan Osnos, Erik Larson, and Anne Lamott will be available for sale on the SVWC website starting June 12 for $35 each.

“Our opportunities for growth feel boundless,” says Eidsmo. “We hope to find more ways to involve young people; to imagine a program that allows us to beam in writers remotely from around the world; to promote even broader access to talks beyond just the Wood River Valley; and to closely follow the careers of our treasured alumni and stay connected with them.”

When asked how the group of writers is selected for each event, James explains, “One of the unique challenges of programming the Conference is that we’re always looking ahead and asking questions about what the world will look like in six months or a year. What will be the most pressing issues facing humanity? What will our audience be curious about and who are the best presenters to bring those topics to our stage? Will our audience want an escape from the headlines, or will they want a deep dive into current events? Ultimately, we’re always trying to find the right balance of topics that speak to the head as well as the heart.”

Fans at the Sun Valley Writer's Conference

With each year’s growth, the conference has become a staple of fans and writers as the event has become a summer camp for writers.

“There is so much joy in creating our annual feast for readers,” adds Eidsmo. “We have come to see it as a source of inspiration on many different levels. That inspiration certainly comes from the astounding privilege of simply spending our time reading works of literature, but it also comes from the immensely gratifying connection and participation of the donors and attendees and listeners far and wide. In a world where we hear so much about polarization, the Conference is a respite that is all about connection.”

This article appears in the Summer 2024 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.