#smwc2020, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Page turner: 18th annual SMA Writers Conference will be last for founder

Founder and executive director of the San Miguel Writers Conference & Literary Festival Susan Page steps down this year.

It seems hard to imagine, but there was a time when writers in San Miguel de Allende had no platform on which to read their works and no outlet to sell their books. 

The “dark ages” were barely two decades ago.

Two women – one who is strong on organizing and one who has the vision – noticed the void and decided to do something about it. 

And so, in 2004, Susan Page and Jody Feagan (now of Santa Fe) organized a modest literary sala where local writers could come and read from their works and talk about their craft.

“I just had in mind this little baby organization, because there was no place for authors to sell our books and no author readings at that time,” recalls Susan Page, an author herself of six personal-relationship books, including the huge seller, “If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?”

Two years later Faegan – who Page refers to as her “shadow angel” – suggested that they up their game.

Susan Page, as is her way, ran with the idea. “Some people make pottery, some people sew, I organize things, ” she says with a chuckle. “I just seem to have a propensity for organizing things.” 

The first San Miguel Literary Conference was organized in 2006. It was a modest beginning, with 28 attendees, that has grown to hundreds of participants from all over the world, adding $2 million to the San Miguel economy each year.

Page has been executive director of the prestigious San Miguel Writers Conference & Literary Festival for the entire 18 years.

And this year will be her last.

“I’m officially retiring after this conference,” said Page in a recent Zoom talk from Berkeley, California. 

Sure, but can she stay away?

“I’m, you know, it’s funny,” she says with a laugh. “It is definitely time for me to retire but I’ll probably keep a hand in.” One area where Page might stay active is in the care and nurturing of donors and patrons.

“They keep the conference affordable for every one of us,” she says. “We couldn’t afford to put the conference on with just registration fees.”  Susan Page is as passionate about underwriting for the conference as she is about the quality of keynote speakers and faculty who have made this conference so special. 

The two go hand-in-hand.

But who can replace Susan Page whose presence and presentation have been the heartbeat and face of the conference and literary festival these 18 years? 

The answer is her other “shadow angel,” Tina Bueche, who showed up as volunteer coordinator a half-decade ago and has become indispensable to the operation. 

“She came on as volunteer coordinator in 2017,” recalls Page, “and then just became extremely active on the executive committee taking on more responsibilities. She became the Director of Operations and then the Associate Executive Director. I am extremely grateful as I needed someone that was willing and capable of taking over. She came to the Conference at a great time.”

Among Bueche’s talents is a keen interest in technology and communications platforms. Her skills were essential during the two years the Conference was forced to go online during the pandemic.

As he retires, Page leaves in place a core team of a half-dozen people who organize all aspects of the conference – logistics, talent acquisition, programs, publicity, finance, etc. – year after year. Most have been working with Page for at least a eight year, some longer.

All have been ramping up for the transition for some time. “I turned over major responsibilities long before this conference,” she adds.

“This conference” begins Monday, February 13 through the 17th, at the Real de Minas Hotel and will be live, in-person, for the first time in three years. You can get information on registration, schedules, speakers, and more right here.

“I’m so thrilled that we are returning to a live experience,” says Page. 

Going live again is not without its challenges. The planners have produced a conference a bit smaller than the recent live versions, having had to anticipate more than a year ago the current impacts of the pandemic.

Page calls it a “good news/bad news” situation. More than a month ago, when we talked, a lot of writing sessions and keynotes were selling out. Demand will likely exceed availability, especially for the most popular keynote speakers and writing classes. On the plus side, most of the conference’s popular faculty members are returning.

On the other hand, the slate of keynote speakers presents a lower marque value from years past. 

There won’t be a Margaret Atwood, Calvin Trillin, Barbara Kinsolver, or Delia Owens — but the lineup offers some pretty intriguing and promising names.

“They are all rising stars,” says Page, “with excellent reputations and excellent sales for their books. The keynote speakers this year will all be really really good presenters. … If you haven’t really read their books, don’t not go because of that.”

If you haven’t read their books, you’ll be delighted at how many of the speakers are emerging from the crowded field of “New York Times Best Sellers.”

Monday’s speaker, Janelle Brown is the author of novels you are just as likely to recognize from television as well as the bookshelf, especially Pretty Things in development with Nicole Kidman. Her other novels are I’ll Be You, Watch Me Disappear,” All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and This Is Where We Live. She is expected to talk on the upside of flawed characters.

Tuesday offers Brenda Lozano, an up-and-coming author from Mexico City whose novels Cuaderno ideal and Brujas have been translated into English under the titles Loop and Witches: A Novel.

Benjamin Lorr, Wednesday’s keynoter has written two highly acclaimed investigative books, The Secret Life of Groceries, which tackles the mythos of Trader Joe’s and the entire supply chain that supports the tony foodery, and Hell-Bent which delves into the obsessive world of competitive yoga and the culture of Bikram Yoga.

The next night Linda Spaulding takes to the podium to talk about recreating time and place in her historical novels, like A Reckoning and Daughters of Captain Cook.

In a mid-day address on Friday, Jean Kwok tells her own immigration story from a five-year-old in Chinatown sweatshops to Harvard grad to author of the acclaimed Searching for Sylvie Lee, Girl in Translation, and Mambo in Chinatown.

Suzette Mayr, the winner of Canada’s top fiction award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, will be in the spotlight at midday on Thursday to discuss her newest novel, The Sleeping Car Porter.

Unchanged over the years, and especially during the unique challenges of the past two years, is the criteria used to recruit keynote speakers.

“We look for writers who are good speakers, good presenters,” says Page. “We want the keynote address to be a big hit. We look for things they’ve done on YouTube, write to other conferences where they have spoken to get a read on what kind of guests they were. That’s a tough criteria. We also strive for a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  A mix of genders and diversity.”

The mold was cast during that very first conference back in 2006.

“We got the idea that we should focus on distinguished writers the very first year,” recalls Page. “Because I have a friend who was very good friends with John Berendt, who wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which was a very big seller at that time.

“I said, ‘Can you get me John Barrett?’ and she did, so I got the idea that we are a draw for famous personalities. We also got the idea early on that we are tri-cultural and that we should always include speakers from Canada and Mexico.

“We started with one keynote speaker but quickly moved to five so we could have one each night of the conference.”

Before Covid, the Conference was bursting at the seams of Real de Minas Hotel and probably will be again, soon enough. With some creative thinking and making use of the ample grounds at the back of the hotel, the conference has erected canopy tents for many of the workshops. The bookstore is housed in a large tent as is a popular marketplace for local crafts.

A bedouin-tented marketplace of books and ideas.

And it works.

“We’ve tried to create a conference that has something for everyone,” says Page.

And they have.

Except that after this year’s conference closes, they won’t have Susan Page at the helm.

Yet, so much will remain.

The Literary Sala that started it all is still around, now led by Rosaleen Bertolino. There is also now a Poetry Café led by Maia Williams, and Poetry Mesa, led by Catherine Marenghi and Judyth Hill.

The conference also sponsors writing workshops for local students and a variety of other outreach programs. And if you are looking for books written by San Miguelians, you need go no further than the used-book store and gift shop in the Biblioteca where a lone shelf has grown into an overflowing bookcase.

In 2014, the Literary Sala opened a center in Bellas Artes for classes, workshops, readings,  and more. After eight flourishing years, the federal oversight agency evicted the Sala on two weeks’ notice, a major loss to the literary community.

The Sala also paid a teacher to go out to one community in the campo to encourage children to read. A Teen Creative Writing Workshop was a popular part of the Conference for many years. In 2006, a Wednesday evening Spanish literary radio show aimed at youth added to Radio San Miguel and continues to this day. The Big Read was created to invite the whole community to read one book by one of the keynote speakers, accompanied by discussion groups and events. A writing contest now encourages all aspiring authors to submit works.

All of this was built upon the foundation of the Writers Conference which reached its tipping point in 2010 with the arrival of Barbara Kingsolver and her recently published novel The Lacuna. Her presence sent the attendee count into triple digits, recalls Page.

From there her dedicated team and a loyal legion of volunteers have kept the Literary Festival thriving.

Susan Page leaves the written word in good hands in San Miguel de Allende.


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One thought on “Page turner: 18th annual SMA Writers Conference will be last for founder

  1. Pat Harding says:

    Sad to see Susan step down but she truly deserves the break and she is leaving a great legacy in terms of the vision and the team. Thanks for the great story about the history of the Writers Conference!


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