Celebrating 30 Years

Celebrating 30 Years

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In the first, almost mystical, year of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, held in a small tent on the Community School campus, 100 eager and curious readers sat on folding chairs, with the breeze blowing gently through the open sides, and listened to talented writers speak, including the iconic journalist David Halberstam and the two-time president of CBS News, Van Gordon Sauter. The young novelist Mark Salzman accompanied his remarks by playing sublime cello interludes; 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.; and Bruce Willis and Richard Dreyfuss read stories to a group of young children spread out on the grass. Magic was born.

 

Within three years, the Conference grew from 12 writers and 100 readers to 30 writers and 600 attendees and moved into the original Sun Valley Symphony tent. It was the epitome of “build it and they will come,” with early programs created and nurtured under the leadership of Reva Tooley and other originalists like Jon and Leslie Maksik, Gordon Russell, and Anne Taylor Fleming.  

 

It was never a question that the Conference should take place in Sun Valley, with all its natural beauty and engaged residents and visitors who were drawn to cultural summer and fall events under the blue skies and in the mountain air. Nearly everyone involved had spent years in the Valley and felt its pull. Guest presenters felt it as well and it wasn’t long before the novelist E.L. Doctorow dubbed SVWC the “best-ever summer camp for writers.”

 

Curiosity, imagination, adventure, and a thirst for knowledge drove the programming, under the founding executorship of Reva Tooley. Writers loved being feted in an unabashedly friendly environment, and attendees enjoyed the intimacy of an outdoor affair populated by stage talks and cozier readings and Q&A, up close with the authors in multiple small breakout sessions.  

 

Over 30 years, the Conference has never lost the founding values that create wonderful, inspiring, and ever-changing programs. The Sun Valley Pavilion is now its magnificent home for large presentations, and breakouts in small tents are still the most popular offering. SVWC sells out quickly every year and has gained a reputation amongst writers for having one of the finest audiences in the country, many who come year after year and have created a close community united by a love of reading and respect for ideas. John Burnham Schwartz is the esteemed longtime Literary Director and works closely with Associate Director Anne Taylor Fleming and an engaged programming committee to invite authors and produce the event.  

 

“There is so much joy in creating our annual feast for readers,” says Robin Eidsmo, SVWC Executive Director. “We have come to see it as inspiration for both the head and the heart. 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 all about connection.”

 

In 2002, the historian David McCullough came to speak and encouraged the Conference to record its talks and make them available to a much wider audience. Today, anywhere in the world, one can tune in to hear livestreamed presentations from the Pavilion stage and to access audio and video recordings of sessions, all available for free on the SVWC website. Donor support has allowed the Conference to offer New Voices Fellowships to authors with a first-time published work as well as opportunities for young people from colleges, universities, and graduate programs who aspire to write to attend as Writing Fellows. Fellows are invited to spend intimate time with established authors and many mentoring friendships are born at SVWC.

 

As part of the Community Scholars Program, Wood River Valley students participate in a spring reading program and private session with an author, and in 2024, the author Javier Zamora will speak and share his book Solito–the story of his inspirational and harrowing immigrant journey–with Hispanic and Peruvian middle school children and families in the Valley.   

 

“Out of the palpable excitement of being together for an amazing weekend, so many ideas spring to mind every year,” Eidsmo shares. “Our opportunities for growth feel boundless. 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.”

 

Several of the original founders at a 2019 SVWC dinner including (left to right) Jon and Leslie Maksik, Gordon Russell and wife Tina McAdoo, Reva and Bill Tooley
Founder Reva Tooley with husband Bill Tooley
Associate Director Anne Taylor Fleming (left) speaking with founder Reva Tooley (right) during the inaugural Sun Valley Writers’ Conference in 1995
Actor Bruce Willis reading to children at the first-ever Sun Valley Writers’ Conference in 1995
Writer, journalist, and historian David Halberstam speaking at the first Writers’ Conference in 1995
Longtime donor and friend of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Helen Bing (right)
Actor Richard Dreyfuss reading to children at the SVWC inaugural event
Writer Mark Salzman on the cello at the first SVWC
Writer and two-time president of CBS News, Van Gordon Sauter (center), speaking at the 1995 SVWC

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