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Writers on the range 

by Marty Demarest

As if running an independent press, editing authors, publishing books and running a weeklong annual literary festival wasn't enough, Christine Holbert, the founder of Lost Horse Press and organizer of Get Lit!, will be helping to launch another endeavor this weekend. The Lost Horse Writers' Conference will be attracting writers from across the nation to Sandpoint, in order to spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday studying with some of the premier authors of the Northwest.

Along with some of the usual classes and seminars that literary conferences feature, the Lost Horse Writers' Conference is taking an appropriately regional and unusual approach to the forum. Classes will be held with the usual topics of poetry and prose, but screenwriting and children's literature are also included. Seminars branch out into many of the nuts-and-bolts issues that writers face, such as getting published. And there will be readings for the public on Friday and Saturday nights, with an open mike and a dance following Saturday's reading. Both events will be held at the Oden Day Community Hall.

The idea for a regional festival was first brought up in a conversation Holbert had with local author Jonathan Johnson, when he discovered that she was moving to Sandpoint. "Christine was moving to Sandpoint at the time, and she had Lost Horse Press in Spokane then," Johnson explains. "My family has lived in Sandpoint since the '50s, and was part of the community. And in the last 10 or 15 years, the arts have done very well in Sandpoint, but it seemed like literature was still waiting to be exploited. So right away, within 10 or 15 minutes of her telling me that she was moving, we were talking about the idea for this conference."

"What I've found at writers' conferences," Holbert explains, "is that people are really, really hungry for this kind of literary activity. But I was worried that maybe writers wouldn't be receptive to a writers' conference in Sandpoint. But the writers were more than happy to come because of the beauty of the area. And I was warned that the local writers wouldn't want to pay the money to come to a local conference, but about half of the participants are local. And because Sandpoint has always been known as an arts community, there's a lot of community support for this kind of activity. And so we've been able to give nine local high-school students scholarships to study at the conference."

Johnson, who will be leading one of the poetry workshops, is also delighted by the strong reaction that writers have had to the idea of a conference in Sandpoint. "We've got a good registration -- people coming from Michigan and Missouri. We thought that this year would just be a good foundation, but it has surpassed our expectations."

Nevertheless, the local scene plays an integral part in what will be taking place this weekend. "It was really important that even though we wanted this conference to be a national event, with national exposure, we wanted it to be locally relevant," Johnson continues, "not just a conference in a pretty area. So my favorite point about this conference is that it's in Idaho. My second favorite point is its faculty.

"Marvin Bell is coming, and we wanted someone who was as famous for teaching as writing. He has published 16 books and has won most of the major poetry prizes. And it turns out that he was going to be driving through the area on his way to Port Townsend, so it seems natural to have him here. William Kittredge, who will be teaching fiction writing, just retired from teaching at the University of Montana, so you can't study with him anymore unless you catch him at a conference. He's a very strong voice for the West. And Annick Smith, who is teaching creative non-fiction, also lives in Montana. I just taught her book Homestead, about being a young widow in Montana. It's the voice of a woman's experience with the landscape out here. And when I taught it in Pennsylvania, the students found it to be one of the most powerful texts that I taught all year.

"And I think that we're unlike other writers' conferences in the inclusion of screenwriting and children's literature. Claire Rudolf Murphy, who will be teaching children's literature, has had 11 books published, and she's from Alaska. So the ideas of place are important in her writing. And the timing couldn't be better to have Bob Glatzer for screenwriting, since his book Beyond Popcorn has just been published by EWU Press."

The courses, along with the conference's commitment to community involvement and relevant topics are what Holbert and Johnson are counting on to draw wider attention to the conference, and to the literary scene in the region. "We're trying to cover a lot of things that people can't find at other conferences," says Holbert, "and I'm confident that as this continues, people will tell other people, and the conference will grow."

The Lost Horse Writers' Conference is May 4-6 in Sandpoint. Readings: Friday and Saturday at 7 pm at the Oden Day Community Hall, on Sunnyside Road, five miles northeast of Sandpoint off Route 200, with an open mike and dance following Saturday's reading. Call: (208) 255-4410.

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