The Sheraton Hotel in Guildford is a hive of authors, aspiring writers and books for the 30th Surrey International Writers’ Conference.
This week, the five-day event returned as an in-person gathering, amplified by workshops and online courses created over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The popular conference was started in the early 1990s by founder Ed Griffin, writer, former priest and social worker. He had attended a writers conference in Seattle and thought Surrey could easily support such an event, first held here at Johnston Heights Secondary before moving to the Sheraton in 1994.
Griffin taught prisoners the craft of writing at Matsqui and, while at the Surrey conference, met and befriended novelist Diana Gabaldon, a fellow American known for the “Outlander” series. For years Griffin persuaded Gabaldon to join him in the prison classroom in Surrey, until his death in 2015, aged 78, and Gabaldon continued that work.
Now, for almost three decades, Gabaldon has been a staunch supporter of the annual writers’ conference in Surrey, while witnessing the continued popularity of his ‘Outlander’ fantasy romance books and subsequent TV series. .
“Diana continued unceremoniously to support her (Griffin’s) initiative,” notes Ursula Maxwell-Lewis, founding member of the conference and director emeritus, in the latest newsletter from the Arts Council of Surrey. “Additionally, along with the late Jack Whyte, Diana co-sponsored the prestigious $1,000 Storyteller’s Award.”
In recent years, drawn to Gabaldon’s appearances here, fans of the time-traveling TV show Foreign have made Surrey the site of an annual convention synchronized with the writers’ conference.
On Friday (October 21), Gabaldon reflected on three decades of the Surrey event.
“I wasn’t here the first year of the conference, but I’ve been here every year after that, I think,” she recalls.
“It’s the general atmosphere, extremely friendly,” Gabaldon added. “The atmosphere is designed to be extremely supportive and also to provide lots of opportunities for interaction between the people attending as well as the presenters and so on. It’s very egalitarian and you’ll meet everyone in the elevators going up and down. This hotel is particularly conducive to that too.
Gabaldon said Griffin “had no budget but had a dream” for the Surrey conference, and cleverly timed it the same weekend as the Vancouver Writers Fest.
“So he would look at the book festival schedule and see who had time off, maybe, and then call the book publisher and ask their authors to come to the Surrey conference,” she recalls. “He managed to attract quite a few international authors that way.”
Reluctantly, 70-year-old Gabaldon takes credit for helping to build the Surrey conference over the years.
“The conference is much bigger than me, and there are a number of well-known published authors here,” she insisted. “I’m very happy to be a part of it and to help it grow, and I think what this conference does is very valuable. I grew up in a family of educators, so I’m very supportive of people being educated about everything they want to know. And you know, I love teaching, and I’m really glad to have the opportunity to do that here, and I know a lot of other writers feel the same way.