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A new chapter for UND Writers Conference

One recent Sunday, Ruby Groves sat inside a local bookstore with several others to discuss Jessica Lott’s debut novel, “The Rest of Us,” a tale about a young photographer’s assistant who has an affair with a famous poet.  

Groves was one of several gathered for a session intended to familiarize the public with authors slated to appear in the upcoming writers conference, an annual event that has brought some of the most influential and upcoming writers in the world to Grand Forks.

Afterward, the older woman said she’d feared this conference would be the last. Groves, who has attended the conference for the past 12 years, said she’s seen fewer and fewer participate.

“It breaks my heart,” she said.

For more than four decades, the conference has drawn attendees from all over and established itself as a prized community event, but six months ago the its future seemed uncertain. The university has been spending an estimated $70,000 to bring in the nationally and internationally known writers each year to the free event, and organizers have failed to effectively communicate the cost to maintain it, they said.

“People had absolutely no idea,” said Crystal Alberts, co-director of the conference. “I think there were a lot of assumptions about how it either didn’t cost that much or that there was just money available. The directors have always had to write grants and sort of find ways to make this conference work every year. It never had money.”

But that’s changing. For several months now, the College of Arts and Sciences has been collaborating with the UND Alumni Association and UND Foundation to boost fundraising and create an endowment that will fund the conference for years to come, said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs. This year’s event starts April 2.

Recent confirmation of an annual donation that will cut event costs in half also lifted Storrs’ spirits and fuels her effort to maintain the conference even more, she said.

 “I am not giving up,” she said. “(The donation) allows me to say that I’ve got a great start to this endowment and I could really make a significant difference. It could help me get to the finish line.”

Fundraising work

When Storrs became dean less than a year ago, she discovered the conference was supported by a variety of sources but never had its own budget line, she said.

So, Storrs set to work. She hired a development director who began face-to-face fundraising and began tapping into the vast network of alumni and past conference attendees. Her collaboration with the foundation also resulted in the event’s first fundraising dinner, which will be held March 31 and celebrates conference founder, English Professor John Little, who died in 2002.

With no specific fundraising goal in mind yet, she said she wants to build on the current effort. Storrs herself sent out letters to 3,500 people who have previously attended the conference requesting donations. 

“People have been so responsive,” she said.

In mid-March, the university received a promise of an annual $35,000 donation from the estate of UND graduate Alice Carlson. This will help cover about half the cost for the event for years to come, organizers said.

The UND Alumni Association and UND Foundation have also been reaching out to previous participants in the program through email blasts and their alumni network, said CEO DeAnna Carlson Zink. This will continue as long it’s needed, she said.

“We’re looking for individuals or corporations or groups that have been interested in or have a passion for areas like the writers conference,” she said.

Public outreach

Apart from the challenge of maintaining costs, university estimates show attendance has dropped in recent years.

Last year, about 2,000 people attended the entire conference, which is about 425 fewer than those who attended in 2010, according to the university. That number includes people who have attended multiple events.

As the event is free and doesn’t require tickets, there’s no way for the university to track that information, said Alberts.

However, one measure tells a different story. In the past few years, Alberts has ramped up the event’s online presence and updated its website, using Google Analytics to track usage. Since 2010, the website and pages associated with the event have had 23,120 unique visitors from 76 countries and every continent except Antarctica, she said.

“As such, I would venture to say that the UND Writers Conference has a larger audience now than it has ever had in its 45-year-history,” she said. “Can we do more to increase physical attendance? Of course, and I attempt to figure out ways to do so every year.”

Marketing for the conference has always been strong, she said. They’ve always had coverage in publications such as the Herald and the High Plains Reader as well as Prairie Public Radio.

“If the marketing seems like it’s changed, it’s because of the online presence we have that wasn’t available (decades ago),” she said.

To help maintain public interest, organizers started a few years ago what’s called the UND Writers Conference 101 series, where community members hold a roundtable discussion about a book, said Alberts. They’ve also held community writing workshops, showed films related to the conference and have rebroadcasted some of the events through Prairie Public Radio.

Since 2008, Alberts has also worked with the Chester Fritz Library staff to make about 600 hours of past footage of the conference available online for scholarly, educational and historic purposes, she said. Currently, there’s about 112 hours available.

Grand Forks tradition

Alberts has a personal investment in the conference, too. When she first started working at UND in 2007, she once came across an advertisement for the previous conferences and realized many of the authors she studied had visited there. She was dumbfounded because she’d never even heard of the event, she said.

Since then, she can now say she’s hung out with and learned from authors such as Saul Williams, Art Spiegelman, Maxine Hong Kingston and Tony Kushner, as well as given the opportunity for students and the community to interact with them.

“I believe that the UND Writers Conference is a unique and invaluable organization,” she said. “(It’s) a tradition that UND and Grand Forks more broadly should be proud of.” 

The UND Writers Conference was first held in 1970 and called the Southern Writers Conference on the Arts. But since then, the conference has grown in stature and has drawn some of the biggest figures in the literary world.

  • 2013: Tony Kushner, Gary Shteyngart, Cheryl Strayed
  • 2008: Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz
  • 2003: Natalie Angier, Oliver Sacks
  • 1998: August Wilson, Josef Skvorecky
  • 1995: Sherman Alexie, Tim O’Brien
  • 1988: Louise Erdrich, Mona Simpson
  • 1985: Ann Beattie, Norman Mailer, Thomas McGrath
  • 1979: Edward Albee, Robert Bly, Grace Paley
  • 1976: Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe
  • 1974: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg

Up next

What: UND Writers Conference

When: April 2-4

Where: North Dakota Museum of Art and UND campus

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit 

(701) 787-6736