By Enkhzul Badral
Robin Hemley is currently the Director of the Writing Programme at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Robin founded NonfictioNOW in 2005 after joining the University of Iowa as the Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program one year prior. Here he discusses the conference with student Enkhzul Badral.
EB: How did NonfictioNOW start?
RH: One of the things I was given as a startup package with my position at Iowa was a one-time conference in nonfiction. I worked with my colleagues to develop that and called in NonfictioNOW and held it at the University of Iowa in 2005. It was a big success and just by chance, we had a donor named Barbara Bedell who came at the right time and offered to help fund the conference. It became more than just a one-off, and I have been involved in ever conference ever since. This is our tenth anniversary but our fifth conference.
EB: How has NonfictioNOW grown since 2005?
RH: It has become more international for one thing. One of the things I wanted to do from the beginning is to expand the conversation beyond just one set of people or one cultural background. So we brought the conference to Melbourne last time and it was a big success and now we’re bringing it back to the United States. My idea is to hold it overseas somewhere every other year. I’m looking at Iceland and England right now. It feels like a more expansive conversation than when we started.
EB: What role do you currently play in the conference?
RH: I am one of the co-chairs. We have three co-chairs, and we are starting a board now as well. Our co-chairs are myself, Nicole walker of Northern Arizona university and David Carlin of RMIT in Melbourne. David and I were co-chairs at the last one in Melbourne. It’s always really important to have someone on the ground. It usually falls on the shoulders of the person who is ‘most there’ to do the major part of the organizing so this time it has definitely been Nicole. She has done an amazing job getting everything ready. She’s been fantastic, I’m sure she’ll be breathing a sigh of relief when it’s over.
We try to choose panels that aren’t duplicates of the ones we’ve had in the past, although some things keep cropping up. Things like memory, truth in nonfiction, family, memoir—these things are always trouble spots within the genre. These always crop up. But we don’t want everything to be the same from one conference to another—otherwise, why do it?
EB: What role does NonfictioNOW play in the writing world?
RH: I think it’s an important conference in the nonfiction world. It’s not a conference that the average person in the US or Australia has necessarily heard of, but among professionals, it’s an important literary conference. What it has done is created conversations that have gone on well beyond the conference, creating projects that maybe never would have happened otherwise.
A good example: There’s a filmmaker named Sasha Waters Freyer who used to teach at the University of Iowa. She had grown up in New York, and gone to a public school in Manhattan. Maybe in 5th or 4th grade, Phillip Lopate came to her school as a writer in a program in the 60s and 70s. He decided to put a Chekhov play on Broadway, Uncle Vanya, with only fifth graders in the roles. From this he wrote a wonderful essay, “Chekhov for Children”. He was a keynoter for our conference in 2005, and in the audience was Sasha Waters. When he gave his keynote, he and Sasha saw each other for the first time in 30 years. He revealed to her that they had made a film of the play, and she went back and decided to interview the students and get their impressions of what Phillip Lopate was like, and what they thought of the play. It’s a really good documentary, also called Chekhov for Children. This definitely would not have happened if not for NonfictioNOW.
EB: How do you choose the panels you attend at a conference?
RH: Well, there are many criteria [laughs]. I have many friends and students so often I attend those, but there are a lot of people I know on these panels and I can’t go to them all, so I tend to go to the panels that seem the most evocative. These are the ones that are not necessarily going over territory I’m familiar with. We try to make it difficult for people to decide [laughs]. I like to go to things that maybe have no relation to my work at all, but also things that I’m really intent on.