This week the five-day event returned as an in-person gathering, amplified by online workshops and classes created over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The popular conference was launched in the early 1990s by founder Ed Griffin, a writer, former priest and social worker. He’d attended a writers conference in Seattle and believed Surrey could easily support such an event, first held here at Johnston Heights Secondary before a move to the Sheraton in 1994.
Griffin taught prisoners the craft of writing in Matsqui, and 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 while in Surrey, right up until his death in 2015, at age 78, and Gabaldon has continued that work.
Today, for nearly three decades Gabaldon has been an ardent supporter of the annual writers’ conference in Surrey, all while witnessing the continuing popularity of her fantasy-romance “Outlander” books and the TV series that followed.
“Diana has continued unceremoniously to support his (Griffin’s) initiative,” notes Ursula Maxwell-Lewis, conference founding member and director emeritus, in the latest Arts Council of Surrey newsletter. “In addition, together with the late Jack Whyte, Diana has co-sponsored the prestigious $1,000 Storyteller’s Award.”
In recent years, drawn by Gabaldon’s appearances here, fans of the time-travel TV show Outlander have made Surrey the site of an annual convention timed with the writers’ conference.
On Friday (Oct. 21), Gabaldon reflected on three decades of the Surrey event.
“I was not here for the first year of the conference, but I’ve been here every year thereafter, I think,” she recalled.
“It’s the overall atmosphere, extremely convivial,” Gabaldon added. “The atmosphere is designed to be extremely supportive and also to provide a lot of opportunity for interaction among the people who attend as well as the presenters and so forth. It’s very egalitarian, and you’ll meet everyone in the elevators going up and down. This hotel is particularly conducive to that as well.”
“So he’d look at the schedule for the book festival and see who had free time, perhaps, then call the book publisher and get their authors to attend the Surrey conference,” she recalled. “He managed to get quite a few international authors that way.”
Reluctantly, the 70-year-old Gabaldon takes some 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 pleased to be part of it and help it grow, and I think what this conference does is very valuable. I grew up in a household of educators so I’m very much in favour of people being educated about anything they want to know. And you know, I enjoy teaching, and I’m really glad to have the opportunity to do that here, and I know many other writers feel the same way.”