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COLUMN: Surrey International Writers’ Conference welcomes people from around the world

Virtual and in-person event runs Oct. 18-22 at Sheraton Guildford
Attendees pose for a picture at the 30th Surrey International Writers’ Conference in 2022. Last year’s gala dinner had a 1930s theme and attendees often dress as their favourite literary character or genre for the awards dinner. (Photo: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis)

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

— W. Somerset Maugham.

Might Somerset Maugham’s sentiments echo those of Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC) scribes and poets preparing to attend the popular 31 year-old virtual and in-person conference at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel this week? Since the notoriously solitary craft of writing is unique, individual, ever-evolving, and personal—it would hardly be surprising, and may explain SiWC’s loyal following and lengthy list of repeat attendees.

When the late American human rights activist, author and workshop presenter Ed Griffin announced at a 1993 Booley House Writers’ Group evening meeting that Surrey needed a writers’ conference and we were going to create it, five of us were more than a little surprised. But, once inspired, Ed was unstoppable.

During initial Surrey Adult Continuing Education administration meetings, we gained immediate support from SD36 principal Elisa Carlson (now executive director of The Cmolik Foundation).

That autumn, the Saturday one-day Surrey Writers’ Conference with workshops, lunch and a guest speaker (Vancouver journalist Denny Boyd) at Johnston Heights Secondary immediately sold out. Attendees requested more of the same the following year.

SD36 principal Rollie Koop took over the reins from Elisa. SiWC graduated to the Sheraton and concisely expanded until the school district disbanded the Adult Con Ed department.

With $2,000 seed money in our account we realized that taking over the massive, daunting booking (attendance, workshops and fees) gyrations could now be wrangled via an online website. Technology literally saved the day for us. The budget was tight, but the timing was perfect.

By 2001, Thursday Master Classes had been added to the three-day full conference schedule.

Welcoming writers and presenters from across North America, Britain, Europe, Japan, and South America by the 10th anniversary inspired the addition of ‘international’ to the name. The highlight was best-selling authors Jack Whyte and Diana Gabaldon honouring SiWC by co-sponsoring the establishment of the Storyteller’s Award, a writing competition with a first prize of $1,000.

The award consistently grew in popularity and prestige, until 2021 when, after Jack Whyte’s passing, it was renamed the Jack Whyte Storyteller’s Award.

In 2010, longtime volunteer Kathy Chung was contracted as conference coordinator. Under her watch SIWC continued to expand, including through Covid.

“I’m super proud of how the conference has grown and how we support writers in our community and beyond,” says Camille Cavanagh, now in her 11th year as conference chairperson.

Of SiWC’s Covid-era navigation, she explains, “That [success] was mostly due to Kathy Chung’s brilliance! We couldn’t have gone virtually without all of her hard work.”

Diversity, inclusivity and encouraging young writers have been constant conference goals which are clearly reflected in the expanded 2023 presenter list.

About the 2023 event, Chung reports: “SiWC is shaping up to be another great conference. We anticipate continuing with the hybrid model as it makes the conference accessible to people who cannot attend in person.”

Presenters and attendees from 12 countries, eight Canadian provinces and 27 US states are currently registered.

Best selling conference presenter alumni include: Diana Gabaldon, Susanna Kearsley, Terry Brooks, John Saul, Jasper Fforde, CC Humphries, Hallie Ephron, Arthur Slade, Anne Perry, and Jack Whyte with a guest speaker appearance by Ireland’s Maeve Binchy in 1994.

The 2023 conference includes Master Classes (some virtual) on Oct 18 and 19, with the full conference from Oct 19 to 22.

Among the new presenters this year include Saadia Faruqi, Andre Gonzalez, Veronica G. Henry, Sonya Lalli, and Tobias S. Buckell.

For a full list on editors agents and other Surrey International Writers’ Conference highlights visit The public is also welcome to visit the trade show in the Sheraton front hall. Best seller author sightings are a distinct possibility.

A pre-conference free pubic special event called ‘Tellers of Tall Tales” will take place Oct. 19 at Western Sky Books in New Westminster at 7 p.m. Authors Diana Gabaldon, Sonali Devi, and former Surrey Poet Laureate Renee Sarojini Saklikar will be reading and autographing books.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the former owner/managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at

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