A Writers' Retreat in Wonderful Matera

Matera is wonderful...or very bizarre, depending on how you look at it. A World Heritage town, it's located in Southern Italy, not far from Bari, in a rather nondescript agricultural plain that has provided grain, fruit and wine since the time of the Ancient Greeks - and much before them no doubt, because Matera has one extraordinary feature: a big part of the old town, called the "Sassi", are in fact a collection of paleolithic caves. The area has been surely lived in for over 40,000 years and it shows. And now, of course, it has become a major touristic attraction, with the caves turned into highly unusual hotels.

Panorama of MateraPanorama of Matera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is in this suggestive setting that an international group of writers recently met for a 4-day seminar without any precise agenda other than "brainstorming" their current work and future plans. This is the second year the event is held - always at the end of March - sponsored by literary agent Christine Witthohn, owner of the Book Cents Literary Agency, and author Liz Jennings. Liz also runs the hugely successful annual Women's Fiction Festival (held in Matera 27-30 September - now at its 9th edition) that attracts numerous writers from all over Europe as well as agents and editors from both the US and UK and several European countries (Germany, Netherlands). Liz is used to organizing international events and Christine to give out provocative ideas and opinions. I attended the writers' retreat (it's the second time I do) and can confirm the two of them ensured that our "brainstorming" was stimulating beyond our dreams! 

Before introducing everyone - we were about a dozen writers, a perfect number to interact - and tell you what we did, I'd like to take you by the hand - or rather with my camera - as I went to my hotel in Matera on a lovely Spring afternoon, having driven past olive groves and blossoming fruit trees. 

Here is the entrance to the hotel where we stayed and held our meetings, the Locanda di San Martino:

The hotel extends all the way to the top (where you see the tree) in a maze of alleys linking one room to the next, or should I say, caves. Here is an alley linking the rooms:

Fortunately there's a modern elevator, ensconced among the caves, that takes away the effort of climbing up:

 All bedrooms are old caves, partly carved out in the rock - but fortunately modernized with every possible comfort, including air conditioning (this is my bedroom):

When you look at the walls of your bedroom, you can almost see the traces left behind by cavemen, in the mysterious nooks and crannies:

It's the perfect place for full immersion in Matera's Sassi (speaking of immersion, it has even a hot water spa in one of the caves).

It's also the perfect place for a writers' retreat. The night before we started our retreat, we all met in one of the town's caf├ęs:

A wonderful reunion as many of us had participated in last year's brainstorming. The next morning - a beautiful day - as I walked to our meeting place in the hotel's reception area, I stopped to take this the view on my way down:

Our meeting place was equally spectacular, a succession of caves tastefully arranged. Here, in the center, you have Liz Jennings (in pink) and Christine Witthohn (in dark blue): 

All of us are seated around in comfortable couches - each of us getting a half hour to talk about our writing (30 minutes and no more, Christine clocked us to keep us from going astray):

We drank water and tea and talked all day long. We also stopped for marvelous lunches at a terrace restaurant:

And never stopped talking through every meal. About what you may ask? 

Consider that we were a very diverse group: some published by big traditional houses, others by small presses, yet others self-published or on their way to dip toes in self-publishing now that the stigma is off. Some were American, there was also a good English group from Oxford represented by Elizabeth Aston a.k.a. Edmondson, Anselm Audley and Eloise Aston with their recently launched Attica Books e-publishing venture specialized in mysteries, fantasy and "wit and whimsy" (light rom-com type novels). And there were foreigners too, coming from Sicily, Germany, Austria and of course myself (born Belgian - raised on three continents).

We talked about our novels and our plans - as diverse as our backgrounds, ranging from women's fiction to fantasy to romantic suspense, thrillers and more. We also touched on issues that are of particular concern to any published writer: how to market your book. 

This was not mere shop talk. I know I walked away with a much clearer idea of what I should do next (publish a novel: I've got A Hook in the Sky ready - just a matter of editing, so watch for it coming out soon). Liz Jennings said she got enough ideas for three novels! And I'm sure everyone left with a feeling of having been strengthened and enriched by the attention and suggestions generously given by everyone and in particular by Christine whose long experience and deep knowledge of the publishing industry was invaluable.

In the comments below, I hope my fellow Matera brainstormers will add what they got out of our retreat. For me, it was an outstanding experience, I would rate it Triple A. 

I'd like to conclude by noting that this concept of a writers' retreat, with a fexible open agenda, is (as far as I know) something very rare in the industry. You have plenty of writers' conferences where writers meet agents and editors, but they are huge affairs. No time for direct, sustained contact and exchange. All you do is pitch yourself and your novel - you don't get real feedback and moments of meditation where you can re-adjust your compass and determine exactly where you should be going. 

Then, of course, at the end of every day there is magical Matera awaiting you:

A totally safe town, where people stroll about in the streets at 11 pm, stop and talk to each other - young and old, families with children, no beggars, no drunkards, no cars... A paradise! 

If interested, Brainstorming in Matera is an event open to all serious writers, published, unpublished and self-published - click on this link for more information.

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