Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Lee Cataluna

Hawaii Writers Conference shuts down after 17 years

The Hawaii Writers Conference, formerly known as the Maui Writers Conference, is dead. Less than a year ago, stories touting the annual event were placed all over local media. The Advertiser gave the organization full-page ads for free. But the demise of the glitzy 17-year-old event has been, thus far, kept quiet.

The Hawaii Writers Conference website is blank except for a letter from Honolulu bankruptcy attorney Steven Guttman dated May 14.

"We are assisting the Hawaii Writers Foundation, a Hawaii nonprofit corporation doing business as the Hawaii Writers Conference, with winding up its business operations," the letter begins.

"The directors of HWF, John and Shannon Tullius, regret events and changes in the economy have forced them to make the unwelcomed decision to terminate HWF and cancel both the retreat and conference scheduled for August 2010. In light of its termination, there will be no further HWF-sponsored retreats or conferences in the future."

Those who had already paid to attend the 2010 conference may end up losing that money.

"As of this date, there are no assets available from which to refund the monies that were remitted," the memo states. "However, funds may become available in the future depending on the resolution of certain financial matters."

John Tullius filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection on April 29. Shannon Tullius filed for divorce on May 5. Guttman did not return messages asking for comment.

It is a surprising plot twist for an event that has been big on positive promotion and name dropping. Past presenters included Ron Howard, Mitch Albom, Dave Barry and Aaron Sorkin. Supporters have included Linda Lingle and numerous Hawaii business leaders. As recently as last year, there were still the sunny stories about what a great thing this event was for Hawaii’s economy.

The Maui/Hawaii Writers Conference was where aspiring writers went to pitch their ideas into best-seller stardom. It was always more about selling your writing than about writing itself. After all, nobody is going to pay to learn how to be a starving but brilliant artist. (I attended in 1998. I learned a lot. I didn’t sell anything, but I didn’t really have anything to sell.) A 10-day stay through both the conference and retreat could cost several thousand dollars, and in a bad economy, no one has money to spend on dreams.

When the event was moved from high-priced Wailea to more affordable Waikiki, it was spun as a way to reach out to more writers. A few years ago, the operation morphed into a nonprofit, and publicity stressed the educational and literacy mission of the event, though it was still mostly for people with money to pay for time slots with book agents.

Singer Norah Jones is in line to serve as a scapegoat. A fundraiser concert for HWF featuring Jones was canceled last August for lack of ticket sales. Jones’ contract provided for her to keep a $50,000 deposit if the show were canceled. Tullius told ticket holders he tried unsuccessfully to get the money back and had taken a big hit when the fundraiser didn’t happen.

"We have been paying our bills for the last 17 years, and we have every intention of paying back each and every person who bought tickets," he said last year.

This year, well, that’s another story.

Lee Cataluna can be reached at lcataluna@staradvertiser.com.


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