2018 Conference


Will Weaver grew up on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota. He graduated from the University of Minnesota and from Stanford University. His debut novel, Red Earth, White Earth, was published by Simon & Schuster, and was produced as a CBS television movie. A Gravestone Made of Wheat and Other Stories won the Minnesota Book Award for Fiction. The New York Times Book Review called it “…a graceful collection, one that views America’s heartland with a candid but charitable eye.”

Several of Will’s stories have been produced by National Public Radio. The title story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” was adapted into the award-winning independent film Sweet Land, starring Alan Cumming and Ned Beatty. Entertainment Weekly called it, “A triumph…a movie of extraordinary tenderness.” In 2017, Sweet Land was produced as a musical. After a successful Midwestern tour, the show headed west to Seattle for a 2018 run at the Taproot Theatre.

A versatile writer, Will Weaver’s novels for young adults include Defect, Memory Boy, and Striking Out (HarperCollins). Chosen as a teen “top ten” book by the American Library Association, Memory Boy was a 2016 production of the Minnesota Opera. Defect won the Minnesota Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. His nonfiction work includes The last Hunter, Barns of Minnesota, and many essays.

Will has recently served as a panelist for the National Book Award judging, and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post. Will lives in Bemidji, on the Mississippi River, with his wife, Rose.

About his keynote talk, Will said that “Sinclair Lewis and Willa Cather were unlikely friends, but shared a common trait: The courage to write and speak out. Their fearlessness, plus support of each other, is the perfect launching point for a new discussion on writing.” What does it take, nowadays, to “make it” as a writer? To find your voice? Whether you’re a beginner or well on your way, Will has tips, techniques, and stories to share about success in writing and publishing today.



Elisa Korenne is an award-winning author and songwriter known for her original songs, shows and stories about oddballs in history. She left New York City in 2006 to be an artist-in-residence in rural west central Minnesota, and—to her surprise– stayed.

Since leaving her urban life and a vocation at the crossroads of international development and technology, she has become known as a pioneering rural artist. Gull Lake TEDx chose Elisa to be a featured speaker at their April 2017 conference. Prairie Public Television of North Dakota commissioned her to create songs and appear in ten mini-music documentaries about unusual people in the Midwest.

With her international background and an education at Yale University and the London School of Economics, Elisa brings a unique perspective to the shows she creates and performs in the rural American heartland.

Her first book, Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story (North Star Press, 2017) was a Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist. In the book, Elisa tells her story of finding somewhere, and someone, in the middle of nowhere. About her book, Will Weaver said “Big city girl marries a small town guy—that story. But never more engagingly told…” Author Josh Axelrad, in reviewing Elisa’s book, said “An absolutely stunning debut. Brilliant, breathtaking and hopeful. Korenne is the ideal storyteller: part enchantress, part dogged reporter, wise, studious, generous. Her book is a superbly crafted journey into the unexpected riches of the rural American wilderness, and of the heart.”

Elisa will present a one-hour “write-shop” entitled Crazy About Character Writing. “Did your great-uncle collect matchbooks?,” she asks. “Was your cousin’s brother a lumberjack-turned-Vaudeville star? Is your mother ‘unusual’?” Her aim is to help writers create better characters in their work by using elements of the most engaging people they know. Join Elisa in a pen-in-hand workshop that has received off-the-charts ratings and been called “the best workshop of the day” by festival participants.



Andy Cummings is the Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief for Lerner Publishing Group in Minneapolis. Lerner is one of North America’s largest independent book publishers for children and young adults. Lerner creates nonfiction and fiction books that educate, empower and entertain readers.


Andy manages a terrific team of editors, designers and digital content creators that create over 450 titles a year. Prior to Lerner, Andy was Vice President and Publisher for the Dummies brand at John Wiley & Sons where he developed a market-leading program on technology topics.

He has an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and a graduate degree from the University of Missouri. Andy lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three children.

During his presentation, Andy will talk about the general state of publishing, how to prepare a compelling proposal and the pros and cons of self-publishing.



Betty Jean Steinshouer has presented her one-woman show, Willa Cather Speaks, throughout the U.S. and Canada, performing in 44 states since 1989. As a Chautauqua-style performer, Betty Jean’s repertoire also contains six other authors: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

To Betty Jean, though, Willa Cather is “the alpha and the omega,” meaning that it all began with the author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia, and will no doubt end there as well. She expects to portray Willa Cather for the rest of her life, because Cather “is a perennial favorite, appealing to readers and writers from around the world.”

“There is something trustworthy in Cather, something true and resonant, something you can trust with your heart and soul,” Betty Jean notes. “Reading a Cather book makes you a better human being.”

Betty Jean was the first in her family of eleven children to finish college. She worked her way through undergraduate school on a speech scholarship, excelling at debate, oral interpretation of literature, and “the art of oratory, beautiful and just.” She has spent years researching each of her authors. Although she loves the scholarly part of her works, she states that “My greatest talent is in selecting the material to share with each audience. I can…make the past present, the author right there in the room.”

Willa Cather’s work continues to resonate with readers, especially this year, which marks the centennial of the publication of her novel My Antonia. Sinclair Lewis read her books and admired them. In 1921, Lewis told an audience that Cather was “a greater author than he dared hope to ever be.” And “…she has made the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done.” Cather felt that Lewis probably did more to get Nebraskans to read her books than her own books could do.

Betty Jean will serve on the conference’s closing panel discussion as a Cather scholar as well as a poet and novelist. She will also mention her upcoming nonfiction book chapter on Rose Wilder Lane, once a close friend of Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis’ wife from 1928 to 1942.

About her in-character small group presentation, Betty Jean hopes to get “questions, lots of questions. That’s when you really get the feeling you’ve met Willa Cather. I intend each of my three presentations to be a conversation with the audience, not a speech and certainly not a lecture.”