Reflections on Running ‘Queen of Suspense: a Patricia Highsmith Symposium’

This week, we are joined on the blog by Sally Joan Jones, a PhD student here in the University’s English Department. Sally was the recent recipient of The Cestrian Award Academic Strand, securing funding to organise and host her own conference. In this week’s blog, she tells us more about the inspiration behind the conference and offers advice for anyone who is looking to host their own…

002 Pic from Global Hungers 2018“‘Queen of Suspense: A Patricia Highsmith Symposium’, as many of you lovely people may already know, was a one-day academic event which ran at the University of Chester in September 2018. The idea for this symposium initially emerged in response to what I perceived was a gap in the UK’s academic calendar, given a resurgence of readership and general interest in the work of Patricia Highsmith. From there, with the backing and support of the English department and a grant awarded by the Alumni Association (The Cestrian Award Academic Strand), I was able to launch the first ever single-author Highsmith event in the UK.

“For its fledgling success I have a lot of people to thank – I was very lucky (and a little bit fluky) with the amazing people who came forward and got involved. Presenting delegates more than rose to the occasion, and everyone who attended made for an energised, friendly and intellectually stimulating atmosphere. Rather extravagantly, I had three – THREE – keynotes: critically acclaimed biographer Andrew Wilson, award winning author of The Crime Writer, Jill Dawson, and our very own Highsmith scholar, Dr Sally West. I also happened upon a fabulous screen print of a scene from The Talented Mr Ripley, and was able to trace the image back to its creator – Sheffield-based illustrator, Louise Norman. With a little bit of (well-deserved) flattery, she in turn was duly coerced into producing original artwork for the symposium’s advertising and poster.

“Good-will and gratis was certainly the difference, for me, between this being a viable

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Andrew Wilson, Highsmith’s biographer, presenting at the conference.

proposition or not. Funding is notoriously difficult to come by in the humanities, and time-consuming to pursue; I would recommend anyone considering their own event to think very carefully about costs and expectations. On balance though, I would say, if you have the energy, organisational skills, diplomacy, and a viable idea, I would highly recommend taking a leap of faith. Running ‘Queen of Suspense’ was rewarding, time-consuming, and nerve-racking, in probably equal measure. Catering was a huge outlay, closely followed by room hire, and accommodation and travel reimbursement for keynotes; and it remained in the balance, until a last advertising push prompted some last-minute ticket purchases, whether I would cover expenses. I have learnt a lot.

“At present there is no danger of me leaving academia for events management – I’m not that hardy; once a year of doing something like this is quite enough. That said, I’ve probably accrued the requisite skills to make a formidable wedding planner… ‘Queen of Suspense’ will, however, return. My intention is to rerun this event annually, around the same time of the year, with the first call for papers circulating in the spring; so if you missed us the first time, or would like to return, keep an eye on your inbox, social media and Moodle for details and developments. Alternatively, email me and I shall add you to the mailing list. (I can be contacted on 1520507@chester.ac.uk (and) moneypenny82@live.co.uk. Please just add ‘Queen of Suspense’ to the subject header, so I know what I’m looking at.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“The first outing of ‘Queen of Suspense: A Patricia Highsmith Symposium’ welcomed proposals for papers related to any aspect of Highsmith scholarship, and particularly innovative, new unexplored approaches to reading her work. The proposals received were pleasingly diverse in response to this brief, and included a comparative reading of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and an overview of fan-fiction writing in response to Anthony Minghella adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley. This diverse and interdisciplinary range is something I hope to continue championing at future events; and (spoiler alert), likely keynotes for 2019 include a leading Criminologist, an author, and maybe – just maybe – a rather important publisher.

“My own research, as a PhD candidate in my second year of part-time study, continues apace; and is, in its own way, equally broad-brush. Having assigned myself the task of exploring representations of culture in Patricia Highsmith’s body of work, so far I have worked on: the literary representation of food in Anglo-American twentieth century fiction; animals as commodities, using postcolonial and animal defence theory, focusing on food and entertainment industries; twentieth century politics and economics, with reference to nuclear armament and the Cold War, and, currently, witching and the occult for a chapter on the representation of ‘gender, motherhood and marriage’. Nuts, I know, but also great fun!

2018 symposium poster“For me, the trick with choosing to write a single-author thesis, has been to explore and challenge myself as much as possible. Settling on an approach which is intertextual and interdisciplinary, has meant that I am constantly learning something new. There is little chance of me getting bored of my subject. I am also very keen on exploring new opportunities for interdisciplinary (and interdepartmental) collaboration: one of the most exciting, and unexpected, projects which emerged out of the first ‘Queen of Suspense’ event was commissioning Louise Norman – the aforementioned illustrator – to produce the poster artwork. I think there are many, potentially fabulous, creative collaborations out there which could enrich and enhance the traditional model of an academic conference, yet to be explored.”

If you are a current University of Chester student, keep an eye on our social media and website for the opportunity to apply for a variety of funding through The Cestrian Award in 2019.

 

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