Recap: L.A. Times Festival of Books

Throughout the year, one has to put up with barbs about the literary scene in Los Angeles, so it’s always nice to come to the L.A. Times Festival of Books and see stereotypes smashed. The festival is the largest civic literary event in the country, drawing 125,000 people to the UCLA campus for two days of readings, panels, and discussions by some of the nation’s best writers. And it’s all free!

I’ve been going to the festival for the last seven or eight years, but this time it was a different experience, since I took part in an event on Sunday. (More on that in a moment.) The first panel I went to was “Fertile Ground: Building a Creative Community,” moderated by Richard Rayner, with John Baxter, Carolyn See, and Michael Walker. Baxter talked about how he had sold everything he owned and moved to Paris two weeks after meeting a French woman, whom he later married. For him, the creative community came out of the relationship with this partner, and with living in a city in which he felt there was a thriving artistic life. See read a short, but illuminating passage from her book, Making A Literary Life. In it, she describes being a young child and watching her mother berate her father, a budding writer, as he was working at his desk. See talked about how she had divorced two husbands at least in part because their lack of support for the writing life made the marriages all but impossible. Michael Walker regaled us with anecdotes from the music scene of the 1960s in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, and described how songwriters found inspiration in living together in a supportive environment. I enjoyed the discussion, but I must say there was not much talk about building a creative community so much as how communities could really help–or wreck–your creative life. (And I left the panel feeling blessed to have a supportive partner. And that, as Martha says, is a good thing.)

First Fiction: Breaking Out” was moderated by Susan Salter Reynolds, and included panelists Uzodinma Iweala, Kirstin Allio, and Olga Grushin. The authors read from their work, and then took turns answering Salter Reynolds’s questions about how they came to writing, the process of writing their first book, finding an agent, working with an editor, etc. Iweala appeared to enjoy himself thoroughly (he’d just won the Art Seidenbaum award the night before, so I’m sure that put him in great spirits), Kirstin Allio seemed exceedingly shy, while Olga Grushin was a happy medium between the two, giving thoughtful answers while also making quips. When asked whether she was mentored on her first novel, for instance, she replied, “I bought a book on writing. It was the best $10 investment I ever made. It taught me to double-space my manuscript.”

Alex and I took a lunch break and dropped in at the Swink/Vermin on the Mount booth, where we met up with Jim Ruland, who was promoting his wonderful reading series there. Mark Sarvas of TEV and Carolyn “Pinky” Kellogg of Laist joined us for lunch there.

Bridget Kinsella moderated the Book Biz: The Insiders panel, which featured Steve Wasserman, Betsy Amster, Kim Dower, and Laurence Kirshbaum. I thought Kinsella was a very good moderator, getting all the panelists to interact with one another, and jumping in with questions where appropriate. This was a useful discussion for those who wanted to hear about the current state of the industry: big books that sell millions, while most books have to fight for reduced shelf and review space, difficulty of getting good publicity, difficulty of creating a platform, and so on. Predictably, and unfortunately, someone brought up the James Frey and Kaavya Viswanathan scandals. I am so sick of hearing about these two, especially as the discussion didn’t really illuminate how these scandals are essentially symptoms of wider-ranging problems.

We took a coffee break in the green room, where I caught up with several writer friends. But I was far too intimidated to approach people like T.C. Boyle, Chris Hedges or Adam Hoschchild. Yes, I am shy. (Stop laughing.) We left shortly afterwards, trying to make it back home to drop off some books before heading out to dinner, though we got stuck in traffic for well over 30 minutes. Ah, L.A.

On Sunday, Mark Rozzo moderated First Fiction: Finding a Voice, a panel discussion with Lisa Fugard, Adrienne Sharp, Marlon James, and yours truly. I was quite interested in the different takes on the question of finding a voice. For Marlon, it came from the act of reading; for me, it’s intimately tied with identity and language; for Adrienne, it has to do with finding your material; and for Lisa, it was by confronting fear. Of course, we talked about MFA programs. Do you need one? Short answer: No. Long answer: But it can give you dedicated writing time and help you to create a community of writers. We also talked about writing our first published vs. unpublished books, the kind of advice we received, the way in which reading influences us, and so on. Rozzo had read all four of our books beforehand and chose his questions to go with our respective works. I thought the panel was a success, but obviously I’m biased.

After our book signing, we grabbed some lunch and then visited some of the booths. It’s really quite amazing what’s on display, a good mix of high and low culture. The sun had finally deigned to make an appearance, and there was music and poetry and drama to take in.

After coffee, I went to Under a Crescent moon: The Changing Shape of the Middle East moderated by Zachary Karabell, with panelists Ilan Berman, Mark Bowden, Reza Aslan, and Kevin McKiernan. Given recent events, the panel’s focus was on Iran. Both Berman and Bowden started out by saying that they were not Iran experts, and had come to studying the country either through a broader interest in the region (in the case of Berman) or in the true story of the hostage crisis (in the case of Bowden.) The fact that neither Berman nor Bowden were Iran experts did not prevent them from making very strong claims about the country, however. Bowden, for instance, affirmed that there was a contest between the “values” of America and the West and the “religious culture” of the Middle East, and, furthermore, that Iran was at the center of that conflict. So it was a relief when it was Reza Aslan’s turn to speak, because at least there was one expert on Iran around. He did agree with the other panelists about Iran’s involvement in the current Iraq situation, about Ahmadinejad’s insane comments, and about Iran’s relations with various political entities, from Hamas and Hezbollah to Russia and China. Aslan, however, presented a more complex view of Iran (e.g. describing the far from monolithic political landscape of the country) and suggested that the country’s interests are as legitimate as those of the United States. McKiernan’s focus was mostly on the Kurds, the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, and how they have come to play such an important part in the current situation in the region. Unfortunately, there was no time set aside for questions, and the nearly five hundred people who had filled the Ackerman Grand Ballroom were quite annoyed. Aslan said he had nowhere to go, and was happy to answer questions, but organizers said they had to clear the room. Too bad.