Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Fest 2013 Highlights

My mom and I now have a tradition of attending the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books annually. We nerd out and reserve tickets to panels the day they go on sale. It's our version of Coachella. We've enjoyed seeing well-known people speak, such as Betty White, John Cusack, and Michael Ian Black. We've learned of the origins of Go the Fuck to Sleep. We've had conversations with Merrill Markoe, Chris Erskine, and Kristen Hersh. We've trekked all over UCLA and USC, and I now have a solid collection of signed books. The festival is filled with interesting, creative people. It's my version of church.

This year I attended the Memoir: Close to the Bone session with Meghan O'Rourke, Emily Rapp, Rebecca Solnit, and Samantha Dunn (moderator). The session revolved around writing about loss and dealing with grief. Meghan said her book, The Long Goodbye, began as a cultural criticism. She was concerned that society had "privatized grief," which she found "bizarre." She "didn't set out to write a memoir at 33," but the best way to deal with her subject matter was to tell her own story. "The first version was more tedious and research-based," she said. She said her book was about "trying to carve out a social space for grief." As a writer, she had the "impulse to externalize."

Her book started as a column on Slate. She said she was "way behind on another book for them," and kept "Googling grief." Her first column was about "isolating mourning," and she received 700 emails in response within 24 hours. This "became [her] mourning community."

Emily's book, The Still Point of the Turning World, "started as a blog for her friends" when her nine-month-old son got sick with a fatal disease, and she didn't have time to update everyone separately. It "felt like a collective project," she said. Writing about it in her blog "changed the writing process." It caused her to "write more." It grounded her while she was "out of her mind."

Emily was lighthearted, witty, and hilarious, which I found incredible considering what she must have gone through with her son.

The writers discussed the idea of writing about something "too soon." Meghan said she tried to "record a lived experience of loss," instead of writing about it after the fact. She also read her Amazon reviews and wept. "No one should ever do that," she said.

Emily agreed that it's never "too soon" to start writing about a painful subject. She knew that if she didn't write about it when she did, she would "crumble." However, she noted, "don't be in that place when you're editing." Her editor cut "about half the book," and she was glad.

"Too soon is hogwash," Meghan added, but sometimes writers "don't see the whole story yet." She said, while writing this book was the "easiest writing" she'd ever done, and it was "necessary," the revising process was hard. During the editing process, she wondered "who is that alien who wrote the book."

Rebecca said, "Writing is the hardest, unless it's fabulous."

Emily said she makes her students read each other's work aloud. "So yeah, maybe you should have edited that," she joked. The audience laughed. "Reading your stuff aloud is the best way to edit." And "record it." (Yikes, I hate the sound of my voice recorded. I can't imagine reading my writing and then listening to it read back, but I would imagine that's extremely effective.)

The Humor: Vastly Inappropriate panel was packed. Panelists included Lizz Winstead (Lizz Free or Die), Ophira Eisenberg (Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy), Heather McDonald (My Inappropriate Life), and Kelly Oxford (Everything is Perfect When You're a Liar - great book). (Moderator: Adrian Todd Zuniga of Literary Death Match fame)

They lived up to "vastly inappropriate" humor. Here are some takeaways:
1) The answer to the question "Where do you draw the line" with humor? is "There is no line."
2) Heather has a supportive family. She gushed about how much her parents love (almost) everything she's ever done. Ophira leaned into her microphone to cut her off and said, "Okay, we get it!" with impeccable timing, sending the audience on the floor.
3) When asked if the panelists read every single tweet directed at them, their collective response was, "YES!" (How do they make the time?)
4) Kelly used to stay at Jimmy Kimmel's house when visiting from Canada. They once sat at his kitchen table reading the worst tweets people wrote about them/to them, and Jimmy's fiance decided, "This is the best bit ever." Jimmy now uses it on his show with celebrities.
5) Ophira's mom once made a joke about her childhood school being blown up by a bomb during war. She stated with excitement that when she walked by the school, she happily saw her "least favorite teacher, dead, hanging from a tree!" proving that yes, there is no line with comedy. We all laughed, but hated ourselves for it. (I personally covered my mouth and cried, "Oh my god." That's how the session ended, by the way. Perfect.
6) As a memoir writer, you should change names, locations, and job titles without exception. (Note to self.)
7) If you write a scathing story about terrible sex with a man who has a collection of Garfield stuffed animals in his bedroom, he will thank you for telling everyone he has a large penis.
8) It is possible to stay a virgin in Hollywood until you're 27. (But why would you want to?)

Next up: a fiction panel moderated by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author of Pen on Fire and radio host of Writer's on Writing. Panelists included Erica Bauermeister (The Lost Art of Mixing), Jillian Lauren (Pretty), Teddy Wayne (The Love Song of Jonny Valentine), and Peggy Payne (Cobalt Blue).

They discussed characters:
"The character has to want something," Peggy said. Even if it's a glass of water, someone pointed out. They just have to want that water bad.
"Treat the most despicable characters with compassion," Jillian said.
"If you can't care about them, don't write about them," Erica said. "I don't like all my characters, but I love all my characters."
Listen to your characters, they said.
"What do you want your reader to feel by the end of this?" Teddy asked.
"People don't care what happens. They care about what you learned from what happened," Erica added.

The big takeaway from this panel is to figure out what your character doesn't know and merge unconscious desire with conscious motivation. This is what drives narrative.

A Visit from an '80s Icon

This will make you feel old. Well, it makes me feel old anyway. Molly Ringwald is 45. Molly Ringwald is also stunning at 45. On day one of the festival, she read from her novel in stories, When It Happens to You. The story she read is about a mother and her transgendered son, who reveals he's a girl at a very early age. She answered questions from a large outdoor audience about her career as an actress, writer, and musician.

On day two, she sat on a panel with Maria Semple (Where'd You Go, Bernadette) and moderator Carolyn Kellogg. For most of the panel, no one mentioned her films, but the adorable, petite, curly-haired 15-year-old girl sitting in front of me stood up during the Q & A and asked what advice she'd give to teenagers today. She pointed out the elephant in the room: "I mean, come on, you were in The Breakfast Club! That is the quintessential teenage film." Carolyn responded, "We were all thinking it." We all laughed. The girl called Molly her "biggest role model."

Molly's response was that books saved her as a teenager, and that, while she doesn't usually give young people advice, she recommends reading books, listing some of the classics that are her favorites. She cited influences such as Raymond Carver and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She also said, "Wear sunscreen." I applauded that one.

At one point, Molly noted (using a wonderful French accent), "My old boyfriend, well, I should say my ex-husband, used to tell me, 'You are so blah-zay. You are im-pos-ee-bull to excite.'"

I talked to the 15-year-old after the session and told her I was surprised that Ringwald's John Hughes' films were still popular with young people. I went to see Sixteen Candles in 1984 when I was 11, also with my mom. My sister had just been born. I had no idea the film, which I have now seen dozens of times and can recite, would resonate with teenagers in 2013. I'm happy it does.

And I had a nice conversation about Johnathan Franzen's The Corrections with Maria Semple, who impressed me with her insights during the panel discussion. She said she sent Franzen her manuscript and heard back from him a year later. He told her, "I love your book. How can I help?" He now has a quote on the front of her published novel. Fantastic!

Other Highlights

Two words: food trucks! For lunch, I enjoyed a chicken pesto crepe. It was delicious! I didn't use a fork, and I didn't make a mess. (A first.) Kudos to the crepe guys for creating the perfect crispy wrap.

And last year we tried to get gelato when it was too late. This year my mom and I indulged on white chocolate raspberry cups, a great afternoon treat in the heat.

Thanks to LA Times photo journalist Rob Gauthier, I was able to see photos I hadn't seen before of the Los Angeles Kings' hometown visits after winning the Stanley Cup last season. Go Kings!

Carol Burnett is as classy and funny as ever. She wrote a book about her daughter, who died of cancer in her late thirties: Carrie and Me. When sick, Carrie asked her mom to finish a piece she had been writing. Carol sat on it for 10 years, and then finally turned the piece into a story about her daughter. What a lovely tribute. When asked if she'd do the Carol Burnett Show again, she replied in the deep voice of a former character, "Sure." If only.

Also, apparently Tim Conway's wife had a "blackbelt in Bridge." She took him to a Bridge party where he rummaged through the host's bathroom cabinets, found Q-tips and vaseline, broke the Q-tips in two, stuck them all over his face with the vaseline, and then told everyone at the party that the Q-tip box exploded. Classic.

I now have a lot of reading to do.

Until next year.

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