What happens when you put four novelists in a room and ask them for their take on the world? Chances are, you’ll get four very different impressions – eloquently stated, of course. Unless one is Ernest Hemingway. He’ll get it done in eight words or less – noun, verb, predicate. Time to go fishing.
For some reason, this crossed my mind as I entered the “Sideways Glance” panel discussion at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The name caught my eye and lured me in (score a point for good branding and titling); it didn’t sound like the usual conversation about plot points or how good someone’s sales are going. “You come at the truth from a sideways angle through the words you choose or images you create,” moderator Chris Daley, the fiction reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, said. “There’s a surprising inevitability at the end.”
Given that definition, event organizers picked the right cast. These authors shared very, very different takes on the worlds they create and how they create them.
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The panelists included Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins), Diana Wagman (Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets), Fiona Maazel (Woke Up Lonely) and David Abrams (Fobbit). All four books are available on Amazon.com and through bookstores. This quartet could not be more different, in appearance, personal background, hometown, or literary preferences, all of which created what had to be one of the top discussions at the two-day festival.
To state the case, here are one-sentence descriptions of their newest books:
• Beautiful Ruins: A funny, romantic tale of a near-affair in Hollywood that rekindles 50 years later. Says the Washington Post of Walter, “As talented a natural storyteller as is working in American fiction these days.”
• Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets: A woman learns how to deal with the deranged iguana owner who kidnapped her.
• Woke Up Lonely: A wild ride through North Korea and the vice section of Cincinnati with the leader of a cult and a covert agent.
• Fobbit: A stunning behind-the-lines war story that takes place at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Iraq. Stunning not only for its poignant scenes, but also for its humor.
If you’re a writer trying to sell your novel to an agent or publisher, here is the first thing to take away from this cross-section of books: the storylines are unique, distinctive, and quirky in their own ways. In all four cases, the authors tossed aside others’ notions of what readers would buy, and wrote their stories. Their styles couldn’t be more different: Walter is sweet and funny; Wagman hilarious in a dark, twisted sort of way but also a laser with character development; Maazel a dazzling wordsmith and purveyor of the richly textured multi-plot; and Abrams a former soldier who writes between-combat scenes with the depth of Tim O’Brien, the humor of Elmore Leonard and the emotional richness of Joyce Carol Oates. He kept a daily journal while in Iraq, then grew a book out of it.
As for Wagman, who also won the 2001 PEN Award for new fiction and wrote the screenplay for Delivering Milo, the movie starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney? Trust me on this: looks are deceiving. I was all set to listen to a prim, proper, bespectacled, short-haired Midwestern professor expound on fiction. Instead, she sent the capacity crowd into hysterics time and again with her twisted, raw humor, leaving the youngest and wildest looking author – Maazel – in stitches and saying, “I’m a wuss compared to you when it comes to sex scenes and blood and gore.” As it turns out, Maazel is the professor – she teaches at Columbia, Princeton and NYU. And she’s in her 30s. How’s that for a great mind?
How different from “what sells”, as we often read in magazines or are told, are these books? While writing, all four authors admitted to seriously doubting their stories would sell, no matter their publishing pasts, because they were so far removed from typical mainstream fiction. But guess what? They sold – and all four books are being hailed as among the top books of the past year. In Maazel’s case, it earned her a spot in the “Top 5 Under 35” as one of the nation’s best young novelists.
It goes to show you: there’s no cookie cutter formula to writing, selling and buying great novels. All of them hold true and fast to the famous quote by southern novelist Flannery O’Connor: “To the hard of hearing, you shout, and to the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
During the panel discussion, each of the four made numerous comments that bear repeating. Rather than take the rest of the morning to build a story around it, one way too long for a single blog, I thought I’d leave you with some highlights:
David Abrams: “There is no real truth. To immortalize your experience you have to manipulate it to some degree. To tell anyone a truth, you have to tell a story, and if you tell a story, you quit telling the actual truth, because you’re always moving facts and memories around.”
Diana Wagman: “I love it when life surprises you, or I hear something that just takes everything I think I know and believe and sends it flying. I’m always looking for what makes people laugh and cry, or what makes them change … and then I add my own little twists and things I would do to people who kidnapped me …”
Jess Walter: “Each of my books tends to drive the thematic interest of whatever I’m carrying around at the time (of writing). That’s what is on top of me, ready to come out, so I find characters and time periods to match.”
Fiona Maazel: “Good writing, really good writing, is a matter of getting at things through the back door. We can all go through the front door, but what happens when you peek in, sneak in, creep in? Like, how would you describe desire in a way no one else has tried, in a way that messes with your comfort zone? I like to write stories that tell the same truths over and over again from new angles that make you see them fresh.”
Ready to take these words into your writing or reading week? I sure am.