Tag Archives: Los Angeles Times

Looking at Writing with a Sideways Glance

festival of booksblog 1 (This is the second of two blogs on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books)

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.

Other Blogs on LA Times Festival of Books

A Taste of Eternity

Crime Fiction Collective

Independent Writers Network

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.

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Cruising the L.A. Times Festival of Books (part one)

festival of booksblog 1(This is the first of two blogs from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It also serves to launch a new companion blog, http://366writing.wordpress.com, which will be my daily account of one writer’s life and activities. The Festival of Books blogs will appear on both sites; after that, I will continue with a variety of pieces on this site while keeping the daily account on 366writing.)

Here’s a quick trivia question: Which author with a name recognizable to millions lists as her most influential writers such titans as Joan Didion, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dyostoevsky, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, most notably, the late short story master Raymond Carver?

I’m sure you can come up with plenty of good guesses – such as, your favorite authors. After all, many working authors of renown in the late 20th and early 21st century were influenced by all or some of these writers.

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But what if I told you that this particular author made her first splash in a much different way, as America’s teen cinematic sweetheart in the classic 1980s movies Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club?

"When It Happens to You" author Molly Ringwald

“When It Happens to You” author Molly Ringwald

Hard to believe Molly Ringwald is now 45, but there she stood, resplendent on the LA Times Festival of Books main stage at USC, being celebrated for the passion that burned within her well before becoming a movie star: writing. She read a chapter-story from her bestselling novel-in-stories, When It Happens To You, and answered audience questions with a fresh openness that doesn’t happen so often at these events.

What struck me most about her work was its depth and quality: this was no actress cashing in on her entertainment platform to get a book out. You could sense Didion’s astute observation, Hemingway’s sparseness, Fitzgerald’s intimacy and Carver’s incisive delivery in her work, yet it was exclusively her voice. That takes years of practice. As Molly said in response to a question about when he knew her work was ready, “I just wrote and rewrote and worked on it and then let it sit there until I felt my voice was good enough to bring it out.”

In so many words, she described what makes the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and other major book festivals, such celebrations of the written word. For two days, more than 150,000 people converge upon the USC campus – a quite stately setting for the festival. We were there all day Saturday to see author friends, meet with our agent briefly, shop the booths, and listen to speakers like Molly and former Wonder Years star Danica McKellar, whose “Math is Cool” stream of books might be one of the best things going for the self-esteem of teenaged girls.

We also dropped in on panel conversations, which to me are the hidden treasures of these and any book festivals. Book writing is about storytelling, and the stories behind the stories are often treasures of their own. As good as books might be, you won’t get them within the pages, or sometimes even in interviews with the authors. You will get them in these panel discussions, when guards and sales pitches are down and high-spirited interaction is the name of the game. And the LA Times Festival of Books moderators are experts at it.

So many things happened at the Festival of Books, which took place on a day the LA Chamber of Commerce baked up in their dreams: sunny, 80 degrees, the Exposition Park Rose Garden in full bloom across the street, and people of all ages completely celebrating the joy of creativity and good books. The Tumbler vehicle from The Dark Knight was there, as were perfectly costumed members of the Jane Austen Society. The USC Trojan marching band opened the Festival, while a third-grader won a $500 Barnes & Noble gift card in a coloring contest. Funny: I don’t remember prizes like that when I was in third grade. Maybe I would have colored more between the lines! Check that – writers spend their time outside the lines, approaching their subjects sideways and from the back as often as straightforward.

Everyone was also celebrating the end to the tragic week and manhunt in Boston, none moreso than the young lady working the Harvard University Press booth. She flew in Friday night from Cambridge, where the bombing suspects shot and killed an MIT campus officer before getting into a nighttime shootout with police. “I am so happy to be here,” she said, her body visibly decompressing. “No one ever needs to have a week like that. It was wicked weird to drive to the airport in Boston on a Friday without any cars on the road. None.” Added Southern California Writer’s Conference co-director Wes Albers, the author of a great crime novel, Black & Whiteand himself a longtime San Diego police officer: “The stakes were way too high for us not to succeed (in apprehending the Boston suspects).” His comments clearly showed the sense of brotherhood all law enforcement officers felt this week.

Getting right back to the fun side of the weekend, I heard a few great stories (for which books have been written) during a fine panel discussion on “Nonfiction: A Singular Passion”:

• Did you know the federal duck stamp contest program is one of the U.S. government’s most profitable ventures? Duck hunters must purchase a stamp for their licenses every year. The stamp is designed from the winning painting from 250 to 300 artists. The government spends $850,000 to run the contest, and receives $25 million in annual revenue. 98 percent of that money is invested into restoring wetlands. Since being initiated in 1930, the program has resulted in restoring wetlands the size of Massachusetts. And oh yes, The Wild Duck Chase author and Orange Coast Magazine editor Martin J. Smith added,  the vast majority of duck hunters favor background checks as a form of gun control – unlike half of the U.S. senators (all fearful of the NRA), who ignored 90% of the public’s preference the other day (that’s another story).

• The best-tasting taco, according to OC Weekly food editor Gustavo Arellano, the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, is at a taco truck in Santa Ana. He just spent three years canvassing every good Mexican restaurant in the country for his book on the history of Mexican food in the US; he knows.

• Did you know that, while he made marijuana illegal in the United States starting in the 1930s, Federal Bureau of Narcotics director Harry Anslinger – the J. Edgar Hoover of his department – helped Coca-Cola continue to import coca leaves from Peru for its product, even though the importation was explicitly banned by an international treaty? It’s quite a story Richard Cortes dug up — but the blowback he felt is what we heard on the panel discussion about his new book, A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola. “When I matched the letters from Anslinger to Coca-Cola, and called Coca-Cola for comment, I heard complete silence on the phone … they didn’t appreciate it very much,” Cortes said.

These are the tidbits that come from panel discussions – and the authors’ stories about how they find out these delights. Behind it all, they said, are stories about people and social issues far beyond tacos, duck stamps and crooked federal officials. And that’s what makes the books that we come to book festivals to buy.

(NEXT: More from this non-fiction panel – and a wild ride from four top-selling fiction panelists who threw away the typical “how to write a novel” guidelines long ago).  

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