(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.
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?
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 & White, and 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).