Tag Archives: Southern California

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.


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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Magic Still Counts – In Writing, In Life

A few days ago, I tried on something new (for me) — 3-D movie glasses. We decided to catch the latest adventures and antics of Jack Sparrow, Barbosa and the other roustabouts in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. For a little over two hours, we were propelled through the streets of London and untamed shores of the Atlantic as decadent royal food spreads, mermaids, ships, explosions and stupendous waterfalls filled our world, suspending anything that might be happening outside those 3-D glasses. I walked out saying, “That’s the best experience I’ve had in a theater in years.” I also wondered, how did I wait 52 years to see a movie in 3-D?

Two nights later, we sat in a moonlit outdoor amphitheater backed into the brown hills of the eastern San Luis Rey River valley, our hearts and fancies traveling far and wide on the remarkable flute playing, one-legged crane dancing and singing of Jethro Tull mastermind Ian Anderson. I felt like I was in a time warp, the hills coming alive as they had centuries before, when the native Luiseno Indians played in sunrise, sacred ceremony and initiation with their flutes. The interplay of moonlight and spotlights on the hills added to a feeling that the spirits of the land and sky were with us, enjoying this rare performance of acoustic and electric music with ancient English, Irish, Renaissance and Medieval undertones … and, without a doubt, some genetic tonal carryover from Celtic and Druidic times.

I was gone, transported, riding the music wherever it led, a little kid on a magic carpet watching the fair-skinned kokopelli – Anderson, the flute-playing shaman – whisk away the worries of the world for a few precious minutes. I felt the same space formed by a good meditation or an all-consuming writing session (especially fiction and poetry writing), the place where everything is possible, serenity reigns and goodness is omnipresent: the magical intersection of heaven and earth, known to writers and artists as the creative dream.

As I assimilated both of these experiences, which happened a little more than 48 hours apart, I recalled a keynote speech that Richard Paul Evans, author of The Christmas Box, Timepiece, The Walk and four other bestsellers, gave at the Wrangling With Writing conference in Tucson about five years ago. The theme of the speech was Magic—Innocence—Wonder. His perspective: all stories must have one of these three qualities to succeed with their audience. If you can get two or all three in there, you’ve hit a home run as a writer.

Magic appears before us and visits us every second of every day — through a flower, another’s voice, shapes of clouds, dancing alone in a room, hiking to a mountain summit, listening to Spirit as it utters through our souls, watching new shoots spring from a rain-filled creek, putting on 3-D glasses or catching an old favorite rock band. Some of us think we left it behind as childhood folly; others (me included, sometimes) get so caught up in daily life that we deny it entrance. There’s a little word play – en-trance. In trance. Let magic in, and things happen.

Magic is very real and very present. Writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers and other creatives rely on it to transport and transform their audiences. Those audiences seek it out to suspend the world, to recall a more innocent, wonder-filled time, to become lost in a journey, adventure, chase or dance of a modern-day minstrel’s flute. Why else do you stare at a painting for hours in a museum, listen to a catchy tune over and over again, or pop open a book at the beach or pool, hoping it sweeps you away into its world? All we have to do is open our eyes, minds and hearts, and be willing to see the world as our ancestors did. Then, we can open up every day to receiving magic, in whatever shape and form she takes. That’s the greatest beauty of it all: we never really know how she’ll arrive, but that she will touch us in a way that makes the day happier, richer, more purposeful. We’ll feel more connected to ourselves, our childlike inner selves, each other, the Divine.

Yes, magic counts. It’s the elixir of life. A little more attention paid to its expressions would change the world. Even if it means slapping on 3-D glasses or heading to the hills to get there.

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Voice Lessons: A Different Approach to Reading (and Writing)

While discussing how a writer develops his voice the other night with one of my Ananda College of Living Wisdom creative writing students (quick answer: through A LOT of solitary hours of writing, experimenting with words and reading), I hit upon what I believe is the most understated factor: Our speaking voices. Or, to be more exact, the types of phrases, terminologies, colloquialisms, dialects, accents, and other aspects of language we hear and assimilate during our lifetimes.

Think about it: By the time we’re 30 years or older, nearly all of us have lived in more than one place — and more than one part of this or another country. We’ve gone to school, been exposed to a variety of dialects and accents, picked up sayings in our travels, perhaps worked with people from other countries for a period of time. In addition, some of us have lived in foreign countries.

In writing classes, workshops and in writer interviews, we talk often about how this type of exposure results in true on-the-ground life experience necessary to write most authentically. However, how many writers and readers stop to think of the many spoken-word influences, along with studies of other writers’ works and our own tireless practice, that we assimilate and later manifest in our actual writing voices?

Readers will see the answer to this question most often in narrative non-fiction, memoir and essay collections. Why? Because these are the most personal and direct-to-soul forms of writing. They live and breathe a writer’s direct experience with self, setting and circumstance or situation. Thus, the language that pours from the pen will be the closest thing to what I would call the author’s soul or heart language — their truly native language. A person’s soul or heart language is like a snowflake or a DNA strand — no two are exactly alike.

By reading these works with a watchful eye for nuances of language, we can not only appreciate the writer’s voice, but also the combination of life and people experiences from which he or she put it together. What a great way to better know the subject, the writer and the context of the story! I am forever fascinated when I read true first-person stories, and see how the writers’ experience wove into the articulation of his/her voice on paper. Talk about deeply authentic writing!

Here’s a self-example of how it works. As my friends know, I’m a walking, talking amalgamation of many different ways of speaking. (We all are; I’ve just identified them for teaching purposes). So when I write narrative non-fiction, you will see, if you look close enough, terminologies, imagery, and figures of speech consistent with: surfing and bodysurfing; yoga; sports (particularly running); slang and colloquialisms native to Great Britain, Australia, Hawaii, Italy, as well as Southern California, New York City and the South (and I know about 20 different regional dialects within the South); pieces of German, Italian and Spanish; and words consistent with writing, filmmaking, astronomy and astronauts, academia, a deeply seated love of ecology and the wild, business and Internet-based communication. That’s not everything, but there it is: the linguistic cross-section of my personal and professional life for the first 51 years.

Some linguists say it takes anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million words, from kindergarten through the “A-ha!” moment, for a serious writer to find his or her voice and move beyond mechanical techniques to seamlessly flow words and stories on the page. I’d like to add a caveat to that: 500,000 to 1 million words and the ability to convert assimilated dialects, vernacular, accents and figures of speech into narrative prose. As a writer, we know we’ve arrived when the right words happen in the right moments, and we’ve accessed our entire life experiences to get there.

As a reader, this makes for the kind of literary deep diving that is more fun than you can imagine. Try it the next time you pick up a memoir, narrative non-fiction or essay. See what you can learn about the author’s past — and then look them up. It’s an incredible way to get to the good stuff, the humus at the base of the forest that makes the tree grow.

Which reminds me: the next time I conduct an author interview, or have one conducted with me, we’re getting into this subject. I want to know where all the rich language in an author’s repertoire originates.

The answers are likely to lead to some fascinating stories of their own.

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Eighty-Seven and Writing

Eighty-Seven and Writing

She walked up to the podium, assisted by her husband. She smiled to the throng beneath a white hat and behind classic horn-rimmed glasses, her red and white curls falling to her shoulders. She looked like a beautiful, senior southern belle transported into the 21st century from another place in time.

I stirred in my seat, full of anticipation. Sometimes, at group poetry readings, you just know when someone is going to be good. She was going to be good — her graceful entrance, dignity, and presence promised a moment to remember.

Finally, Kathleen Elliott Gilroy took the podium to deliver her selected entry in the 2008 Magee Park Poets Anthology, an annual publication of the Carlsbad, CA-based poetry group. At 87, she was the oldest selected poet. In the first sixth lines of “Late September Night,” her wisdom, experience and perception tumbled forth in a luminous crystal image:

Almost everything outside tonight
Is as dark as a dreamless sleep
Except my vinyl privacy fence
Which glows fluorescent white,
As the luminous moon unspools its
Light, like a bridal train in a chapel.

Kathleen read on, her cadence slow and strong, each word rolling from a soul who has lived life so gracefully. The 100 or so people in the audience were transfixed, not by her age, but by her willingness to share the essence of her life.

As she read, I thought of what distinguishes poets from fiction writers, and why I’ve long practiced writing poetry for a month or two before starting work on a novel or memoir — the precision of not only words, but also feelings and moments. When you put the three together, your words can change your life, and the lives of others.

Of the forty poets who read at the Magee Park Anthology launch, one other spellbound the audience with her voice—the anthology’s editor, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, whose precise enunciation, quiet power and sweet palm-fed accent made it sound and feel like Rumi’s feminine side was in the room. However, none closed a poem with such silent provocation as Kathleen Gilroy, whose “Late September Night” ended with this:

All these, like me,
Are transfixed, embraced in silence,
Receiving a non-vocal benediction—
A blessing, granting fragile evidence
Of unbreakable bonds between
Beloved humans and animals
Now departed and we who live on.

Then Kathleen delivered the punch line: “I am now 87, and I read a poem that I wrote for the first time when I was seven, so that makes 80 years of writing poetry.”
Eighty years … and she’s never published a collection. She said that her poems lie in file cabinets, desks, between pages of books, and that she’s going to pull the collection together.

I sure hope so. After hearing and reading “Late September Night,” I can only imagine what a Gilroy collection would look like. I can definitely imagine publishing it. It also underscores why we need to promote poetry a lot more in this country, from kindergarten classes on through assisted living facilities—the most basic and precious qualities of humanity, truth and feeling lie within its verses. And we need to get as much of it into the public eye as possible.
Because sometimes, we might be publishing the crystallized jewels of a wise, wise soul, such as the lady with the hat and red-white curls who defined a Southern California poetry reading on a cool Wednesday night.

(If you’re interested in ordering the Magee Park Poets Anthology, send a $5 check or money order to Friends of the Carlsbad Library, 1250 Carlsbad Village Dr., Carlsbad, CA 92008).

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