Tuesday, April 12, 2016

L.A. Times Festival of Books - Saturday

Rain didn't dampen enthusiasm for the annual Festival of Books. The event goes on rain or shine, and go on it did. I had four awesome panels today.

The Art of the Short Story
David Ulin (moderator), Karen Bender, Lincoln Michel, Tara Ison

Bender, when asked why she writes short stories: It was something she could finish. Compared short stories to dreams.

Ison said she prefers writing a solution rather than a resolution. Doesn't feel that the ending of a story needs to tie up every last thread.

Michel quoted Gordon Lish: "Write what scares you."

Ulin on story: Likes to look at family pictures and wonder what's going on outside the frame. He feels that's more interesting that what's being shown to the camera.

During the Q&A, the panel was asked about short story markets. Bender recommended reading magazines to see what they're publishing. Ison suggested checking out niche publications, while Ulin's advice was to just go for it with big name magazines.

Crime Fiction: Ulterior Motives
Paula L. Woods (moderator), Brian Panowich, Caroline Kepnes, Lou Berney, Jessica Knoll

L to R: Jessica Knoll, Brian Panowich,
Paula L.Woods, Caroline Kepnes, Lou Berney

This was a hilarious panel with a pretty formidable group of writers. Both Panowich (Bull Mountain) and Berney (The Long and Faraway Gone) were nominated for the L.A. Times Book Prize this year. Berney also has an Edgar nomination and Bull Mountain was bought by USA Network. Knoll's novel Luckiest Girl Alive  is also Edgar-nominated and has been bought by Lionsgate. Knoll will write the screenplay and Reese Witherspoon is producing. Kepnes' novel You: A Novel  is in development at Showtime.

Panowich is a firefighter in real life and joked about only being able to write when he's at the firehouse because he's got four kids at home that keep him busy there. He lives in Georgia and wanted to depict Georgians as they really are, not as toothless hicks shown in the media.

Berney's novel was inspired by a real life event in his hometown of Oklahoma City. Workers at a steakhouse were murdered by robbers after being herded into the walk-in freezer. He purposely didn't give the PI in his book the traditional ratty office and has him put up a funny and charming front despite his being damaged. He described it as "an illusion of stability that he can't maintain". His publisher suggested he move the story to a more exciting city, but he was able to keep it in Oklahoma City, which he described as a "mini-Austin" and more interesting than people realize.

Kepnes described her sociopath protagonist as a "veterinarian for people" in that he puts them down the way we do so humanely for sick animals. When he begins stalking a woman who shopped at his bookstore, it's due to what she refers to as "interest at first sight" as opposed to love at first sight.

Knoll talked about her character being victimized both during and after the fact, and how she hasn't learned to live with herself and therefore hates herself, despite having re-invented herself. The issue of old money versus new money is also involved.

Several of these author's books feature anti-heroes, prompting Woods to make the observation that, "Even bad people need to be the heroes of their own reality." I thought that was really interesting, not to mention great advice for writers.

Opinion: Writing Personal Essays for the Popular Press
Juliet Lapidos (moderator), Rosecrans Baldwin, Maria Bustillo

L to R: Juliet Lapidos, Rosecrans Baldwin, Maria Bustillo

Baldwin pointed out that a personal essay is not an opinion piece. You've gone through something or something changed you. It's something that happened to you, not your take on something.

They were asked about pieces they wrote that particularly resonated with readers...or not. Bustillo wrote about a piece of advice given to her by a tutor when she was attending St. John's College. She said she got a great response from St. John's alumni. Baldwin was sent to cover the Boy Scout Jamboree. One of the more disturbing parts of the experience was the discovery of Boy Scout groupies.

Since a lot of these pieces are based on personal experience and observations, the question of identifying the real people involved came up. Baldwin said he'll ask for permission from his and his wife's immediate family, but beyond that he's willing to deal with the fallout. He has lost two friends as a result of writing about them - one he described as a great friendship lost, the other he didn't care about. Bustillo said she disguises people a lot and so far hasn't had any trouble with them.

On the pitching process: Bustillo said to write your best piece, identify an editor who would love it and send it to them. Don't be shy. Find a topic that makes you wonder why no one else is talking about it. Write it and get it out there. As an editor, Baldwin gets a ton of stories about cancer survival, addiction, and experiences of going through parents' belongings after they've passed away, so if you've got something more unique, you have a better chance of getting published.

During the audience Q&A they were asked how they pick pieces to publish and what they're looking for. Lapidos said she has a lot of stuff to read, so you have to grab her in the first paragraph. As an L.A. Times editor, she's looking for pieces evocative of the city and region. Baldwin said he has to be at least slightly entertained or surprised in the first paragraph to keep reading. He also gets too many submissions set in the past - he feels there's a vitality to the present.

Another audience member asked about payment and I was kind of surprised that the one thing they didn't mention was publishers that don't pay. This is an ongoing spat in the writing world where The Huffington Post is concerned. The HuffPost seems to think that for a large number of their contributors, just getting a byline on their site is valuable enough. It probably is for some people, but others believe that any writer should be paid for their work, especially with a publication the size of the HuffPost. So I asked. Rosecrans Baldwin's prompt response: "I hate The Huffington Post." It wasn't until later that I remembered one of the weekend's most promoted FOB guests was Ariana Huffington. Oops. Bustillo piled on by commenting that it sucked that the HuffPost doesn't pay so many of their writers because they have the money. She feels they should pay commensurate with their cash flow.

Crime Fiction: Buried Secrets
Lee Goldberg (moderator), Barry Eisler, Gregg Hurwitz, James Rollins

L to R: Lee Goldberg, Barry Eisler, Gregg Hurwitz, James Rollins

I've attended so many panels with Lee Goldberg I'm surprised he doesn't get a restraining order. In fact, I think the first time I saw him was at the first FOB I attended, when he interviewed Joseph Wambaugh.

Hurwitz is an interesting guy. In addition to being the best-selling author of 15 novels, he also spent time writing for Marvel Comics and has a master's degree in Shakespearean Tragedy from Oxford. He's known for actually trying out things he writes about, from martial arts training to weapons training to spending time in a cult. He described himself as a big fan of anti-heroes. Evan Smoak, the protagonist of his latest novel Orphan X, is a government trained assassin turned pro-bono assassin, who Hurwitz described as "helping people who have normal lives that he can never have". He also said he prefers to think of his characters as protagonists and antagonists as opposed to heroes and villains.

Rollins, whose novels are mashups of time travel, futuristic science and fantasy worlds, said he is always looking for the newest things in science for his stories. He made a joke about having had RFID chips inserted into his fingertips and that he could feel the energy from his microphone with such a straight face that Goldberg (as well as I) totally fell for it. On a serious note, he had recently attended a "body modification" fair in San Francisco and spoke to people who actually have had chips implanted. Again, always looking for new science. He also mentioned that when friends badger him into putting them in his books, he kills their characters horribly.

Eisler, who once worked for the CIA, had written about a surveillance program and worried it went overboard. Then the Edward Snowden story broke and he realized his story didn't go far enough. He has strong opinions on the overreach of privacy by government. He made what I thought was an interesting point: That these days government knows more about its citizens than ever, while we know less and less about what the government is up to. He finds this disturbing. I agree. Eisler also walked away from traditional publishing to publish his book through Amazon. He loves that writers today have choices for reaching an audience.

So that was my action-packed Saturday. Sunday (including Michael Connelly and Titus Welliver of Bosch) coming up soon!

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