Skip to main content


May 5, 2006

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - Part 2 - Saturday's Panels and The Rockbottom Remainders

Posted by admin

Saturday morning I walked over to the Festival and things were bustling. There was a line of cars waiting to park that streamed onto Hilgard and I saw why people had urged me to stay at the W and walk. There were crowds everywhere --- everything from organized patient queues to pick up tickets and lines to attend events.

I started out at a panel where Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Greg Iles pondered whether authors are born or bred. Amy told of loving words even as a young child. She read the dictionary, the thesaurus and a book a day. For years she was a workaholic-obsessed business writer before she became a fiction author. She shared a funny timeline of the kind of rejection letters she got along the way with the first being mimeographed.

Greg picked up next telling of growing up Natchez, Mississippi. His dad was a doctor who read and collected books. His mom was an English teacher. He had lots of talents growing up, and shared a line to ponder about this --- "Most natural athletes are the least motivated since they do not need to be motivated to succeed." He was a natural writer and thus was the same way. He would not rush to enter writing contests or pursue writing since it came naturally to him. His teachers would pull him aside and tell him --- you know you can write, don't you? But he wanted to play music, not write. Music was a challenge where writing came easy.

He started writing after he got married at 29 and spent 50 of 52 weeks on the road playing with a band and realized that was no way to be married for a very long time. He gave himself a year to write a novel. And during that time wrote a 260,000 word novel in much the same way that he had attacked his college term papers. The difference is that this one became a bestseller!

Scott Turow's dad was a doctor who wanted Scott to be a doctor. His mom always had wanted to be a novelist. His first book was about two boys who lived outside Chicago who drove down to New Orleans where they witnessed the murder of an African American prostitute. The interesting thing is that Turow had never been to New Orleans and thus just made all those parts up!

His teacher at Amherst told him at one point to write ones needs to "stuff yourself with novels,"which to me sounded like a pretty good line. He later was a writing fellow at Stamford where as he says, “Not everyone wrote like Hemingway, but they drank like Hemingway!” He went on to become a lawyer though he still wanted to write. Thus he would write on his train commute each morning. He joked that his wife had married a writer and ended up with a lawyer. Sounds like she, like us, is pretty happy he went back to writing.

The moderator of the panel, Barbara Isenberg, shared one more point on craft that I wanted to pass along. She said that to learn sentence structure, Joan Didion once typed Farewell to Arms. There I guess is no better example of craft vs art.

For the next panel I headed over to Royce Hall, which is one of the more gorgeous campus buildings that I have seen. The architecture alone was a sight to behold. During the prior evening’s events I had missed many of the details of the building as I was seated in the orchestra. This time I was in the balcony and could appreciate it more. Above the stage was a line that neither Hinton nor I could quite figure out --- "Education is learning to use the tools which race has found indispensable."

The theatre holds more than 1,800 (I looked this up when I got home) and from my view there were very few open seats, which amazed me. I have been to a lot of book events in my life, but few where the authors packed the room like rock stars.

The featured authors --- Mitch Albom interviewing Frank McCourt. I have seen both of these authors before, but never speaking together. McCourt talks like he is doing standup comedy. He can say a line like "Faulkner’s sentences go on and on and on" and leave the audience laughing. This was in reference to the years that he tried to write like both Hemingway and Faulkner, without much success. He also spoke of trying to write Angela's Ashes as a novel instead of as a memoir, and how that failed miserably.

I did not realize that in ’96 when Angela's Ashes was published, McCourt already was 66 years old. He had been teaching for years and really enjoyed it thus his memoir, Teacher Man. He felt his students needed to be entertained each day and recounted many stories of how he did this. He also joked at how most people who write about motivating students clearly have never been near a room of high school students! He also talked about something called "title fusion" where one mixes up titles. I am happy to know there is now a title to what I regularly do with book titles. I also do the same with author names thus I guess that is "author fusion."

Albom belongs to the band, The Rockbottom Remainders, which is comprised of authors including Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Greg Iles, Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, among others. Albom talked about McCourt doing a gig with them where he was going to play harmonica. He said he knew Love Me Do by the Beatles. Sooo the band practices this so McCourt can play with them. Well, when they practice they realize that McCourt instead is playing I Should Have Known Better, not Love Me Do! Seeing them both on stage one can see the humor in this just by watching their faces as they recount it.

For the record…back to books….McCourt currently is at work on a novel about a boarding house in Brooklyn. Albom just turned in a still untitled novel that is scheduled to be published in September.

Next up I went to a panel that featured four of the five Young Adults nominees for the previous night’s Book Prize on a panel called Young Adult Fiction: Rites of Initiation. The panelist were John Green, Per Nilsson, Andreas Steinhofel and Markus Zusak, moderated by Sonya Bolle Interestingly Green was the only American thus noting the strong influence of international writers on the American market. Each shared wonderful stories about his writing and what he hoped to share with readers.

Susak talked about his bookshelves at home where his favorite books are housed on his top shelf. He moves titles in here as they become new favorites. What’s on his shelf? Slaughterhouse Five, The Half Brother, My Brother Jack and a book by Peter Hedges that I failed to note the title of. This prompted the moderator to ask the same question of the other authors.

Steinhofel noted Kon Tiki and David Copperfield. Nilsson picked The Master and the Margarita. Green said All the King’s Men, Huck Finn, which he reads over and over, J.D. Salinger, which he reads over and over and Zora Neale Huston.

Susak had a wonderful take on the obsession that many writers have with hitting the bestseller list. He instead focuses on writing a better book so the next time instead of stopping now to see obsess on where he is positioned now. He feels that writing a better story should be the focus, not prizes and list status. Good words.

The next panel was called The Insiders and featured literary agents, Larry Kirshbaum, Betsy Amster and Steve Wasserman, along with publicist Kim Dower, also known as Kim from L.A. and moderated by Bridget Kinsella. Lots of chit chat here about the realities of book publishing as well as the "Opal" and "Frey" situations. Good dishing. And comedy as well, as Wasserman managed to turn each question into some political attack on Washington government. It got to the point where there were three logical replies and then we went on a little off-road excursion with Steve.

Something to keep in mind here, folks. While I was at these panels there typically were 6 other events going on. During the Insiders panel as an example, there was Michael Connelly & Robert Crais in Conversation and Joan Didion in Conversation with David Ulin. Thus there were crowds moving around everywhere.

Next I was onto Creating New Worlds: Young Adult Fantasy Writing where Denise Hamilton moderated Cornelia Funke, Adam Gopnik and Margo Lanagan. My younger son is a HUGE Funke fan so I attended this one for him! He would have loved her story about how she writes by sharing her stories with her daughter each night to see if they hold her interest. She wants a story that sounds good since kids are intrigued by storytelling and if one tells a story well, one will enjoy reading it as well. She said there is a real hunger out there for good stories, which is why she feels thrillers do so very well.

Lanagan is from Australia and she told the story that inspired her story, The Lottery, which takes place in a tar pit. Relatives and friends watch as someone disappears into a tarpit after being charhed with a misdemeanor. It’s got sci-fi overtones to the fantasy.
Gopnik too has his son read his work. He has his son’s book group read his stories and then interviews them to see what works and what does not. His son came up with the title for his first book, The King in the Window. His daughter has given him the title of the second one, Steps Across the Water.

Funke spoke of having 40 books written in German that have not been translated yet. Startling to hear that an author of her caliber has that much material that could be shared. She also told us why she had set The Thief Lord in Venice. All too often she feels that fantasy takes place in worlds such as Hogwarts that children never will see. She loves getting letters from kids telling her that they have traveled to Venice and found the locations that she spoke about.

I had barely walked around the Fair where there are booths laid out throughout the campus. I took a turn at one point at the top of a hill and saw a whole other section that I had not passed earlier. S urprising since I already was wowed but what I had seen.

Taking a break I stopped by one of the stages where the Rockbottom Remainders were finishing up a set where Roger McGuinn from the Byrds was guesting along with Mitch Albom’s wife, Janine. The crowd was loving it.

I am a huge fan of the book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and thus the next panel was one I wanted to see since Lisa See, the author, was on it. Joining her were Bruce Bauman, Susan Straight and Amy Wilentz for The Unknown Territory, moderated by Mr. Zachary Karabell, who wrote for us at many years ago. Small world from New York to L.A.!

See did not disappoint me. She spoke and gave so much backstory on Snow Flower. She spoke about being the second foreigner to go to where she had researched her book and learn more about nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women that dates back 1,000 years in the southwestern Hunan province. She also talked about how given the high infant mortality rate the Chinese often named their children by number until they reach a certain age and then they give them a name. She also spoke about how she had at one point too many characters in her book. It was getting unwieldy. There were too many people, too many women and thus she needed something to put things more into check. So, she wrote an typhoid epidemic into the plotline in what Zachary called, “literary population control.”

Once again I went to hear one author on a panel and then learned so much from the others there. Wilentz feels that it helps to be from outside a place when you go to write a story since you see so many things that others do not. She likes being an outsider in the world that she is creating. Straight talked of fiction listening to her when she feels like no one else does after telling a funny story about she feels her children and her ex-husband never hear her.
Nice way to wrap up panels for the day. I caught up with Hinton again and he introduced me to Glenn Geffcken, who organizes the Festival. He told me that they were reporting 62,500 attendees. As a veteran of these events, I would have clocked attendance a lot higher --- even double that --- but he said that they have a formula they use each year and that they feel gives them a fair report. What struck me was how calm he was. The entire operation was running seamlessly and he had plenty of time to chat and answer my questions. Nice.

From there it was back to the hotel for 15 minutes and then a drive back to the campus to catch the pre-show reception for Rockbottom Remainders as well as the show. It was nice to talk to some of the authors who I had seen on the panels and meet some new people. For the show we had McCourt on harmonica, Roger McGuinn again on guitar and Craig Ferguson from the Late Late Show on drums and lots of laughes. Nice nice day.