The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held over two days this past weekend, Saturday, April 30th and Sunday, May 1st. Although I was disappointed that the romance genre was not represented at the festival, I made plans to attend some interesting events and panels on Saturday, April 30th, along with my husband, my crit partner and friend Bettie Sharpe, Bettie’s husband, and Bettie’s mom.
Saturday was a hot and sunny day with high temperatures in the upper eighties. My husband and I arrived at the USC campus and wended our way past booksellers’ stalls in search of the YA stage, where the first panel was held. While my husband trekked back to the car to return the portable chairs we’d brought and didn’t need, I sat down to wait for Bettie, her husband, and her mom to arrive and to watch the first panel.
Brave New Worlds: Writing the Unreal
That panel was titled “Brave New Worlds: Writing the Unreal” and it was moderated by Aaron Hartzler. The panelists were Andrew Smith, author of The Marbury Lens, Ally Condie, author of Matched, and Laura McNeal and Tom McNeal, co-authors of The Decoding of Lana Morris.
I had expected this panel to be among the most interesting I would attend but as it turned out, it was the least. The authors began by reading excerpts from their books, then answered questions from the moderator, and finally took questions from the audience.
In answer to a question on which came first, the story or the world, Condie said that she began with the story and then thought about what kind of world would best fit that story. This process, however, requires a lot of revision because she has to go back and change aspects of the world as it changes with the story. Laura McNeal said that since her book was set in the real world, albeit with a supernatural element, she and her husband don’t need to do as much worldbuilding.
All four authors said that they tried to weave the concerns of teenagers, such as in Condie’s case, teens’ need for control over their own circumstances, into their books. Condie’s memories of her teenage years were vivid, and she drew on them in writing her books.
In reply to a question about what research they did for their books, Andrew Smith said that he talked to physicists about what is and isn’t theoretically possible. Condie said the game theory she used in her books required a lot of conversations with her husband, an economist, and that she had to ask him to explain game theory in layman’s terms. She also looks up a lot of facts. Laura McNeal, whose book is about a girl placed in foster care with developmentally disabled kids, volunteered at a center for developmentally disabled adults.
Answering a question about which age group he targets in his writing, Smith said that he wrote books about teens without aiming for any specific age group reader. The others agreed with him.
Laura McNeal said she learned a lot about writing from the graduate writing program she attended in answer to a question about advice they would give to writers who aspire to be published. Smith’s answer to the same question was succinct: “Don’t suck.”
I was disappointed in these authors’ replies to a question about which authors they enjoy and would recommend, because none of them recommended other YA authors. Instead some of the names mentioned included Richard Ford, Saul Bellow, Alice McDermott, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, and J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey in particular). Agatha Christie, mentioned by Condie, was the only author of genre fiction whose name I caught.
Young Adult: Worlds Beyond Imagination
Having met up with our friends in the middle of the panel, we headed past the USC rose gardens and through streets crowded with festival goers to the next panel we had tickets for, “Young Adult: Worlds Beyond Imagination.”
Thankfully, this panel was held indoors, in an air conditioned space, but that wasn’t the only reason that it was a huge improvement over the previous one. Moderator and librarian Cindy Dobrez asked thoughtful questions and the panelists, authors Jonathan Stroud (The Bartimaeus series, most recently The Ring of Solomon), Megan Whalen Turner (The Thief series, most recently A Conspiracy of Kings), and Rick Yancey (The Monstrumologist series, most recently The Curse of the Wendigo) gave equally intelligent, frequently humorous answers.
The panel began with the moderator’s announcement that Megan Whalen Turner had just been awarded the Los Angeles Book Prize in the Young Adult category for A Conspiracy of Kings. Then Dobrez directed her first question at the panelists, which was on the subject of world building.
Megan Whalen Turner said that as a big fan of Tolkien who had read too many Tolkien clones, it was important to her not to emulate Tolkien in her YA fantasy series. She wanted a landscape that was equally familiar yet very different from the one Tolkien used as a backdrop for these books. It wasn’t until she visited Greece that she realized she had hit upon that landscape.
Rick Yancey talked about his love for history and for the nineteenth century and how this love fed his Monstrumologist series, which are Young Adult horror novels set in late nineteenth century New York that draw on nineteenth century books like Dracula and Dickens’ novels.
Jonathan Stroud lives in London (the moderator quipped that he had skipped out on the royal wedding to be with us), where the first three books in his series about Baritmaeus the genie are set. The latest book, though, is a prequel set in the Jerusalem of King Solomon’s times. Stroud said he had done a lot of research on ancient Jerusalem but then had to stop because too much research can interfere with his vision for the story.
The panel talked about humor and how important it was to have comic relief in books that sometimes got dark and scary. It was evident that they had read each other’s books as well as other YA authors. Yancey said he writes both for his adult self and for the teen reader he used to be. Turner said she likes to reread and deliberately tries to construct books that can be enjoyed in more than one reading, and that she writes for all ages. Stroud and Turner talked about their admiration for the late YA author Diana Wynne Jones (best known for Howl’s Moving Castle) and in Turner’s case, how Jones’ encouragement of her writing meant the world to her.
Fans of the Megan Whalen Turner series might be interested to hear that Turner said that she was more interested in the stories of reluctant leaders than of rulers who enjoy wielding power, and that for that reason, it was unlikely that she would ever make the queens of Eddis and Attolia main characters in her novels. Conflicted characters like Eugenides and Sophos, who are thrust into their leadership roles without desiring to be kings, are more interesting to her.
Turner also said that she chose the POV of her books by first envisioning the story she wanted to tell in each of all the possible POVs and then selecting the POV which would allow her to tell that story as completely as possible. After writing The Thief in first person, she switched to third person with The Queen of Attolia because she knew that her main character would be suffering in that book, and a suffering first person narrator might come across as a whiner.
Jonathan Stroud talked about how in writing the first book in his series about Bartimaeus the djinni, he realized that he had to switch back and forth between the third person story about his main character, a boy who releases the djinni and commands him, and the humorous first person voice of the djinni. He started out with the first person voice of Baritmaeus, but realized it needed to be alternated with the third person narrative.
Rick Yancey told a hilarious story about how when he was finishing up one of his Monstrumologist novels he missed his deadline and had to stay up late to finish writing the book. He went around his house late at night checking the windows and doors because he scared himself during the writing process.
The subject of series also came up and Jonathan Stroud said that he has to be very interested in a character in order to write more than one book about that character. The character has to be engaging enough to support the series, because if the author is bored, there is no way that readers will care.
Although my initial interest in the panel was due to Megan Whalen Turner’s presence, I left it interested in Stroud and Yancey’s books as well. All three authors were articulate, funny, and unabashed in their appreciation of YA books. What’s more, Turner said that she likes to write about love.
Publishing in the 21st Century
After a break for lunch we joined the standby line for a panel called “Publishing in the 21st Century.” Luckily there were enough seats left to enable us to escape the blazing sun and enter the blessedly cool, air-conditioned auditorium where this panel was held. The panel was being filmed for “Book TV” on CSPAN-2, and those of you who have cable may be able to catch in on television.
The moderator of the panel was Sara Nelson, formerly editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly and now book editor for O magazine. The panelists included Robert Weil (executive editor at W.W. Norton and Company), Johnny Temple (founder of Akashic Books, a Brooklyn based independent publisher which publishes urban literary fiction and political nonfiction), Kim Robinson (whose background included archiving work), and Cary Goldstein (publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve Books).
The growth of ebook reading was one of the big topics on this panel. Sara Nelson began by admitting that at a similar panel last year and at other earlier events, she and other industry insiders made predictions that turned out to be totally inaccurate. For example, the Barnes and Noble Nook was expected to tank, but instead it has become a hit. It was thought that reference books would be the big sellers in the ebook market, but not fiction, and that turned out to be completely wrong.
Robert Weil, who was answered with applause when he said he still had a lot of love for the book as a physical object, stated that Nelson was right and that in the same period that they had seen 20% growth in genre fiction ebooks, there had been only 1% or 2% of growth in what he termed “serious books” (He used The Hemingses of Monticello as an example of the latter). For this reason, he said that he felt that print books would not entirely go away.
Kim Robinson said that paper archives better than anything else we have at the moment and that it is risky to archive library collections only electronically.
Johnny Temple said that ebooks have advantages including being more environmental (after we left the panel, we discussed whether or not this latter statement was actually accurate), and (wisely IMO) that “Book publishing needs the ebook – we need to be relevant.” He also said that the biggest challenge of the electronic reading era was ebook piracy, but then contradicted himself when he added that although his company’s books had been pirated, sales of their books hadn’t suffered as a result.
Cary Goldstein said that they were seeing 30% and sometimes even 50% of sales in ebooks, but what they didn’t know yet was whether the sales that were now going to ebooks were from former readers of trade books or former readers of hardcover books.
Moderator Sara Nelson said that if she loves a book she wants it in print. It sounded like she felt that the reading experience was superior with print books, but she commented that ebooks were less expensive and for those books she didn’t love, or for people who had made the transition to owning an ebook reader, the lower price made ebooks preferable.
Robert Weil said he was worried for brick and mortar bookstores. Someone (I forget who) said that bookstores were important to the reading community as places to browse and find books. Sara Nelson said “I know in New York the bigger the bookstore, the faster it’s closing.”
Then the topic of social media was raised. Robert Weil said it was a challenge for authors and that since bookstores are ordering fewer copies the challenge is “how to get the word out.” Sara Nelson asked if social media really worked and Cary Goldstein replied that it depends on the writer. He said that “voices of authority” in traditional media that readers trust are still needed.
Johnny Temple then made what I thought was one of the better comments of the discussion when he said that “There has to be something creative and there has to be something organic” to the author’s social media presence for it to work. Cary Goldstein talked about Sebastian Junger’s website and how it has an amazing community of soldiers who talk about their personal experiences in the war.
Kim Robinson indicated that she believes it is still a good idea for authors to reach out to people who care about the subject matter of their books through in-person speaking engagements.
At this point our group had to duck out of the panel in order to make it to the next event on our schedule. As we walked to the Dan Savage venue we talked about the way the discussion at the “Publishing in the 21st Century” panel had struck us as short-sighted and out of touch with a portion of the reading public.
Dan Savage in Conversation with Douglas Sadnowick: It Gets Better
As it turned out, we had saved the best for last, and the best was Dan Savage’s conversation with Doug Sadnowick. Sadnowick, founder and director of the country’s first LGBT Specialization in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University, interviewed Dan Savage about the It Gets Better Project.
While we were waiting, “It Gets Better” buttons were handed out and we pinned them on. At my request, Bettie snapped a picture of hers which she pinned to her hat.
Doug Sandowick cracked us up when he began by saying “I spoke with Dan on the phone yesterday and he said that for this one hour, I could be the top in our relationship.” But things quickly got serious when Sadnowick asked Dan Savage how he got the idea to start the It Gets Better Project.
Savage replied by saying that the idea came to him after he read about a fifteen year old boy who had been bullied and committed suicide. It turned out that there had been five suicides at his school, three by LGBTQ kids, and that “so-called Christian parents” had opposed the anti-bullying program that school officials wanted to institute on the basis that it would infringe on their religious freedom. “And that pissed me the fuck off.”
Billy Lucas was bullied after death on his facebook page; his bullies went there to celebrate his death. On Dan Savage’s site, a commenter left a comment addressed to Billy Lucas, which said, “I wish I could have known you, Billy Lucas. If I’d known you, I could have told you that things get better.”
Savage talked about how he’d always wanted to talk to and mentor gay teens but couldn’t get permission, and when he saw the comment, “It struck me that in the era of You Tube, I was waiting for permission that I no longer needed.”
The ultimate accomplishment of It Gets Better is that it’s saved lives, but the penultimate accomplishment, Savage said, is that it broke the old deal society had with LGBTQ people, that “You’re ours to torture until you’re eighteen” and that if gay adults reached out to gay youth they would be accused of pedophilia. It Gets Better allowed them to reach out and make a difference.
He said he himself was bullied in middle school but was also able to fly under the radar a little bit because, as David Sedaris said in his contribution to the book It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, in those days “there was no such thing as gay kids.”
Dan Savage also said that twenty years of the religious right gay hate campaign have made it really hard for gay kids to go to schools in areas where a lot of people are intolerant. Whatever is being preached in pulpits by anti-gay bigots, he said, “touches me not at all – it doesn’t pry one dick out of my hand.” Instead, it is gay kids who are the ones who are badly hurt.
He said that he likes to tell gay kids that “You are on your hero’s journey. It’s painful and unfair but it’s going to forge your character and you are going to discover who you are.” Gay pride, he added, is about having the strength to be who you are and to tell the truth about who you are to the people you love, even though it’s hard.
He also spoke about the controversy over the sex positive aspect of some of the You Tube videos. Dan and his husband, Terry Miller, got emails from people who wanted them to edit out the story of their exchange when they first met, when Dan said “You have a pretty mouth,” and Terry replied with “The better to eat you with.” Some people felt that that reference to oral sex should be edited out of the video but Dan said they will not edit it out because it is part of the gay experience and they want the video to be sex positive.
Dan Savage also cited some chilling statistics, for example, that 40% of homeless teenagers are LGBTQ kids who came out and were thrown out by their parents, which is why telling kids to come out of the closet is not always a good solution. Kids who are LGBT are also four times more likely to commit suicide than straight kids, and if their parents are hostile to gays, they are eight times more likely to commit suicide.
He said the book based on the It Gets Better Project allows schools to show support for those teens. They can say “We’re putting this book on the shelves for the queer kids in the student body because we don’t want them to die.” If you go to the ItGetsBetter.org website, you can make a contribution there that will enable them to donate a copy of the book to the library at the school of your choice.
I wish I had room to share even more of Dan’s stories (among other things he described seeing the Broadway musical based on The Kid, his memoir of how he and Terry adopted their son, as a surreal experience) but since this post is long enough I’ll wrap up my article on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books by saying that although I remain disappointed by the exclusion of the romance genre from the festival, I still had a great time.