My Sunday at the 2012 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Part 1
Last year on I attended the Los Angeles Festival of Books and reported on the event for DA. My biggest negative takeaway that year was that the romance genre was not represented at the festival. This year (Halleluja!) they actually had a panel devoted to romance. A single, lonely panel mind you, but it was still a huge improvement to my mind. Here’s hoping for more next year!
I spent the day taking so many notes for my report on the festival (which is long enough to run in three pieces) that I lost one pen, got another bleeding, and finally had to borrow a third from a friend. My wrist was aching by the end of the day, but my notebook had been filled with notes. I did the best I could to capture what the speakers said but they talked fast so in many cases these notes aren’t exact quotes but rather paraphrases. I also missed some of the things that were said. My apologies to anyone I may have misquoted.
And now, onto the festival report:
Sunday, April 22, the second day of the festival and the only one we attended, dawned cloudy, so we didn’t slather on sunblock or even bring hats – something we lived to regret when the sun came out in the afternoon. Still, the USC campus, where the festival was held, was not an inferno like last year. We met up with our friends (Bettie Sharpe and her husband) and headed into our first panel of the day.
Fiction: World Building
The speakers on this panel were authors Frank Beddor, Lev Grossman, and John Scalzi. The moderator was Charles Yu. I will be quoting the bios of the speakers from the festival guide throughout this series of articles, and here are theirs:
Frank Beddor is a film producer whose credits include “There’s Something About Mary.” He’s also a screenwriter, professional skier, online gamer and novelist. He is the creator of the bestselling “The Looking Glass Wars” among many other books and graphic novels.
Grossman, an international best-selling author, began his writing career as a freelance journalist. In 2002 he became Time magazine’s book critic as well as one of its lead technology writers. Grossman has written four novels, including “The Magician King.”
Scalzi’s debut novel, “Old Man’s War,” was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. His other novels include “Agent to the Stars,” “The Android’s Dream” and the “Ghost Brigades.” In 2006 he won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. His most recent book is “The Last Colony.”
Yu is the author of “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” and received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award for his story collection “Third Class Superhero.” His work has been published in the Harvard Review and the Gettysburg Review, among other journals.
We snuck into this panel a couple of minutes late and missed the introductions, but Yu began the discussion by posing the question “Worldbuilding – what is it?”
Lev Grossman replied that a world is not exactly a static thing but it is not a story. He said that in his youth, he played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and practiced worldbuilding. To him this was not the same as storytelling and he cautioned writers that worlbuilding can overwhelm your fiction by keeping the story from moving forward.
Scalzi disagreed with Grossman and said that worldbuilding is a form of fiction because it comes from the imagination. He did agree, however that Grossman was right, “You can spend all your time building a world without creating a story.”
Scalzi also added his “heretical view” that the Lord of the Rings movies were superior to the books. He said that was because Tolkien created a detailed world and was deeply involved with the worldbuilding whereas Peter Jackson was more involved with the storytelling.
He contrasted this with “The C.S. Lewis approach” and this led to a discussion of how some authors create the world first while others start telling the story and then build the world according to the needs of the story. It was a question of “Are you writing from the inside out or from the outside in?”
The C.S. Lewis approach was to create what the story needed – even Lewis scholars can’t make a continuity out of the world of the Narnia books because that wasn’t what Lewis was trying to do. Scalzi said his approach was similar and that he doesn’t describe things (for example, aliens) that are part of his world unless a description is needed.
Frank Beddor said he uses concept artists to draw some things so that he can describe it in his writing and the image draws readers in.
Beddor also said that he outlined his first book and spent too much time describing the rules of the world. With the following books he had more confidence and wrote more fluidly.
Yu then asked the authors to describe their books. Beddor shared an elevator pitch for The Looking Glass Wars, a reverse-Lewis Carrol world. I didn’t get all of it in my notes but it went something like this: Princess Alyss of Wonderlandia is enjoying her seventh birthday when it is interrupted by a coup. Alyss escapes to our own world through pools in Wonderlandia and ends up in Victorian England, begging an Oxford don to writer her story (he gets it all wrong and writes Alice in Wonderland) while Hatter, her bodyguard, ends up in Paris.
Scalzi described Old Man’s War as “Starship Troopers with old guys” and Grossman, who declined to pitch or describe his books, instead read an excerpt from The Magicians.
Yu brought up an Amazon review that said that Grossman’s book was not a fantasy, and speculated that this may be because his worldbuilding pokes a hole in the fantasy world.
Grossman explained that as a child he was disturbed by C.S. Lewis’ Narnia world because of the way Narnia ends. In The Last Battle (the final Narnia book) Narnia collapses and the kids go to Aslan’s land. When Grossman read this he thought, what if Aslan’s land collapses too? What happens to the children then? And so when he began writing he wanted to explore a situation where worlds keep collapsing.
Yu brought up the subject of social media and connecting with readers. He asked Scalzi about his blog and Scalzi went on about it at length (I didn’t get good notes here). He said that some of his readers are politically conservative and when they arrive at his blog they are surprised to learn that he espouses liberal views like support of same sex marriage. He also added that he withholds a lot of personal information on his blog and so his blogging also creates a fictional construct, a John Scalzi author persona that isn’t the same as the real Scalzi.
Frank Beddor mentioned that he created a game space for the readers where they could play the characters in his books in order to create a community for readers. Readers write fanfiction set on his world and one thirteen year old boy even created a claymation video book trailer for his book on YouTube.
Fanfiction then came up and Scalzi said he views fanfiction favorably — it’s a sign that readers are really addicted to the world and can’t wait for the next book.
A fascinating discussion emerged about how J.K. Rowling announced that Dumbeldore was gay and some fans reacted negatively, with cries of “Dumbeldore can’t be gay!”
Scalzi said he believed that if Rowling says her character is gay, he is gay. Grossman disagreed with Scalzi on this point and argued “The world is what is in the book, not outside of it.” To which Scalzi replied “There’s the torah and there’s the commentaries.” Grossman said, “I don’t know what that means.”
Scalzi explained that there was evidence, in Rowling’s advice to a screenwriter on one of the Harry Potter movies not to make Dumbeldore a womanizer, that she knew all along that Dumbeldore was gay. Because it’s not inconsistent with the world Rowling created and “Everything that Rowling says about Dumbeldore being gay checks out,” Dumbledore is gay.
Lev Grossman still disagreed, saying: “The book has a beginning and an end.” He added that “No one reads the same book – that’s what’s great about reading.”
Scalzi agreed with that but still insisted that Rowling was the authority on Dumbeldore.
Grossman said: “I don’t think writers are the only ones who do worldbuilding. Readers worldbuild too.”
Yu, the moderator mentioned that now people want worldbuilders rather than fiction writers or storytellers. Paramount is making a movie of Scalzi’s book, Old Man’s War, and there’s a television show in the works for Lev Grossman’s book. Beddor, a producer of Something About Mary is planning to produce The Looking Glass Wars into a movie as well.
Scalzi responded to this by saying that readers of science fiction and fantasy select for immersive experiences but added that readers don’t always want worldbuilding. Sometimes what they want is a consistent reading experience which is why authors like James Patterson and Nora Roberts are so popular.
The authors discussed the temptation of continuing to write in the same world of their most popular series. Scalzi said he could write more books in the same world as Old Man’s War and readers would buy those books but indicated that he could get bored doing that so it’s a double edged sword.
Yu asked the authors about their next projects and Grossman said he is working on another book set in the same world as The Magicians as well as on another book set in a different world. Beddor said he wrote a murder mystery set in a high school but his publisher said it was out of his demographic. Scalzi said he was working on a book called Red Shirts and had two more projects in the works in addition to his work on the movie.
The discussion was opened up to an audience Q& A. The first of the audience questions was “How do the novels interact with real life for readers?”
Grossman replied that literature is not realism and that traditionally (in earlier centuries) literature was fantasies like Hamlet and The Faerie Queene and “Fantasy was all there was.” He explained that Fantasy is “a way for you to encounter the problems of the real world but in a transformed way.” He said that made the experience of reading about those problems easier for readers than it otherwise would be.
The next question was whether fan fiction was hijacking. Scalzi replied to this by saying there will always be people who feel proprietary about worlds but fan fiction is purely for the joy of it.
Grossman said that this idea that fiction should be original is relatively new – an eighteenth century attitude and a “bizarre literary singularity.” He said that “The Iliad is Aeneid fanfiction” and that “Story is not the property of the author.” The author is only the caretaker of the story.
I got to ask a question and asked if the authors’ story conceptions began with the worldbuilding or with the characters and also, whether they discover new things about their worlds during the writing process.
Scalzi said “I make shit up as I go along.” He explained that upon request for a sequel to Old Man’s War, he had to explain the conception of the earth he’d created out of laziness, and the reason why the earth was the way it was in his world.
Beddor stated that he starts with the characters rather than the world and that the stuff to solve, the problems, begins with the characters. Grossman nodded along with Beddor’s comment.
Fiction & Fantasy: Otherworldly Adventures
The next panel we attended was also on a science fiction and fantasy topic. This panel’s participants were authors Greg Bear, Raymond E. Feist and Boyd Morrison. The moderator was Rob Latham. Here are their bios, taken from the festival guide:
Bear is the author of more than 30 books, which include thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Some titles include “Blood Music,” “Eon,” “The Forge of God” and “Hull Zero Three.” “Halo: Primordium: Book Two of the Forerunner Saga” is his newest book.
Feist is the author of the best-selling Serpentwar Saga: “The Shadow of a Dark Queen,” “Rise of a Merchant Prince,” “Rage of a Demon King” and “Shards of a Broken Crown.” His latest book is “A Crown Imperiled: Book Two of the Chaoswar Saga.”
Morrison has worked as a mechanical engineer, Microsoft video game usability manager and professional actor and writer. In 2003, he became a “Jeopardy!” champion. “The Catalyst,” “The Ark,” “Rogue Wave” and “The Vault” are his novels.
Latham teaches contemporary American and British literature, cultural studies and science fiction at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of “Consuming Youth: Vampires Cyborgs and the Culture of Consumption.”
Once again, we walked in a little late (this happened to us with every single panel, because they overlapped with each other or with lunch), this time in the midst of a discussion of writing in other people’s worlds.
Greg Bear was talking about writing books in other people’s universes including Star Wars books and books set in Isaac Asimov’s world. He said he’d written about Darth Vader as a teenager and along the way he created a planet that has appeared in nineteen other Star Wars books.
Feist then said that he feels he writes historical novels about a place that doesn’t exist. He mentioned that he played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. Three years after that he started writing bad books set in the same universe to amuse other kids, and in the process of doing so he started stretching storytelling muscle and realized he wanted to write.
Because he and his friends had already created the world during their games, he didn’t have to do much worldbuilding but did have to create the politics and other aspects. He said that you have to be consistent with what had already been established when you write in someone else’s world. Because the world reflected the personalities of Feist’s friends who had been involved in its creation, the story also reflects them.
Latham mentioned that Morrison has engineering training and writes books that read as though they require a tremendous amount of research. Morrison said that for a lot of writers research is the most fun part of writing. He has stories he wants to write and he just does the research those stories require.
Morrison added that he started researching Rogue Wave one and half years before the Asian tsunami and researched what could happen in such an event. The Ark involved archeology which is not his background, but he made his character an engineer so that he could use his engineering knowledge. His Tyler Locke books present an alternative, science fictional explanation for ancient mysteries.
Latham asked to what extent genre categories are an important concern to the panelists when they decide what to write.
Bear replied “Marketing strategies don’t mean a hill of beans.” He added that through most of history writing didn’t fit into these categories. Homer was half fantasy and half real.
Feist said that the sales of categories like romance, fantasy, science fiction and horror dwarf the sales of the mainstream writing that is reviewed in the New York Times and considered highbrow. He said “There has to be a fundamental understanding of what you’re trying to write” and that he writes what he likes to read.
He said he’d written a series of magical books where the trope is “There is no magic.” He loves Grimm and once upon a time – “Great examples of Urban Fantasy” and added that “If you’re writing a western there better be a gunslinger in it.”
Morrison said he loves thrillers and it doesn’t matter where they are set. He considers The Hunger Games a thriller. He added that in genre you know the experience you’re going to get and mainstream is anything that doesn’t fit into the genre categories.
Feist then said that fiction is otherworldly and that when Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby he wrote about a world – Long Island – that was alien to people in the Midwest.
Bear talked about scientific discoveries and said “Reality beats us out there.” He said this was grist for the mill and that “Anyone who says you should write what you know doesn’t realize English majors don’t know a hell of a lot. You have to research.”
Feist added “If you want to be a writer, don’t study English—study philosophy, history, or political science, because you’ll have to write about something.”
Latham threw in “I’m an English professor” and got some laughs.
Morrison said that he doesn’t include anything supernatural in his books – no gods or demons that affect the plot — but he does give an alternative explanation for things. One of his books was set in Naples and while researching it, he discovered the Greeks dug tunnels under Naples. He went to Naples to explore these tunnels and while there, he realized they were the perfect setting for his book, which takes place in those tunnels.
Latham talked about reading fantasy and science fiction when he grew up. He doesn’t remember these genres getting as much attention back then, but when Star Wars came along it brought along an explosion of media tie-ins. He asked the panelists if fiction has changed as a result of media attention.
Bear replied that writers have always reflected other writers so the media had always been there.
Feist said that the old days were no different from today, it’s just bigger now – the media is saturated. He gets on the internet after waking up and his son has the Xbox in the middle of the living room. There are tons of cable channels, Hulu, and other media outlets. It’s overwhelming. It’s the same but there’s a hell of a lot more of it. When he and Greg Bear were first published, self publishing was vanity publishing – now it’s a real, attractive, potentially viable option.
Bear said he was fascinated by how, as the media ages it gets very jealous of new media and there is not a lot of cross-marketing.
Feist gave an example from a time he talked to people who worked at Time Warner about video games. Every movie at Time Warner had to be self-sustaining. Around this time “Batman” came out, and because of that policy, rather than giving “Batman” to Time Warner’s video game platform, Activision got it. Eventually Time Warner stopped producing video games.
Morrison said that nowadays there is more cross-marketing. If something is popular, they want to put it into every media.
Feist said his original agent sold The Winds of War to CBS for what was the most successful television miniseries at the time. That was as big as a book could get back then but nowadays big stars, HBO, etc. are looking for content.
Latham asked a question (I’m guessing this was because the panelists on this panel were all male) about writing female characters.
Bear said he’s always had strong female characters in his books, scientists and mathematicians.
Feist said that historically women have been better writers of male characters than men are of female characters for reasons that have to do with what has been published in literature.
His first three books were written from the male POV and it was easy for him to portray women through the male POV, but he had a much harder time when writing from the female POV after that. He co-wrote the following three books with Janny Wurts to learn how to do it and since then he has gotten better with practice. He added that his female characters think more globally while his male characters are more linear.
Morrison said that his wife is his first reader and his agent and editor are both women so he actually has to worry more about his male characters and how they are portrayed.
Bear added that if you try to portray women as more intuitive than men or some such stereotype, “You’re going to lose definition on your characters and they will fight back.”
Next up in Part 2 of my report on the festival: “Anne Rice in Conversation with Scott Timberg”