Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – LA Stories

by Mk

in Book Festivals,Events

Hollywood SignYou know an author panel discussion is good if it can capture everyone’s attention and hold it late on a Sunday afternoon when the festival is almost over. No problem with LA Stories! This was a lively, funny discussion moderated by the very irreverent Tod Goldberg.

 I knew we were in for an interesting session when the college student next to me leaned over and whispered, “Tod’s the best moderator ever, but I gotta warn you – he’s fond of dropping f-bombs.” I replied with a grin that it made him the perfect moderator for an author discussion on Los Angeles stories. The first thing he said to us about the question/answer part of the session confirmed her warning, “I’ve got one instruction for you all from me. If you’re a f***tard, do not ask a f***tarded question.” We all howled with laughter because we’d been in sessions when some idiot got up and asked a question that had us squirming in our seats.

Wikipedia says Tod Goldberg is best known for his novels, Fake Liar Cheat and Living Dead Girl. I think that article is a bit dated because his series of Burn Notice books have all received excellent ratings. If you like the USA network series Burn Notice, you’ll love the novels. Tod’s latest novel is Burn Notice: The Reformed. He says he plans to wrap up this series of novels with a final one, Burn Notice: The Bad Beat, this summer. I know his fans are going to be very sorry to hear that. For background on his novels and more about the very funny Tod, you can check out his blog.

With Tod on the panel were Janet Fitch, Seth Greenland, Meg Howrey, and Eric Pulchner.

No panel on LA stories would seem complete without Janet Fitch. Janet is probably best known for writing White Oleander which was made into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Janet’s a 3rd generation native of Los Angeles who teaches in the USC MFA professional writing program. She decided to become a writer when she was twenty-one; however, she says, “…my conception of being a writer was to wear a cape and have adventures.”

Her latest novel, Paint It Black, centers around Josie Tyrell, who escapes from Bakersfield to land in LA’s 1980’s punk rock world. So who does Jodie hook up with but a concert pianist. That is so LA, and talk about worlds colliding! Janet had to cut a lot of the back story out of Paint It Black because, when she read what she had written, she realized it “just stopped the book in its tracks.”

“…a page turning psychodrama.” Publishers Weekly on Paint It Black

Janet believes people who move to LA learn about it from the outside and then have to gradually work their way in. Like peeling the layers off of an onion, it can take quite a while to get to the center. LA differs from most major cities in that it’s composed of lots of neighborhoods to which people are very loyal. For example: People who live in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood say they’re from Sherman Oaks, not LA. Some of those neighborhoods are geographic, some are ethnic, and some are sold as something they aren’t. A good example of the dichotomies in LA is that Los Feliz is only 1 mile from Echo Park but they’re worlds apart. It’s not surprising, given the statements above, that Janet’s work is about a collision of cultures. Los Angeles is the perfect place for that.

She likes to write scenes in cars because LA is car conscious to an extreme. She grimaces and says she refuses to write about shopping mall culture. She’s very interested in how Los Angeles became such a cultural firebomb. She believes most of that came from the Eastern Europeans who came as exiles in the 1930’s and 1940’s, people like Stravinski for example. They had a profound and lasting effect on LA’s culture.

Janet considers herself to be a throw-it-all-in writer, which means she’s not cut out for writing screenplays. Her Hollywood experience (with White Oleander) did not affect her fiction. When she writes, she’s the God of her own planet and she really loves that.

Seth Greenland is the quintessential LA writer on the panel. His first novel, The Bones, has been optioned by Sony Pictures. His novel, Shining City, is in development by Warner Brothers with a director and screenwriters attached; however, I don’t know when it goes into production. If you read this Seth, and know that, please let us know in the comments. Seth is also a writer/producer on Big Love, an HBO series that a lot of my friends have been totally addicted to, and are heartbroken to see ending its run. His newest novel, The Angry Buddhist, is anticipated in early 2012.

“Greenland’s novel is entertaining and intelligent, and packed with enough hooks (and hookers) to keep readers sucked in to the last page.” Publisher’s Weekly on Shining City

In Shining City Seth dealt with pimps and hoes, including an ordinary guy who becomes a pimp. His idea for the book was sparked when he was driving his small children to school and looked up to see lurid strip shows being advertised on billboards. He kept hoping his kids wouldn’t realize what they were seeing.

He lives a double life as a fiction author and as a TV/film writer. Big Love has 8 writers, all in one room. That’s a hard transition for a solo author to make, because authors like their solitude. When writing fiction, he only cuts the crap out of his books. Once he actually ended up killing off a major character because it had to be done for the sake of the book.

Bad things happen outside of Los Angeles in Seth’s books. He agrees with Janet that people in LA are citizens of their neighborhoods instead of LA, which makes Los Angeles very unique for such a huge city. They may be loyal to the Lakers but they are predominantly loyal to their neighborhoods instead of to Los Angeles. He also believes neighborhoods in LA are self-selecting at least to some extent. Downtown LA is just weird. It looks like it was bombed sometime in the past and then someone brought in all of these disparate, fancy buildings afterward. “It’s kind of like a reptile with feathers.”

An example of something that feels very LA to him was a scene he wrote for one of his books in which a Hummer was driven into someone’s living room. Everyone on the panel and in the audience nodded in agreement about that being a very LA thing to have happen. In fact, it’s not rare for us to see cars running into people’s houses on the evening news. Having the car be a Hummer really makes it LA.

Meg Howrey is a professional ballerina who now lives and performs in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, Blind Sight, is a coming of age story about a 17 year old named Luke Prescott, who was brought up surrounded by women varying in approaches from New Age to Puritanical. Wikipedia defines blind sight as “a phenomenon in which people…are perceptually blind in a certain area of their visual field.”

The twist in Meg’s novel comes when Luke is invited by his movie-star dad to spend the summer before college in Los Angeles. In writing Blind Sight, Meg thought of the Mohave Desert as the underworld. It looks to her like a post-apocalyptic world with layers of reality and unreality. It became a pivotal setting for Luke to make important discoveries about his dad and himself.

As a recent transplant to LA, Meg sees it as a city of performers, all of whom are desperate to communicate. An example for her is shopping at Trader Joe’s, which she sees as being a little like a modern painting by Pieter Bruegal the Elder. She says in a shocked tone, “People at Trader Joe’s will tell you anything while waiting for the cashier, when you can’t get away from them.” I think this tendency might be so shocking to her because she moved here from New York City, since it seems perfectly normal to someone like me who moved to Los Angeles from the South.

Eric Puchner may be best known for his short stories, including his collection Music Through the Floor, but that’s all about to change. His first novel is the very timely Model Home, which won the California Silver Medal Award for fiction and is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. He writes in Model Home about the American dream of owning your own home and the dream Southern Californians have of using that home to produce wealth. Puchner likes to look at dreams v. reality.

Model Home is set within the gated-community literature genre, one he guesses he has just invented. It’s the story of a family who moves from the Midwest to Southern California with dreams of getting rich quick in real estate. Puchner lived in a gated community, Rolling Hills in Palos Verdes, for two years as a child. Gated communities in LA provide that strong sense of belonging people associate with the word “home.” For people living in such communities, the outside world is “other.”

He cut a lot out of Model Home. His draft was 800 pages. Puchner’s process was to write a novella for each major character, and then interweave those novellas. When asked if he did that because he came from a short story tradition, he said he didn’t think so – he felt it was needed to get a complete story for each character.

“With careful attention to nuanced and fractured perspectives, Puchner teases a fragile beauty out of the loneliness that separates the members of this family.” Publishers Weekly re Model Home

Puchner lived in San Francisco for 17 years and just returned to live in Los Angeles about 1 ½ years ago. When he tells people in LA that he’s a writer, they automatically think he’s a screenwriter. What makes that so funny is that he doesn’t even watch TV.

He’s fascinated by Los Angeles area bedroom communities with 2+ hour-long commutes. Bedroom communities seem to have very incongruous names, like something called Green Acres that’s located in the desert where nothing is green and there’s no way you’re getting anything like one acre of land. He’s also fascinated by the gatekeepers for gated communities. Although they man the gates to protect the people inside, they often aren’t even allowed inside past those gates.

Los Angeles is a precarious place in countless way but people don’t think about all of the ways that it’s precarious. For example: Los Angeles is just reclaimed desert and it wouldn’t take much to return it to a desert state. As another example, Puchner saw a coyote casually jogging around the Silverlake reservoir the other day (which is in the heart of Los Angeles). Things like that reinforce how much we are the intruders. There are the obvious earthquakes and the dangers that skirt around the edges of our consciousness but there are also other less obvious things that make living here just as precarious.

On that rather somber note – This is the last author panel discussion article I’ll be posting from this year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I hope you’ve enjoyed the coverage of these author panels. If you missed any of the others, you can click on the titles below to go directly to those articles:

LA Times Festival of Books – Storeis from the South
LA Times Festival of Books – A Conversation with Carolyn See
LA Times Festival of Books – Mysteries: A Question of Character
LA Times Festival of Books – Mysteries: Dangerous Histories
UCLA vs. USC – Which is Best for the LA Times Festival of Books?

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