With apologies for the delay, I bring you the rest of my recap of last weekend’s LA Times Festival of Books. I left off Sunday morning, and so continue with my second panel of the day, Bump in the Night, featuring authors Melissa de la Cruz, Deborah Harkness, Seth Grahame-Smith, Richard Kadrey, and Paul Tremblayas moderator. This entertaining group of writers all have produced works that focus on vampires, witches, zombies, and so on, and so talk swiftly turned to the popularity of the horror/paranormal genre, particularly in recent years.
As Deborah Harkness pointed out, this is not a particularly new phenomenon. We have embraced the darkness in our entertainment for centuries, it just happens to be a cyclical love, where at some points in time we are more intrigued by the subject than at others. After all, Anne Rice’s vampires spawned a pretty loyal and voracious readership when they first hit bookstores, as well. These writers suggested that horror and paranormal taps into the imagination, but that also the sense of fear that accompanies the reading of some of these books — or the viewing of films, etc. — is an affirmation of life, something particularly important when things in the world around us seem to be less than encouraging.
Each author went on to discuss how they started writing their more well-known works. Harkness discussed her experience with the wall of vampire books at the airport in 2008, which I mentioned in the previous part of my recap. De la Cruz talked about wanting to write about the Hamptons, but the less glittery area that is really just a small community, and what it would be like to bring paranormal entities into that enclave. Kadrey talked about creating his Sandman Slim stories, which were really started based on his coming across the name he’d scribbled in a notebook on one page, juxtaposed against the idea of the hitman from hell, which he’d written in another notebook.
Grahame-Smith is the author of, among other things, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES and ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER, and he also wrote the adaptation of the latter for film. He spoke to that experience, which required him to do some serious rewriting of the book’s arc because there is no single villain or satisfying Hollywood ending in the original story. But the book idea came to him while he was traveling on his book tour for ZOMBIES. All the bookstores had that same wall of vampire books that Harkness experienced, but the other best-selling titles of the time were the Abraham Lincoln biographies and texts released in honor of Lincoln’s bicentennial celebration.
My next panel was Fiction: Visionary Eyes, featuring Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Crane, Ben Ehrenreich, Mark Leyner, and Edan Lepucki as moderator. The writers each read us a page from their work, which is always the type of thing that makes me add titles to my TBR pile. Elizabeth Crane, in particular, truly engaged the audience with her single-page story titled “Bed,” in which she imagined, among other things, a real-life encounter with Ryan Gosling, during which he calls her “girl” a great deal. Given the publishing industry’s (among others) current fascination with Gosling, it had the audience in stitches. Ehrenreich’s reading from his book ETHER was list-like but intriguing, covering a hugely disparate assortment of items his character has collected and laid out around a fire. Leyner read from THE SUGAR FROSTED NUTSACK, and really, nothing I say will convey his funny, in-your-face words and style, which breaks down that barrier between writer and audience and drags you write into the book. Bender read from THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE, her recent fairy-tale-like novel where the young heroine discovers she can tastes the cook’s emotions when she eats whatever they’ve produced. Her passage was very neighborhood based, about the character growing up in a small patch of Los Angeles, and it drew you into the narrative in a very different way.
The differences between these writers’ styles is notable because they all managed the same thing — really involving the listener/reader in their material — in just a single page of text, even though they went about doing so in different ways. Lepucki opined that good books seem to teach you how to read them as you go along, giving you a sort of introduction to their approach and style and intent and voice within the first few pages that allows you to say, yes, okay, I see how to approach this material now. She asked if the writers were conscious of this while writing, and most had to say they weren’t — that they really weren’t thinking about the readers that much while they were writing — with the exception of Leyner, who’s style is much more obviously addressing the reader.
My final panel of the day was less book oriented than the others. I attended The Nerds Shall Inherit the Earth, featuring John Scalzi, Maureen Johnson, Pamela Ribon, and Amber Benson as moderator. This was… more of a free-for-all for fans than anything else, but it was also highly entertaining, and yet sounded very much like any one of the dinner parties my friends and I throw, so that probably tells you a great deal about me and my circle.
The discussion kicked off with the defining of “nerd,” and for the sake of the panel it was agreed that they would not bother separating it out from all those other titles, such as “dork” or “geek,” but assume nerd encompassed all the sub-genres, so to speak, as well. From there they agreed that to be a nerd is to love something at an extreme level, without embarrassment or apology or concern for whether it is cool or in fashion. As Scalzi noted, if a nerd meets a person and hears that they share a love of X, the nerd will want to be best friends and discuss X until the end of time. (Whereas a hipster will immediately panic that their interest has become too mainstream, if that person likes it, and will disavow any interest in the subject.)
After that conversation rambled around things the panelists loved or were nerdy over, their first “nerd crushes,” and whether or not there were too many nerds in the world these days. They also discussed how technology has advanced and become sufficiently mainstream as to make being a nerd much more acceptable, unless, of course, you’re in high school, at which point it’s still pretty hard to be a nerd.
To give you a vague taste of the panel, we heard about Maureen Johnson’s experiences on the trapeze (worst thing she’s ever done), Pamela Ribon’s love of the horse-break-up videos teen girls seem to be posting on YouTube, Scalzi’s strategy for winning fantasy football (he lets the computer make his choices), and more. It was a very enjoyable way to close out the festival.