Today I’m sharing this interview with young adult author Jason Reynolds from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Reynolds spoke on a panel I attended and I thought he had some insightful and interesting things to say about young adult fiction and his own work, so I was delighted to find this PBS on-site interview available online.
Every April, The Los Angeles Times hosts their Festival of Books (note: their website is already gearing up for next year), a two-day extravaganza that features panel conversations on every publishing, writing, and bookish topic imaginable, author signings and interviews, awards, and a campus-full of stages and tents catering to everything from cookbooks to young adult fiction to literary magazines to local writing groups and organizations. And since writers and readers need to eat, there have also been a heck of a lot of food trucks in recent years. It’s a feast for the eyes, the brain, and the stomach, much of it outdoors, and really, what more could you ask for on a spring weekend?
This past weekend we might have asked for a little less rain, but the weather on Saturday was more drippy than anything, and the sun obligingly came out on Sunday. I try to attend most years, and was glad it was a bit cooler and maybe a touch less crowded than usual, though there were still plenty of people in attendance. I went to a number of panels and heard authors speak on their recent works, including young adult authors Nicola Yoon, Jason Reynolds, Ruta Sepetys, and Victoria Aveyard; romance authors Tessa Dare and Anne Girard; and upmarket authors Alexander Chee, Laila Lalami, Stewart O’Nan, Aimee Bender and more. I managed not to cart home any more books, but only because purchasing them at the festival meant carrying them around the USC campus the rest of the day. I certainly added a number of titles to my TBR list, and of course I’ve already read much of these authors’ work.
Anyone near LA or planning to travel in this direction should aim to come the weekend of the book festival. It’s a wonderful event every year and catnip for anyone who loves to read and write. But in the meantime, I’ll be posting a few videos over the next few days to share some of the interviews held with attending authors. Whether or not your read/write the genre in which these authors work, I think you’ll find they each have a great deal to share.
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.
I’m back with more tales of my adventures at the LA Times Festival of Books, continued from my post yesterday. In the afternoon I attended a panel on Fairy Tales, that specifically addressed current works of fiction that use fairy tales either as their jumping-off point or as their thematic foundation. Speakers included authors Aimee Bender, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Trinie Dalton, with Nan Cohen as moderator.
Fairy tales seem to be experiencing something of a resurgence in modern-day fiction. The panelists discussed the appeal of this format, and how at their heart, fairy tales are very simple, basic tales that focus more on imagery and emotion than on character or plot. In fact, characters in fairy tales can more often than not be described as their archetypes rather than by any distinctive characteristics: the witch, the princess, the king, the prince, the fairy, the giant, etc. The authors found that framework appealing, since with the structure already imposed on a story to some extent, the author is no longer burdened with having to come up with a unique, original story structure. Instead, they can look for ways in which to partake of a rich storytelling tradition; how can their fairy tale play off the tropes and foundations of the genre’s history? One example was the way in which many popular recent novels have turned the fairy tales on end by addressing the point of view of the villain, and giving the reasons behind their actions.
My final session on Saturday was titled Mystery and Magic in Mind and Matter, and featured K.C. Cole as moderator, Deborah Harkness, and Tim Page. This panel fell into one of those mysterious categories that appear on the festival schedule every year, where you have to squint a little bit and maybe peer at the panelists sideways to get an idea what they have in common. In this instance, the common thread seemed to be a curiosity about the world; Cole has spent years as a journalist covering virtually every topic imaginable, Harkness is the author of the recent novel A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES as well an academic specializing in the history of science from the 1500s through the 1700s, and Page is a professor of journalism and music with a varied publishing history as well. These people love learning things. They’re interested in the world, in systems, and in uncovering information. Harkness came to write her novel, in part, because she stumbled across what she calls the “wall of vampire books” in an airport bookstore in 2008 and realized that if all these supernatural beings existed, it might be interesting to know what they did for a living. The panel was an intriguing demonstration of all the ways in which a writer can turn their own fascinations in fodder for their books.
Sunday morning kicked off bright and early with Fiction: World Building, featuring John Scalzi, Lev Grossman, Frank Beddor, and Charles Yu as moderator. That’s quite a few colorful characters for 10am, and I was glad to have had my morning coffee already, because they were certainly on their toes. Discussions ran to how one creates a fictional world, specifically whether one builds from the inside out or the outside in. The difference here is that some books are written because there is a story and a protagonist, and the writer creates the world around that focus, whereas when building from the outside in, the writer creates the fully fleshed out world and then runs a story or adventure through that existing landscape. Tolkein, for example, built up Middle Earth and created the various languages of the land because that was his primary interest, and then he went back and inhabited his world with the stories of THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. He worked very much from the outside in. Grossman cautioned that, whichever way an author approaches that world building, it is important to keep the world from overshadowing the story you’re trying to tell. It is possible to get so caught up in the details of your world — politics, architecture, history, food, clothes, creatures, geography — that it drowns out your characters and their adventures.
Scalzi and Grossman did entertain the audience for a bit with an impassioned argument over who has the last say in world building, specifically in reference to fanfiction and its effect on canon. Scalzi insists that the writer, as original creator, can know things about his/her world that might not be included in the books, but that makes the knowledge no less valid. Grossman, on the other hand, believes in the sanctity of the text, where it’s only true if it ended up in the book.
The example used was J.K. Rowling mentioning in an interview after all the Harry Potter books were complete that Dumbledore was gay, despite never having said so specifically within the books. According to Grossman, this was not to be considered part of canon, despite the source, whereas Scalzi felt it certainly was canon, whether or not fans liked the information. He went on to point out that Rowling had mentioned the fact to Steve Kloves, the screenwriter, at an earlier point, to keep Dumbledore from making a remark in one of the films that would have suggested he was heterosexual, and that in an intolerant society such as the one these stories depicted Dumbledore was not likely to be out of the closet. (Personally, I felt that the descriptions of Dumbledore’s clothing and the hints of scandal revolving around his friendship with Grindelwald pointed toward his sexual orientation; she wasn’t likely to be explicit in a children’s book.) Regardless, it was interesting to hear a debate surrounding fanfiction that had nothing to do with concerns of copyright or legality.
And on that note, I’ll leave the final bits of my recap for tomorrow. Check back to hear about the rest of my Sunday panels.
The LA Times Festival of Books is one of my most favorite events of the year. I don’t always manage to attend — it depends on my travel schedule and what else is going on — but if it is at all possible, I go for the entire weekend. The festival takes place over two days and features a combination of open-air stages with performances, readings, etc.; panels and interviews held within the classrooms of the University of Southern California (and previously UCLA); and tent after tent of goodies from the various exhibitors, ranging from bookstores to literary magazines to writing programs to publishers and more. There is music, cooking demonstrations, poetry readings, and random moments of entertainment. This year I spotted a man in full cowboy garb, doing rope tricks in front of one of the tents. There are plenty of activities geared toward beginning readers, as well. Best of all, the festival is free to attend, though tickets are given out on a first-come, first-served basis for the indoor events due to limited seating. Needless to say, they draw a huge crowd every year.
There are always more panels that I wish to attend than actual time to go, with things overlapping all over the place, forcing me to make hard choices. I try to get a balance of subjects, but inevitably I find myself gravitating toward certain speakers. This year I seemed to be following John Scalzi, Deborah Harkness, Aimee Bender, and Lev Grossman around, not through any conscious effort but just because it worked out that way.
The first panel I attended was Lev Grossman interviewing John Green. Green, for those unfamiliar with his work, is a successful author of several young adult novels, most recently THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Grossman is a senior writer and book reviewer for Time magazine, and gave Green’s novel a stellar review when it came out at the beginning of the year. They discussed the book, of course, and Green’s own background and how that led him to write STARS. They also discussed how books about star-crossed lovers often seem to feature other books within them — books one of the characters finds important or inspirational — and how Green himself used this in his own work. He made an intriguing comment that the book within the book — unlike the book you actually write — can remain the perfect vision from your head, exactly as you imagine it without getting muddied by the actual effort of writing it down. It remains perfect because it’s not real.
He also talked about shitty first drafts. About writing hundreds of pages that eventually got discarded because they were more about him showing what he’d learned while researching for the book than they were about what worked for the story. It doesn’t matter where an author is in their career; shitty first drafts are inevitable.
From there I went to a panel on Writing Young Adult Fiction, featuring authors Libba Bray and Pete Hautman. These writers are notable for the diversity of their subject matter. Neither has allowed themselves to get too focused when it comes to genre or story type; they write the books they want to write and readers keep coming back for the quality of the worlds they create, be they realistic or fantastical.
The discussion kicked off with a look at the young adult market overall. There’s been a great deal of talk about how popular young adult books have become, with some going so far as to call it a golden age for YA lit. Hautman pointed out that there were more people writing, which made for more competition and a need to bring your A game to the table. Distribution has also improved, making it easier for readers to get hold of the books they want to read.
Bray added that, despite all the progress that has been made, there is still so much more that needs to be done to improve the young adult books in the market. She stressed the need for more diversity of subject and of characters — race, religion, sexuality, geography, etc. She and Hautman both suggested that this is not just the job of the publishers, but of writers and readers. People need to demand the books they want, and support the appearance of books that fit the categories that interest them. If a certain type of book does well, publishers look for more of that type of book — regardless of the characteristics making it popular.
I’m going to end this recap here. Check back for more on the festival tomorrow.