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LAT Festival Of Books: Patti Smith And Dave Eggers Talk Modern Memoirs

Kristin Yinger |
May 1, 2011 | 12:30 a.m. PDT

Book Editor

photos courtesy of Kristin Yinger
photos courtesy of Kristin Yinger

Patti Smith, the “Godmother of Punk” and author of “Just Kids,” her memoir about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, delightfully conversed with Dave Eggers, a memoir writer himself best known for “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and founding and editing McSweeney’s.

The highly-anticipated conversation between these two authors had the crowd raucously applauding and laughing, but also attentively listening and reflecting in the packed Bovard Auditorium Saturday afternoon.

Both writers talked about their books, their struggles, their lives and why they need to write.

Smith told of her mission to write about herself and Mapplethorpe so that people could understand the man better than he is usually understood by the general public.

“On March 8, 1989, the day before Robert Mapplethorpe died, he asked me to write…focused on our little story. I was the only one who could write it,” Smith said. “He had died; a lot of our friends were gone. I was the only one left to write it.”

After writing her poetic homage to Mapplethorpe in “The Coral Sea,” she wanted to give a less coded description of the man that many only knew for his controversial photography and death from AIDS in a book that would “give Robert to the people.”

“It took me so long because of its simplicity…I wanted it to be a fairly simple book. Robert wasn’t a reader” so Smith had to make something that he would have liked to read.

While Smith wrote for a public eager to know more about her life with Mapplethorpe, Dave Eggers never thought that anyone would end up reading his book.

“We didn’t think people would actually read the darn thing! It came as a shock when it had a wider readership,” Eggers said.

But “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” his 2000 memoir, put him on the literary map.

Eggers did something no one had really done before: put his real friends’ names and phone numbers into his book.

The author of seven books also helped found 826 National, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for children and teens that helps kids across the country. He revealed that Smith’s daughter worked with their center in Michigan.

Eggers complimented Smith on her memoir, saying “‘Just Kids’ is beautiful and measured a flawless book. I have a trouble reading memoirs now because I think how mine could be improved! [laughs]”

Their last topic of conversation before Smith did a short reading was about a writer’s lifestyle. Eggers declared, “Sometimes you’ll explode if you don’t put it on the page!”

“Sometimes I write from 10 p.m. to 3 to 5 a.m. to feel it…to feel pain,” Eggers said. “Something said you gotta pay for this if this is what you really want! Is that really twisted Catholicism or what? [laughs]” 

Patti agreed. “It’s a sacrificial life. You can’t live like other people…You’re always a little removed…you’re constantly observing and recreating.”

The lively conversation closed with Smith reading an excerpt from her book, adding commentary as she went that elicited lots of laughs from the crowd before they opened it up for questions from the audience.

Both authors stayed to sign copies of their books for an immense line that wrapped around the building.

Reach Kristin here. Or follow her on Twitter here.



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