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L.A. Times Festival Of Books Recap: Day One

Sara Newman |
April 13, 2014 | 10:23 a.m. PDT

Senior News Editor

Poets discuss what the responsibility of a writer is to oneself and to their readers (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)
Poets discuss what the responsibility of a writer is to oneself and to their readers (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)
It is rarely an author’s utter originality that motivates readers to invest hours in working their way through meaty novels, but rather the author’s capability for reaching backwards to interact with the tremendous literary cannon established by authors-past. It is this drive to continue the conversation begun with earlier works of writing that keeps writers returning to their keyboards each day. 

 While John Green may have been honored with 2013 Innovator’s Award on Friday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, even he began his interview the following day with an ode to classical literature, as he discussed how books such as "Slaughterhouse Vand "Catcher in the Rye" continued to redefine themselves for him with each re-reading. On a more personal level as well, Green admitted, “when we fist bought our house in Annapolis, I liked their books.” 

This desire to inhabit the spaces carved out by those who we admire and aspire to one day is, as Vonnegut would say, “so human.” 

“I think we do create the reality around us to some degree, of course” said poet, Carol Muske Dukes at a panel called “Poetic Invention and Personal Narrative” alongside fellow poets Joshua Beckman, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Douglas Kearney and moderator Eleni Sikelianos. “You create something that never existed before…and if you believe in the transformative power of the imagination, then it is that…what’s being created is real and it appears before us.”

Novels, memoirs and poetry all invite readers to explore the underlying humanity shared by all people, encouraging them to consider new ways of moving through the world. While literary novices may want to defend their inventiveness and ability to see the imagine the world around them in an entirely new way, the best instances of true literary innovation are born out of writers attempting to do nothing other than write about the world they know, in whatever way they know how. 

John Green delights fans (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)
John Green delights fans (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)
“I prefer to think of [writing as a collaborative process] because it means less pressure on me,” said Green, in what was arguably Saturday’s biggest event at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. “So that’s my advice—steal.”

READ MORE: John Green At The L.A. Times Festival Of Books


Whether you’re stealing techniques and plot devices from other writers, or taking tidbits of your own life and calling them fiction, the reliance on some form of stealing is a great unifier in all forms of writing. 

“Everything in that book happened, but it didn’t necessarily happen in that order…it’s just a way of moving things around,” said Leo Braudy of his latest book, "Trying to be Cool: Growing Up in the 1950s". 

Pico Iyer, Dinah Lenney and Leslie Jamison appeared alongside Braudy in a panel discussion led by Meghan Daum about “The Art of the Personal Story.” In conversation with one another the panelists asserted that the same thought processes that drive fiction, drive memoir too. 

At the heart of almost all writing lies the desire to make another person feel exactly how you felt in a single moment, whether that moment was as you were sitting, thinking at a keyboard, or out living life in the dangerous world of the unknowable. 

“It’s sort of like the past of least resistance for me,” said Jamison, of her decision to focus on non-fiction writing after having first entered the literary scene with her novel, "The Gin Closet." 

“Memoir is always fiction,” added Iyer. “I would say the personal parts are slippery, but the impersonal parts are really heartfelt…Your imagination is the heart and the imagination of the reader.”

READ MORE: L.A. Times Book Prizes Kick Off Festival Of Books At USC

It is the willingness to blur the lines between invention and originality, between fact and fiction, that is enabling writers today to draw from such a rich pool of experiences and exposures to produce content that resonates so powerfully with their readers. 

Boys ang Girls Club of Wilmington meet their favorite author (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)
Boys ang Girls Club of Wilmington meet their favorite author (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)

“The world was built for me,” said the Green said, of his first novel, "Looking for Alaska," his most memoiristic novel. “I’m not a good world builder.” 

Drawing from his own experiences in boarding school provided a solid springboard for his first novel. “In 'Alaska,' I could in part tell you a story, and in part make up a story,” said Green. Yet, Green admitted that drawing from his personal narrative resulted in a novel that was “hurtful to a lot of people.”

While the distinction between the risks involved in personal narratives, and the creation that gives life to fictitious narrative appears somewhat in fiction, where to draw the line is even more of a concern for memoirists and poets. 

READ MORE: Terry McMillan Discusses Parenting And Love Over 'Who Asked You?'

“I definitely write non-fiction because it allows me some control in a way of how much I’m going to tell you,” said Lenney. “I don’t write as much about my husband and my children as I might otherwise, because I want them to continue to speak to me…but for some reason my parents feel like fair game.” 

“We each have kind of a personal threshold as to how far we are willing to go in terms of memory and imagination as kissing cousins,” she continued. “I’m interested in catching myself out when I’m starting to make something up…but I do think you do have sort of a contract to uphold."

It may seem like a strange notion to have to establish a “contract” between your writing and the people in your life, but this is a very real concern for writers hoping to maintain both their personal and professional integrity. 

“When I’m writing [a poem] I think about personal drive,” explained Kearney. “First draft, that’s for me…The ones that I think could be publishable should be for someone other than me; there needs to be something that drives the audience to read more closely.”

READ MORE: Day One At The Country's Largest Festival Of Books

The balance between writing for oneself and writing for an audience alludes so many writers, but when one manages to strike the right balance between self indulgence and literary honesty, the reactions are truly astounding. This weekend, thousands of readers drove hours to get to USC, attended multiple panel discussions and waited in line for hours to meet their favorite authors, if only for a minute. 

“It was truly a once in lifetime moment,” said Jennifer Chavez, 15, smiling gleefully after getting her book signed by Green on Saturday. Chavez and 10 other members of her book club stood in line behind—not within—Bovard auditorium for over three hours, their books clutched excitedly to their chests. 

“It was a hard decision,” said Chavez, of her decision to wait in line to get Green’s signature, rather than to listen to him speak. “But I wanted to be able to interact with him one-on-one, even for such a short time.”

Even if the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram age has older generations worrying about books becoming unloved and unappreciated, the amazing turn out and passion evident at the Festival of Books overpowers anything achieved in 140 characters. 

Contact Senior News Editor Sara Newman here. Follow her on Twitter here



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