Three Emerging Writers in Conversation about the 2013 LA Times Festival of Books

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From the “What are you reading?” panel. LATFOB attendees wrote what they were currently reading. Photo: Fanny Garcia

The 18th Annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the USC Campus hosted an array of book sellers, publishers, writers and bibliophiles.  Amongst the thousands of people who turned out for the literary extravaganza were pLAywriting in the city editors Fanny Garcia and Ramona Pilar Gonzales, and friend of pLAywriting in the city, poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo who is the recent recipient of the Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange Award.  At the behest of Founding Editor Fanny Garcia, the three writers reflected on the events of that weekend.

Fanny Garcia – Founding Editor, pLAywriting in the city

What was it you hoped to get out of going to the LATFOB as a member of the press for the first time? What were some of the things you did as a new member of the press?

I hoped that I could interview some of my favorite writers but I was only there on Saturday and most of my favorites were on a panel on Sunday.

I wanted to interview Dana Gioia. I’ve been a fan of his career for a very long time. He edited the one of my favorite anthologies – Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing which I used extensively in one of my very first English classes at Los Angeles Valley College. I wanted to talk to him about his career – he’s a poet, critic, teacher and businessman. He used to be the CEO of General Foods Corporation! How many businessmen do you know who are also poets? And he was one of the directors of the National Endowment of the Arts. He strikes me as a person who started his career with a tremendous amount of curiosity about how everything works and has strived to find solutions that are sustainable. I wanted to ask him what his advice was to artists struggling to make ends meet. How do you make a career in art that also sustains you financially? I think he’d have an interesting take on the age-old struggle of making money off your art.

However, since I didn’t get to interview Dana Gioia, my favorite part about having a press pass was that I didn’t have to wait in line to get into the panel discussions or workshops. I just flashed my fancy press credentials and I was in!

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The press pass we were issued. Photo: Fanny Garcia

Do you read? how often do you read? What do you like to read? Did you see the things you like to read represented at the LATFOB?

I’ve bought seven books in the past month that I haven’t had a chance to read. I hope to get to them soon! Recently, I’ve been reading the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. And I recently subscribed to The Atlantic and The New Yorker. I read the Boston Review sometimes as well.

The last three books I’ve read have been recommendations by one of my mentors, Hector TobarSay Her Name by Francisco Goldman, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor and Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt. I’ve enjoyed all three of them and they are all different genres. Say Her Name is a memoir about the death of the author’s wife, My Beloved World is an autobiography and Will in the World has its roots in New Historicism which aims to understand authors and literature through its historical context.

I bought two books at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.  I was inspired by a panel called “The Real L.A. Noir” which featured Los Angeles Times crime reporters Andrew Blankstein, Larry Harnisch, Richard Winton and was moderated by columnist Pat Morrison. The panelists talked about the infamous murder cases that inspired the noir literary and film genres such as the case of the Black Dahlia murder. During the conversation John Buntin’s book, L.A. Noir was mentioned. However, panelist Larry Harnisch said he had a bone to pick with John Buntin, because here’s this East Coast writer “parachuting” in to L.A. thinking he knows L.A. noir and writes a book about it. So when I saw the book at the Skylight books tent I couldn’t just buy John Buntin’s book. I also bought “Los Angeles Noir” which includes short noir stories written by Los Angeles-based writers and others.

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“The Real LA Noir” panel moderated by LA Times Columnist Pat Morrison. Panelists are Larry Harnisch, Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton. Photo: Fanny Garcia

How were you most inspired by LATFOB?

I was immensely proud and honored to see many of my mentors on the panels. These are writers who grew up in L.A. and write in L.A. Playwright Luis Alfaro was on a panel about writers crossing genres. Hector Tobar was in conversation with Jamaica Kincaid. I enjoy seeing them there not just because I always learn something whenever I hear them speak, but also because they remind me, yet again, that a career as a writer is possible; You just have to keep working at it.

I also saw writers that I’ve only heard about and read – Sandra Tsing Loh was on the same panel with Luis Alfaro. What a dynamic woman! And Oliver Mayer who is a playwright and professor at USC was on a panel called “Does Race Matter? Publishing as a Writer of Color.”

Los Angeles isn’t known (in the way that NYC is) as a literary city. Based on your experience at the LATFOB, do you agree or disagree?

The myth about L.A. not being literary is a bunch of bull crap. L.A. is definitely literary, were just not pretentious about it. And we don’t show off what we’re reading as much as East Coast people. A while ago I read that New Yorkers did not like the Kindle or the Nook because they couldn’t see the book jackets fellow subway commuters were reading. Apparently subway commuters scoff at what you read if it’s not highbrow. But I used to read romance novels and now I read Shakespeare. Who cares? As long as you’re reading!

The East Coast has this monopoly on the whole image of cozying up next to a fire with a book while there’s a monstrous storm raging outside. In L.A. we have so much sunshine that during the day we’re out at the beach or hiking all the trails surrounding our city. Or having a margarita with a friend! We don’t read on our way to work because we drive. So most of our reading is done during our lunch break or at home, perhaps right before we go to bed. We don’t show off what we read because we’re busy getting somewhere, but don’t let that fool you. L.A reads and L.A. writes. I was happy to see so many writers  born and raised in Los Angeles on panels and signing books at the festival. Our writers aren’t only transplants from the East Coast, we home-grow them here too. Blame it on the sunshine.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo – Los Angeles Poet, Winner of the 2013 Poets and Writers California Award

What books did you buy? If you didn’t buy any books, what is your favorite freebie and where did you get it?

I bought a copy of Pity the Beautiful by California poet, Dana Gioia, and I was able to have him sign it. One of the reasons I bought it was because I wanted a chance to speak to him and thank him for how he has represented Los Angeles and California to a global audience. Gioia was born to a Catholic, working class family in Hawthorne, Los Angeles. His mother was from Chihuahua and his father from Sicily. He grew up listening to three languages. He is Los Angeles. His essays on poetry are some of the most widely read essays on contemporary poetry in the nation. I just wanted to thank him for his amazing analysis of contemporary poetry and for writing so eloquently about Los Angeles and his roots. His reply was, “Well, I love L.A.”

What was the most ridiculous/controversial/funny/inspirational thing you heard from a writer at the festival?

I went to a fiction panel called, “Untold Stories” with Laila Lalami, Hector Tobar, Nina Revoyr, and moderated by Tod Goldberg. For a panel of writers of color I was surprised at how many racy/politically incorrect things were said between them. They were the kinds of things we say amongst friends, when the crazy güeros aren’t listening, but not usually to room full of 60 year-old white ladies. I found the periodically audible discomfort pretty hilarious. It was like they looked at each other and realized they sounded like a bad joke: “a Jew, a Guatamalen, a Japanese female basketball player, and a Muslim walk onto a panel,” and just kept the joke going. Laila seemed the most frustrated as Tod kept pointing out that she was a Muslim writer telling Muslim stories. At one point she said, “No one asks Franzen how he makes his stories universal.” I believe she was trying to say that she wasn’t a “Muslim” writer, but a writer trying to tell a good story. As a WoC, I definitely understood her frustration. It reminded me of a quote I once read from Junot Diaz, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

By the end, when the jokes had settled, all the panelists agreed that the only way to be universal was to be specific. And even though it was about writing a good story with compelling characters, they also wanted to write something that mattered, that changed their readers.

How many times have you gone to the LATFOB? What has changed over the years? 

This was my fourth year attending. The first year I went it was quite a few years back and it was still on the UCLA campus. At that time, I was taking a poetry class and had a goal of applying to some MFA programs. I remember talking to a writer about a book she was selling, and I said something like, “this is so great. I want to write a book one day,” and she gave me a condescending smile and nod.

This year was very different from that first experience because now I’m an active writer and community member in the city, and I curate a reading series, so I went in knowing more (knowing something). I ran into friends and other curators and got to see what new and exciting things they were doing. At the “Smokin’ Hot Lit Lounge” I ran into L.A. poet, historian, and curator, Mike “the Poet” Sonksen who has a new book out that mixes L.A. poetry, history, and photos called Slices of Los Angeles and Traci Akemi Kato-Kiriyama who was leading a chapbook making workshop and invited me to visit the Tuesday Night Project open mic in Little Tokyo. At “Smokin Hot Lit Lounge” I also got to check out cool indie presses like Kaya, Tia Chucha’s, and Gold Line Press.  The couches and lounge feel didn’t hurt either.

The first year I attended I was so clueless that I had stars in my eyes. Now it’s more of a chance to catch up with people and see what cool stuff they are putting out in the world.

Where did you spend the majority of your time?

I spent most of my time near and around the poetry stage. I love the poetry stage because it’s nestled in a little grassy knoll outside and even though there are chairs set up in front of the stage, most people find a shady spot on the grass to lounge on. It’s one of the best ways I’ve experienced poetry in Los Angeles. Nothing beats spending a beautiful Sunday in L.A. outside with a cool breeze while listening to people read poetry to you.

Los Angeles isn’t known (in the way that NYC  is) as a literary city. Based on your experience at the LATFOB, do you agree or disagree?

People (New Yorkers) want literary community to look like their literary community, but L.A. is it’s own thing. Our geography is different. Our demographics are different. Our weather is different. We can’t look like New York because we are Los Angeles. New York is spoiled because they have NYU, the New School, Columbia, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Zadie Smith, Sharon Olds, etc. Amazing writers are practically falling over each other on the streets on that island, and that is great for them, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a literary life here. We have UC Irvine, USC, Antioch, Red Hen Press, The Rattling Wall, Los Angeles Review, Santa Monica Review, Eloise Klein Healy, Dana Gioia, Luis Rodriguez, Hector Tobar, Joan Didion, Janet Fitch, and so forth. We have our schools, publishers, magazines, poets and writers too, we just have them in cars, on freeways, and with better weather.

Ramona Pilar Gonzales – Editor in Chief, pLAywriting in the city

What was your favorite panel/workshop/talk/film at the festival? What was the most ridiculous/controversial/funny/inspirational thing you heard from a writer at the festival?

I was able to attend one panel, “True Grit”, a panel of fiction writers whose demographic I couldn’t be the further from: literary “cool guys.” It was a Palahniukian party, a panel of “cult” writers, a Rumpus Darlings, literary John Benders. White male writers writing about depravity, addiction, and violence – true grit.

What surprised me most was how inspired I, a full-figured, fully loaded, morena, California, actually was.

Moderated by Jim Ruland, the panel featured Frank Bill, James Greer, Joshua Mohr, and Rob Roberge.

While, as a writer, I tend to gravitate towards writing nonfiction, I want to expand my fiction work, so I decided to go this panel. The only writer on the panel I’d heard of was Rob Roberge, as he was a mentor at Antioch University LA’s Creative Writing MFA program when I attended.  I’d read a few of his pieces and I like how he writes. I like who he writes: awkward characters in awkward situations with a wry, hilarious and respectful voice. He’s able to convey character in dialogue or simple movements rather than going the Henry James route and writing a bible about a spot on the wall. I figured there’d be discussion about process and inspiration and how to write about the dirty, “gritty” unpleasant things without being embarrassed by them. Dude writers seem to be able to do this really well.  I’ve always been too shy to be as ribald in my writing as I am in my head or in person.

What ensued was one of the most awkward (there’s that word again) discussions of writing I’ve seen. Yet, it was an awkward that I understood in a way. These guys weren’t necessarily all that comfortable being the center of attention, talking about themselves and the work they do. It’s a little weird.

There were inside jokes and interjections aplenty (winner: a House of Grits chain of restaurants suggested to Greer by Bill, a play on Greer’s House of Grit website).

Joshua Mohr read an excerpt of his novel Fight Song in which his protagonist Bob Coffin (yes. Coffin.), a browbeaten by life alcoholic, sits in front of a computer screen and proceeds to eat Doritos, then subsequently masturbate with the same hand.  His wife comes in (because OF COURSE he’s married), merely says “those were supposed to be for the kids,” and exits. He’s there, ashamed, disgusted with himself, with his fake cheese-caked manhood in his hands.

I laughed in spite of myself. There was all this buildup of this poor alcoholic man (thanks, Bukowski), and then this self awareness comes in and flicks everyone on the ear.

Inspirational Take-Aways:

Self doubt was unanimous.  All of the writers discussed how self-doubt was something that they dealt with in various ways, but that it was always around. These men are on their third and fourth books and the doubt is still there. It was comforting and inspiring to see that it’s possible to complete things even while self-doubt is around. Must not be as powerful as I thought.

Free-time is precious. Rob Roberge talked about having two careers to pay for the writing one. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a vast ocean of writers who have multiple jobs because they have to. Actors, yes. There are so many working actors, but only a relative few who get the name notoriety and bank accounts, and that’s usually after a pretty long haul in the field. Just the same, there are tons of writers, not “writers” but actual Writers, who write and create in between what they have to do to live. Hearing this from an agented, published “cool” writer shifted my perspective.  I felt like an actual Writer, like I’ve been living a writing life.

Every book sucks when you start. I believe it was Bill who threw this one out. The guy who writes about meth makers was also the one who said it’s crucial to write what you want rather than try to fit yourself into a marketable hole.  I connected with that. Of course everything sucks. It hasn’t become what it will become yet. It’s just making the transference from a non-corporeal, conceptual place. It’s barely materialized from being a thought inside your head. You’re just meeting it for the first time and you have no idea who it is. It’s not going to look/sound/feel like what you thought it should the first time around. That only means it deserves your time.

Don’t try to accomplish 20-25 things at once. This was from Mohr. I totally thought trying to make an idea come out of your head perfectly was a newbie mistake. And it might be, but if a person who has found the tenacity to complete three novels has that difficulty, it must be a normal thing.

It was a true shock that I was wholly encouraged by these four white guys who would probably never read my work or think of me as the kind of person who would read theirs. There go assumptions.

What books did you buy? If you didn’t buy any books, what is your favorite freebie and where did you get it?

Favorite freebie was the head of Charles Bukowski in fan form. Thanks PEN! Photo: Ramona Pilar Gonzales

Favorite freebie was the head of Charles Bukowski in fan form. Thanks PEN! Photo: Ramona Pilar Gonzales

Who is your favorite living writer and why? Did you get to see him/her at the festival?

My favorite living writers are the people I know from around Los Angeles who are committed to the work that they do. I saw Mike the Poet, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, V Zamora, Traci Akemi Kato-kiriyama, Wendy C. Ortiz, Patrick O’Neil. They are my favorite because they are emblematic of Los Angeles writers, from different neighborhoods, with different histories. They are creating their own path and super involved in their city.

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