Thursday, April 30, 2009

L.A. Times Festival of Books - The Rest of the Story

O.k., so our morning was out of this world wonderful with the "A Dark and Stormy Night Panel" then checking out the booths. So, what came next?

Just before my 1:00, I spied Michael waiting at the Mystery Book Store Booth. He was forming a line in anticipation of Robert Crais signing at 1:00. We were both going to attend the 1:30 panel called "Mysteries in Black and White." So, I was discussing the game plan with him. I'd go wait in line for the panel (so we'd get prime seats) and he'd wait to get RC's autograph. Since I only had three books to be signed I was just planning to do the signing after the panel. BUT, before I headed over, I noticed Don Winslow at the Mystery Book Store Booth and I didn't have to wait in line to see him, so I moseyed my butt over and introduced myself. He was kind enough to sign my book, take my blog business card, and pose for this awesome picture:

Very nice guy. And in a few minutes we'll find out that he's also very funny!

On to the "Mysteries in Black and White" panel moderated by Sarah Weinman. Panelists included Denise Hamilton, Simon Lewis, and L.A. Times Book Award winner, Michael Koryta. Also to note, Simon Lewis was nominated in the Mystery/Thriller category for the Book Award as well. We've got some heavy hitters on this panel!

Sarah took a more formalized approach to this panel and addressed the theme of Black and White in several formats. She started out by addressing "black and white" as an absolute way of writing a crime novel. Does one have to write a certain way or go for all the shades of gray in between?

Denise explained that when she wrote her first book she was telling a story about a case she covered for the L.A. Times. She didn't know she was writing a novel until she finished, but she liked the idea of a formula for the crime novel then she discovered that there really ISN'T a formula. Instead, crime fiction is very mushy, very gray, and it has no formulas.

For Michael "it all lies in shades of gray." He has no interest in writing about white nights or purely evil characters. Instead he believes that great novels challenge the way the reader thinks about the characters and puts a question in the reader's head at the end of the book.

Simon set out to write about a crime that was very harsh, therefore, a very black event. Simon was focused on writing about the events so he didn't necessarily set out to write a "crime novel," that's simply where the events led him. Because the crime was so dark, his villains in turn were quite dark or black, but then so was his hero. In a normal context a corrupt Chinese policeman would be considered very black, but he becomes a white knight only because his quest in this case was a good one.

Next Sarah pointed out that all the panelists deal with outsiders in their writing, so she wanted to know if it is mandatory for crime fiction to have outsider characters?

Michael explained that the outsider is the most fascinating; "most people don't want to read about happy, well-adjusted folks." The reader wants to try to understand the world, to wrestle with something, and drama, in and of itself, is that struggle. Michael also pointed out that historically in noir the "protagonist is in search of a home."

Simon added a bit of a spin to that idea when he said he felt the "outsider's perceptions tell you a lot more about the insiders in the novel." They defamiliarize what is common.

The next element of the "black/white" theme that Sarah addressed was examining ethnicities. She asked the panelists how do they make sure they "get it right."

Denise was the first to respond to this question by pointing out she wasn't "brave enough" to have a protagonist outside her own race/culture, so she created the reporter who is "a lot like me." This allowed her to take the approach that the reader discovers and learns alongside the protagonist.

Michael approached the question a bit differently in that he emphasized how the "outsider" doesn't have be "outside" because of race or gender or culture. Using the example of Daniel Woodrell's WINTER'S BONE he illustrated how the protagonist is an outsider in her small "insider" world. Michael's first three books dealt with the "haves and the have nots." People with wealth and with power (insiders) manipulating those without (outsiders). Two movie examples that Michael used to illustrate this same point included THE DEPARTED and DONNIE BROSCO, in both movies a character is an outsider both in the police department and the crime family. He doesn't fit in either "world." By making the world smaller, an author can accurately show the big world.

Simon feels that writing across races is "contentious." But he wanted to tell the story of a crime that happened to the Chinese people, so it was simply inappropriate for his hero to be a white male. Simon felt the only appropriate way to present this story then was through the eyes of a Chinese person. But, as Simon also pointed out, race is only one thing that divides people. Writers write across gender and class and those divide people, too. So writing across race should be no different. In any of these cases the writer simply needs to do it as sensitively as he/she can.

The next question Sarah posed to the panel dealt with social commentary in crime fiction and where the authors view its importance.

Michael felt that "often the most honest commentary comes from fiction." As an example, Michael offered up that Charles Dickens was the great entertainer of his time, but gradually people recognized that he was making points about the human condition, and we see that to this day. Therefore, "fiction has a lot of lasting power." Another example from Michael: THE LAST GOOD KISS is good commentary about the 70s, and it's a detective novel.

Simon's take on this question was quite thoughtful. He feels that the modern literary novel examines psychology whereas the modern crime novel examines sociology. The crime novel looks at the people as a whole and the literary novel looks at one part of one element of the whole, it's much smaller in scope.

Denise felt that the beauty of crime fiction lies in the reader's ability to read about the secrets and the corruption and then find a solution. She also thinks that writers have to be careful with social commentary because ultimately the story has to come first, but when the writing is done correctly, the social commentary comes out naturally.

And finally, Sarah wanted to know from the panelist how they stick to their unique voices with all the other pressures that abound in the publishing world?

According to Simon the good thing about writing in crime fiction is "at least people read it." Simon is published by a small press that is willing to publish whatever he writes, and he's quite thankful to be in a nice spot like that. His recommendation to writers is to "go a little further down the road from what you did last time and before you know it, you've carved out a territory for yourself. It's a territory in which you can create."

Michael admires the writers who let the craft guide them. He believes that "to write anything and extract passion from it, you have to write what you want to write." I guess you can say that when you're a Times Book Prize winner, huh? But really, "if you write a really good book, that's what everyone still wants." Michael "would rather take nine good cuts and misses and then put the tenth out of the park at Wrigley's" as opposed to give up his voice.

Well, I haven't seen Michael take a miss yet, and this panel was no exception. As I mentioned, this was a bit more formal, less laughs, but great, solid content from some rising stars in the mystery publishing world. We exited his panel to immediately get in line for the final panel at 3:00. At 2:30 the line was already quite long because the final panel was Cops & Crooks in California, moderated by none other than Robert Crais!! We were fairly far back in the entrance line and when we re-entered the lecture hall, Michael (Alatorre), my sister and I thought we would have to sit over to the side. It was a decent view as we were in about the third row on the left hand side, but when they opened up the third row CENTER that had been originally reserved, we were able to move to prime realty! So, not only did Michael manage to get us into this panel, but we had a fantastic view! It was just meant to be - Elvis and Joe were making it so!

The panelists joining Robert Crais for "Cops & Crooks in California were T. Jefferson Parker, Joseph Wambaugh, and (yes, he's back) Don Winslow. I have to tell you all that I thought all four men were outstanding, but really and truly Crais and Winslow could tour doing stand-up comedy. These two simply played so well off each other that it was incredibly hard to believe that they really didn't know each other personally beforehand.

When RC introduced Don Winslow, he told the audience that he was convinced Don was a government assassin. Why you ask? Well, he was "born in New York City", went to "college in Nebraska", had a father who was "career military" (they like multiple generations), spent time in South Africa "guiding safaris" (also known as "covert missions"), has a "Masters in Military History" (what civilian earns a Masters in Military History?), and he directed a theater company (that has to be a cover story). Nope, RC is convinced that Don was "dropping bodies for Delta."

Yes folks, this was the start of this panel, and it never let up!

When RC explained that he did an Amazon search for Don's books, he said he discovered books he already knew about, but also discovered SLAVE GIRLS OF ROME, THE LITTLE RED DRESS, and DON WINSLOW'S VICTORIAN EROTICA. RC then announced that Don would be doing a dramatic reading from that and without blinking an eye, Don replied, "only if you wear the little red dress!" Of course this Don Winslow did NOT write those books, but it made for great fodder throughout the entire panel.

RC introduced Jeff Parker who was the one panelist born and bread in Southern California, in Orange County, and that led directly into the first question for the panelists: "Is there something about Southern California that is particularly identifying to 'us'?"

Jeff said he found it hard to imagine writing about anything else; "I don't have to go to a new place and ask questions." He felt he was vested in every way a human being could feel vested in a place.

And when the audience turned to Don for his response, it was, "I didn't write SLAVES GIRLS OF ROME."

After the audience finished laughing he explained that he came from Rhode Island, which is "mostly the size of this room," on a case; he worked as a Private Investigator. He was driving down the PCH and when he hit Laguna, he called his wife to tell her they were moving to California. Don feels that "classically California is a place where people go to reinvent themselves." And that's what Don did.

Joe Wambaugh was very concise in his response. He simply asked, "Would it have been the same if I had written something called 'East Pittsburgh Noir'?"

Each of the writers on this panel has written both a series and stand alones, so RC wanted to know what appeals to each of the authors about these two options in crime fiction.

Joe had primarily written stand alones with some non-fiction up until recently with his "Hollywood" series. He said he decided to do a sequel to Hollywood Station and thought it might be easier because he already had the characters. But, he ran into a problem. He discovered that "some of the characters from the first book didn't want to come back." Writing the series wasn't easier. The "characters didn't help with plotting," which Joe said was always a problem for him. In fact, he explained, "When I die, I'm going to be like the old screenwriter and have chiseled on my tombstone, 'at last, a plot.'"

Don compared writing to parachute jumping, "the practice is as dangerous as the actual event. Why bother?" Don started with series fiction, so he didn't know any different. He was writing P.I. fiction and thought that's simply what was required of the genre. He would be sitting on stakeouts reading Travis McGee, "which is why I was a lousy P.I." And while he said he "just got tired of Neal Carey," he also said he was open to the idea of bringing Neal Carey back and will probably do so now that he "knows a little better." Presently, though, he's bringing back the characters from THE DAWN PATROL in a sequel titled, THE GENTLEMAN'S HOUR.

And Jeff Parker has done mostly stand alones. He explained that he never saw Merci Rayborn as a series; he always planned to do three books with her and that was the extent of her character. But he's writing a series now because he has discovered that "you get a bigger canvas" with a series. It likes writing a "2000 page novel." With his present character, Charlie Hood, his imagination is fired up and he's going to continue working with that character until "the fire burns down the house around [him]." IRON RIVER is the title of the next book in that series.

Next the panelists briefly discussed screenwriting and whether they felt the work was as important as their prose work?

Joe says that adapting a novel is the only writing that's "actually fun," and "doesn't feel like hard work." Instead it's "like doing a crossword puzzle." Whereas the "other writing is all sweat and tears."

Jeff has never written for the screen and doesn't think he wouldn't know how. He would like to learn how and may get the chance because one of his books has been optioned for a television series pilot.

Don has done a little screenwriting, and he likes it. He says it's different from prose writing. A novel is in it's final form when it's sent to print, whereas a screenplay is an "intermediate" project.

When RC posed the question, "Why Crime Fiction? Why do you write it", Joe eloquently responded, "if I knew anything about ballet, I'd write about ballet. I mean, I was a cop. What else can I do?" RC also wanted to know who Joe was reading back before he was writing himself, and Joe said he liked Tom Wolfe and recommended him.

Don also felt that you should write what you know, and explained, "Frankly, I grew up around criminals." Don always loved to read, and he loved the genre. "Crime novels have it all. I'm greedy and crime fiction gives me the whole world."

When RC wanted to know if any of the writers had ever felt frightened during a book tour/signing, Don shared a story of a time he was doing a booksigning in Greenwich Village. There was a woman in S&M garb who had mistaken him for the Don Winslow who wrote SLAVES GIRLS OF ROME. He explained that when she walked up to him and HER voice dropped an octave, his ROSE two!

Jeff said he'd never really been scared but found that people will tell you the most surprising things at book signings.

And RC shared a scary story of his own from not too long ago. He said he was signing in Philadelphia and a woman was in line holding a toddler. When she made it to the front of the line, she plops her little boy on the table and says, "here's your daddy."

From here the discussion went into audience Q & A. And as I read back through this summary, I realize that while it's a fairly thorough summary, you simply can't appreciate the level of humor in this panel without actually hearing these four men for yourself. Even if I would have transcribed their exact words throughout the entire panel, it doesn't illustrate the level of energy they had nor the obvious fun they were having with each other. As my sister mentioned later, you could tell that the four of them were comfortable in this setting, not self-conscious at all. They were simply going with the flow and having a good time. And that then transferred to the audience. I would be surprised to hear that a single soul in that room walked out disappointed. It was an incredible panel.

But the fun didn't end there. I finally, finally, finally got to meet my hero. I took my books, stood in line and met Robert Crais. I was a bit of a blubbering idiot, but I managed to tell him I came from Ohio to see him. He signed all three books, plus a page for my scrap book. Then my incredible friend, Michael, was ready with camera in hand to snap some photos for me. Here we are:

Wow! It just doesn't get any better than this! A fantastic finale to a fantastic weekend. Thanks for letting me relive it with you all! And if you will be so kind as to indulge me, I have to thank both my sister and Michael Alatorre one more time. It doesn't seem anywhere near enough, though. They made this fantastic weekend happen and I am so grateful to them both. I am certainly blessed.

Happy Reading!


Trish April 30, 2009 at 7:55 AM  

Congratulations on all your success, Jen!! I know how much this means to you, and I couldn't be happier for you!

Thoughts of Joy April 30, 2009 at 8:32 AM  

It sounds like this was one of your Top 10 days! I would have loved to have joined you. :)

Corey Wilde April 30, 2009 at 9:30 AM  

I'm glad that this trip was everything you wanted it to be. Sure wish I could have been there for that last panel.

Serena April 30, 2009 at 10:37 AM  

what a great set of interactive and informative panels. Sounds like you had a great time, and met some really great authors.

le0pard13 April 30, 2009 at 12:44 PM  

I'm keeping on eye out for an announcement by the L.A. Times on the release of the book panel recordings. They've done them in the past, but dropped the ball for last year's event. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Fun review, Jen. I'm glad it turned out so well.

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