Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

Category: April 2009

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Wells Tower on darkness, joy and the Internet

Festival of BooksWells Tower


"Fiction: Closing Time" at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books brought together three writers who traffic in the darker elements of life: Patrick DeWitt ("Ablutions"), Wells Tower ("Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned") and Jerry Stahl ("Pain Killers"). Jacket Copy blogger and moderator Carolyn Kellogg (far left) first asked how far was too far.

DeWitt took this to mean vulgarity and claimed it was easy to be too vulgar, preferring to avoid ugliness for the sake of ugliness. Stahl saw his lack of a New York Times review as possible indication of an excess of vulgarity. Tower said he thought that “general hideousness serves as a sentimentality credit.” The nasty allows the sweet. DeWitt supported this “sweet and sour” balance because he’s not interested in offending people for the sake of offending.

Stahl told the crowd that if they want darkness, they should read the paper. Tower pointed out that a human being is a complicated, painful thing to be; it is the task of the fiction writer to salvage moments of transcendence and amazement. Stahl, on the other hand, said he thought the task of the fiction writer was not to bore: writers must earn the right to be read. He was always inspired by people who say the unsayable, mentioning the late J.G. Ballard. DeWitt said he was inspired by books his father had given him, especially those by Charles Portis, leading to a cross-panel discussion of "True Grit."

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Not quite wrapping up the Festival of Books

LA Times Festival of BooksWhat Are You Reading?

Thousands of attendees at the Festival of Books stopped by the "What Are You Reading" graffiti wall and left their mark, from the Bible on one side to the Koran on the other. The enthusiasm expressed — all those titles filling the enormous banner, the struggle to find a blank space for a beloved book — was inspiring. Publishing industry insiders may say the business is in trouble, but people still love to read. After the jump, more pictures, and a sampling of titles.

Here at Jacket Copy, we went to panels — lots of panels, more than one person could possibly see without a time machine. Although my name often appears here, it was with the focused efforts — and willingness to overcome technological challenges — that a big group of new bloggers covered novelists, celebrities, memoirists, prizewinners, science fiction, real science, California history, sports, new technologies and more. Big thanks to Cecil Castellucci, Chris Daley, George Ducker, John Fox, Lori Kozlowski, Stephanie Harnett, Michelle Maltais, Nick Owchar, Kelsey Ramos, Heather Robertson, Josh Sandoval, Lisa VanLund, Margaret Wappler, Leslie Wiggins and Lauren Williams for their work. And none of their posts would have gotten online without the superhuman efforts of Mary Forgione, who produced all of them with unflagging energy and enthusiasm from a secret bunker on UCLA's campus. Thanks, Mary.

Though the festival is over, we still have some reports left to share with you, on S.E. Hinton, Arianna Huffington's panel on the future of media and more. Stick around. And if you didn't get a chance yet, tell us — what are you reading?

— Carolyn Kellogg

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To live and write in L.A.

Ben EhrenreichFestival of BooksFictionSteve Erickson


Ten minutes after the designated start time Sunday, the panel members of “Fiction: L.A. Writes the World” still hadn’t shown up, and I started wondering if I could write a post if a panel never occurred, a la “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” where the author writes a whole piece about never getting an interview with Ol' Blue Eyes.

Thankfully, they arrived. Ben Ehrenreich moderated a discussion between Chris Abani (“Graceland,” “The Virgin of Flames”), Steve Erickson (“Zeroville,” “Our Ecstatic Days”) and Rachel Kushner (“Telex From Cuba”) (pictured, left to right). Unlike other panels that spend half an hour promoting the authors’ latest works, they dove right into the topic, with Abani and Erickson lending the talk a decidedly academic tone.

Ehrenreich parsed the panel title into two parts: What it means to write in Los Angeles, and what it means that the world has been written by Los Angeles.

All three authors compared Los Angeles and New York. “L.A. doesn’t impose the same kind of civic identity as New York,” Erickson said. In his view, writers who live in New York are New York writers, but writers who live in Los Angeles are not Los Angeles writers. He also refused to identify himself as an L.A. writer.

Erickson said that many of his books start in L.A., then move on. New York fiction asks, “Why would you want to leave here?” while Erickson said that his Los Angeles fiction asks, “Why would you want to stay here?”

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Too many books and too hard to market them?

David KipenFestival of BooksKit RachlisNEAPublishing


In contrast to another Festival of Books panel, "Publishing 3.0," "Publishing: The Big Picture" on Saturday focused less on how new developments (in social media, in algorithmic software) can be adapted to publishing and more on how publishing can adapt to current economic and industry uncertainty. The panel, moderated by Kit Rachlis of Los Angeles Magazine, featured George Gibson (independent publisher), David Kipen (NEA director of literature) and Bonnie Nadell (“great American literary agent”) (above, with Rachlis, right).

The panelists initially discussed whether the publishing crisis is like the newspaper crisis, which stems from a fundamental change in reading habits, or like the magazine crisis, which is due to sensitivity to cyclical recession. Some combination of the two seemed to be the consensus.

Some core problems were identified: too many books being published each year, increasingly complicated distribution models, industry domination by international conglomerates and fewer traditional media opportunities to market new books.

Nadell compared the volume of new books to going to a restaurant with a giant menu and being too overwhelmed to choose anything but the blandest item. This idea can be connected to a later discussion of distribution in big-box stores.

To earn shelf space at WalMart, a book already needs to be a bestseller. Rachlis described how other chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, require a pay-to-play model, in which publishers must pay for the best placement in stores, leaving small publishers at a disadvantage. Other traditional venues for publicity – National Public Radio, newspaper book reviews – have been switching to an increasingly non-fiction menu, leaving fiction at a disadvantage.

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Johnny Temple of Akashic Books on subversion and the future

AkashicJohnny TempleL.A. Times Festival of Books


Johnny Temple, the publisher and co-founder of Akashic Books, was on Sunday’s panel “Publishing: From Keyboard to Bookstore,” and at the independent publisher's booth the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Akashic has published books by Joe Meno and Nina Revoyr, Robert Scheer and, recently, a book of poetry from Ryan Adams called “Infinity Blues.” Temple took a few minutes to speak with us behind the long impromptu Broadway of the festival's exhibitor booths.

Jacket Copy: Are there any ways a smaller publisher can subvert the larger book publishers? To work the currents as a raft in an ocean of big, hulking vessels?

Johnny Temple: It’s nice that we’re not beholden to any corporations or any financial institutions, so the problem of declining book sales is not compounded with any problems in terms of our funding. The challenge for us is to create new kinds of income streams. We’re moving more quickly to digitize our books. We’ve got them in the Kindle format, on Amazon. Finally the digital format is getting traction. We’re looking for ways to do more direct business from our website. We started doing pre-orders for Ryan Adams’ new poetry collection. His fans were really excited that he had a book coming out, so we released a chapbook that was available as a pre-order. We gave a select number of fans something that they could only get from us, and that helped to generate a pretty giant success for us -- at least giant on our scale. With Mike Farrell’s new book, “Of Mule and Man,” we created a limited edition that we’re using not only to make money for Akashic but also as a political fundraising tool for justice organizations like, for example, Death Penalty Focus.

JC: Your “Noir” series has done very well while managing to spout a long chain of localized editions. How did it go from one book to a whole series?

JT: It all started with “Brooklyn Noir.” Tim McLaughlin, the editor of that book, pitched the book to me, and through discussions back and forth, we actually came up with the concept of “Brooklyn Noir:” a bunch of different stories by different authors set in different neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Common wisdom is that anthologies don’t sell, but it sold very well (or well for us) and the concept was easy to then extend to other cities. Every city we went to, we were greeted with open arms. There are now 30 books in print and we’re doing more and more international titles set in Istanbul, Rome, Paris, Copenhagen. In the fall, we’re publishing “Boston Noir” edited by Dennis Lehane, so that’s something I’m really looking forward to. 

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Michael J. Fox talks about Parkinson's -- and optimism

L.A. Festival of BooksMichael J. Fox


People started lining up three hours in advance to see Michael J Fox speak today at the Times Festival of Books.

Shortly after Fox began his discussion with L.A. Times TV critic Mary McNamara, an audience member collapsed and needed first aid. The woman regained consciousness, and Fox resumed discussion of his new book “Always Looking Up.”

Fox hasn't let his battle with Parkinson’s disease get him down; he has chosen instead to focus his life on optimism and dealing with his condition. “I didn’t have a choice in whether or not I got Parkinson’s,” Fox said. “But I have a thousand other choices beyond that.”

Fox also seems to have kept his sense of humor from his days on the TV show “Family Ties.” At one point in the discussion, he compared his rocking and shaking to a move by musician Axl Rose. He also had the audience laughing at his jokes and stories--like the time he told his wife that he was never going to finish his book on optimism.

Fox also discussed his initial resistance to becoming a poster boy for Parkinson’s, but he explained how he created his own take on the matter. “I help organize what holds the poster up,” Fox said. “I can back up what the poster says, so I don’t mind being on that poster.”

When listening to Fox make statements like “when every moment is in negotiation, you value it,” even a person like me, a Type One diabetic, realizes that he or she is not the only one with problems. It’s all in how you deal with those problems that matters.

Joshua Sandoval

Photo: Michael J. Fox, in an earlier photo. Credit: Associated Press

What are you reading? Tell us.

Festival of Booksvideowhat are you reading

This weekend, tell us what you're reading. Look for the L.A. Times booth at the Festival of Books and take your turn in front of the video camera. Are you reading something new and sexy? A classic? A book to your kids?

And if you're too shy to pose for our camera people, shoot your own images -- still or video -- and upload them to Your Scene.

Look for all of them here at Jacket Copy during -- and after -- this weekend's Festival of Books.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

'Outsiders' who bring us comfort

Aimee BenderL.A. Times Book FestivalMary Gaitskilloutsiders


For anyone growing up slightly frightened and unsure of the world, literature can serve as an escape route and a place of discovery. We can connect to those perfect little phrases that elegantly get to the center of how we feel and to the characters that reflect back our own experiences in new and exciting ways. Books and stories are like secret messages from authors, coded with meaning: “Don’t worry, we understand. You are not alone.”

At the fiction panel "Exiles and Outsiders" on Sunday at the Festival of Books, authors Mary Gaitskill, Aimee Bender, Dylan Landis and Giocanda Belli — four female writers described by moderator Donna Rifkind as “not authors you can feel neutral about” — discussed their work and their use of their perceptions as outsiders to connect with readers.

The definition of an outsider shifted from the isolation of literal exile — Belli, who explores the mythic original exiles Adam and Eve in her book “Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve” experienced it keenly in war-torn Nicaragua — to the perceived alienation of being human, which Belli says comes from “being limited by our own bodies.”

 “You can’t constantly belong,” said author and professor Bender. The women agreed that the process of writing involves stepping outside of characters and situations to observe and communicate with fresh eyes what would normally be taken for granted.

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Steve Lopez's 'The Soloist': The journey from print to film

"The Soloist"L.A. Times Book FestivalNathaniel AyersRobert Downey Jr.Steve Lopez


Social dramas are usually low on the Hollywood pitch list, but “The Soloist” was a story that went from one newspaper column to a series of columns, to a book, and finally to a movie that was released Friday, which clearly resonated with the nearly 1,200 people who attended a panel about the movie at today's Los Angeles Times' Festival of Books. 

A self-described “angry dinosaur” of journalism, L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez initially regarded  homeless street performer Nathaniel Anthony Ayers with a reporter's constantly watchful eye, thinking his story would just fill another deadline.

“I didn’t think [a movie] was possible,” Lopez told the crowd. But it was -- and discussing the transition from a newspaper column to a Hollywood production were Ben Hong, the music adviser for the movie, Gary Foster, one of the film’s co-producers, and Lopez, with film critic Ella Taylor moderating.

No, newspaper movies aren’t exactly being made left and right, but the essential appeal behind Lopez and Ayers’ story made sense for Hollywood: “It’s a human story about two men finding a common bond,” Foster said.

“It has a 'There but for the grace of God go I' element,” Lopez noted. “It’s a story of second chances.”

The movie was based on Lopez’s "Points West" column and life as he was writing about his encounters with Ayers, but there were a few creative liberties taken in the movie. 

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James Ellroy's explosive words -- tapping his inner noir perhaps?

" L.A. Times Book Festival"Blood's a RoverJames Ellroy


The L.A. Times’ Patt Morrison gave the audience appropriate warning before James Ellroy’s loud and expletive-filled speech at the Book Festival today: “Seat belts fastened low and tight? All right, you’re gonna need 'em.”

Ellroy didn't disappoint. The crime writer, whom Morrison called a “snazzy and dapper fellow,” thanked the audience for coming out, rather than staying home to tend to their “sex lives and drug habits.” He opened with his trademark crowd welcome to the “peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps.” 

And then he exploded with a rather hard-to-follow speech, calling his forthcoming book "Blood's a Rover"  “the greatest novel since the Holy Bible.” The book covers the years 1968 to 1972 and characters such as Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, as well as events in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

John Wray, author of “Lowboy,” was at the panel and said he found it “hilarious and stupid in equal measure, but one thing it wasn’t was boring. … Ellroy is the type of almost obscenely larger-than-life personality that the book business doesn’t have enough of right now.”

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