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Festival of Books: Jerry Stahl and others on the book-to-screen trick

April 21, 2012 |  2:13 pm

Jerrystahl_benstillerWar stories can really pack a room -- particularly when told by four successful writers who span the tumultuous, ever-shifting landscapes of Hollywood and the print publishing establishment.

As such, the “Page and Screen” panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Saturday -- featuring Jerry Stahl, April Smith, Stephen Jay Schwartz and Ned Vizzini talking about writing for both worlds -- was packed. (We counted just seven empty seats by the event’s end.) All especially surprising, given the panel started bright and early at 10:30 a.m.

Moderator John Sacret Young did a particularly adept job at drawing out the panelists’ yarns, which traversed typical terrain: breaking through Hollwood’s steel walls, adapting one’s own work versus having your baby-of-a-novel or memoir retold for the screen by someone else, reversion rights (or lack thereof), navigating general frustration and rejection. But the discussion wasn’t without a hefty and appropriate dose of humor.

Contractual and financial booby traps in the book-optioning process could prove less than lively fodder, for example. But when asked how much he was paid for his memoir, “Permanent Midnight,” Stahl spiced up the conversation: “Let’s just say that I could make more money assembling toilet seats in Guam,” he said. “When’s the next flight?”

Smith joked that Amazon might want to consider adding a button, on individual book pages, that reads: “Would you care to donate one dollar to the author?”

Still, Stahl,who writes for "CSI" among other TV shows, was appreciative of his career good fortune. “Thank God for Hollywood,” he said, “it pays for me to write the books.”

“I know we’re not supposed to make money writing novels, but I do,” said young adult author Vizzini, addressing Hollywood’s growing interest in the genre. He said YA can now address much more nuanced topics than in the past, like self-mutilation, drugs and depression. “The content has really expanded and that’s great to see,” Vizzini said.

Schwartz offered a bit of realism from the trenches of film development. In addition to novel writing, he spent years as Wolfgang Peterson’s director of development. Among his films are “Outbreak” and “Air Force One.” That experience fueled his career as a novelist, he said.

“Reading thousands of screenplays and working on all these projects gave me a great place to start from when writing my own novel,” he said. “I just wrote something I’d have been looking for when I was in the film world.”

When asked what advice the panelists had for fledgling novelists and screenwriters, Vizzini put it best -- and with the same characteristic humor that shot through the panel as a whole:

“Just take something that happened in your own life, add a love triangle and, um, fire,” he said.

-- Deborah Vankin

Photo: Jerry Stahl, right, in 2002 with Ben Stiller, who played him in the film version of "Permanent Midnight." Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

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