Thursday, May 1, 2008

Finalist Pamela Erens on LA Times Book Prize Events

by Pamela Erens

(Pamela's novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. The prize events and the LA Times Festival of Books took place from the evening of Friday, April 25 to Sunday, April 27, 2008. I invited Pamela to talk about her experience during the events. See also an interview with Pamela last month on this blog. – Xujun)

One of the things I was most anticipating about the Los Angeles Times Book Prize events and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was the chance to meet and get to know zillions of other writers. And one thing I learned during the evening and day that I was able to attend (unfortunately I had to fly home early on Day Two of the two-day festival) was that many writers are as fundamentally shy and socially inhibited as I am.

The awards/festival folks did their best to provide us Book Prize nominees with numerous chances to meet-and-greet: a pre-prize ceremony dinner, a post-ceremony reception, an “Authors Green Room” at the festival with an unending buffet of salad and desserts—but as far as I could tell, most of us hung together in small clumps, desperately glomming onto the few people we already knew, or had thankfully gotten introduced to by some mutual acquaintance. Still, with that many writers around, one couldn’t help but meet a few people. So I’ll report on that in just a minute.

There were nine prize categories: Biography, Current Interest, Fiction, First Fiction, History, Mystery/Thriller, Poetry, Science & Technology, and Young Adult Fiction. The pre-prize ceremony dinner mixed the nominees with interested parties from the “outside” (also known as “real”) world who simply enjoy reading and wanted a chance for some book chat. When the time came we all shuttled over to the prize ceremony at beautiful Royce Hall at UCLA. I was startled by the sheer size of the audience, and also by the fact that my face was periodically flashed on a large screen above the stage as a continuous video loop scrolled through the nominees’ books and persons.

I was attending with an old friend of mine, Brian Alexander, a wonderful writer and the author of the recently published America Unzipped (a hilarious and informative read about the state of sex in this country; I highly recommend it). We were seated in the very first row of the huge auditorium—so picture being at the movie theater and having to lean back to see the goings-on. A silver-haired woman was seated to my left and in the tunnel vision engendered by my nervousness I didn’t realize until the ceremony was just about underway that it was Maxine Hong Kingston, the guest of honor that night. Kingston had earlier been announced as the recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award, given to a living author who has made a significant contribution to the literature of the American West. By that time it was too late to turn to her and tell her that I’d read The Woman Warrior when I was 15 years old and that it was one of the books that showed me how beautiful and powerful literature could be. I did manage to blurt out a few words to that effect after the ceremony.

The presenting judges did an admirable job of summing up each book in a few brief, smart sentences. The two acceptance speeches that struck me most were Elizabeth Samet’s and Tim Weiner’s. Samet, who won in Current Interest for Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, talked of the challenges of teaching literature to young men and women who may soon be facing combat. Weiner captured the History category with Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and warned that the decline in newspaper readership in this country could result before long in our government becoming the primary purveyor of news and information. “Don’t let that happen,” he urged. In my category the prize was taken by Dinaw Mengestu, who battled jet lag all through the long evening due to his recent arrival from Paris, but who graciously accepted for The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a novel about three immigrant African men in Washington, D.C., and the white woman with a biracial child who becomes a neighbor of one of them.

Afterward we were treated to a reception on a big terrace with the Santa Ana winds blowing over us and a chocolate fountain inside in case we got a serious jones. I stood in my very high heels as long as I could bear it and then crawled back to my hotel for bed.

The next day, the first of the Festival, was very hot, but that didn’t stop the astonishingly large crowds. There was panel after wonderful panel, but I had various obligations to meet and so I’m embarrassed to say I missed all of them except, at the end of the day, my own (again, I flew home first thing Sunday and so had no chance to catch that day’s offerings). I appeared with Antonia Arslan and Ellen Litman, two of the other First Fiction finalists. Antonia’s novel, Skylark Farm, takes place during the Armenian genocide of 1915. It was written originally in Italian and has been translated into well over a dozen other languages so far (a Hungarian version has just appeared). Antonia, who is of both Italian and Armenian background, spoke movingly about hearing fragments of family stories about the massacre all of her life but not feeling as if she could tackle the material until late in her career as a professor of Italian literature at the University of Padua.

Ellen, the craftswoman behind The Last Chicken in America, a story collection about the lives of immigrant Russians in Pittsburg, explained the ways in which immigration changes a family’s dynamics and can make its members feel even amidst American abundance that “there is never enough.” (The panel was supposed to include Rebecca Curtis, a finalist for the story collection Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money, but she got sick and couldn’t attend.) Our panel moderator, Carolyn Kellogg (of the blog Pinky’s Paperhaus), kept thing bubbling along. Each of us read a short excerpt from our nominated work and I tried to make it sound like my book about an incredibly isolated and repressed man was really a ripping good yarn.

All right, here’s who else I did get to talk to at least briefly over the weekend:

*the affable Stewart O’Nan, who was staying in my hotel and with whom I swapped comments about New Haven’s crappy airport. O’Nan was a finalist in the “big” Fiction category for his novel Last Night at the Lobster.

*Marianne Wiggins, a co-finalist with O’Nan for The Shadow Catcher (the winner in the Fiction category was Andrew O’Hagen, for Be Near Me). Wiggins was warm and wonderful and made me feel simply very happy to be at the festivities.

* Daniel Smail, finalist in Science & Technology, who explained what in the world his book On Deep History and the Brain was about (answer: something very interesting).

* Mark Sarvas of the indispensable blog The Elegant Variation, who’s been wowing people with his new novel, Harry, Revised.

* Cecil Castellucci (Beige, The Plain Janes), whose name is pronounced Cee-cil, not Sess-il

* James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, My Dark Places), who opined on how much he hates it when people use the word “like.”

* the poet Stuart Dischell (Good Hope Road, Dig Safe). We talked about Joisey—as in New. (He was born there, and it’s my adopted state.)

* the irrepressible mystery/thriller writer Ake Edwardson (finalist for Frozen Tracks), who explained to my friend Brian and me how the Bronx got its name (it had to do with a Swedish explorer).

* the lovely poet Jean Valentine, finalist for her collection Little Boat, who offered to share her LA Times with me by the hotel pool.

* David Bell, finalist in History for The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. I tried to cover up my complete and shameful ignorance of the Napoleonic Wars by telling him (truthfully, of course!) that recently I had begun reading War and Peace. Bell revealed that Tolstoy is an historically faithful and insightful chronicler of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.

* Lisa Fugard (Skinner’s Drift), one of last year’s First Fiction finalists and a panelist this year, who was dining with her adorable son.

* Laila Lalami (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits), who moderated the panel “Not So Ordinary People” with Tony Early, Dinaw Mengestu, Stewart O’Nan, and Ann Packer.

* Babes in Paradise and The God of War author Marisa Silver, who was one of the judges for the First Fiction prize and to whom (along with fellow judges Susan Straight and Robert Roper) I am forever grateful.

Oh, yeah, I mistook Charles Bock for a salesclerk at Vroman’s Bookstore. You’d think I might have noticed the tall stacks of Beautiful Children that he was sitting next to and signing. It must have been the 90-degree heat. He was very nice about it, so I’m going out to buy his book tomorrow.


Myfanwy Collins said...

Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Glad you enjoyed it too, Myf. I thought it's a very informative post.

Kay Sexton said...

I just tagged you Xujun, all the details are on my blog!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Neat. Thanks, Kay!

Cihan said...

thank you for your contribute.