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A Day at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival

Poet Jevon Johnson - LA Times Book Festival
Poet Jevon Johnson – Spoken Word Performance
The Los Angeles Times Book Festival is the largest book event in California. It is speculated that 150,000 people come to the festival, located on the campus of USC, to partake of poetry, music, authors and celebrities. The event is a maze of author panels, book signings, book sellers, poetry readings and music that it would be easy to become lost in the sea of people and books, like drifting flotsam.

Although I’ve been a bibliophile most of my life, I have never attended a book festival before. When my writing friends spoke of forming a carpool to the event, I felt intrigued and eager to attend. There were four of us hearty souls on a journey of discovery, all piled into our friend’s comfortable van. On the way to Los Angeles, we spoke about tickets to the many events, which booths we wanted to visit and where we would meet up at the end of the day.

The weather was warm and sunny, but not with the bite of heat that Southern California is known for. I had armed myself with a wide brimmed sun-hat, plenty of sunscreen, and a backpack filled with granola bars and bottles of water. My day began at one of the ticket booths, gathering the needed print-outs to the panels I had selected to attend. Many had been marked as sold out on-line before the event, but I discovered that not only were the tickets free on walk up, but all the events that I thought I could not attend were now available. With undisguised greed, I accepted the free tickets before my friend and I rushed off to our first event.

As we hiked across the campus, I was reminded of my first days as a college freshman, my nose tucked in a map and a confused, lost expression on my face. My friend and I became misplaced near the poetry stage, where performance poets were reading for a small morning crowd and then wandered to a nearby book signing booth where volunteers were stacking novels in preparation of the first signings of the day. Books by Carol Burnett, the famous comedienne and actress were everywhere in the booth. At this point, we realized that we had gone the wrong way.

Making a quick course correction, we managed to slip into the back seats of our selected panel, Fiction: Setting and Story. The panelists were Jami Attenberg, Kevin P. Keating, Michael Lavigne and Maggie Shipstead. They spoke about how they developed the ideas for the settings of their novels and answered a few questions of the 200 or so attendees of their panel. It was not a writing workshop, more of an expression of what they did as authors and details about their books. Afterward, they were ushered by handlers to their book signing booth where I’m sure they sold many copies of their books to the audience.

I had a little time before the next panel started, so I stopped for lunch at the row of food trucks that had come to the campus that day. There was a wide selection of choices from burgers to pita sandwiches and salads. My friend and I managed to find a shady table in the pavilion set up on the campus track to enjoy our lunch. The springy feel of the track under my feet made me feel as if I could propel myself into flight; Only the best running surfaces for team USC.

I noticed there was a police presence assembling near the food trucks, mainly officers on horseback. Four of them had pulled up their horses in a row and were allowing two children to pet the horse’s noses. As I made a point to pass by in front of the horses, knowing better than to walk behind a horse’s rump, I noticed that in addition to the usual firearms, each officer had what appeared to be a sword near the pommel of their saddle. On closer inspection it proved to be a long ivory hued club with a carved hilt. Most curious. I had comic visions of LAPD officers, as samurai warriors, chasing evil doers at the festival with their wooden swords. Yet, I was also comforted by the officers presence due to the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. This was a large public event and it could be a terrorist target.

The next panel I attended proved to be my favorite of the day. It was entitled Fiction from the 22nd Century and featured science fiction authors: Austin Grossman, Scott Hutchins, Lydia Netzer and Robin Sloan. Again, this was not a writing workshop, but authors speaking about a topic as it pertained to their own writing. The topic was about how speculative fiction has changed from the golden age of science fiction to today, where authors do not attempt to predict what is to come, but instead explain the ramifications of science in our current lives. Being a science fiction writer, I found the topic to be quite applicable to my own writing and found myself eager to take notes with my fountain pen.

The next event was to hear author Orson Scott Card interviewed by Aaron Johnston. Two of Mr. Card’s novels are on my favorite list: Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. I ended up being disappointed by this interview because the author was extremely focused on the filming of his novel, Ender’s Game, and his day of playing a bit role in the movie instead of speaking about writing. Still, I was able to get a sense of the man’s personality and a few thoughts about how he viewed his writing and his career. I noticed that the authors that he listed as his greatest inspiration were the same as my own.

I caught the tail-end of the word stylings by Javon Johnson, two-time National Poetry Slam champion and USC Professor, who was performing his poetry on the main stage and getting the crowd involved with his act. The cadence of his words were comical and yet thought provoking.

There were an astounding number of book vendors selling every sort of book you could imagine on the pedestrian walkway under the shade trees. Booths that specialized in indie authors were the most numerous. There were also several writer’s groups that offered book signings by their members; Murder, We Wrote and the Independent Writers of Southern California were the two that caught my eye. Both are local writer’s groups in the Los Angeles area. The most attractive booth was the Jane Austen Society of North America who were selling fanfiction Austen titles and promoting their local chapter in Pasadena. Inside the booth were hung Regency style costumes and the tables were draped with lace. You could almost believe that Jane herself was about to appear for a book signing of Pride and Prejudice.

Authors DeAnna Cameron and Greta Boris
Authors DeAnna Cameron and Greta Boris
I ended my day at the booth of Red Phoenix Books. My friends Greta Boris and DeAnna Cameron were both holding book signings there. Greta writes non-fiction about fitness and DeAnna is a steampunk and historical fiction novelist. Both reported a busy day and plenty of visitors.

Red Phoenix Books is owned by Claudia Alexander, a scientist who publishes not only a range of science books aimed at children, but also several steampunk novels. I was pleased to have a chance to chat with Claudia about steam engines and how to better understand this technology when writing Steampunk fiction. There is nothing like having a JPL scientist to ask a few questions of.

By this time, the festival was winding to its close. One by one, our foursome met up at the Red Phoenix Booth. We returned to the valet parking station to retrieve our vehicle. Once more we journeyed on, out of the city and back home, each recounting different tales of our day at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival.