For the past six years, I’ve spent the last weekend of April sweating (or avoiding rain) inside a plastic tent at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. This year my organization didn’t have a booth, meaning that I was free to roam, which was cool but also like waking up from one of those dreams where you have to take algebra again and didn’t know you were enrolled until the day of the final. I kept having to remind myself, No, I’m not working. I’m not due back at the booth to take over Jamie’s shift.
I did spend some time hanging out at the Manic D/Gorsky Press/Poetry Flash booth, home of brightly colored table cloths and some good indie reading. (I’m biased, but I’m also telling the truth.)
Panels are always a bit of a gamble—I’ve seen so many on publishing and L.A. lit that no matter how good the panelists are, I usually end up wanting to claw my eyes out. So I try to steer clear of those now. But I saw a lovely fiction panel with Susan Straight, David Benioff (who taught us how to swear in Russian: I shit in the soup of your mother!) and Achy Obejas, whose novel Ruins is now next in my reading queue.
And on Sunday I saw a lively (read: there was fighting, kind of) panel with Mary Gaitskill, Aimee Bender, Dylan Landis and Gioconda Belli. It was a jackpot of a lineup with an interesting combination of personalities: Gioconda was all, “Live! Live your life, then you will have something to write about” in her beautiful Nicaraguan accent. Aimee Bender maintained her reputation in my mind as an incredibly nice writer with a relaxed SoCal vibe (“She’s our people,” AK whispered). Mary Gaitskill was kind of ice queen-ish, or maybe she just lacked that female tendency to try to put people at ease.
Whatever it was, she had no problem telling the moderator she didn’t want to answer certain questions or telling Gioconda she was wrong. But she was honest and brilliant, and I really appreciated when she addressed the topic—exiles and outsiders—by saying (I’m paraphrasing), “All of the writers up here might all feel like outsiders because we’re shy or have struggled to fit in, but none of us are real outsiders. Even literal exiles like Gioconda have found new communities where they are insiders. Real outsiders don’t have their books published. They’re standing in the streets screaming to themselves.”
I.e., don’t get all I’m-an-exile just because people called you names in high school, you know? Writing is about being both an insider and an outsider and capturing the experience of both.
Then Aimee Bender said some equally amazing things and confirmed my belief that you can be friendly and brilliant at the same time. It’s always good to be reminded that I should cultivate my knowledge, not my aura of disaffectation. The latter wasn’t going very well anyway.