My weekend in L.A.

I attended the L.A. Times Festival of Books last weekend. Short version: It was fun and I had a great time.

Longer version: I flew down on Friday, on Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines, let us state clearly, has an above-average safety record, but because they had a fatal crash in 2000, the same year Lisa and I moved to Seattle, and because that crash was attributed to poor maintenance and oversight, I persist in thinking of it as the deadliest airline in the Pacific Northwest (yes, Alaska Airlines PR department, I realize this is horribly unfair and irrational, I’m a mindless sheep, deal with it). Adding to the perception of risk was the fact that I was sharing the flight with a high-school sports team, which, if God happens to be in a joking mood, is like a giant bull’s-eye on the fuselage.

Miraculously, we did not explode in midair. There was a moment on final approach to LAX when I noticed some kind of smoke/vapor passing over the wings and thought, “Hm, fire in the cargo compartment?” But no, it was just smog. Hello, Los Angeles!

Friday night I went to the SoCal Mystery Writers of America party at Skylight Books, a great indie bookstore in Los Feliz. Among other nice people I met Steph Cha, lawyer by day/novelist by night, whose first book, Follow Her Home, is being published by St. Martin’s Press early next year. She’s in the middle of copyediting right now, and we bonded over our shared unorthodox notions about usage and punctuation. (Yeah, like you don’t have a opinion on commas.)

Saturday morning was my discussion panel, “Seeing the Light.” It turns out the Festival has this tradition of making up panel names and leaving it to the participants to decide what the panels are actually about. Our moderator, Mary Otis, did her best to tease out shared themes of mystery, enlightenment, and transcendence, but really it was three authors talking about their work for an hour, which the audience seemed perfectly fine with. My co-panelists were Janet Fitch, author of Paint it Black and White Oleander, and Alex Shakar, whose novel Luminarium just won the L.A. Times Book Prize for fiction. (Alex also gets the prize for biggest reversal of fortune: This is a dude who sold his first novel for a six-figure sum, only to get hit by a double whammy when (a) his editor died, and (b) his book tour, scheduled to begin on September 13, 2001, was preempted by Al Qaeda. I didn’t get to hang out with him as long as I would have liked, but he struck me as a good guy, so it’s great to see him getting another shot at recognition. Check out his book, it sounds really interesting.)

Saturday afternoon I went to see Judy Blume get interviewed onstage at Bovard Auditorium. I’m a Blume fan from back in the day, but I don’t think I’d ever heard her life story before: Married and with two kids by age 25, feeling like something was missing, she started writing in her spare time and became one of the most successful authors in history. Now 74 (!), she’s been at it long enough to have multiple generations of fans. During the audience Q&A, there were middle-aged readers bursting into tears as they described how much her books had meant to them, and little kids barely tall enough to reach the microphones begging her for one more Fudge novel.

Saturday night was the Young Literati’s Book Drop Bash—aka the Socially Anxious Introverts’ Mixer—at the L.A. Central Library. I chatted with Greg and Astrid Bear for a while, then introduced myself to John Scalzi. That led, in turn, to the most surreal moment of the entire Festival, in which I found myself sitting around a table in the kid’s lit section of the library with Scalzi, Lev Grossman, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumnus Amber Benson. It was pretty late in the evening by that point, so my main contribution to the conversation was to restrain myself from blurting out “HOLY SHIT, AMBER BENSON!” but it’s these small acts of self-control that make civilization possible.

My Sunday event was a book signing at the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore booth. It turns out The Mirage is Mysterious Galaxy’s book club pick this month, and when I asked if they’d like me to join in the book discussion via Skype, they said yes. So if you missed seeing me at the Festival, here’s another chance. The meeting is this Saturday, April 28, starting at noon, at Mysterious Galaxy’s Redondo Beach location (2810 Artesia Blvd. Redondo Beach, CA).

Sunday afternoon I roamed around the Festival grounds. I bumped into my pal Aimee Bender, and met (and got a big hug from) Tayari Jones, one of my favorite new NEA Fellows.

And then it was time to go see the “Nerds Shall Inherit the Earth” panel, co-starring the aforementioned Amber Benson and John Scalzi, along with Maureen Johnson and Pamela Ribon. I’d been told in advance by several people that Maureen Johnson is hysterically funny, and also that she “has crazy eyes”, and both those things are absolutely true, but the funniest moment of the show belonged to Pam Ribon. Asked what nerdtastic thing she was most obsessed with right now, she said she had discovered a hidden YouTube genre of girl/horse breakup videos. The actual videos are kinda sad (well, some of them), but what had the audience falling out of their chairs was Pam’s explanation of why adolescent girls are so drawn to horses in the first place (paraphrasing from memory here, with emphasis added): “It’s this big, muscular thing that you can ride, like your Dad, while you transition towards your first adult relationship with a man or a woman.” To get the full effect, you have to picture John Scalzi rearing back in horror, while Maureen Johnson rests on her elbows, one eyebrow arched, giving this sideways look that says, “Well now, I wasn’t aware this panel would include discussion of unnatural acts.”

…and that was pretty much a wrap on the Festival. I took a last pass through the grounds, caught the shuttle back to my hotel, downloaded a copy of Pamela Ribon’s Going in Circles to my iPad, ordered room service, and crashed. Monday’s flight home—on Alaska, with a middle-school orchestra filling up the rows behind me—was uneventful. We even landed a little early.

Thanks L.A., that was fun. See you next time.

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