How to Bookfest Pt. 1: LA Times Festival of Books 2016

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This weekend kicked off LA's bookfest season. AND WE SO EXCITE.

A few days ago I got the iPhone notification that I'd set up threemonthsagowhateverit'snotimportant, I almost had a stroke* because I had not yet planned out my day author-panel-by-author-panel. Also, 90% chance of rain all day? No problem. I am a strong, independent nerd who don't need no umbrella.

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The LA Times Festival of Books takes place annually on my alma mater's campus (University of Southern California), and yesterday, it was indeed raining on and off all day. NEVERTHELESS, I woke up and bounded majestically to the nearest Metro station in my neon blue raincoat, and hopped the Gold Line with my camera to document this beautiful day.

(Here I should add that I did not consider that wearing neon blue on the Metro is, like, not the best way to lie low. But I had my David Sedaris book and my headphones and honestly, I only saw one poorly dressed circus clown, two dudes blazed out of their minds, and one guy selling questionable churros, so all in all, not a bad time.)

I arrived exactly 10 minutes before my first panel, and campus was all but deserted. Like a typical non-native, I had forgotten that a little drizzle keeps all Angelenos from doing things. I was in the middle of thinking about this when I made eye contact with a girl who was carrying her considerably sizable dog down the sidewalk. We looked at each other, and she gave me a nod that said, Yes, my purebred puppy cannot be bothered to walk on the wet ground. 

Shockingly, still not the most Los Angeles thing that I saw all day.


PANEL: Aaron Hartzler (Moderator), Monica Hesse, Laura Amy Schlitz, Ruta Sepetys

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First panel of the day was about historical fiction in YA. Aaron Hartzler—who is quite possibly my favorite moderator purely because he always reminds me of a really happy Pomeranian sticking its head out of a car window—started off asking each author to describe her book.

Laura Amy Schlitz began talking about her new book The Hired Girlwhich is set in 1912, but ended up off on a fabulous mini-rant about women in the workforce that included the phrase "WOMEN ARE THE WORKFORCE" and which immediately made me love her.

Ruta Sepetys, who is ridiculously well-spoken, talked about being drawn to stories about strength through struggle. She then explained why she is drawn to writing about the "hidden stories" that have been tucked away or omitted from our textbooks, asking, "Why is it that some parts of history penetrate our collective consciousness and some remain hidden?"

On the broader topic of YA, Monica Hesse said, "The characters in my novel don't do anything that teens today wouldn't do. Being a teenager is already a really high-stakes time; you're deciding who you're going to be for the rest of your life."

Sepetys jumped in. "And what is it like to be a teen amidst war, and then inherit a heartache that you had nothing to do with?" She also admitted that when she was about to write her most recent novel, Salt to the Sea,she essentially told her publisher that she was going to write a book where everyone dies.

Woman after my own heart.


PANEL: Brandy Colbert (moderator), Peter Rock, Shaun David Hutchinson, Sean McGinty

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I got to this panel late, coming from the HiSTORY panel, but I <3 Brandy Colbert, so I walked back across campus in the rain because my love is real.

They were already at the Q&A portion, so I sat through a few questions about getting over writer's block and advice for young writers, before Shaun Hutchinson piped up and told us that he wakes up at 5am to write every day, then goes to his full-time job, then comes back at night and edits (if he has brain left to do it), and because of this his partner will say things like, "I haven't seen you in 2 weeks!"

Then all the non-writers in the audience laughed.

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At this point, my friend and fellow writer Emily (E.R.) Warren texted me to let me know that she was somewhere on campus. We decided to meet up, and then completely missed each other as I went off to stand in line for the Cassandra Clare conversation.



I stood in this for all of 20 minutes in order to save my spot in line, knowing that I once woke up at 5am and stood outside a theatre in London in freezing sleet for three hours to get £5 tickets and can therefore do anything.

12:30PM: Cassandra Clare in conversation with Alex Cohen

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Thanks to the uber-efficient volunteers, we were all crammed together in the seats of Bovard Auditorium like damp, shivering sardines. Then Clare came on stage and we all promptly forgot to be miserable because the woman is basically what I imagine a rainbow might look like in human form.

She started talking about first projects, and said her first novel was called The Beautiful Cassandra, in which her main character would meet a man, kiss him, and then he would die. Then the character would meet more men, kiss them, and they'd die. This novel grew to be about 1,000 pages long. Which, when you think about it, is a lot of dead men.

I should admit that I have never read The Mortal Instrumentsseries, though I have seen the movie, so I was listening to her as an outsider to the fandom. I still loved her. But it also struck me that there's a huge difference between the way authors who have a small, cult-like readership talk about their books, and the way authors like Clare who have mega-bestsellers with a movie adaptation and a TV show spinoff talk about theirs.

Clare, for example, very plainly called certain characters in her books "good" and "evil," and I found myself wondering whether this is how she's always thought about her characters, or if it was a result of being exhausted of constantly having to explain the nuances of good and evil and human identity to Hollywood and her 560,000 Twitter followers.

...I digress.

She talked a lot about how her most recent book Lady Midnight was an ode to Los Angeles in a similar way that The Mortal Instruments was an ode to New York City and The Infernal Deviceswas an ode to London—all cities she lived in and fell in love with.

She also mentioned that she gets hung up on details in stories, like how in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Angel has these leather pants that he only wears when he's evil. "Where does he put the pants when he's not evil?" she wondered into the microphone. "This kind of thing really bothers me."


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I was resisting the food trucks on campus, but after sitting through Clare's discussion of  Angel and his evil leather pants, I found myself so ravenous that I caved and bought a $10 to-go box of tofu bun from this Vietnamese truck that was moderately obsessed with Star Wars.

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Sidenote: its menu took the award as being the most Los Angeles thing I saw all day.


It began to pour rain again, so I ended up hiding in the $5 paperback tent until my next panel, where I found a somewhat beat-up copy of Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting by 7's

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PANEL: Anthony Breznican (moderator), Robin Benway, Julie Buxbaum, Jason Reynolds, Nicola Yoon

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By far the best panel I went to all day. I hadn't read any of these authors' work, but by the end of the panel, I'd made up my mind to buy all of their books. That good.

Anthony Breznican asked each author about the "missing pieces" in each of their books, and Robin Benway (Emmy & Oliver) didn't beat around the bush; as someone who wrote a book about a kidnapped child finally returning home as a teenager, she talked about how trauma continues to affect us even after the traumatizing event. "You hear these stories of kidnapped kids returned home and think, 'Case closed.' But I don't think that's the case at all. Coming back is like being kidnapped all over again."

Julie Buxbaum, whose book Tell Me Three Things just came out this week, said that she was interested in whether communicating solely with words on paper or online can still yield a real relationship. Her book, about a high school girl who forms a relationship with an anonymous emailer, is her most personal book yet, and is based on an encouraging email she got when she was in her 20s and struggling to adult.

"Julie has received the only kind anonymous email ever sent," Breznican announced.

Jason Reynolds talked first about The Boy in the Black Suitabout a grieving boy who becomes addicted to funeral-crashing, saying, "Adults always try to minimize young people's pain. After your daughter's first heartbreak, what do you tell her? 'It's okay, there are plenty of fish in the sea,' which is probably the worst thing you can say. My goal with this story was to write something that says, hey, your pain is real and it won't just go away. Because that's life, that's grief."

He then went on to explain that his most recent novel, All-American Boys (co-authored with Brendan Kiely) came out of his frustration with police brutality—"Which, in case you didn't know, is a thing that is happening right now in America."—and his hesitation to speak frankly about it, due to the politically correct Rules of Adulting. On writing the book with Kiely, he said, "I trusted him. You and I don't have to be the same person, we just have to find the touchstones. That's relationship."

Nicola Yoon, author of Everything, Everything about a 17-year-old girl with an immunodeficiency disorder, told us how she was inspired by having her first child and feeling desperately over-protective of her. "How close is too close to try to hold someone?" she asked.

Yoon also talked about how she got the idea to illustrate her book during one of her 4am writing sessions, and so she woke up her illustrator husband David and asked him to draw her the Hawaiian state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a.

I'm pretty sure we're all just looking for someone who will wake up at 4am to draw us a fish.


PANEL: Nicole Maggi (moderator), Cecelia AhernElissa Sussman, Cindy PonSusan Dennard

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Again, got to this panel late, but finally found Emily Warren sitting quietly in the on-again-off-again rain in a red jacket and cat-print tote bag that I secretly coveted from afar.

...guess it's not a secret anymore.

We listened to someone ask a question about writing diversity in YA and watched every author on the panel immediately turn to Cindy Pon—who is, to be fair, the co-founder of Diversity in YA and is on the advisory committee of the We Need Diverse Books movement. "Pass," Pon joked, before launching into an answer that touched on cultural sensitivity and the responsibility of writers to do the legwork of intense research and constant listening to social experiences that differ from theirs.

All of this was great, except for the fact that most of the other authors let that question go right by them. Which, if I hadn't still been on a high from the previous panel, would have irritated me, but I instead channeled my energy into book-buying. Emily and I walked to the nearest YA bookstore tent where I dropped $40 on two hardcovers written by the authors from the Missing Pieces panel.

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Then Emily and I went off-campus for boba. Emily—who will be soon be a PhD student at USC—ranted about how the term "cultural appropriation" has entered our lexicon incorrectly, and the term we're actually looking for is "intercultural diffusion," which totally confirmed my nerd-crush on her brain. Let it be known that I texted her before I posted this because I am now extraordinarily paranoid.

Somehow, we ended up off on an hour-long tangent about the ethics of profiting from fanfiction, the political landscape of "The Game of the Thrones" as Emily affectionately calls it, and how we've convinced the men in our lives to watch Outlander. I went off the rails a little bit in defense of the YA and Romance genres and my general outrage at the idea that in our culture, having a primarily female fanbase apparently invalidates the loved thing. Emily listened politely as I preached to the choir.

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Meanwhile, it stopped raining outside, and we both took the Metro back home. At some point, I got on the wrong train. It was great.

Today is Day 2 of Bookfest, but I will not be attending, partly because I am exhausted, and partly because I can't afford to purchase more books before my next paycheck and I lack self-restraint.


BUT. YALLWEST is in three weeks, you guys. Three. Weeks.

* I should also say that I've live-blogged the LA Times Bookfest before which, coincidentally, also nearly gave me a stroke. We do not speak of this, except to mention that time Laurie Halse Anderson told me to call her Auntie Laurie, which I'm apparently still talking about, two years later.

I am queen of Nervous Interactions With People I Admire, but I'm proud to say that this is maybe the first bookfest where I didn't try to vomit rainbows all over a writer I love.

What's your most memorable author-signing or bookfest experience?