LA Times Festival of Books: My Experience & Writing Insights from Panels

On Saturday, August 20, I visited the LA Times Festival of Books for the first time ever despite it being held on my college campus every year. In my defense, I've never lived on campus, so it is easier to miss. I watched the tents get constructed for a week, and they're still getting torn down. But, finally, I made it for two panels on Saturday. I'd hoped to get to go to more, but I also decided to continue my very slow moving preparations last weekend, so I can only report back on two fantastic conversations. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into the wisdom offered by the attending authors, whose books you're probably already pretty familiar with if you read my blog often. 
I did also get one book signed. I'd just been gifted a copy of one of my favorites from last year, Ripe, so I was able to get it signed this weekend. I got to tell Sarah Rose Etter that I am obsessed with her prose and still reeling from the ending after months. I also bought a copy of Martyr! finally! 

Panel 1: Out of the Office

Featuring: Amy Wallen (moderator), Adelle Waldman, Molly McGhee, and Sarah Rose Etter

My first ever panel at the LA Times Festival of Books was one of my most anticipated. Sarah Rose Etter wrote one of my favorite books of last year (that I discovered in December so I'm still so not over it), Ripe, so I was super excited to see her speak. So, at noon, I got off the train, navigated my campus turned into a zoo, and got to the panel situated in a small theater at the cinema school. 

The idea of this panel was that all of these authors books center around workplaces and the comedies and dramas within them. For some context, Adelle Waldman, probably best known for her 2013 novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., has a new book called Help Wanted set in a big box store. Molly McGhee's debut novel Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind is about a man who takes a job auditing worker's dreams to remove the bad feelings and resentment about their jobs as a way to repay his debts, taking a more surreal approach to a workplace novel. Finally, Sarah Rose Etter's book, Ripe, takes place in San Fransisco centered around a woman named Cassie who takes a job at a tech start-up and slowly sinks into a horror world that is entirely too real. 

There wasn't too much talk of craft on this panel as the moderator asked a lot of personal and workplace-focused questions. There was plenty of interesting conversation that stemmed from this but less to report back on that would be useful to you as writers or readers. 

I did think that it was interesting hearing about the real world experiences that grounded all of these books. Wallen opened the conversation answering a question about her choice to work at a big box store between her novels and how that inspired Help Wanted. Wallen expressed that after the 2016 election, she felt a calling to write a more politically engaged, less psychological novel than her debut. She decided to get a "low wage job" for the first time since she worked summer jobs as a means of broadening her horizons and getting to know a broader array of people. She got a job at the Big Box Store (that consistently went nameless) of her choice by being willing to work the 4-8 a.m. shift unloading the trucks and stocking the store. She immediately knew that she wanted to write a novel in this kind of setting tapping into the "comedy and pathos." She had taken the job hoping to meet someone interesting enough to spark her next novel but instead found the overall duality of the fun she had at her job and with her coworkers against the depressing realities and economic hardships they faced being forced into unstable part-time work. 

These questions ultimately led to both Help Wanted and a New York Times op-ed. Later in the conversation she said, "I knew I was writing a book about the working poor" and noted that she particularly wanted to capture how funny and smart her coworkers were to grow past the common narrative of lack of agency. Part of that was injecting a sense of comedy into the book to engage readers. There was an awkward friction, though, between the authenticity of Wallen having submerged herself in the world of the big box store but the glaring reality that her motives came from an entirely different place than the characters she was writing and coworkers she was borrowing from. While capturing experiences beyond your own is a part of writing, something about the framing during this conversation just didn't sit super well with me. 

Etter also pulled heavily from her personal life in writing Ripe, so much so she had to extensively work with her publisher's legal department and significantly edit certain scenes to avoid being sued. Working in Silicon Valley gave her plenty of wild work experiences including a company bonding exercise modeled off the New York Times's 32 Questions to Fall In Love. It also gave her the realization that runs through Ripe that our parents' promises that if you have a job, everything will be okay and that it will lead to a house and stability. Especially post-pandemic there's been a shift in understanding that it's more sad than commendable when someone runs themselves into the ground in the name of a job. Etter admitted to occasionally scrolling through her Goodreads reviews and laughing at the comments that the events of the book are unrealistic. "You write what you see, and some of it is funny, and some of it is so fucking sad."

McGhee, for her part, working in a more speculative or surrealist world had less of a direct tie to her character's form of employment but pulled from her own bad job experience nonetheless. Having worked in publishing and famously quit her role in editorial, McGhee had plenty of stories. The book stemmed from the tragedy of having her mother die of COVID in 2020 and being denied time off to even attend the funeral. She stayed for two years after this incident, and this led her to consider the impact and realities of when you have to stay in an undignified workplace because of a lack of options. 

McGhee combined this with her own fascination with dreams and the "psychological effects of reading." She observed, to mass agreement from the audience, that, "Readers are often uncomfortable in their bodies." She got interested in exploring the scientific reasons why reading is so immersive and found that when you read, you lose 60% of your body awareness putting you in a nearly dreamlike state while conscious. This frees up your brain to tap into emotions more readily, or, as McGhee said, it, "removes you from the tyranny of being yourself." It breaks our tendency to numbing our feelings. 

Touching momentarily on craft, Etter mused about the idea of "how cruel a work can be" before the reader just shuts down on the author," a concept she learned about through Maggie Nelson. Etter contemplated how what you say as a writer and word choice influences what the reader brings of themselves to the page. Overstuffed, hyper detailed descriptions of a character, for instance, can stifle a reader's ability to bring their own emotions and baggage to the text. For instance, saying someone is a "mother" allows much more room for the reader to fill in the gaps than giving a hyper specific description of the particular mother. I thought this was a fascinating craft observation since the idea of hyper specificity is so often glorified. This made so much sense coming from Etter since Ripe does offer tons of room to breathe and allow the reader to cast themselves on Cassie. 

From the Q&A, one audience member picked up on Etter's comment that, "Would I say I want to be called sad girl lit, no," in reference to a conversation about surrealist vs speculative and whether they fall as marketing categories or artistic statements. Asked to expand on this distaste for the book community's category of the moment, Etter agreed with the reader's assessment that Ripe's conflicts are far more external than the category implies positioning it as a woman against tons of systems. Etter's biggest bone to pick with it, though, is that men have been writing sad novels about workplaces forever, and they're just called literature. Also, the moniker "girl" being reductive as, "You've made me into a child." Ultimately, Etter felt that, "Marketing language is flattening" when it comes to taking in an artistic experience, but it's also how the industry works, and if that's how the book will sell and reach readers then that is what it is. It is interesting to think on a deeper level about the names we give trends or the titles for certain general groupings of books as bookish influencers. 

Overall, this was an interesting and intimate panel, but I wish that there had been more of an eye towards craft woven in.

Panel 2: Fiction: Women (And Men) on the Edge 

Featuring: Elizabeth Crane (moderator), Sarah Tomlinson, J. Ryan Stradal, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Elizabeth McKenzie

The second panel of the day felt like a more traditional book festival panel where the theme is a bit irrelevant to the conversation that unfolds because it is so generic. There were multiple comments that characters have to be "on the edge" to even have a novel. This left room for more discussion about the individual author's books as well as more attention on craft questions. Crane started with a reading, which posed a momentary problem that not all the authors had copies of their books. This was solved by Stradal reciting a passage from memory and Tomlinson reading off an audience member's phone. Then Crane addressed a tailored question to each author before the general questions began.

Sarah Tomlinson's novel The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers is best classified, in my opinion having read the book and now heard her speak, as autofiction. As you'll see in my review, this fidelity to her life ends up limiting the novel itself, but on the panel, Tomlinson elaborated on those story seeds. Her agent suggested, after a number of ghostwriting projects, that she write a thriller about a ghostwriter because readers love a glimpse into unfamiliar, closed worlds. While she waited a few years to do it, she eventually set out to write about a rock music ghostwriter (since that was her area of expertise), and then she added in the element of "how to be a ghostwriter" inspired by her other career writing tons of "how to" books. 

J. Ryan Stradal was so hilarious on this panel that it made me interested to pick up his book, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club. He spoke about how Supper Club was supposed to be his lighthearted, summer long departure from writing expansive multi-generational family novels. Started as a story to escape over the pandemic, during the writing, Stradal became a dad after a long struggle with infertility and also started reflecting on his time working at a supper club. These threads found their way into his light-hearted mother-daughter story that resulted in a 100-year-long book becoming another complex multi-generational story. 

For Mockett's question, she discussed how being her mom's carer and her mom passing from COVID in 2021 led her to want to contemplate the realities of caretaking and how we are a culture where, "We applaud caretakers," but our culture also tells us that caring for people is a weakness, which makes it hard to ask for help. These themes eventually informed her book.

Crane then turned the conversation to thoughts on the somewhat generic panel name of characters "on the edge." Tomlinson's edge she contemplated in her novel was, "I was interested in how women support themselves in unconventional ways," whether that's through looks or wits. Mockett described her book as a "coming of middle age" for those that didn't get a traditional coming of age teenage arc that instead face their major turning point as an adult. Mockett sought to reframe the idea of a midlife crisis as a healthy shift or new turning point. Stradal sees his novel as having three edges: dealing with an inherited family business while trying to conceive and being forced to reconcile a strained parental relationship. He wanted to set this overtaxed character up for success. McKenzie simply expressed that you have to put your character on the edge to have a novel. 

The next interesting craft question dealt with how much of yourself gets woven into your fiction. Stradal astutely pointed out that this is a question that is typically reserved for female authors despite his books being deeply personal. Tomlinson acknowledged her book is near autofiction as her main character hues so close to the beats of her life, but she surprised herself in how much she subconsciously injected of herself into one of the side characters. She used her character Anke to work through her frustrations over rockstar exes not allowing their names to appear in her memoire. McKenzie spoke about starting with a kernel of truth from her personal life, mining the pain within it, and then creating a metaphor that captured those feeling. 

Off this question, Mockett introduced the fascinating thought that guided her writing process when she realized she was unintentionally writing a novel: "How do I keep the budget for the movie really low?" This craft exercise hemmed in the scope of an idea that manifested so broadly in her personal life that it was easy to get lost in. She needed to simplify the story in able to write it–small cast, familiar place, minimal research. 

I got up the guts to ask a question at this panel. I was curious when these authors know they have a novel idea they can see through into a full book. So often, ideas run out of steam before they're fully seen through, and I was curious how they avoided these dead ends. Stradal answered first simply that it's when he knows the ending. Then he elaborated by saying that he also needs to have a grasp on the situation that makes the ending nearly impossible. Tomlinson starts with the characters and waits for them to have a "heartbeat." She defined this as when she knows them well enough that she could put them in any situation and know exactly how they'd respond. Mockett simply contributed, "Oh shit, it's a novel!" McKenzie's insight was the only true process revealed. "[I] look for something I'm upset about," she said, and then she tries to examine it from different angles to figure out where the idea finally cracks open. 

Wrap Up:

Sadly, I didn't make it to Day 2 and Kaveh Akbar's panel, which I'm pretty sad about still. I was too wiped out from moving furniture all morning to make it. That's what I get for trying to move out of LA so early. I also was a bit intimidated to return after the massive crowds I experienced the day before. It turns out that either getting older or living through a pandemic has made me much more sensitive to being surrounded by hordes of people. But it was such a delight to get to see authors talk about craft and their work for the day. As a writer myself, I take any opportunity I can to learn from the experts, and I'm happy to be able to pass along the insights I furiously scribbled in my lavender Moleskin notebook to those that couldn't attend. It had been on my LA bucket list for a while, so I'm glad I finally got it done.

Books Mentioned:

Ripe review

The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers review


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