The Festival Report

For many, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is an uplifting literary event. A two-day opportunity to glean wisdom from the pros, to engage in a free exchange of ideas, to celebrate the written word and the power of human imagination. For me its an opportunity to swan around the green room, gorging on free food and generally sucking up the last sweet drops of milk from the withering teat of Mama Tribune.

For us, the perk-free, underpaid, uninsured, shut-in scriveners of Los Angeles the LATFOB is one of the best weekends of the year. A time and place where the dweeby, the dorky, the debt-ridden, the middle-aged, the social misfits, the awkward, the mouthy in short: the writers, get all-access laminates and a rare chance to feel like rock stars. It doesn't happen very often, and given all the job stress we have been under lately it's an opportunity to party like it's 1999, when newspapers still had freelance budgets. Would I like a cold bottle of water? Why yes! An escort to my panel? How divine. I always wait a minute too long before meeting said escort, just so I can enjoy hearing my name being called over the green room loudspeaker.

On Friday night, after obediently enduring the book prizes, we herded into the reception area. I was so hungry and excited to be there I found myself resisting the urge to tear off all my clothes and dive into the chocolate fountain.

But for all of that party's shmoozy fun, the real party is in the green room during festival hours. It is the Peyton Place of the west coast literary world. Here people mingle and chat, rub up against and run into each other. The mood is felicitous, but there is also intrigue as it brings together disparate voices and points of view from every corner of the writing world. Where else can you see the salt-of-the-earth, environmental writer (and LAO contributor) Jenny Price one minute, then turn around to watch Maria Shriver emerge from her luxury SUV limo with her crazy doll hair? (Seriously, I think Maria had her hair done by the same Emerald City beautician who styled the Cowardly Lion). Where else can you hear James Ellroy refer to someone as "walking syphillis"? My friend Mark Netter (a huge Ellroy fan) asked the expressive author what he was currently working on. ""The Big Hurt." It's an examination of my checkered romantic past", (Note: I am paraphrasing here) Mr. Ellroy proclaimed, as one of his exes stood in line for a sandwich not far away. Wouldn't that be a great panel, "James Ellroy: My Dark Heart"? But wait, here's Steve Almond and Mark Sarvas within spitting distance of each other, causing a frisson of excitement for anyone who has read the accounts of their famous feud. Twice I found myself gossiping like a fishwife, then being made aware that the subject of the conversation was sitting behind me.

Of course, it goes both ways. As I was doing some nervous pre-panel primping in the ladies room, I overheard one gal say to another, "Oh, well I have an Erika Schickel story for you ..." as they walked out the door, clearly unaware I was standing there. What's that Oscar Wilde quote? The only thing worse than being gossiped about, is not being gossiped about? I'd have gone out to the booths to find a nice tote bag with that quote printed on it to commemorate the weekend, but frankly, it was too fucking hot for booths. I avoided them.

There was a moment on Saturday, when my energy flagged and I thought that between the heat, and the tragic loss of the fabulous Susan Salter-Reynolds party, this wasn't going to shape up to be much of a book fest. But Sunday dawned bright and fiery and I found myself just being grateful that at I wasn't at Coachella. (Can we bring Prince to the book festival next year?) I made it to Royce Hall at the deeply non-rocking hour of 10:30 in time to see Steve Almond interview singer/songwriting luminaries Aimee Mann and Joe Henry. Aimee was lithe and lovely, though. sadly, noticeably Botoxed. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe she just has a really smooth, shiny, unmoving forehead. But she sang beautifully and spoke shyly of her process. Joe Henry was full of fascinating patter. It was an inspired session and hopefully will bring to a close the tedious stranglehold The Rock Bottom Remainders has had over book festival music stages across this great nation for the past decade and a half.

I skittled back to the Green Room, looking to eat lunch with someone pleasant, like maybe Richard Rayner or Nick Goldberg. Instead of Nick, I ran into Tod Goldberg, who's name and work I knew, but had never met in person. "Oh Erika, I read you everywhere, " he said, smiling. "You're like lint!" So, yeah, I love him now. We sat at a table where I enjoyed watching Tod crack up LATBR editor Orli Low over and over and over again with his verbal fastballs. You can read Goldberg's bent, hilarious report on the festival at his blog here.

Of course, there's another layer of pleasure the LATFOB brings for me: it's a famliy event at which I can safely ignore my kids. This is the weekend where I give my tweenage daughter Franny free license to roam. Tethered only by her cell phone, she is allowed to ramble around book city with her pals Noah, Edison, Caroline and Sophie (all literary brats) unencumbered by the soul-crushing maternal gaze. They browse the stalls, nabbing freebies, posing for oh-so-cynical photos with the rubberheaded characters, checking out whatever Y.A. lit. panels are on offer. Like hummingbirds, they flit into the green room for a sugar fix (icy cold Cokes and cheesy cheesecake) then buzz back outside for more adventure. I ran into my daughter in the green room for a minute on Saturday, and she reported meeting her favorite author Francesca Lia Block in the ladies room. She told Ms. Block she was a huge fan of her books and Block graciously gave Franny a signed copy of her latest YA novel "Blood Roses."

At the end of the day Franny looked at me tiredly and said, "I want to go home, take a shower and get into bed with a good book." I felt the same way. Not only that, but I was feeling super-inspired to get back to writing my own book. And that right there is the real magic of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

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