The Los Angeles Times Festival Books
The Art of Fiction: First Novels

As Rites of Spring go, Los Angeles has its fair share of good and bad. The Lakers on their way to yet another dominating NBA Championship. That first freeway car chase of the spring. And, now we have the Festival of Books held on the beautiful Westwood campus of UCLA. It's really an amazing feeling being amongst the throngs of booklovers, even if it's only for a weekend. At the same time, it's a little sad: I knew that when I got home I would once again be inundated with promo spots for Fox's Mr. Personality. But that could wait.

The Festival was held this past weekend and it was my time, and the time of my fellow book geeks, who can be a really scary sight. These people bring roll-around suitcases, dollies holding storage boxes, duffel bags, you name it, filled with books that they take from signing area to signing area getting their favorite authors' signatures. After hearing Tom Hayden speak with David Halberstam, I immediately went and bought his book Rebel: A Personal History of the 60's. There was one guy in front of me in line to have the book signed, an aging hippie by the looks of him. He had no less than a dozen books, most of them NOT written by Tom Hayden. Hayden was amazed and kept saying, "Where do find these things?" When it was my turn, I sheepishly handed Hayden my book and said, "I feel so inadequate. I only have one book." Hayden laughed and pointed at the aging hippie and said, "See what the future has in store for you?" I shudder at the thought, but the stack of signed books now crowding my kitchen counter does not bode well.

The Festival is more than just the book geeks, though. It can be a surreal experience. Just walking around you can bump into your favorite authors, or in the case of Ray Bradbury, almost get run over by him in his wheelchair holding a copy of Fahrenheit 451. I happened to bump into George Plimpton outside the booth for the Paris Review. I wanted to challenge him to an arm wrestling contest, not because I think it would be a cool Fight Club-esque postmodern experience but because he's probably the only person in the world I could beat. I also ran into the Fonz and got to hear a snippet of Lou Reed reading Poe's "The Raven." How cool is that?

At this year's Festival I made a determined effort to go to as many panel discussions as I could. I made it to six over the two days, and by far my favorite and the most enlightening was the "Art of Fiction: First Novels" panel, featuring Nicole Krauss (Man Walks Into a Room), Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated), Hari Kunzru (The Impressionist), Arthur Phillips (Prague), and Jay Basu (The Stars Can Wait). The panel was hosted by Mark Rozzo who writes the First Fiction column for the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Of the five authors, I had read one of the books, (Krauss), had started to read another and couldn't finish it because I hated it (Foer) and had recently had a third (Kunzru) checked out from the library but had to return it when I didn't get around to reading it time. Trust me, if there's one organization you don't want on your case, it's the Beverly Hills Public Library. I think their collections department is run by the mob.

The discussion was held in a medium-sized UCLA lecture hall, and it was completely filled, not a single empty seat. Rozzo and the five others sat on a small stage at a long table. All of the authors looked fairly young , but Jonathan Safran Foer looks like he is about fourteen years old.

I have to say that the panel discussion was a pretty amazing experience, and I plan to read all of the novels that I haven't yet read (and will probably even try Foer's again). All of the authors came across as very intelligent, sincere people and all had a good sense of humor that was on full display. It was obvious that they haven't had the weight of years of critical acclaim to boost their egos and make them think that they were somehow better than everyone else. The dynamics of the panel were interesting. The best way to describe them is to imagine a crazy family. Kunzru and Phillips played the sometimes serious but wisecracking uncles. Krauss was the idealistic daughter who took everything very seriously and was the soul of the group. Jay Basu was the young brother and Foer was the crazy cousin who made no sense but every now and then said something brilliant and funny.

Rozzo began the discussion with the mandatory stroking of egos of the authors, reading positive snippets of reviews about their novels. It was Nicole Krauss's second year on the panel, and we also learned that Arthur Phillips was once a five-time Jeopardy champion. Rozzo then turned the discussion the topic of finding your voice, as that was the sub-title of the panel in years past. He began with Kunzru, who said writing a novel was about freeing yourself. He enjoys reading other novelists who can do things he can't. Phillips said when he finds an author he likes, he'll go back and read everyone one of their books, starting with the first and going to the last because he wants to discover how they're unique. "I'm dying to find out what an Arthur Phillips book is that no else can write." I would like to point out that this was the one and only time any of the authors referred to themselves in the third person, something I'm grateful for.

It was then Foer's turn, and as would be the case throughout the discussion, he gave a somewhat funny yet inscrutable response that got more than a few laughs from the audience. He said finding your voice wasn't necessarily a good thing, "like finding change you lost somewhere." He equated finding your voice to "looking in the mirror and discovering a blemish or a unibrow." He went on to say, "It's not the case that I'm trying to find a voice that I will like, or finding somebody else's voice, it's much more the case that I'm trying to find the best way to turn the faucet on, to let everything come out, and probably be surprised at what I find." He finished with, "I think one can find one's voice and still write a horrible novel, and I'm much more interested in that, strangely, than I am in writing a good novel." Well, that does explain a lot, Jonathan.

Rozzo asked the panel to speak to aspiring writers about finding time to write, about workshops, writing classes, etc. Four out of the five novelists all claimed to have taken no writing classes or had any formal training in writing. Kunzru said that he was trained as a critic and worked as journalist before he got his novel published, and this somehow led him to the discussion of philosophy. "Philosophers are the worst writers in the world," Kunzru said, and Foer chimed in with, "I was a philosophy major." Kunzru then remarked to Foer, "But your style is so sparse, you must have unlearned everything." Foer's quipped, "No, I don't think I learned anything to begin with."

Phillips said anything that helps you write is what you should do. "I can make a good argument for writing courses, never having taken one." He wrote speeches, ad copy, and marketing copy before writing fiction. He decided "I was already writing every day, so I might as well write something interesting."

When asked whether an aspiring writer should attempt to write every day, Foer made the following analogy, much to the shock and horror of his fellow panelists:

"I really want writing to be the vehicle to get me somewhere else. An analogy that I sometimes think about: you are somebody who really likes to visit foreign countries, to sample foreign foods and to try to learn foreign languages. You would never describe yourself as someone who is a great passenger of airplanes, even though it's true that you are somebody who rides on airplanes more than others. But you ride on airplanes because it's how you get some place you want to go. And that's exactly how I feel about writing, that the novel as a form is something that gets me to where I want to go and I'm not interested in it for any other reason. There are quite a few writers who seem to be building these gorgeous Lear jets with these fancy paint jobs and you become aware of the fact that you know, there are people who want to run for president, and their whole lives they want to be president, and I can never trust somebody like that because it's a position you should take somewhat reluctantly because it's a necessary thing to do."

Kunzru broke in at this point, asking what the hell Foer was talking about, and what is the end he has in mind if he doesn't care for the novel as a form. Foer's responded, "It's the best way to explore and express who I am and to share it with other people. It's the most efficient way."

Kunzru: "Efficient. That's a cold word."

Foer: "A plane is the most efficient way to get to China, and it's probably wonderful in China."

Jay Basu interjected, "So craft isn't important to you?"

Foer: "Craft is important in the same way an airplane that is built shabbily is not one that I want to ride."

Basu has no formal writing training, but he stressed that craft is important, that you have to learn it, and that comes through practice.

Rozzo then turned the discussion to research, commenting on how he especially admired the research Basu did to set his novel in World War II Poland. Basu then quipped, "That's funny that you admire my research since I didn't do any." Basu's research was talking to his Polish grandfather.

Foer's trip to Eastern Europe was similar to the one described in his book but when he got there he found nothing and nobody to talk to so this set him free to do what he wanted, free to imagine. People complain to him about historical inaccuracies in the book, or that someone learning English wouldn't talk the way his narrator does. To this he merely said his critics were missing the point of the novel, but neglected to mention what the point of his novel was.

Krauss, who wrote a novel about a 36 year old man suffering from amensia, said she didn't want to write a novel about herself, she wanted to choose a point as far from herself that she could get.

She compared to research to, "If you're at a dance party and you really want to get down but you're so shy if you kind of throw a fire bomb in that direction of the dance party everyone turns that way and you can do your thing." Research helped her fool herself to imagine that she wasn't writing about herself, but no matter where you go as a writer you always come back to yourself. "You can play tricks on yourself, you only know your own stories, and it always comes back to you."

Phillips disagreed with this, saying that the novel can do anything you want it do. "You don't necessarily end up in your own story. If it is labeled fiction you can do what you want. I made up a lot of stuff about Hungary in my book because it amused me."

Rozzo then asked how different languages played a role in many of the novels of these writers. He specifically mentioned the Ukrainian narrator in Foer's book. Foer thought that his narrator was funny and began to sympathize with him and care about him more than any other character because he needed to find new ways to speak. Foer said, "English just isn't quite cutting it right now. Everyone suffers from an insufficient vocabulary." It is hard to communicate what you want, and people write books to help them communicate.

Jay Basu responded, "My father is Indian and I can't speak Bengali. My grandfather is Polish and I can't speak Polish, and my grandmother is Jewish and I can't speak Yiddish, and I'm actually quite pissed off that I can't speak any of these languages."

The language conversation switched to a discussion about translation. Phillips was totally at a loss with how to deal with it because he could never know if it was done well. He sent the German translator a list of puns in his novel that he didn't think could be translated and being totally mystified as to how they would get translated.

Rozzo then tried to turn the discussion to the authors as first novelists, saying that 2002 was being described as the year of the first novel. The discussion ended quickly when Foer broke in and said, "None of us are ever going to be first novelists again so there's no need to get into a depressing story."

Kunzru wrote two novels before The Impressionist was published, but no one liked them and they didn't get published. "But it was no good." He learned he needed a plan, because at one point he was 40,000 words into a novel and had to abandon it because his characters weren't where he wanted them to be.

Phillips disagreed with them: "Writing [my first novel] was fantastic because there is almost a 100% guarantee that you will not get an agent, you will not get published, and your book will not get read and you will not end up on a panel in Los Angeles. It's 99% luck and there is great stuff that will never get published and that's a fact. If you are toiling away at your first novel with dreams of anything other than enjoying the next day at toiling away at your novel you are setting yourself up for an unpleasant result. I loved writing my first novel. A second novel has all kinds of other issues. There is a fair chance I will get it published. I haven't sold it yet but I'm hoping I will get it published and I'm hoping I will not be laughed at when hand in my second one. Can you imagine, you get your first novel published and everyone says, 'Good job! You got your first novel published,' and then you hand in your second novel and they don't take it? THAT would suck. Not selling your first novel you're like everyone else. Not selling your second novel you have been there and you have lost whatever you had. That seems to me a much more depressing prospect than writing your first novel. So, I'll see you next year. Or not."

Most of the authors recommended that writers have day jobs of some sort to support themselves. Hari Kunzru worked as a journalist while writing his first novel. Phillips, of course, had the Jeopardy winnings to live off of for a while. When asked if he would return, he said he would wait for an invitation to Celebrity Jeopardy.

Foer had his share of odd jobs while he was writing. "You are aware that there are aspiring actors who make money by working at medical schools by allowing students to give them proctological exams?" Foer went on to explain that he went out of his way to work at jobs that he knew he wouldn't want to climb the ladder. "I always knew what I wanted to do, so I had a job like a receptionist or math tutor. I always wanted to be in a position where I could never move upward."

But after your first novel is published, promotion can turn into a full time job. Kunzru admitted that it could be scary because it was the worst when no one turned up for a reading or a signing. He was also slightly disappointed by his book cover, but "They ask for you input but you don't have final say over it, which is probably good because authors, given half a chance, would have a picture of their cat on their book covers."

Phillips said an author needs a different set of skills for writing and promoting. You sit alone in a room while writing, and now you have to make a connection with readers. You are selling a product, and you have to come to terms with this.

Krauss showed up for her photo shoot, which was being held in the day at a bar, and this crazy photographer wheeled up a rack of dresses. She had to change and get naked in the middle of this bar surrounded by burly bouncers and she was terrified. And the photographer put her in this dress that, when she put it on, didn't do a good job of covering her. "My breasts were totally visible. You could see my nipples." She voiced her concerns to the photographer and he responded, "Darling, listen to me. I don't do penises and I don't do nipples, so go out there." He then shoved her out into the room and shouted, "Can anyone see her nipples?" She has learned to bring her own clothes to photo shoots.

Rozzo then turned, with some trepidation, to Foer and everyone laughed because they knew he was going to have some bizarre response. He just said, "That was my experience too."

But he then went on to give his most sincere answer of the session. He talked about how going to book signings was both a wonderful and awful experience. He then said, "I would be the sorriest asshole in the world if I complained. I wish everyone who wrote books had the experience of going out in public."

After that, the questions got decidedly less interesting and the panel wrapped up right on time. Rozzo ended the session by thanking all of the authors and the loud applause was quite sincere at the end. I didn't stick around for the book signings (I had already spend WAY too much money on full-priced books at the Festival, and my guilt would have forced me to buy all of their books as they were sitting together at the signing tent signing). It was an amazing experience, and I have no doubt that we will be reading good stuff from all of these authors for years to come.

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