The LA Times Festival of Books was fantastic. It was like the Electric Picnic for books, without the mud. There were book stalls by the hundred with everything from comics to vintage film posters to poetry. There were indoor and outdoor stages, music, discussion and readings. There was free Ben & Jerry’s and free books, bookmarks, stickers and badges. There were indies and biggies and even Christian Scientists – L. Ron Hubbard, apparently, writes novels - the most garishly awful looking yokes I’ve ever clapped eyes on. And authors, publicists and publishers were there to sell, sell, sell. Punters of every hue and age were there to buy and stroll and listen. The campus of the Uni of Southern California where it all took place was leafy and pretty and had beautiful old buildings. The whole thing, in searing Los Angeles heat, was mind boggling.
In the Green Room, us authors were treated to endless complimentary food and drink in a space with chandeliers and linen table cloths with dazzling flower arrangements. You could just sit there out of the heat and chill out, sometimes chatting to other writers, sometimes planning your reading (I am such a last minuter…) Of the famous people present, I spotted Maxine Hong Kingston in the Green Room and also Francine Prose. I met a group of young LA poets, the non-fic author Amy Alkon who was vivacious and funny, and Ned Vizzini whose novel has been turned into the film ‘It's Kind of a Funny Story’ which he is ‘pretty pleased’ with. One of the young LA poets was a huge Ned V fan and she was stoked to meet him and she became a little shy.
Imagine Ireland had a stand where all the Irish books were sold and freebies availed of. Most of our readings took place on the Discover the World stage which was, thankfully, indoors. The night I arrived I met some of the Irish crew and we went for Mexican food and margaritas: they were writers Brian Dillon, Kevin Power, Joe Woods, Peter Sirr, Eoin Purcell and Mary O’Donoghue. Our swanky hotel was on Olympic Boulevard; Nokia Plaza, which was like a mini Times Square with bars and restaurants, sat behind it. The chat that night was of the state of Ireland (naturally!) and the Royal Wedding. The bars closed early so it wasn’t a late one.
I went to Joseph Woods’ and Thomas Mac Carthy’s reading on Sunday morning. Both read wonderfully well. Joe read an amazing poem about a woman in Yugoslavia who died in her flat in 1966 and wasn’t discovered for over forty years. His poem was slightly tongue in cheek and both sad and funny. Joe also read one from a series about book shops, this poem set in Rangoon where the books are ‘hardbacked’ and ‘gently sandpapered’ to make them fresher. Tom’s love poems for his wife are always so tender and intelligent; he’s a great reader of his own work and has so many interesting things to say. He also loves politics and he said that ‘election posters are as beautiful as flowers’ to him. One of his political poems has the great line: ‘My parish sleeps on its pillow of votes’.
My reading with Kevin Power was at 2pm and we were given strict instructions to finish at 2.30pm on the button. Such an un-Irish way of carrying on. It made me gallop through the reading with one eye on the sound guy, one on my watch. At the earlier reading, one of the festival crew had stood at the door making neck chopping motions because the reading had gone slightly over time. So rude. We had a respectable audience and both enjoyed our readings. Kevin read the passage from Bad Day at Blackrock about the retreat the boys went on – it brought back memories to me of the strange power of those school occasions. We wandered around the book fest some more then back to our hotel for some quiet time. I didn’t know if it was night or noon with jet lag, having just spent a week in New York before LA. Most of the group scattered that evening to meet friends, so Kevin and myself had dinner in Yard House and a drink in Rock 'n' Fish, where Obama came on the TV to announce the murder of Osama Bin Laden. It was surreal sitting there drinking the local drinks – Californian cab sauv and whiskey sours – and witnessing Obama’s dramatic speech.
Nuala, Discover the World Stage
Two things always happen when I come to America, it seems: something large and significant on the world stage (last year it was the Times Square bomb attempt) and something small but nice in a literary sense for me (last year it was hearing I was shortlisted for the Edge Hill). This year, while in the States, I heard I’ve been long-listed for the UK-based SHORT Fiction prize, which is judged by Gerard Donovan, a literary hero of mine (that’s the biggest thrill of that news – Gerard will read my story!). And I’ve also had a story accepted by the US mag Prairie Schooner which I’m delighted about, because it’s a good mag and because I am fond of the particular story, which will be in my next collection, Mother America, PG.
LA was a flying visit and I saw little beyond the hotel and uni but, as always, it was great to meet fellow writers and it was slightly dream-like to be there in the heat and manufactured atmosphere that typify the place. I’m on the last leg of my journey home as I write this, happy to be heading back to my desk and my family, and I’m enjoying the company of Anne Enright’s fabulous new novel The Forgotten Waltz. Reading it makes the endless hours in the air and at airports bearable.