Even though I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area for over a decade now, and actually grew up here, I’ve never been to the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Part of that is just inertia: I’ve never liked driving to L.A., say. But I finally went this year, and I’m so glad I did.

The Festival of Books has a gazillion exhibitors. But I wasn’t there for the exhibitors, really. I was there for some key panels. I went to one on romance in young adult fiction; one on satire, and one on memoir. These are all fields I’m actively working in, so I was lucky there happened to be great content that day! Here’s what I learned from each of the panels:

“There’s No Love Like Young Adult Love,” Ella Cerón, Marie Lu, Maurene Goo, Amy Spalding, Sarah Enni (moderator)

four women on a stage. They are all holding books; Amy Spalding (on the right of the photo) is holding up her book, _No Boy Summer_. A huge orange screen with "YA Stage" is lit up behind them all.
from left to right: Sara Ennis, moderator; Ella Céron; Marie Lu; Maureen Goo; Amy Spalding

In this panel, about how these writers see and depict romance in their young adult works, I learned to see romance from a few new angles. The panelists pointed out, for instance, that romance in a YA novel isn’t just about seeing the relationship from the main character’s point of view, but also from the love interest’s POV; getting to know their motivations and interests. Here are a few quotes that resonated:

  • “I couldn’t get over my own YA romances, which were nothing, but I try to tap into the overwhelming emotions.” -Maureen Goo
  • “Even if you’re on a top-secret mission, you’re like, ‘HE TOUCHED MY HAND FOR THE FIRST TIME!’ YA love is immediate, fruaght, and extreme.” -Marie Lu
  • “The further you are removed from the immigrant experience, what are your relationships to your mother, your grandmother? -Maureen Goo
  • “Internal motivations count for so much more than external shenanigans.” -Amy Spalding

Satirical Fiction: Laughing Through the Chaos: Rasheed Newson; James Hannaham; Elaine Hsieh Chou; Traci Thomas (The Stacks podcast), moderator

Four panelists sit at a long black table in front of an enormously blank screen
Traci Thomas, Rasheed Newson, James Hannaham, and Elaine Hsieh Chou (L to R)

This panel on satire was exactly what I needed as I lean more into writing humor. I’ve always marveled over the work of satirists, who somehow manage to sustain their humor over hundreds of pages. I’ve been called funny, but “funny” is different from satire. You know it when you see it; when you experience it. The panelists here helped me to nail it down more. For one, Satire is “LOL humor, but not really,” as one panelist put it: The premise isn’t funny, but the events can be skewed or interpreted that way. For another, in satire you are always riffing off something that already exists–a situation; a news item, something that’s already in the zeitgeist. It’s also worth it to note that Newson works in television, and Hsieh Chou’s novel Disorientation is in adaptation; she will co-write the screenplay. Here are some other things that stood out to me:

  • “It’s hard to parse out what is too absurd.” -Elaine Hsieh Chou
  • “So much satire depends on who gets the joke.” -Traci Thomas
  • “The story needs to be the story. It should not compromise to try to reach a greater audience.” -Rasheed Newson
  • “I had to write what was funny to me, and what I wanted to poke fun at and get revenge for, but there’s this weird inverse relationship between specificity and universality that Hollywood doesn’t always get.” -EHC
  • “I think of humor as an act of resistance. And, if I took the humor out of it, it’s just a book of rage, and I don’t want to have to live with that.” -RN
  • “To imagine that someone can go through these things without humor is..you would just die.” -James Hannaham
  • “All your characters are going to get cancelled.” -TT, about the protags of all three novels.
  • “They [our characters] are not out to win the NAACP awards. They’re not meant to be their models for their race.” -JH
  • “The thing is, all our books could be somber, serious books. But we have more than that. I didn’t set out to make this funny, but I needed to get through hundreds of pages. I just thought, I have to make myself laugh…for a lot of us, when we feel like we can’t access this power in life, fiction is a way we can do that.” EHC
  • “When I’m anger-laughing, that’s where satire comes in. People in power hate being laughed at. Talking back to the literature of the past isn’t a way to convert it, or obliterate it, but you can get involved in that conversation. You can talk back in a way you can’t talk back in person.” -JH
  • “You can talk back because you were excluded from the conversation to begin with. Writing a novel is more like something is getting revenge on you. I’m looking for things in the present. The things we are overlooking now.” -JH

MEMOIR: Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: Learning to Move on: Bozoma Saint John, CJ Hauser, Elizabeth Crane, Emily Rapp Black (moderator)

This panel was an interesting one, for a lot of reasons. First, it was a reminder that memoir is a field dominated by white women. (Three of the four people on stage were white women.) Second, it reminded me that when we look to memoir, we often think of people who are already in the literary field (three of the four folks on stage are affiliated with higher-education institutions), when there is also so much to be learned from folks in other fields. Bozoma Saint John is someone I know of from the business world, but whose new memoir, The Urgent Life, is one I definitely will be reading.

Here’s some of what the panelists said:

  • “Writiing my story was a way of shattering the idea of trauma as failure.” -Bozoma Saint John
  • “I can no longer fail at a thing, because I made it [a book].” -CJ Hauser
  • “You can’t have deep grief without also having a deep reservoir of joy.” -Emily Rapp Black
  • When Bozoma Saint John was struggling in her writing, she’d go back to the details. “There was no way to talk bout the day we found out my husband’s cancer was terminal without talking about the color of what the nurse was wearing.”
  • BSJ’s writing date (every Saturday for two hours) was like a date with her memories. She got to revisit things she had buried.
  • “I’m not in a rush. I’m intentional. The book is called The Urgent Life because that’s the way I live. The urgency in my life means that I am doing what I really want to do. I am living my life with truth to myself.” -BSJ

Here are some links to the panelists and their web sites:

Amy Spalding
Ella Cerón
Marie Lu
Maureen Goo
Sarah Enni
Rasheed Newson
James Hannaham
Elaine Hsieh Chou
Traci Thomas
Bozoma St. John
CJ Hauser
Emily Rapp Black
Elizabeth Crane

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