"In the beginning, people weren't sure what to expect. Who's going to come to a book festival in Los Angeles?" novelist Paula Woods recalls asking. "They don't read books in L.A. They watch movies."
Woods was on the author committee that helped plan the first Los Angeles Times Festival of Books almost two decades ago. People did turn out in 1996 — 75,000 of them over two days — proving that a book festival in Los Angeles is not oxymoronic in concept.
The festival's 20th iteration is just around the corner — and Woods, a perennial participant, can't stay away. Come Saturday morning, she'll be talking murder and mystery with authors Steph Cha, Naomi Hirahara, Daniel Pyne and Attica Locke. It's a bright, bloody way to kick off the weekend.
Crime fiction favorites T. Jefferson Parker, Lee Goldberg, Don Winslow and Lisa Scottoline will appear on panels. Dennis Lehane, who moves between writing crime fiction, historical fiction, books that become powerful films ("Mystic River," "Shutter Island") and television ("The Wire," "Boardwalk Empire") is scheduled to chat with Tod Goldberg Sunday at noon.
With more than 300 authors participating in this year's festival, however, the conversations will stretch across every genre imaginable. Over the weekend, visitors can listen to bestselling science-fiction author John Scalzi in conversation with actor Wil Wheaton and hear Dr. Martin Blaser discuss his book "Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues," which is a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in science. Readers can also catch actress Candice Bergen or comics artist Roz Chast discussing their memoirs, MacArthur "Genius" Fellow Jonathan Lethem on his new collection of short fiction, and L.A. Times Book Prize Poetry finalist Claudia Rankine read from her book "Citizen."
Those who will be appearing solo or in one-on-one conversations include journalist Tavis Smiley, whose new book "My Journey With Maya" commemorates his friendship with Maya Angelou; legendary poet Gary Snyder; comedian Patton Oswalt; novelist Joyce Carol Oates; sports announcer Al Michaels; chef Ludo Lefebvre on the Cooking Stage; cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz on the Hoy Stage; and Dav Pilkey, the creator of "Captain Underpants." Malcolm Gladwell will also be appearing at the festival in a ticketed event, now sold out.
Apart from the Gladwell reading and the Book Prize event, the festival is free (advance tickets can be reserved online with a $1 processing fee). There are no tickets necessary for the outdoor stages, including the Cooking Stage with food demonstrations, the new Travel Stage, and the Poetry and Children's stages, where readings take place all day.
A book festival that has free events sounds like a good idea to Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone" and the new book "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis." Says Putnam, "Personal connections across religious and racial lines are constantly increasing while social connections across class lines are constantly diminishing. Affluent adults, college-educated adults are less likely to know poor families and poor kids than people like us would have a generation ago."
In "Our Kids," Putnam says, "I wanted to hold up real stories of rich kids and poor kids." He will appear on a Saturday panel moderated by The Times' Steve Lopez to talk about the gap between rich and poor with Edward Kleinbard and Matt Taibbi.
For YA author Marie Lu, whose "Legend" trilogy is a bestseller, the festival is a multigenerational experience.
"We see a lot of families," says Lu, who will be talking about her latest novel, "The Young Elites," at a panel on Sunday. When she's appeared at the festival before, parents and kids come to her panels together.
"It's nice to see readers and fans," Lu says, "and be a reader and fan as well." That's a sentiment shared by many of the writers — who are also devoted readers — who attend.
"For a lot of writers, this has become the highlight of their year," Woods says, partly because it includes "all ends of the pool."
In addition to the readings, panels and bookseller booths, the L.A. Times Book Prizes ceremony takes place Saturday night in USC's Bovard Auditorium. The prizes are awarded to the best books of the year in 10 categories; T.C. Boyle also will be honored with the Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, and LeVar Burton presented with the Innovator's Award for Reading Rainbow. The prizes are open to the public; tickets are $10.
The festival kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday with L.A. Times Publisher Austin Beutner, USC President C.L. Max Nikias and the USC Trojan Marching Band. About 150,000 people are expected to attend.
Where: USC, University Park campus, L.A.
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Event: Book Prizes Ceremony
Where: USC, Bovard Auditorium
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
How: Take the Metro to the Expo Park/USC Station, or park in USC's Lot 1 or structures A, D, 1 and 2 for $10
Parking is also available at USC parking center at 35th Street and Grand Avenue (free shuttle provided) for $10, and at two L.A. Coliseum lots for $15.