A ‘literary feast’ held quietly in Long Beach

Times Staff Writer

Those on the list know exactly what to do the day the invitation arrives.

Unsung and unadvertised, the women’s book festival in Long Beach typically sells out the next day. So local women frantically fill out the forms and rush to the post office, preferably the big one on Redondo Avenue, to make sure their registration gets hand-stamped and dispatched in that day’s mail.

On Saturday, the lucky ones who made the deadline -- all 720 of them -- packed the city’s convention center for what has become one of the least known but best attended literary events in the state.


They listened intently to candid, often inspiring, remarks by nationally known authors such as Julia Glass and much-praised emerging writers such as Lisa Fugard and Marisa Silver.

“It’s just this literary feast,” said Fugard after telling 200 women why and how she wrote her first novel, “Skinner’s Drift,” about her native South Africa. She said that she was surprised by the size and intensity of the festival audience.

“It’s this community of intelligence and heart,” Fugard said. “It’s people who just like reading.”

Founded in 1982 by two Long Beach women, the festival has hosted some of the best known names in modern American fiction -- writers such as Mary Gordon, Tillie Olsen, Barbara Kingsolver and Harriet Doerr.

Yet the event, officially known as “Literary Women,” is also notable because so few people outside Long Beach know about it.

“We call it the best-kept secret,” said longtime organizer Judy Ross.

For one thing, its geography is “off the grid.”

It is held in Long Beach, not in Santa Monica or Pasadena or Berkeley. This city is known more for its port and aerospace operation.

The organizers are not high-powered publishing types, but instead female volunteers who like to read.

Many live in Belmont Heights and other residential neighborhoods on the city’s east side.

The festival’s aficionados like that it isn’t well-publicized, some organizers explained. This year, several hundred women were turned away.

Its reputation has been forged largely by word of mouth, from book group to book group, reader to reader.

And these women do like books. Three times during the day, the lectures stopped so attendees could surge into a room nearby where they bought books and asked the featured writers to autograph them.

They milled around tables heaped high with books by the featured writers: Glass’ celebrated 2002 novel, “Three Junes,” which won a National Book Award; “The River of Doubt,” Candice Millard’s new book about Theodore Roosevelt and the Amazon; and Wang Ping’s “Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China,” which she says was inspired by watching her grandmother hobbling on her bound feet.

Books by Fugard and Millard sold out by noon, said Pam Donaldson, 58, owner of For the Love of Books, a business that sells books at writing events. The festival committee chooses independent booksellers to sell books at the festival rather than big companies like Borders or Barnes & Noble.

Donaldson’s future daughter-in-law, Megan Johnson, 25, of Long Beach, described the scene from her seat at the checkout line.

“You look up,” she said, “and you see this overwhelming mass of women coming at you with piles of books.”

Many at the conference were middle-aged, but some were in their teens and 20s, and others were in their 80s. Many knew each other.

They came largely from Long Beach and northern Orange County, although the Westside was represented, and some flew in from the Bay Area and other states.

Only a handful of men attended, and those who did had to go downstairs to the next floor to find a bathroom. The men’s rooms on the same floor as the festival carried temporary paper signs reading WOMEN.

Gordana Kajer, 48, of Long Beach, an import-export consultant, first heard about the festival from a friend. Since then she has brought her two sisters.

Kajer explained that although she is not a writer, she reads the New Yorker from cover to cover and relishes hearing writers talk about why they write.

On Saturday, Kajer chose a seminar by Silver, author of “Babe in Paradise,” who has written for the New Yorker. Like a number of women, she brought her knitting, and worked on a royal blue cotton-and-wool throw while Silver spoke.

In fact, it was Literary Women that reintroduced her to knitting, she said. She heard writer and knitter Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician who wrote a 2004 book called “Two Sweaters for my Father,” speak here about her essays on knitting. At the time, Kajer had stopped knitting, but Klass inspired her to start again.

“She brought that need back into my life,” she said. “I rediscovered the creativity that I’m capable of doing.”

For Harriet Williams, 80, the woman who helped start it all, this represented a sea change in women’s place in literature.

She recalled how, 25 years ago, her son brought home a reading list from Wilson High School that featured 99 authors, of whom 96 were men. The three women: Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen.

“No Willa Cather. No Virginia Woolf. No George Eliot,” she said. “No ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ no Harper Lee.”

At the time, Gail Sheehy had just published “Passages,” and she and several other women were featured at a small event Williams attended in Beverly Hills. She came home wondering why such writers should not be featured in her own city.

“Long Beach has always been a stepchild to the big city,” she said.

So the first festival was held 25 years ago at a small beachfront hotel. Williams contacted most of the writers who attended the early events, and had to explain to one well-known author that she was calling from California, not from Long Beach on Long Island in New York.

Williams, the mother of five, calls herself a housewife, only to be corrected by a friend nearby, who notes that she once was president of the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education.

She now lives in her native Berkeley, where, she said, she has led the launch of a book festival based on the Long Beach model.

Two book festivals modeled after the one in Long Beach have sprung up in Orange County, and another is being organized in Washington, D.C.

But Williams takes pleasure in the fact that a festival has been started on the Westside of Los Angeles, assisted by members of the Long Beach group.

“That’s sort of the culmination of the whole thing,” she said with a smile.