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First-ever virtual L.A. Times Festival of Books lineup includes Natalie Portman, Jerry Brown

Hasan Paul, 12, peeks into a book for sale during the 2019 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
Hasan Paul, 12, peeks into a book for sale during the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The 25th Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Stories & Ideas has completed its table of contents for the literary celebration’s 2020 pandemic edition.

The virtual event will mark the anniversary by holding 25 virtual panels and readings over 25 days. Authors will include Marilynne Robinson, Ayad Akhtar, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, Maria Hinojosa, inaugural Ray Bradbury prize winner Marlon James, actress Natalie Portman and actor Henry Winkler, The Times announced Thursday.

This year’s e-festival begins Oct. 18 and continues over four weeks, rather than taking place over the usual two weekend days.

Writers, poets, artists, storytellers and bookstore exhibitors have been tapped to participate in author panels, readings and other virtual events. There will be children’s story time with Natalie Portman and others; a conversation on the Black experience including Times Christopher Isherwood Prize winner Emily Bernard; exchanges on romantic fiction; an election day-eve panel among Jean Guerrero, Kurt Andersen and Stuart Stevens, and a conversation with Robinson.

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Emily St. John Mandel, Susan Orlean, T.C Boyle, Marlon James and others share apocalypse reading picks.

“Organizing a festival during a pandemic has been quite interesting and different,” programming organizer Ann Binney said in an email. “In many ways, not having to deal with travel budgets and strict schedule availability has made authors a lot more accessible. We’re less constrained by time and place. The time commitment we ask for, rather than a couple of days when you consider travel to/from L.A., is more like a couple of hours!”

Going virtual has prompted Binney’s team to learn video — “and quick!” — she added. Organizers worked with the broadcast production team at Spectrum News 1’s “L.A. Times Today” program to put together the digital edition of the festival. The TV team has been behind the Los Angeles Times Book Club and Ideas Exchange events since the pandemic hit in the spring and collaborated on what Binney hopes will be a stimulating virtual series of festival events.

Marlon James, whose novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” pioneered queer fantasy, thanks Mary Shelley and “Moby Dick” for predicting our current crisis.

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After being postponed from April to October, the festival, like many others, was moved online instead of being held on the USC campus.

The marquee event, a partnership between The Times and USC, was reimagined as a virtual community-wide gathering, organizers announced in August.

“The community that gathers in person at USC every year in April is vibrant, engaged and has been incredibly vital to the growth and success of this event over its 25 years,” Binney said. “We will miss being in person terribly. It’s hard to replace the face-to-face excitement of seeing your favorite authors in person. But we’re doing our best to translate the experience to the virtual medium.”

The best series of books in four categories — including highbrow (‘Wolf Hall’), L.A. favorites (Easy Rollins) and epic histories (Taylor Branch).

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Winners of the festival’s Book Prizes, which recognize outstanding literary works in 12 categories, were announced on Twitter in April.

Next year’s festival is scheduled to take place back on the USC campus April 17-18, though The Times will continue monitoring public health and safety protocols and adjust accordingly.

More details can be found at latimes.com/FestivalofBooks and on the festival’s social media pages on Facebook and Twitter and the Times events Instagram.

Here’s a look at some of this year’s highlights:

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  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson will discuss her latest novel, “Jack.”
  • Playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Ayad Akhtar, author of “Homeland Elegies,” will be in conversation with Reza Aslan.
  • Award-winning actress Natalie Portman will read from her children’s book “Natalie Portman’s Fables,” a retelling of three classic tales.
  • A panel about memoirs of the Black experience will include Emily Bernard, Morgan Jerkins and Frank B. Wilderson III, moderated by Times columnist Sandy Banks.
  • Authors Maria Hinojosa and Laila Lalami will discuss their family stories of immigration with Times Column One editor Steve Padilla.
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, illustrator Thi Bui and their kids will read their children’s book, “Chicken of the Sea.”
  • Kevin Kwan, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan will talk fiction with moderator Jade Chang.
  • Former California Gov. Jerry Brown will discuss his life with his biographer, “Man of Tomorrow” author Jim Newton, as Times columnist Gustavo Arellano moderates.
  • Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, authors of the “Alien Superstar” series, will lead a children’s story time reading of their new release, “Lights, Camera, Danger!”.
  • Inaugural winner of the Ray Bradbury Prize, Marlon James, author of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” will speak with Tananarive Due.
  • The evening before the election, author Jean Guerrero will talk politics with Kurt Andersen and Never-Trump political consultant Stuart Stevens.
  • Coronavirus and pandemics will be Topic One with sociologist Nicholas Christakis, journalists Debora MacKenzie and Sonia Shah and Times healthcare reporter Soumya Karlamangla.
  • Jasmine Guillory, Casey McQuiston, Rebekah Weatherspoon and moderator Elissa Sussman will talk about contemporary romance fiction.
  • USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance BFA students will dance.

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