Entertainment & Arts

Mary Shelley at 826LA

Literary non-profit 826LA in Echo Park hosted a series of Dead Author Readings on Sept. 26, 2008, during which comedian Jen Kirkman, center, channeled Mary Shelley author of Frankenstein.
(BarbaraDavidson / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

“Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley has made a rare Los Angeles appearance. On Sept. 26, some 150-odd years after her demise, she dropped by 826LA’s Time Travel Mart in Echo Park -- that Sunset Boulevard purveyor of leg warmers, bottled “robot emotions” and soon a fragrance timeline (a whiff of history from caveman to Studio 54) -- as part of the Dead Authors series to report back from beyond.

As channeled by Jen Kirkman, a stand-up comedian, writer for E!'s “Chelsea Lately” and star of a recent installment of the online series “Drunk History,” Shelley weighed in on the economic crisis, the presidential debates and life in heaven (“Everyone goes, even bad dictators. . . . it can get awkward in the cafeteria”). She offered advice for dealing with writer’s block, in addition to reading and signing copies of her legendary work.

“Historical accuracy was not necessarily the goal of tonight,” explained 826LA Executive Director Joel Arquillos. “It’s not a learning experience; it’s a fun social experience.”

The Time Travel Mart is a perfect setting for such an interaction, a retail gateway for one of two local chapters of the 826 consortium, a national nonprofit founded by Dave Eggers, author and founder of independent publishing house McSweeney’s, to teach creative writing and cultivate a literary community among students ages 6 to 18.

Dead Authors launched in late July, when Patton Oswalt revived mystery/horror writer William Fryer Harvey, and the free series continues indefinitely on a bimonthly basis. An upcoming visit from Emily Dickinson is rumored. “We’re talking about finally getting her out of the house,” said 826LA retail and events manager Christina Galante. What has been determined, Galante says, is that local comics will always serve as mediums, due to the necessary “improv factor.”

As Shelley’s uncensored opinions indicate, Dead Authors is a series for adults. (Although Friday’s guests availed themselves of the on-site water cooler, at future events those of a certain age will be invited to BYO, according to Galante.)

“I like to see this as a community center,” Arquillos said. “With a respect for the written word.”

And so it is. Just beyond an aisle of medieval armor, the Time Travel Mart gives way to a tutoring center with a Victorian air, including flouncy writing desks, red floral wallpaper, parlor love seats, a black velvet curtain and Persian-y rugs, Here, Kirkman, as Shelley, made her hay, abetted by a lively Q&A.

Such respectful disrespect is a hallmark of 826; Arquillos couldn’t quite talk of “mentors from the past” with a straight face, even as audience members snapped up copies of Shelley’s work at the signing table behind him.

Despite Kirkman’s prior unfamiliarity with Shelley’s oeuvre -- “I Googled ‘recommended passages from Frankenstein,’ ” she acknowledged -- impersonating the artist appealed for a couple of reasons.

“I’m a lover of anything that brings people back from the dead,” said Kirkman, who admitted to a grade school-era craze for dressing up as Mozart and other renowned departeds.

But even more important, she suggests, is 826LA and what it offers kids. “I don’t know how I kept going with all the discouragement I got from adults,” she said.