Fantasy Books for a Fantasy Land: LA Times Festival of Books Highlights

This past weekend thousands—yes, thousands—of literature lovers descended upon the University of Southern California’s campus to celebrate 2012’s LA Times Festival of Books. In its second year at the USC location, the event proves that Los Angeles isn’t the pariah of the book world that many would make it out to be. In fact, the topics of several of its many panels and interviews seemed to reflect back on the unique surreality of Los Angeles itself; after all, what better place to discuss monsters, vampires, horror, fantasy, and all out bizarreness than in a land propagated by pure fiction itself?

Besides the talks on California literature, discussions on progressing from page to screen, and the multitude of autobiography-toting celebrities stalking the grounds, a couple of panels delved deeper into the correlation between fiction and Los Angeles. One was Sunday’s “Whimsical Visions” panel, where surrealist writers Amelia Gray, Etgar Keret, Sara Levine, and Ben Loory converged. They talked about their preference for writing outlandish, fantastical elements in their stories. Keret said, “If you meet a girl and kiss her, and it feels like you’re floating in air, then why not write about floating in air? It’s a real feeling, and a real experience.” It’s the kind of theory that seems to fit into a city that makes no apologies for not grounding itself in reality.

The name Los Angeles is synonymous with movies, of course, so their omnipresence at an LA-based book fair is still felt. Interestingly, one upcoming movie is less an adaptation of a single book than it is a 21st-century take on the collected works and life of Edgar Allen Poe. John Cusack was at the festival to speak about “The Raven”, which opens in cinemas this Friday. For any who haven’t seen the trailer, the movie follows Poe (Cusack) as he helps detectives try to catch a serial killer bent on torturing his victims in the style of the writer’s own stories. (Think “The Pit and the Pendulum”—eek.) When asked what he did to prepare for the role, Cusack said that he read all of Poe’s work, which for him was, “like going into a nightmare, in a way.”

Leave it to Hollywood to turn the bookish inventor of the detective novel into an action star. However, Cusack did promise that avid Poe fans would not be disappointed by the film’s inclusion of specific details and fun tidbits from the writer’s life.

Lastly, another panel bent on the fantastical included none other than writers Melissa de la Cruz, Seth Grahame-Smith, Deborah Harkness, and Richard Kadrey. The conversation, titled “Fiction: Bump in the Night,” covered popular culture’s penchant for zombies, vampires, and monsters. And when these authors talk about their monsters of choice, they’re speaking about much more than a spook hiding under the bed. For Grahame-Smith, the vampires in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (also being released as a movie) represent slavery; “They steal your life force to enrich themselves. That’s what slavery is.” De La Cruz, author of the popular occult series “Witches of East End” reasons why we need fantasy-horror in our lives:

“Ten thousand years ago, we had to kill our food, fight cave dwellers and sabre-tooth tigers. Life was scary. Now we have Wi-Fi everywhere. But we still have that physical need to feel threatened, it’s a reaffirmation of life.”

Kadrey said in the same panel, “crime and horror is the literature of permission.” His thoughts of indulgence bring me back to why the fantasy and surrealist authors present at this year’s festival seem so pertinent to Los Angeles. The city is pretty overlooked as a literary destination, and yet so much of fiction exists because readers and authors choose to revel in a facade, to escape reality. If LA is the land of the unreal, of the surreal, perhaps it is much more of a literary hub than we give it credit for.