Author sightings create new literary experiences

Somehow, it’s not quite the same as running into George Clooney.

As native Angelenos know, casually bumping into movie stars is a likely possibility. A chance meeting can occur while waiting for a table at L.A. Live, standing in the luggage queue at LAX or even just walking the streets of Beverly Hills. And when it happens, many of us are reduced to starstruck admirers, unapologetically speechless as we confront the people who embody our favorite film characters.

With authors, however, the interaction is a bit different. Sure, some of our favorite novelists might be just as attractive and charismatic as Hollywood icons, but when their written creations are laid out on the blank page before us, we feel a certain closeness that we don’t necessarily get with stars of the screen.

Perhaps this feeling of intimacy comes with navigating the relationship between “creator” and “created.” Musicians, for example, usually gain respect when listeners learn that they have written their own lyrics or composed their own songs.

Artists simply feel more “authentic” if they’ve taken the time to put their own feelings — whether imaginary or not — on paper.

Imagine, for example, if Eminem didn’t write his own songs. Even for an artist who’s been criticized for his masochistic lyrical tendencies, the Grammy-winning rapper has earned respect for his unflinching ability to talk about his experiences with bullying and fatherhood in songs such as “Brain Damage” and “Hailie’s Song.”

And say what you like about Taylor Swift, but no one can deny that she’s not afraid to share her emotions when she’s discussing her friend Abigail in “Fifteen” or telling Drew “he’s the reason for the teardrops on her guitar.”

For authors, however, negotiating the territory between “creator” and “created” is a little ickier. As creative writers know, it’s extremely difficult to isolate yourself from the characters and worlds you create. Personal experiences creep in through the nouns and adjectives. Inner hopes and fears weave their way into character descriptions and plot development. Even though a story might not be true, per se, it is still an inseparable part of the one who created it.

Perhaps that’s why events like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books draw so much attention. This weekend, the festival celebrates its 18th year of existence and its third year on USC’s campus. Last year, the Festival of Books drew more than 100,000 attendees, all lovers of literature who were eagerly anticipating a chance to get their hands on some rare books or interact with their favorite writers. Eric Jerome Dickey, Anne Rice and Julie Andrews all made appearances, dazzling crowds with their insightful takes on literature and the writing process.

This year, the so-called literary “headliners” feature everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Lemony Snicket to Jamaica Kincaid, and fans of their works can easily spend more than an hour simply waiting in line for a three-second encounter with the admired authors.

But why is meeting an author in person accompanied by so much enthusiasm? Perhaps it’s because readers realize that by enjoying a particular novel, they are, in essence, enjoying a writer’s mental space. Unlike movie stars, who fit themselves into the predetermined molds of their characters, writers create the space being filled, starting from scratch as they ingrain themselves in each persona and detail.

When talking about the beloved characters in Harry Potter, for example, meeting Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Watson has a different connotation than meeting J.K. Rowling. Radcliffe might be charming as the loyal Harry, but Rowling, as the author, is Harry. She’s inhabited his mind, formed his history and mannerisms. And, yes, she might be lacking a lightning-shaped scar on her forehead, but Harry’s psychology has been wrought out of Rowling’s own reality and imagination.

This week, attendees at the Festival of Books will get the chance to interact with A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Count Olaf just by attending Snicket’s Saturday reading. And Offred of A Handmaid’s Tale will make an appearance in Bovard Auditorium as author Margaret Atwood engages in a conversation with KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt.

I exaggerate to make a point, but when we meet our favorite writers, it’s undeniable that we are meeting the psychologies and ideologies of the people who have touched us with their stories.

When reading the likes of Dana Johnson’s Elsewhere, California, for example, readers are essentially engaging with California and Los Angeles the way the author sees it.

And perhaps the author of Inkheart, Cornela Funke, never found herself physically trapped inside the world of a book, but underneath it all, there’s a startling metaphor about the joys of good literature. Fans of Inkheart certainly won’t have experiences battling the evil Capricorn, but they will understand that a story can capture your attention and feel just as tangible as their everyday realities — just as Funke intends them to.

It is the philosophy of these authors and the chance to recognize our own fears and hopes in other people that gets our blood pumping at the prospects of meeting them.

Sure, we might joke that authors are playing God as they create a world and characters that capture our hearts. But more importantly, we can realize that they are also playing themselves.


Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.