Handler and Greer, Accordions and Martinis

Daniel Handler (author of The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, Adverbs, as well as the Lemony Snicket books) and Andrew Sean Greer (author of The Story of Marriage, The Path of Minor Planets, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli) have great chemistry. You know how I wished that events billed as, “conversations between authors,” would make me feel like I was hanging out in a living room with two awesome, smart people? That happened tonight!

First of all, congrats to Z Space in San Francisco for creating a warm and inviting stage “set.” Comfy chairs, a nice rug, flowers on the table–the mood was right from the start.

Daniel Handler and Andrew Greer

The two guys are obviously real friends, and what a difference that makes. They wrote questions for each other and took turns drawing them from a fish bowl. In answer to one of them, Daniel Handler recounted how he was having trouble making a particular paragraph interesting. The people were in a car, maybe there was scenery going past, and then he realized, I don’t have to write this! They can just be home! He said (to paraphrase as always), “When have I ever been reading a novel and thought, my god, those people were just in a restaurant, and now they are home. How did that happen? A horse?”

The message here was, if you are struggling with a passage, perhaps it isn’t any good and you can just throw it out. I like that!

Andrew muses about that strange feeling that if something is easy to do, it must be no good. Doing good work is supposed to be difficult. Strange how so many of us have had that idea pounded into us.

They covered recipes for starving artists (minestrone with a stolen parmesan rind?), how to throw a cheap cocktail party (trick your guests into bringing the booze), what kind of servant you’d like to have, which book you’d like your life to be like, how to name characters (pretend you need a name for a friend’s baby), music to write by, how to cause a riot, and more. I feel very well informed after this lecture!

After a sparse spattering of questions from the audience (I often draw a blank at these times) Daniel Handler brought out a fabulous vintage cocktail kit, (I’m not sure what you call these things. A cocktail suitcase? Portable bar?)–and proceeded to make a martini for he and Andrew. They’d only taken a few sips before they launched into a maudlin accordion/ukelele duet.

Daniel Handler and Andrew Greer in concert

An evening to satisfy all the senses. Thanks, Litquake, for making this happen!

Do you want to live forever?

I might have offhandedly answered yes before I read Bruce Sterling’s book, Holy Fire. To quote Amazon:

In an era when life expectancies stretch 100 years or more and adhering to healthy habits is the only way to earn better medical treatments, ancient “post humans” dominate society with their ubiquitous wealth and power.

This book is, to date, the only book I’ve read that offers a good argument for kicking the bucket. What I took away from this is that living a longer than normal lifespan happens at the expense of the next generation. That, at some point, we are meant to give up our seat in the theater of life so that someone else can enjoy the show. Until we colonize other planets and are not stuck here on Earth with limited resources, this sounds fair!

I was excited to discover this topic being discussed at Litquake by David Ewing Duncan, Sonia Arrison, and Paul Saffo. What an amazing line up! David Ewing Duncan has written eight books and writes for The Atlantic. Sonia Arrison is an author and trustee of Singularity University. Paul Saffo is a futurist and makes long-term predictions (and is involved in The Long Now Foundation). He joked that is the type of prediction to make, as by the time they come to pass (or not), everyone will have forgotten about you and what you said.

When I'm 164 at Litquake

David Ewing Duncan, Sonia Arrison, and Paul Saffo after their talk at Litquake.

The talk was fascinating and too brief! Some interesting facts about aging in general…a statistic I hope I got right: in 1960, 15% of the population was under age 5, and 5% over 60, and now that has flip flopped. China is going to face a huge crisis soon as its population ages. Also, when Social security was started, there were only 9 million people in the U.S. over age 65. In 2010, there were 40 million, and the line shoots up from there.

Much of the discussion focused on quality of life. No one wants to be 100 and be miserable!

Also, though there has been promising research done on worms and rats for life extension, all the panelists seemed to agree that it was going to be a long time before this gets to humans. I love Paul Saffo’s quote, “Many people mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

David Duncan brought up an interesting fact. When he interviewed people about living forever, he expected religion to become a non-issue in this imagined future, but interest in religion seemed not to be affected by the idea of immortality. He (I assume) figured that religion was about afterlife, but found it is also about how to live life, and thus could possibly become stronger as life gets longer.

They briefly discussed how immortality has been portrayed in literature, and it was nearly universally BAD. I’m wracking my brain to think of immortal characters that were happy and well adjusted. The only ones I can recall are usually alien or augmented with machines or in and out of cryo-sleep and they aren’t normal people hanging around living life and having to eat and deal with home repairs.

Finally, the issue of the cost of prolonging life arose. This will initially be very expensive, all agreed. The panelists pointed out that ALL technologies are initially expensive and that that early adopters pay a big price for something that isn’t even that good. By the time it is perfected, the price drops. Cell phones, computers, etc. On the other hand, the technology might remain expensive and be used exclusively by the rich, allowing them to accumulate riches and hold on to them. To paraphrase Paul Saffo, a few old turtles, surrounded by the masses who breed and die like mayflies. Yikes!!

That was more or less the conclusion Bruce Sterling reached, and also reminded me of Richard K. Morgan’s book Altered Carbon:

…what religion cannot guarantee technology has already delivered; when your consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack and routinely downloaded into a new body even death has become little more than an inconvenience. As long as you can afford a new body…

Given the fact that we have limited resources and a small planet, I can’t imagine life extension really taking off for the majority of us until we get our population under control, or, until we colonize another planet! I think that life extension would be great for space travelers since it takes so freaking long to get anywhere in this universe. Since research will continue though, I’m on the side of the pessimists and am pretty sure the treatments will be purchased only by the very rich and will cause more wealth to be consolidated by the wealthiest among us.

“First-time authors reveal all”

Five authors, all recently published, all with very different stories (literally and figuratively).

Litquake event

Belo Cipriani, Bill Peters, Stacy Carlson, Elizabeth Percer, Sarah Ladipo Manyika

As someone without a published book, it is tempting for me to believe there is a “right” and “wrong” way to go about this process, and that can be distracting. I chug along my merry way, then go to a seminar and leave thinking, oh crap! My plan is ridiculous! I’d better (insert whatever the speaker told me to do).

Good speakers are very convincing, and most don’t stand behind a podium saying “Well, you can do it this way, or that way, or do nothing…” As a result I hear many strong proclamations.

Happily, this panel was a great reality check. Some of the authors have agents, some do not. (Stacy Carlson queried 175 before she found one, Bill Peters never found one and went direct to a publisher). Some do crazy amounts of social media. Some do none. Some took 10 years to write their book, others worked faster.

The bottom line is that getting a book written and published is a ton of work, and nearly all authors (not just on this panel) admit to fears of failure, feeling despair, wondering if the work is any good. One thing was said that I particularly liked (to paraphrase), “The day the book was sold was no different than any other day, no different techniques. I was doing the same thing I’d done all year.”

Perseverance. That is what these authors have in common. They all kept hammering away at this until they found what many of them called “the ideal reader.” Someone who gets it, who likes the book, be it agent or publisher.

The good new is, I am working hard, so I know I’m doing at least one thing right! Thanks to Liquake for putting on this panel.

Sin and Syntax, Sonic Booms, More Sin

I almost didn’t make it to my first Litquake event, “Sin & Syntax: On Language and Writing.” Lemme explain. This is a wild weekend in San Francisco. Castro Street Fair, Fleet Week, an airshow, an America’s Cup race…all these things competing with a lecture about grammar.

I set out early so I could take a quick peek at the air show before I got studious.
party tug boat

My plans were nearly derailed. I joined a river of people headed to the Embarcadero. Everyone was excited and friendly. The weather was perfect. A party tugboat passed by, everyone onboard hooting and waving. “Come pick me up!!” I wanted to yell. A couple guys asked me if I knew when and where the America’s Cup race would take place. I did and told them, all the while thinking, I could be there in 10 minutes. Why am I going to this talk?

I firmly believe in that quote that says something about 90% of success is showing up. What I didn’t realize is that I might show up and get distracted by a shiny object.

Reluctantly, I made my way back downtown and took a seat in a strange foyer with flickering florescent lights. I am happy to report that Constance Hale was at least as interesting as a few bi-planes twirling smoke, and I’m glad I went.

To quote from the Litquake guide:

Constance Hale spreads her irreverent ideas about writing in The New York Times Opinionator series and in her books, Sin and Syntax and Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. She covers the writing life at sinandsyntax.com.

First off, she is a great speaker–personable, captivating, comfortable with her content, herself, and her audience. She is so dynamic that it is impossible to take a picture of her with her hands not blurring. She made me realize I’ve been wielding the English language like a blunt wooden sword, hacking my way to my goal through sheer determination. Which, frankly, works in some situations, but I aspire to do better.

Her defense of dynamic verbs was compelling, and she convinced me that most adverbs are crutches for weak verbs. I’m definitely going to get her book, Sin and Syntax.

After her talk, I wandered to high ground, hoping to see the Blue Angels, but thanks to Twitter, I found out they were delayed by an hour, so I made my way to Vesuvio’s for “Do you come here often?”–Writers at the bar.

Vesuvio’s is a famous bar once frequented by beat poets. It is small and cute, but I don’t make it over to North Beach very often so I haven’t been here in years. I hear, and can almost see, Ransom Stephens and Beth Lisick read excepts from their books (up there on the mezzanine).

I am shocked to learn that Beth Lisick has moved to Brooklyn! I know her as one of the women that does Porchlight, a series I love, and I had no idea she’d left town. Her website says she is “from the San Francisco Bay area” which I guess is technically still true. I’m happy that San Francisco is a creative breeding ground, but I’d also like it to be a place writers can stay when they grow up!

Litquake, San Francisco’s Literary Festival


Litquake starts now!

This year’s festival features 163 events, more than 850 authors — and most of it free! I attended last year and was overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of the events.

The festival culminates in Litcrawl—>

“Join us Saturday, October 13, 2012, in San Francisco’s Mission District, where it all began. With more than 85 venues (bars, bookstores, art galleries, cafés, stores… even a beekeeping supply shop with live chickens!) and 450 authors reading their work in a single night, we aim to give poetry and prose a grandstand and book lovers a binge. And best of all, it’s all free.”