Monday, March 14, 2005

Celebrity Authors

It’s tough living out of the New York-Los Angeles axis. There aren’t that many movie stars to spot, now that Sharon Stone has left the Bay Area.

Fortunately, we have our own kind of celebrity here, the author celebrity. There are famous couples, like Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. There’s Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, and the crowd at the Grotto, including Po Bronson and Mary Roach. The picture rounds out nicely with Isabelle Allende and Anne Lamott in Marin.

The San Francisco Chronicle anointed another “it” couple in the Sunday Style section by interviewing Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty about their favorite places to shop in the Bay Area. Orringer, the author of How to Breathe Underwater, and Harty, the author of Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, were Wallace Stegner fellows at Stanford and still occasionally teach fiction for the university’s extension classes. The pair like Porch Light Antiques on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, Sadie’s Flying Elephant Bar on Portrero in San Francisco and the Red Victorian Movie House on Haight Street. As for where they buy their books:

“Our favorite bookstores, in no particular order: the Booksmith on Haight, where Gary and Thomas can recommend the best Flaubert translations or the most incisive history of U.S. involvement in Argentina; Green Apple, on Clement, with its unparalleled selection of remainders and used books; Modern Times, on Valencia, with excellent staff recommendations and an active social conscience; A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, on Van Ness, which has one of the best reading series in the Bay Area; Book Passage, a Corte Madera institution that recently opened a gorgeous new shop in the Ferry Building; and Cody's on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where we've spent many hours happily browsing."

The Chronicle also gave also gave superstar treatment to Khaled Hosseini, author of the mega-best-selling first novel, The Kite Runner. The book, by a Fremont doctor who had never written before, has sold an amazing 1.3 million copies. The paperback just became the #1 New York Times bestseller and Hosseini attributes much of the success to word of mouth sales. (I know I have recommended the book to numerous people). The Chronicle’s book reviewer, David Kipen, didn’t love the book when it first came out in 2003, but Hosseini broke through to author-celebrity status anyway. Edward Guthmann points out how Hosseini’s good looks and charm has contributed to the book’s success.

"Indeed, the gracious, handsome Hosseini is a bit of a star on the book- promotion circuit -- especially with women, who are the primary audience for fiction. "We just think he's wonderful," enthuses Petrocelli. (owner of Book Passage) "When we opened our new store at the Ferry Building, Khaled and his wife brought flowers. He asked for no recognition or attention; just handed them to me."

Perhaps it matters whether you write fiction or non-fiction. The Bay Area is home to dozens of accomplished non-fiction authors, but somehow they don’t seem to make their way as often into the rarefied world of celebrity. Think of Adam and Arlie Hochschild, who have written enough books between them that they certainly qualify for celebrity-author status. Adam's new book, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in a Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, has been widely praised. But the Hochschilds are more admired than worshipped.

Another example is Judith Moore, whose new memoir, Fat Girl, is a Book Sense pick for March. She’s been completely absent from the local papers, so I was startled when I picked up the book recently and saw she lives in Berkeley. The Washington Post has reviewed Fat Girl, but not the Chronicle.

So there’s a new trifecta at play here: youth, beauty, and degree of hip. While writers are judged primarily on their words and thoughts, they need other qualities to propel them into the rarefied world of celebrity-author.

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