Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival

I spent about 24 hours at the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival, and to my surprise, I found it exhilarating. And exhausting. The format was different than anything I had experienced, and it created an environment where you were bombarded with the thoughts and words of various authors.

The really big names like Frank McCourt, Sy Hersh, Elizabeth Edwards, Douglas Brinkley, and Doris Kearns Goodwin got to speak by themselves for about an hour. Otherwise there were sessions where four or five authors came on the stage and spoke for about 15 minutes each. They weren't there to read; they were there to entertain, to showcase their personalities so conference participants would want to 1) buy their books 2) come and talk to them some more in small, intimate breakout sessions.

I have seen many authors read, but I never quite realized how authors today are required to be bright, witty, and quick with a quip. Some authors at the festival were excellent at this. Joe Quirk, author of Sperm Are From Men, Eggs Are From Women, gave a short lecture on sex and biology that had people doubled over laughing. Kevin Devlin, the Stanford professor who has a math show on NPR, was also entertaining.

Irshad Manji, the Canadian journalist who wrote The Trouble With Islam kept the audience enraptured with her talk about personal responsibility and courage in the world. She obviously has given this talk dozens of times at universities around the globe, and she does it convincingly. She went on way too long, however, perhaps not realizing that she was cutting into the time of other writers.

What these kind of conferences do well is expose participants to writers they may never have heard of and may have never sought out. I really enjoyed seeing Lolly Winston, Kemble Scott, Amy Wilentz, Judith Freeman, Tamin Ansary, and Robert Scheer, among others. There were a few I wish I could have heard, but I had to leave before their presentations, including Goodwin, Brinkley, Jason Roberts and Beth Lisick.

Hersh and McCourt were worth the many thousands of dollars paid to them by the conference organizers, Jim and Cindy McGillen. McCourt talks in a lilting Irish accent and is charming and funny and self-deprecating. He spoke about teaching at a vocational high school in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the lengths he had to go to make the kids interested in writing.

Hersh spoke after lunch on Saturday and his talk immediately changed the tone of the conference. He spoke about the Bush administration and the small group of neoconservatives who have hijacked foreign policy, despite the complaints of more moderate Republicans and much of the rest of the country. Hersh also spoke about the article he has in this week's New Yorker about new plans to bomb Iran. He said the Taliban are poised to take over Afghanistan and any bombing of Iran might lead that nation to bomb Pakistan in retaliation. And as we all know, Pakistan is very unstable and had many nuclear weapons. Hersh ended his talk by saying he thought the US would live through this dark period. Robert Scheer came on stage next and said he disagreed with Hersh. He had interviewed every president since Nixon (except the current one) and that America is giving in to its darkest impulses.

Was this conference worth $500 a ticket? Clearly, most of those attendees didn't have to think twice about the price. Most were in their 60s or 70s and obviously very wealthy. There were many women with beautifully coiffed blonde hair and fingers and wrists decked in diamonds and gold. I saw a lot of Chanel, Burberry and other designer goods. The authors were more poorly dressed than the attendees. They looked very happy to spend a few days in sunny Carmel.

On a positive note, these people clearly love books and were delighted to meet so many authors. They were buying four to six books at a time at the book table (staffed by Borders, not an independent bookstore.)

The conference, however, suffered from lack of organization, which is not surprising since it was put together in just a few months. Jim McGillen arranged the schedule himself and he neglected to give some authors time on the main stage and others time in a breakout session. Many authors tried not to let this disappoint them. My hat goes off to Bridget Kinsella and Beth Lisick, who were featured less than others. I left before finding out if Jason Roberts finally got a chance on stage. Kemble Scott ended up giving away his time to another writer, Julia Flynn Siler. Despite these glitches, the camaraderie between the authors was strong.

The weather was beautiful, the Sunset Center was a great place to spend a day, and the conversations -- on stage and off -- were stimulating. I would definitely go back next year.

Photo Identification: Frank McCourt and Irish singer Shannon Miller; Irshad Manji signing books; Elizabeth Edwards signing books; Joe Quirk, Julia Flynn Siler, Lolly Winston, and Kemble Scott hanging out in the Green Room; Bridget Kinsella and Jason Roberts at the festival.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for your interesting account of te festival. I videoed the entire event inside and out and Jim is still studying the results to see what we can do to help promote next years festival and to share this years enhusiastic authors and audience with the world at large.
Anmy ideas you may have will be appreciated greatly

Robert DeFord