San Francisco Magazine
I spent much of the weekend at Book Group Expo in
This is the third meeting of Book Group Expo, which is the mastermind of Anne Kent, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, and Suzanne Pari. They work for months to put together provocative panels that combine established and emerging authors.
The Expo kicked off Friday night with a cocktail party for authors and moderators. There was lots of wine and little food, which meant that shortly into the evening the conversations were a little more honest and revealing than average. A complaint about a bad review was met with similar confessions of despair about other bad reviews. Authors traded tips on how to be gracious to readers without having to endlessly repeat themselves. The star power was high: the authors included Julia Glass, Andre Debus III, Gail Tsukiyama, Garth Stein, Janelle Brown, Joshua Henkin, Diana Spechler, John Nathan, Selden Edwards, Marisa De Los Santos, Julia Flynn Siler, and David Corbett. I am sure there were many others I did not recognize in my two-glasses-of-wine-on-an-empty-stomach-haze.
At the end of the evening, Sam Barry was playing tunes on a white grand piano in the corner. Kathi Kamen Goldmark was leading a group of the less-musically gifted in song, and revelry filled the room.
The next morning I moderated a panel called Self-Discovery Through Friendship. It was very well-attended, probably because Kate Jacobs, the author of the very popular The Friday Night Knitting Club was there. (The book has sold more than one million copies and the sequel, Knit Two, comes out Nov. 25th) Annie Barrows, the co-author of the best-selling Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, was also a huge draw. The book, co-written with her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, who died before she saw its great success, is on the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Amazon best seller lists.
The other authors were Ron Carlson, who heads up the fiction writing program at the
The last author was Deborah Copaken Kogan, whose first novel, Between Here and April, has just been released. Kogan also wrote the memoir Shutterbabe, and a memorable essay in The New Yorker about her son, an actor.
I had not realized before the panel that Kogan’s book is based on her life. It tells the story Elizabeth, whose best friend in first grade suddenly disappears. No one explains the girl's disappearance and it is not until years later that
Cogan spent three years trying to write this book as non-fiction but finally realized that the facts could not sufficiently explain what drove a young mother to kill her children. So she fictionalized the book to get close to the truth. The audience really responded to her story.
The rest of the day was spent in a whirl of talking, talking, talking, gawking, and thumbing through the huge number of books for sale.
The Claremont Book Club must certainly be one of the oldest book groups in the nation: it has been in continuous existence for 90 years.
Every month, women who live within the gates of the
The group today holds on to some vestiges of its once-elite roots, but with a
The 44 members and 20 associates of the Claremont Book Group drink tea and coffee poured from sterling silver tea sets and eat heart healthy salads and lunch dishes, much like their forebears. But the house where I attended Thursday’s luncheon had an Obama sign prominently displayed on its front lawn, just like many of its neighboring homes. So while members of the book club may live in elegant houses reminiscent of another era, many of them are resolutely liberal.
I have heard about the Claremont Book Group for years, but since I don’t live within the gates of the
Orenstein and Brownrigg met years ago at a writing group and are now close friends. In a bizarre twist, they and other members of the group found they were writing about similar themes – maternal loss and grief. Orenstein joined the group after suffering numerous miscarriages and round after round of in vitro fertilization treatments. Brownrigg’s second child had been born prematurely and only lived an hour. Another member of the writing group was dealing with the loss of a child to SIDS. “We were all contending with age and grieving and changes of life,” Orenstein explained. “We wanted to break silences and address things people don’t talk about.”
Orenstein had been a successful journalist for years and had published two books before she began working on Waiting for Daisy. But she never felt like a true writer, she said, until she began writing in the first person about her own personal tragedies. She was in
Brownrigg, who is married to Sedge Thomson, the host of the radio show West Coast Live, grew up in
Is it ethical to disguise yourself as a businessman and interview
Can a reporter sign up for a poetry conference, attend without identifying he is a reporter, and write about it for Harper’s Magazine?
Is it okay to spend a year as a prison guard and not tell your colleagues that you want to write about life inside Sing Sing?
These were some of the questions that came up Monday night at a panel discussion put on by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The event was tied to the release of a new book called Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person, a collection of pieces from Harper’s Magazine.
I went because I wanted to hear Ted Conover, the author or numerous first person books, including Newjack, about the year he spent as a corrections officer at Sing Sing prison in
I didn’t get to hear enough about Conover’s techniques or what he is working on now. I did learn, however, that when he was an undergraduate at
There were really two different discussions going on. One involved more general reporting where the journalist is a subject of sorts. Michael Pollan’s attempt to grow opium and his subsequent troubles with the law fall into that category. Pollan also bought a steer cow and followed its life cycle for a story.
The other category involves outright deception or acts of omission. Roger Hodge talked about a story Ken Silverstein did for Harpers where he pretended to want to hire a lobbyist to work for the corrupt government of Turkmenisten. Silverstein wanted to find out how lobbyists manipulate reporters and the government, so he pretended to be part of a fictitious group called the Maldon Group. He set up a website for the group, got a cell phone with a
Some of the best reporting comes from deception but most reporters and papers claim they only use it as a last resort. Cynthia Gorney tried to generate a discussion about the ethical issues around submersion reporting, but the panelists did not disagree. All said they were generally opposed to deception but thought it could be used in certain circumstances.
The panel discussion was only marginally interesting. However, I bought the book and read Silverstein’s article. While I am uncomfortable with the fact that he taped all his conversations with lobbyists (in
There’s so much going on in the Bay Area that I sometimes finish a weekend more exhausted than when I started.
On Saturday, I attended the 20th anniversary benefit luncheon for the Kidney Foundation of Northern California. This is one of the premier author events in the country as it showcases top authors. They get to stand in the front of a huge ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in
There weren’t any fiery politics this time. The authors were Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the NBC doctor and former
Then I skipped over to Geary Street to see artist Judith Belzer's show at the new gallery Room for Painting, Room for Paper. Judith has been painting extreme close-ups of trees, and her work appears both detailed and abstract. They are the kind of paintings one could stare at for hours. The Chronicle profiled Belzer this morning. She is married to Michael Pollan and admits it can be tough to be in his shadow. "I'm really proud of hime and I think he does wonderful work," saids Belzer. "I don't really like being 'Mrs. Michael' that much .... But I pretty much just do my work and try to keep my head down and not get bothered by that."
On Sunday, I went to the Mill Valley Film Festival to see The Betrayal, a new documentary film by Ellen Kuras. The film focuses on the impact of the secret
Then on Sunday night, my family and I caught the closing performance of Yellow Jackets, the Berkeley Rep play about Berkeley High in the 1990s. The play focuses on the school newspaper and the question of whether one of its articles was racist in tone. It was written by Itmar Moses, a former Berkeley High student. All I can say is the more things change, the more they stay the same.
These were the things I wanted to do, but did not have the energy to do:
Attend the Lit Crawl in the
Go hear Diane Johnson at Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore on College. I have met Diane before and she is a friend’s relative, so I wanted to see her in this intimate setting. Besides, I love her books and I have heard Lulu in
What I hope to do tonight: Go hear author Ted Conover talk about immersion reporting. I have read almost every one of Conover’s books, starting before he was a superstar. He took an unusual career path by remaining outside the mainstream of journalism and jumping right into books. My favorite was Coyotes, which documented the world of illegal aliens. I liked Newjack, a chronicle of his year as a prison guard at Sing Sing, as well.
I got my first taste of book touring this past weekend, and it was a thrill.
I didn’t start out tentatively, one toe in the water. I leapt, making my first appearance on in a 15-minute interview Saturday on West Coast Live, a radio program from KALW 91.7. I think I got through it with a minimum of ums and uhhs.
Luckily, the host Sedge Thomson made it easy. He was prepared and had an excellent set of probing and provocative questions. It was clear that Sedge had read the entire book, which is not always the case with radio hosts. The questions weren’t obvious, and I ended up enjoying myself. It’s hard to condense a 360-page book and eight years of research into an interview, but I managed to convey a sense of Isaias Hellman, his life, and times.
No rest for the weary. I left West Coast Live, with its sweeping views of the
My time slot to sign was 2 p.m. When I sat down, pen in had, to sign my first books (ever!) there was a respectably long line waiting. I don’t know if they were there because the book was free or because they wanted to read Towers of Gold, but I got so much joy out of signing, it didn’t really matter.
Then on Monday, I was in a panel at the Commonwealth Club for Litquake, the
The room was packed. A writing acquaintance, Joan Gelfand, even blogged about the event. It’s a hoot to be on the other side.
The funny thing is that my book won’t be released until Nov. 11. So this was just a warm up. I will have the fun of doing more events in the coming weeks.
I have an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle today about the demise of the 118-year old law firm, Heller Ehrman. The firm was started by Isaias Hellman’s son-in-law and was inexorably linked to Hellman and Wells Fargo Bank.
If you want to hear more on why history is better than fiction, come to the Litquake panel Scandal, Intrigue and Drama in California History, on Monday Oct. 6 at the Commonwealth Club. I will be on a panel talking about writing history with authors Julia Flynn Siler, Ethan Rarick, and Rick Wartzman.
Michael Chabon reports on the Democratic Convention in
Caitlin Flanagan has an interesting piece (and video) on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. It’s partially a review of a new book, Patty’s Got A Gun, by William Graebner.
I have always been fascinated by Patty Hearst. When I was 16, I scored a press pass to her trial, even though my school didn’t have a newspaper. On the day I was set to go to the trial, I was walking to school when my father drove by. My parents were divorced and I didn’t live with my father. He picked my up and took me to school and I told him how I snared a press pass to the Patty Hearst trial. He was so impressed by my ingenuity because seats were in high demand at the trial. We had a nice interaction. Two days later he died of a heart attack while skiing. He was 45. So you see, Patty Hearst resonates in many ways for me.
Bay Area author, Meg Waite Clayton, the bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters, has sold her next book to Ballantine. It’s called The Ms. Bradwells and it is about “four law school friends whose reunion at a Chesapeake Bay island family home leads them to face the truth about an unexplained death years earlier, their very different career paths, and the redemptive power of friendship,” according to Publishers Marketplace.
Meg’s new blog on how authors came to be writers is really interesting.