Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Does Greg Mortenson Need a Bodyguard? Tidbits from the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival


I spent the weekend at the Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival, but haven’t blogged about it yet since Yom Kippur came between my return and my computer keyboard. (I did twitter during the conference, though.)

This is really one of the most interesting literary conferences on the West Coast. Started three years ago by Jim and Cindy McGillen (he made his fortune as one of the producers of the TV show, Dallas) it is modeled on the authors’ festival held every year in Sun Valley, Idaho.

About 30 authors and public figures are invited to each year, and each one is supposed to be a dynamic public speaker. Most get up on stage and talk to the 500 or so members of the audience for 15 minutes. It’s not a book reading, but a performance, where authors talk about their inspiration, their process, and the content of their books. The higher profile speakers get to talk longer.

The big names this year were Greg Mortenson, Elizabeth Gilbert, P.J. O’Rourke, Carl Hiassen, David Kennedy, Abraham Veghese, Reza Aslan, Michael Krasny, Carlos Prieto, and Shelby Steele.

Some of the less well known (but equally impressive) writers included David Ulin, Rick Wartzman, Louise Steinman, Kemble Scott, Cara Black, Frank Portman, Shana MacCaffey, Neil Hotelling, David Roche, Don George, and Rodes Fishburne, among others. (I spoke as well.)

The McGillens really know how to treat authors well. (Since most of the time authors don’t get treated to much, a little hospitality goes a long way.) They paid for everyone to stay in charming inns around Carmel. They fed writers all day long. They hosted two fabulous dinners, including one on Carmel beach with grilled salmon, steak, fresh tomatoes, bean salad, couscous, brownies and strawberries. You could drink mojitos or wine or beer. Bonfires blazed on the beach as the sun set.

Here are some of the highlights:

Greg Mortenson is so popular that he travels with an Israeli bodyguard. It’s not to protect him from irate Taliban members who are mad at all the schools he’s helped set up in Afghanistan. It’s to protect him from his fans.

And boy does Mortenson have fans. KQED host Michael Krasny interviewed him on stage. I didn’t find Mortenson particularly articulate, but he has clearly influenced a lot of love. After his talk he signed books for four hours straight. I kept passing by the table where he was signing and noticed how intently he talked to each fan.

His constant touring seems to have taken a toll, though. Mortenson looked very tired, like he hadn’t slept much, had been eating all the wrong foods, and hadn’t gotten outside nearly enough. Mortenson’s 13-year old daughter came in on Friday to do a presentation with her father to Monterey County middle and high school students. She told one organizer she hadn’t seen her father in two months.

Elizabeth Gilbert swooped in and out of the festival as befits an author of her standing. I won’t forget the image of her sitting in the green room surrounded by a large group of adoring fans. They were all female high school students who were volunteering at the festival, and they eagerly discussed love and writing with Gilbert.

Here is what I tweeted about Gilbert:

·  elizabeth Gilbert at Carmel festival: surprised by men in audience. Usually speaks to mostly women10:55 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

·  Wrote first draft of new book Committed, about marriage, "pandering" to readers of Eat Pray Love. It was dreadful, Gilbert said10:57 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

·  "I had become weird, plasticized version of my own voice." trashed it , spent 6 months gardening in New Jersey10:59 AM Sep 26th from Echofon
·  When winter came, so did new voice and first sentence: in autumn of 2006, I found myself traveling through the mountains of North Vietnam ..11:01 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

·  "with a man who had yet to become my husband.". Gilbert found her voice and wrote entirely new book. Great crowd pleaser.11:02 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

That about sums ups Gilbert’s talk. In her case, it was more authors than ideas.

Carl Hiassen flew in to Carmel on Thursday so he could play the Cypress golf course on Friday before his talk. I asked him how an author like him (many best sellers) chooses which festivals to attend. He said he had met Jim McGillen at Sun Valley the previous year and liked him. An offer to play one of the world’s top golf course sweetened the deal.

A few wonderful surprises:

Mexican cellist Carlos Prieto giving a moving history of his cello, which was built by Stradivarius in the 17th century. His Spanish accent made the tale even more beguiling. And after he played a piece by Bach, everyone in the audience knew they had to buy his book.

Shana Mahaffey, whose new book, Sounds Like Crazy, hadn’t even officially been released yet. She gave a moving talk about the influence her grandfather had over her and how he helped her finish the book. (Unfortunately he died before he could see the finished product.)

Reza Aslan’s description of what Iran feels: it sees US troops in every country on its borders and a military superpower talking about “regime change” for Iran for 30 years. In short, Iran feels under attack and unless the U.S. recognizes its vantage point, talks and sanctions will be useless. An attack will make everything worse in the Middle East.

Shelby Steele, who rose to prominence in part because of the novelty of an African-American being a conservative, did not say a single thing I agreed with. He said liberals had given conservatives a bad name by making fun of them. (Isn’t this what people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have done to liberals?) He said that political correctness is so strict in the US that now when people criticize Obama they are accused of being racist. (I think he is confusing the idea that the birthers who question where Obama was born are considered racist, not all critics.) But as much of the audience at the festival were older and probably somewhat conservative, his remarks went over well.

PJ O’Rourke said he was very happy to have been invited to a book festival. He dreads the day he is invited to a Twitter festival. (Although he conceded it might be mercifully short.)

I had never heard of Richard Lederer, who is well known for his Anguished English series. He has just written two books, one about dogs and one about cats. (I guess he saw that Marley & Me had made a mint.) This man is funny and can spin words like a master. Now that he has written about a man’s best friend, I bet he is going to become extremely well-known.

Michael Krasny can tell some very funny Jewish jokes.

Cara Black makes you want to hop the next plane for Paris to wander the back streets of the city like her character Aimee Leduc.

1 comment:

mrfinger said...

Great write up - you were at the same event as I was which is nice to hear.