Recently, we attended the 2nd annual Tucson Festival of Books, a two- day happening advertised as having over 400 notable authors. It was held on the University of Arizona campus and was well attended and totally free. We went on Sunday and were able to see two panel discussions and a venue where Scott Simon of NPR interviewed Elmore Leonard and his two sons, who are also writers.
The first panel discussion was called “History as Bestseller” and was made up of three authors of popular books on historical people and events-- Hampton Sides whose books are about the Bataan Death March and Kit Carson, Jeff Guinn who wrote about Bonnie and Clyde, and James Donovan whose book is about Custer and Little Bighorn. One of the main topics discussed was the gap between writers who write straight history, e.g. textbooks, and those who write “popular” books on history. All three authors fall into the second category and all agreed that their target audience was the general population of readers and not just academicians. The moderator, Paul Hutton, a history professor, represented an author of a more straight historical perspective.
When in college doing research for papers, I remember becoming totally absorbed in finding more information about a certain subject. I felt alive, caught between obsession and joyous commitment. These 3 authors all loved the research part of their work and admitted that they often get so involved in research that they have to force themselves to get down to the actual writing of the book. They were guided by a commitment to the actual events and especially bringing to life the essence of the historical figures.
The second panel discussion consisted of three authors of fiction based on historical events. The panel title was “Bending the Truth”. It consisted of Jamie Ford who wrote The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a novel that takes place during the time of the internment of Japanese citizens from Seattle. Laura Fitzgerald is the author of One True Theory of Love about a white American woman who, during a time of change, falls in love with an Iranian man. The third panelist, Jennie Shortridge, wrote When She Flew based on a newspaper article about a Vietnam veteran raising his daughter out in the woods because of his own war induced paranoia.
These authors were all inspired by an historical event or time but did not concern themselves with writing straight history. They were more interested in using fictional characters to tell their stories. They all did extensive research and said it was important to be accurate when referring to historical places and events. They agreed that historical fiction when done well can often bring out the underlying truth better than factual history. One example is Jamie Ford’s main character. As a little boy he is forced by his father to wear a button on his coat written in English, “I am Chinese”. This actually happened to Ford’s father and it becomes a poignant symbol in his book. Every morning when he leaves for school his father checks to make sure he is wearing it. This forces the reader to continually experience the mixed emotions of the time and especially of the Chinese boy over the treatment of his Japanese friend and her family.
The Scott Simon interview of Elmore Leonard and his two sons was entertaining. Scott Simon is a great interviewer and showed his respect and liking for the Leonards. Elmore Leonard has written best sellers for over forty years. He was by far the most successful author we heard speak. His sons talked about how their father was happiest when he was working at his craft. Elmore said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else with his life and said he still loves writing even after all these years. During the question and answer period, he was asked why he stopped writing western novels. He had a successful career in this genre and the questioner was clearly disappointed that he abandoned it. His answer was simple. To paraphrase he said, Westerns weren’t popular anymore and there wasn’t any money in it, so he switched to mysteries. He was the most casual and eccentric of all the authors. He excitedly talked about enjoying watching TV game shows. The audience laughed thinking he was joking, but he was trying to convey something he saw of value in these shows having to do with the contestants and how they behaved. I thought this could have been an opening to how the mind of a great writer works but Scott Simon let it drop moving on to the next question. Elmore, like a pro, allowed the interview to move on as well, without concern. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future we see an Elmore Leonard novel with characters on a game show. It will probably become a movie as well.
All the authors, without exception, admitted that writing was hard work but the most satisfying activity they have ever done. Several even compared it to sex to accentuate their point. They all seemed to enjoy the fame and the money that went along with being published and commented on how excited they were when they saw their first book in print. But the consensus was that the real value of writing is in the process itself--the daily discipline that gives birth to the creative flow.