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On Feeling Like An Author for the First Time at the LA Times Festival of Books

Becoming a published author has been rich in surreal experiences. Some of them, more expected than others. A few moments that I expected to feel profound haven’t, and others that seemed as though they wouldn’t be a big deal have floored me. Holding my actual book for the first time somehow wasn’t as wild as I always thought it would be. However I’ll never forget walking into Barnes & Noble in New York City for my second-ever reading, and halting in mid-step as I realized that the room was packed with people who were there to see…people I didn’t know.

This past weekend turned out to be another unexpected experience for me. It was the weekend of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and I was a speaker on a panel on Saturday morning. It was certainly something I had been looking forward to, in a nerve-wracking kind of way, but I had just kind of assumed that I would do my panel and that the rest of the weekend would be spent trading off Vera so Greg and I could take in a few other talks and lectures. What I hadn’t anticipated at all was what it would feel like to be part of a writers’ community, of what it would be like to be treated as an author, and what it would be like to suddenly see my daughter as the child of a writer.

The weekend actually kicked off on Thursday with an incredibly fun TNB reading in Hollywood with writers Gina Frangello, Brad Listi, Joshua Mohr, Rich Ferguson and Ben Loory (oh man, if you haven’t read Ben Loory, drop everything and pick up his debut book. I simply cannot get enough of this guy). I can also assure you that I looked incredibly pregnant up there on the stage, and that there were no less than five dozen jokes and references made to my belly throughout the evening. I believe Milo Martin actually referred to me as “the size of a two-bedroom in Silverlake.”

(Do you like how I’m craftily trying to hide my belly behind Ben Loory?)

I didn’t sleep a wink on Friday night, fretting about my panel for Saturday morning with the wildly talented and established writers Alexandra Styron, Benjamin Busch and Mark Whitaker, moderated by Samantha Dunn. Compared to these other writers, I felt like so inexperienced and new, but nonetheless I was really grateful for the opportunity to participate in a conversation with them. Greg and Vera accompanied me on Saturday morning and we met Samantha in the authors’ green room, which turned out to be way less of the resting place I thought it would be, and way more of a huge social club for every author you’ve ever heard of (and a bunch you haven’t).

(That’s Ann Rice (!) straight ahead with the grey bob.)

The other writers on my panel turned out to be incredibly gracious and friendly and it wasn’t long before we were whisked away by the LATFOB handlers to our auditorium, leaving Greg and Vera to nosh on the breakfast buffet. The panel itself was a really enjoyable experience. I remained a little nervous throughout, but kept getting distracted from my anxiety by the intelligent and eloquent things my fellow panelists had to say about the craft of writing memoir. Even if I hadn’t been on the panel, it would have been one I would have liked to attend. There were several threads of commonality running through our books — namely parental death and unconventional structure — so it turned out to be a really interesting conversation.

Afterwards, I signed a few books, while Alexandra Styron signed a lot. I loved getting to listen to all the people who stopped to talk to her about her father, and was reminded of what a privilege it is to be able to share the story of a parent.

Afterwards we returned to the green room for lunch. Vera toddled around on the floor with Samantha Dunn’s charming little boy Ben, and it wasn’t long before Jillian Lauren showed up with breakout author Chad Harbach in tow, as well as her adorable son Tariku, and I watched, mesmerized, as my daughter played on the floor in the corner of the green room as authors like David Sedaris and T.C. Boyle cruised by. I suddenly saw Vera as a writer’s daughter, for the first time and it was really…really…I’m not sure what the word was. But I c0uldn’t help wondering what it will be like for her to reflect back on all this one day.

After a while, Greg left to check out a Young Adult author panel and Vera and I milled around some more. At one point we were chatting with Todd Zuniga and he suddenly bent down and ate a potato chip right out of Vera’s hand. In response, she bopped him on the nose, quickly creating one of my favorite moments of the weekend. Not a breath later and I was introduced to the intimidatingly smart Carolyn Kellogg, and moments after that I was chatting with Jonathan Evison about his wildly successful book West of Here, while Vera showed him her ice cream dance. We left with an invite to visit Evison and his family on Bainbridge Island soon. Talk about surreal.

What was even weirder was having all these writers view me as a writer too. Even if they hadn’t read it, everyone had heard of my book. I kept having to remind myself that this was all really happening.

We dragged ourselves home in the afternoon and hurriedly dressed for a wedding of some friends that night. I was pretty much running on pink lemonade, brownies from the green room, and my author high at this point, and wishing I weren’t so pregnant so I could be drinking copious amounts of both coffee and alcohol like everyone else.

The wedding was lovely and of course I cried, partly because I’m pregnant and partly because I always cry. We left a little early and stopped by the Young Literati Book Drop Bash on our way home. I cannot tell you how much I felt like my parents walking into the beautifully lit up downtown library. My parents were always going off to elegant fundraisers and after-hours museums parties it seemed, and so it felt strange and kind of wonderful to be doing something similar. I spent a long time chatting with Joshua Mohr and his lovely writer fiance Leota Higgins (I have a total couple crush on these two). Then I ran into an ex-boyfriend briefly, spent a bit more time with Loory and Evison, whom I could have probably talked to all night, and then bumped into Zuniga again, who had to recount the potato chip story to his guest. On our way out Jillian and her husband Scott were walking in, as were Gina Frangello and Rob Roberge, but we knew we’d see everyone again the next morning.

Got home, crashed out, and then back up again early for a downtown diner breakfast with Miwa Messer and her boyfriend James. We stuffed Vera’s face with pancakes so that she’d keep quiet while we caught up. Miwa is head of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. She’s one of the reasons my book is in the front of every B&N in this country, and she’s also one of my favorite people in the world to talk about books with. She’s read EVERYTHING, knows EVERYONE, and is right on top of everything good that’s about to come out. I could have sat at that table all morning picking her brain, but alas, we were all due back at the festival.

 

My other favorite moment of the weekend happened yesterday morning when I got to watch one of my best friends, Will Richter, do his first-ever book signing for his new YA novel DARK EYES. I seriously got teary (I know, I know, I’m pregnant) watching him sign books for fans. I’ve known Will for years, and for most of those years we were both struggling to become published authors. Somehow in the last year, we both came out with books through Penguin, and it’s been so much fun to share this experience. I’m so, so proud of him and his book.

After that Greg and Vera and I wandered around for a while. I was thrilled to see my book in the Book Soup tent, and they even asked me to sign the remaining two copies.

Also at the Book Soup tent, we ran into author T.C. Boyle and couldn’t help telling him how much we loved him and his books. This was the third time I’d met him, and the man simply couldn’t be more gracious or approachable. He was hilarious with Vera.

The day wound down for us back in the green room. I finally got to meet Antoine Wilson, another LA writer-parent, whose new book Panorama City comes out in a few months, and also ran into Scott O’Conner who recently won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers award for his novel Untouchable. Scott is a dad too, and after I bid farewell to him and Antoine, I watched Vera playing at the table for a moment, thinking about all of these kids of writers.

They just have no idea of what all of this means to all of us. For the last decade, maybe even for all of my life, I’ve worked so incredibly hard to find myself in the place I did this past weekend. I’ve written and rewritten and given up and dragged myself back, and sold out and sold up and finally sold in. Being there this weekend, surrounded by so many others who have chosen this same path was one of the most affirming and exhilarating experiences I’ve had yet as a writer. I can’t wait to do it again next year. If they’ll have me.

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18 Comments

  1. Wow, you must feel as if you could lie down on the sidewalk all day and just breath.
    Glorious day! Happy for you; loved the blog; so juicy with new names. Great pics of your little girl, and I loved the picture of all the books together. Best wishes.

    Comment by Esther Bradley-DeTally on April 23, 2012 at 10:33 am

  2. Your meeting T.C. Boyle makes me super jealous! I just started reading his books (I’m loving Tortilla Curtain) right now and he is simply amazing as a writer.

    In other news, you totally deserve all of this success — don’t think for a minute that you do not!

    Comment by Kristine Hansen on April 23, 2012 at 11:33 am

  3. My favorite weekend of the year, every year. I’m glad I’m not the only writer who feels like this about the LATFOB.

    Great meeting you and your family in person!

    xoA

    Comment by Antoine on April 23, 2012 at 11:51 am

  4. So happy to hear that you feel the same, Antoine. So great to meet you! xo

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm

  5. Oh, thank you Kristine! And you should read Drop City – that’s my favorite TC book.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm

  6. Thanks, Esther! Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 23, 2012 at 1:21 pm

  7. Omg… The pic of Vera and TC Boyle is priceless!!

    Comment by Evelyn on April 23, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  8. This was such a great post Claire! I know when all you authors are writing, you are pretty solitary and it must be somewhat isolating at times. It was so great to read about you meeting your colleagues and finding this sense of community. How cool is that! We, your audience, your readers, are so grateful for the work you do that transports us, teaches us, allows us see things through others eyes, takes us on adventures! Thank you so much for your work!

    Comment by Lori Webber on April 23, 2012 at 6:33 pm

  9. What an exciting weekend. I’m sure there will be many more. Congrats to you.

    Karen

    Comment by Karen on April 23, 2012 at 6:51 pm

  10. Aw, thank you for such a lovely comment Lori!!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 23, 2012 at 8:15 pm

  11. Thank you, Karen!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 23, 2012 at 8:16 pm

  12. It was so fun to see you, Claire! xx

    Comment by Gina Frangello on April 24, 2012 at 6:32 am

  13. So proud and not a little envious of your elbow rubbing with the literati! Sorry to have missed you three; I hope it’s not the last chance to see you pre-baby.

    Comment by Lisa Lilienthal on April 24, 2012 at 3:45 pm

  14. I love this post. It sounds like the weekend was such an amazing experience. How incredible to get to be part of such a supportive creative community. So nice to see all of your hard work pay off, Claire! BTW, TC Boyle wow! His book Drop City is one of my all time favorite books!

    Comment by Wendy on April 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm

  15. Ah, sorry we missed each other Lisa! And yes, hope to see you soon! I have an event coming up in Laguna next month that you might be interested in…xo

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm

  16. Loved seeing you too, Gina! xo

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm

  17. Wendy, Drop City is one of my favorites too!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on April 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm

  18. Hey that’s MY wedding you’re talking about there ( I mean OUR wedding, josh keeps reminding me that it was OUR not MY wedding hahaha) ! Cool :)

    Comment by Lyssa on May 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm

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