On a typical Saturday morning at 9 a.m., UC Irvine’s Student Center would be silent and empty, with the exception of a few over-achieving students trying to get ahead at the beginning of a new quarter. Normally, the sun’s rays would be reflecting off the tables in the bare studying areas and the windows of the large meeting rooms.
However, on Saturday, over 150 strangers of varying ages, careers and origins gathered. On this particular morning, it was not what people did or how successful they were at what they did that mattered. Rather, it was their love affair with literature that brought them together as a community.
The third annual “Literary Orange,” a daylong event celebrating authors, readers and libraries, brought people from all over Orange County together to listen to keynote speakers, engage in panel discussions and meet authors during book signings. With a continental breakfast, hearty lunch and afternoon refreshments, readers and writers of all genres spent eight hours analyzing, discussing and sharing their enthusiasm for literature.
With three keynote speakers — Ron Carlson, Sandra Tsing Loh and Stephen J. Cannell — and 17 panel discussions, guests were given backstage access to authors’ initial brainstorming ideas, bold opinions and exhaustive processes behind writing their books. Some talks were absolutely humorous and others were heart-wrenchingly emotional. However, all proved to be gripping, intimate and rewarding.
Serving as the event’s first speaker, Ron Carlson opened “Literary Orange” with humor and wit as he discussed his own experiences in teaching and writing. As the director of the UCI M.F.A. program in fiction and the author of several well-regarded short story collections and novels, Carlson provided the audience with a rundown of symbols he uses for grading his students.
Perhaps more important and dreadful than getting a paper back with “squigglies” and “double underlines” is getting a paper back with punctured holes. “If you have puncture wounds in your paper, that means ‘Stop.’ Stop now,” Carlson said, and laughter erupted from the audience. Despite the obvious microphone feedback, Carlson spoke in stride and guests did not seem to notice the seemingly never-ending buzzing and crackling.
Although most of what he said was humorous and demonstrated uncanny wit, Carlson also demonstrated impeccable interviewing skills and a more somber tone during his panel discussion with colleague Michelle Latiolais, a professor of English at UCI and author of the novels “Even Now” and “A Proper Knowledge.”
This particular panel, “Looking into ‘A Proper Knowledge’: An Interview with Michelle Latiolais,” discussed her process of character development, personal lessons and creativity in “A Proper Knowledge,” her latest novel that explores autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in children. Per Carlson’s request, Latiolais read the opening paragraphs of her book.
Her reading of the first page illustrated eloquent and rich language as well as a developed, yet page-turning introduction. As she answered Carlson’s complex questions with equally complex responses, Latiolais sparked intellectuality in the audience while demonstrating honorable characteristics such as modesty.
“It was painful that my book did not get instant success,” Latiolais said. When a publisher asked her for a manuscript, she said she had to “dig it up after being in the garage for five years.”
It was not an easy road to success for author and second keynote speaker Sandra Tsing Loh, either. In discussing her latest book “Mother on Fire,” Loh explained that her dreams of success took a different turn, which forced her to readjust. With fully flailing arms and animated facial expressions, Loh stated, “I envisioned a career where I’d write important short stories in my 20s, write a couple of books and win a Pulitzer in my 30s and then travel the world, drinking wine and eating cheese in my 40s.”
Idealistic about all of its nature, she informed the audience that life did not happen quite that way. “I was in my 40s when the wheels decided to come off.” By chronicling her experiences in Van Nuys as a Chinese-German woman and mother, she wrote the successful “A Year in Van Nuys” and “Mother on Fire.”
Meanwhile, her humor and refreshing personality provided a light-hearted atmosphere where the audience doubled over in laughter. Through her own experiences, she provided encouragement and light to young journalists facing a grim future.
This issue of journalism’s future proved to be the topic of discussion among many panels and speeches, including “Journalism: Off the Record.” Here, Barry Siegel, director of UCI’s literary journalism program, and Mike Sager, best-selling author and literary journalism professor, discussed the relationship of writers and their subjects, the fear that comes with writing and the future of journalism.
When moderator Maria Hall-Brown suggested that the problem with journalism was not the lack of good writers, but rather, the lack of good readers, Sager and Siegel were both quick to respond. Sager responded.
“Sure, we’re losing readers but more, we are changing formats,” Sager said. “What is happening is a paradigm shift … writers are still needed. It’s just the businessmen that are freaking out right now. There will never be a loss for intellectual curiosity.”
Siegel took a slightly different approach.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but what I do know is that I have great faith in language, words and story-telling,” Siegel said. “I have faith in the great power that happens between readers and writers.”
This faith was what led Stephen J. Cannell, the last keynote speaker of the day, to such monumental success. Battling dyslexia, failing school and receiving heart-shattering discouragement were all reasons Cannell refused to give up. It was a creative writing course at the University of Oregon that inspired Cannell to pursue his dream of writing. After his professor called him into office hours to tell him “You have a gift from God,” Cannell wrote five hours a day, five days a week (seven hours on Saturdays) for six years.
His hard work and perseverance paid off. Today, he is the best-selling author of 12 novels, an Emmy award-winning writer/producer and chairman of Cannell Studios. In demonstrating such success, Cannell’s core message to the audience was, “There’s room for all of us. I fear that young writers will quit before success. The field tends to be negative, but if you’re willing to work that much without stopping, there is no way this industry won’t fit you in.”
With that, young and old readers and successful and pursuing writers went off to their last panel discussion, filled with excitement, enthusiasm and refreshed outlooks. It was on that particular Saturday that the Student Center was filled with a unique energy consisting of hope, passion and encouragement.