“We all make things up.” In his keynote speech to start the fifth annual Literary Orange this past Saturday at UC Irvine, novelist Ron Hansen presented his audience with this somewhat eccentric remark. Though he was talking about his writing, he meant it to apply outside the literary world as well, citing storytelling as an almost universal facet of human existence. Hansen made many points in his keynote speech, but like most of the talks that day, they were aimed toward the writing world.
Literary Orange is an annual literary festival presented by Orange County Public Libraries and UCI. Every year, authors participate in panels wherein people can interact with them and ask questions.
Panels ranged in topic from “Mystery and Suspense: Adrenaline Rush” to “Romance: Love Between the Pages,” from “Children’s Picture Books: Picture This!” to “The Business of Publishing.” Each panel consisted of several authors (or in the case of the Publishing panel, literary agents) and a moderator.
There were three sessions in all, each with six different panels to choose from. The panels lasted an hour and were followed by a half-hour opportunity to meet the panelist authors and get books signed. Tables packed with all of the authors’ books lined the walls of the Pacific Ballroom Lobby.
One of the first panels was entitled “Travel: Trailblazers” and featured three travel writers: John McKinney, author of 20 books and often known as the “Trailmaster”; Dan White, whose book “The Cactus Eaters” details his experience traversing the Pacific Coast Trail; and UCI’s own Robert Anasi, whose new book, “Golden Man: The Remarkable Quest of Gene Savoy” will hit the shelves this summer. The three authors were asked questions about travel and what it meant about them, often not going into the realm of writing but in gathering information about a place.
Each offered varied advice about how to travel, how they were able to get to places they’ve written about, as well as the experiences they had there. For McKinney, the process required a willingness to get lost, a certain naiveté that is at the heart of any adventurous spirit. Anasi described the experience as finding a way into a place, someone from inside a new culture that would let him in and taking chances with strangers. White had a different perspective, describing the process in finding the essence of a place in its people and taking stock in landscape, focusing on who makes a place what it is.
An hour later, event volunteers had to bring in more chairs to accommodate the packed seating in the panel “Fiction: Intimacy of Place.” Though much less journalistic than the travel writing before it, this panel dealt with essentially the same issue: how to discover a place (the difference, of course, is that these places were made up). At the table for this panel were Bo Cladwell, author of two novels including a national best-seller; Marisa Matarazzo, who earned her Master of Fine Arts from UCI and recently published a collection of short stories; and Andrew Winer, who teaches at UC Riverside and has directed the MFA program there for creative writing.
Each author read an excerpt from his or her place-writing and talked about what the descriptive narrative strand of fiction meant for them as writers. Winer called place-writing “a component of emotional language,” citing a setting’s ability to set up emotions, rather than simply images, in a reader’s mind. Caldwell went so far as to call her setting “another character.”
The third round of panels featured the aforementioned one about the publishing industry. Instead of authors, two literary agents from the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency sat on the platform and answered a plethora of questions about the writing business, the side rarely seen by creative writers who comprised most of Literary Orange’s attendees.
Despite the fact that Literary Orange was held in the Student Center, across the Pacific Ballrooms as well as the Doheny Beach and Emerald Bay rooms, there were very few students attending; registration sold out relatively early in the morning, so the chance for students who would have stumbled across it was almost nothing. (But who in their right minds would be in the Student Center on a Saturday, anyway?) Indeed, the median age seemed to run far closer to 60; student activity piqued when the SWORD Club held a meeting in one unused corner.
In his au revoir to conclude the festival, second keynote speaker and crime novelist T. Jefferson Parker related his experience writing. He described how living in Orange County has, for better or worse, affected his writing. Most of his novels — all of the early ones — are set in various locales in Orange County. Reversing the traditional notion surely felt by many a UCI student, he began to describe our humble county as a great place to write if one simply stops to take a look around.
Such was the message in general of Literary Orange that, though the county has garnered a certain few reputations among the creative community, it is still worth something — whether by the trails by Turtle Rock that Robert Anasi says gives natural beauty at the fringe of civilization, to the more fictionalized Orange County in which T. Jefferson Parker sets his crime stories, the world need not be so quick to discard the creativity held inside the orange rind.