It wasn’t until day No. 2 of this year’s “Get Lit at the Beach” that Jennifer Romo, from Redding, Calif., worked up the courage to tell Terry Brooks, a bestselling fantasy author and Cannon Beach resident, that she believes his books saved her life.
Keeping most details off the record, Romo said that Brooks’ “Shannara” series, which she discovered as a teenager living in Alaska, gave her a comforting place to return to, a shelter of the imagination, while the rest of her life was barely tolerable. The characters, Romo said, are “so real and alive” that, while turning the pages, she could be more concerned about their plight than her own.
Afraid, at first, that she might cry through her encounter with Brooks, Romo managed to keep her composure. “I did get kind of emotional when I told him, but I didn’t full-out cry cry,” she said.
Brooks thanked her for her honesty, told her that it meant a lot to him, and said he probably hears such things more often than he has a right to. “It was so nice,” she said. “He was such a nice guy.”
Later that day, Romo listened as Nancy Pearl, a librarian and author of the nonfiction “Book Lust” series, delivered the “Get Lit” keynote speech.
Pearl described her own hard childhood in Detroit and the refuge she found the books at the Parkman Branch Library, whose librarians gave her “the greatest gift that you can give anyone, which is the gift of books and reading.”
Brooks and Pearl, along with the novelists Karen Joy Fowler, Jim Lynch and Gail Tsukiyama made up the literary all-star team at the fourth annual “Get Lit” event, held April 10 through 12 and sponsored by the Tolovana Arts Colony.
“Get Lit” began with an author’s reception at the Community Hall on Friday; continued with author talks, book signings, and Pearl’s keynote speech (all at the Surfsand Resort) on Saturday; and concluded with a Q-and-A panel at the Coaster Theatre Playhouse on Sunday.
Throughout the weekend, Romo, an aspiring fantasist, excitedly took notes as the guest authors revealed why they chose writing as a profession — and why just about anyone would be wise to choose a different one.
During the Q-and-A, Fowler recalled when Bruce Sterling, the American sci-fi writer and futurist, once fantasized about a “Hell for Discarded Characters,” where the inhabitants are forced to hold up signs of shame that bespeak their shortcomings: “I was two-dimensional,” “I did not advance the plot,” etc.
Alas, these condemned creations, unable to justify their existence on the page, were casualties of the writing process, when ideas are abandoned, plot threads are severed and once promising characters find themselves consigned to the narrative scrapheap.
The process is brutal, but the collateral damage ultimately serves a greater good: the art of effective storytelling, which dictates that dead-end characters should be eliminated altogether before they do any damage in print.
“Sometimes I feel like characters walk into my book and they’re auditioning to try to keep space in the book, and I have to boot them off because they either don’t come alive on the page, or they don’t do what I want them to do,” said Lynch, the author of three novels, including “The Highest Tide” (2005).
Whether disposing of characters or introducing better ones, the writer must be prepared to depart from his or her outline, which should be viewed as a guide, not a commitment, according to Brooks, the author of more than 30 novels.
Writing must be an organic process, he said.
“You never want to let good ideas get tossed aside simply because you’re following a structured form,” he said. “That’s a bad, bad thing.”
Of course, all of this assumes that the writing even gets done.
“The central mystery of my professional life is that these two things are true: I love to write; it gives me great joy and great pleasure — not every day, but very, very often,” said Fowler, the author of several novels, including “The Jane Austen Book Club” (2007). “No. 2: I will do anything on a given morning to avoid writing.”
For Fowler, a typical writing day involves waking up, going for a walk, reading her emails, attending to things that require her immediate attention and checking out her favorite political websites to assure herself that, “Yes, the world is worse today than it was when I went to bed.”
“It it tragically possible for me to spend an entire working day circling from my email to my political websites, and, at about 3 p.m., I’m exhausted,” she said. “And I think, ‘Damn, I really wanted to write today.’”
Tsukiyama, the author of such acclaimed novels as “The Samurai’s Garden” (1996), admitted that her worst habit is procrastination. This, combined with perfectionism, is the death knell for a writer, said Pearl, quoting American author Peter Matthiessen.
Lynch, an accomplished journalist, said that, for him, researching a book is much easier than writing it.
“Writing can be great, in bursts,” he said, but, when doing research, he is more likely to “feel like I had a productive day. I get to go out and talk to people and interact with humanity.”
“See, I hate that,” Brooks said, later adding, “This is why I write about elves, for crying out loud.”
“Very inaccurately, I must say,” Fowler quipped.
“These are my elves,” Brooks said. “They’re exactly the way I say they are.”
Go anywhere, do anything
In her keynote speech, Pearl — the only librarian immortalized as an action figure — emphasized the importance of public libraries in her life.
Long ago, when Pearl told a colleague that she often dreams about her childhood library, she was told to “get a life.”
She wanted to tell him: “In this world, we are given one life to lead, one life to live, but it’s through books and reading that we can have any number of lives. We can go anywhere, and we can do anything, and we can be anyone,” she said. “I knew when I was 10 years old that that was the case, and I certainly know it now.”
Even books that critics widely consider inartistic twaddle can have undeniable value as escapist entertainment, allowing readers to live vicariously through the characters’ exploits. Otherwise, there would be no room in the culture for volumes like E.L. James’ BDSM-laced romance “50 Shades of Grey” (2011).
Brooks, at the Q-and-A, offered his theory about “this whole ‘50 Shades of Grey’ thing.”
“This is a repressed society. It’s a Puritan society. A lot of that has carried over through the years. And sex is something that many are denied but all desire,” he said.
But, “even if what you’re saying is very true, it’s so poorly written, how could you get through it?” Tsukiyama asked.
To which Lynch responded, after a thoughtful pause, “How do you know it’s so poorly written?”