The crown jewels of the Vegas Valley Book Festival are its keynote speakers. This year, they couldn’t be more diverse. One’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and the other a zombie aficionado. Nonetheless, both share that literary it factor, born from a combination of hard work and talent. Vegas Seven basks in their genius.
Navigating the novel with Jane Smiley
By Cindi Moon Reed
If you want to forge a connection with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, ask her about horses or cooking. After spending 15 years teaching in the creative incubator of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the prolific author feels most comfortable around a community of horse lovers in Northern California. But perhaps that’s because she spends most of her time writing. Right now, she she’s working on book No. 4 in a series of children’s books (No. 3, True Blue, was released on Sept. 27), and she’s writing a trilogy of adult novels that span from 1920 to 2020 (look for them in 2015). During her keynote speech, Smiley plans to read from True Blue and her latest novel, Private Life (Anchor, $16). Here, Smiley talks about writing the great Las Vegas novel, the future of publishing and her aspirations.
As a writer who blossomed in the rich community of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, what do you think about Vegas as a literary place?
It’s always been UNLV that’s brought me there. So, yes, of course I see that there’s literature scattered in amongst the brides who are walking down the mall.
Many Las Vegans are competing to write the great Las Vegas novel. Do you have advice?
I can’t imagine writing a novel about a place as dramatic as Las Vegas. I write novels about places that are really boring, so anything that happens is interesting. In a place like Vegas, there are so many things going on at the same time. It is hard to know what to focus on. I don’t know that I would have any advice.
Some people argue that it’s impossible to write credible fiction about Las Vegas because the city is too weird and outrageous.
That is the thing that people started saying generally about fiction in the ’80s, that life was just starting to be weird and dramatic, that it was outpacing the possibilities of fiction to encompass it. Maybe that is just part of modern life, but life was pretty dramatic during the Second World War and people still wrote fiction about it. It was pretty dramatic during the Civil War. It was pretty dramatic all through the 19th century, and people wrote fiction about it. If you write your great Las Vegas novel, in 50 years no one is going to say, “Boy, I remember Vegas, and Vegas wasn’t at all like this.” Someone will say, “Oh wow, this must be what Vegas was like and this is such a good novel.” The reason the novel will have survived is because of its novelistic qualities, not because it’s true to life.
The closest anyone has come to the great Vegas novel is Charles Boch’s Beautiful Children, and yet locals complain that he didn’t re-create the real Vegas.
Yeah, but all the people who are complaining will soon be dead. That’s a novelist’s compensation. The complainers, they come and they go. If your book is in print, there’s a remote possible chance that it’ll live. Because a book can always be revived and some of the weirdest books have been revived; after everybody stopped paying attention to them. So just keep going.
What do you think about the future of publishing?
I have no way of knowing. I hope there’s a future. The novel, which is my favorite form, is irreplaceable because it is a lengthy narrative and is much more complex and detailed than anything else. There will always be a population who is interested in that form of complexity. But conditions can shift, so that the novel goes out of fashion and people stop wanting to read that kind of thing. So that’s what I care about. How the novel is published—whether it is electronically, in a paperback, in a hardback or in a parchment scroll—each society has to come up with that on its own.
Where would you put yourself between seriousness and popular appeal? You seem to be able to do both.
The question is, am I doing both or am I falling between two chairs? I have no idea. I can’t ascertain in any objective way what I offer or what people take from my book. They seem to be sometimes popular; they seem to be sometimes respected. But that’s all I know.
What do you aspire to?
I would aspire to be a billionaire and win the Nobel Prize. I would aspire to be both, if possible. [My partner and I] were watching the George Harrison film on HBO last night, and it is interesting to listen to Eric Clapton talk about his envious feelings toward The Beatles, and listen to George Harrison talk about his envious feelings toward all the sitar players in India. It doesn’t matter what world you live in, there’s always somebody in your world that has something—some skill or some talent or some quality—that you don’t have. So you can go your whole life you as George Harrison wishing you were Ravi Shankar, at the same time Eric Clapton wishes he was you. It is an interesting thing.
Who is your Ravi Shankar?
One of the things I’ve realized in a long career writing books and watching others write books is that in order to be writing those books, you have to be that person. And I wouldn’t want to be any person other than me. Once you accept the fact that you are you, then you will also have to accept the fact that your books are your books, and that’s the best you have to offer, and whatever happens to them, that’s fine.
An Afternoon With Jane Smiley, 3:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at Historic Fifth Street School Auditorium, 401 S. Fourth St., VegasValleyBookFestival.org.
How to survive a zombie attack with Max Brooks
By Agnes Poliquin
There is a tremendous amount of pressure to be funny if you are the child of a comedian. Quadruple that pressure if you’re the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks and movie star Anne Bancroft. Yet, instead of imploding, 39-year-old Max Brooks has thrived.
After launching his career by writing for Saturday Night Live (and winning an Emmy in the process), Brooks turned his attention to that ever-present scourge against humanity: zombies. His first book, The Zombie Survival Guide (Three Rivers Press, 2003), is so seriously written and well-researched that it’s frightening—and thus ingeniously hilarious. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Crown, 2006) and the graphic novel The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks (2009) followed, marking huge advances in the fight against zombies as well as humor writing.
Today, Brooks is a best-selling author and zombies expert. He has appeared on television shows such as Spike’s series Deadliest Warrior, where he spoke for the zombie team in the battle of zombies versus vampires. During his keynote speech, Brooks will tell how to survive a zombie attack. Here’s what Brooks had to say while calling from a train en route to a lecture on the East Coast, which we can safely assume was about saving the world … or, more importantly, the comedic written word.
What would be your favorite zombie weapon of choice?
I would go with the legal kind. You don’t want to get stopped by the cops or anything during a zombie plague. And the cop doesn’t know it is a zombie plague, and then get thrown into a holding cell with a bunch of zombies.
What are you working on?
I’m juggling three projects. I have a comic-book series based on a short story that I wrote called The Extinction Parade. And that is a story about a zombie plague told from the point of view of vampires. I am also working on a graphic novel about the first World War, which is a true story and it does not have zombies or anything science fiction-y about it. And then I am also working on a book, which is so different than anything I have ever done and … [Unintelligible. The zombies must be closing in.]
As zombie culture is getting maxed out, are you going to continue to write about zombies?
I don’t choose my work; my work chooses me. Whatever story or whatever subject, it just grabs hold of me and makes me write about it. I have to obey it. It has nothing to do about what’s popular or what’s not popular. You know, when I wrote Zombie Survival Guide, I wrote it for me—literally, because I could not find that book to read. Same thing with World War Z.
Do you think that the underlying premise of zombies actually attacking is funny?
It ain’t funny to me. Maybe it’s funny to some other people, but the idea of being killed and devoured by a flesh-eating horde is the stuff of my nightmares.
What is your view on humor, based on the household you grew up in?
When you’re growing up in my father’s house, I thought everybody was that funny. It was when I got out into the world, I realized that not everybody hung out with Carl Reiner and Gene Wilder and Dom DeLuise. That was quite a shock.
During your speech at Pitzer College, your alma mater, you talked about failing before you can succeed. Do you have any advice for fledgling writers?
Yeah, sure. Don’t be a fledgling writer. Just write. You know, my motto I just ripped off from Nike. Just do it.
What do you aspire to?
I aspire to be a good dad. If I write something and nobody reads it or people read it and hate it—big deal. But the idea of sending my son out into the world without the tools to take care of himself is a lot more terrifying.
An Evening With Max Brooks: How to Survive a Zombie Attack, 7 p.m. Nov. 3 at Clark County Library Main Theater, 1401 E. Flamingo Road.
Book Festival Highlights
Movement-minded poetry fans shouldn’t miss the Blinking Man Poetry Bike Brigade. Meet at Brett Wesley Gallery (1112 S. Casino Center Blvd.) at 6 p.m. to hear poet Dayvid Figler perform “Vegas Haiku,” then follow poet/author/Vegas Seven music editor Jarret Keene on a tour of downtown art galleries and spoken word.
Tighten your suspenders in for this lineup of geeky goodness. Artist Katie Cook will teach How to Draw Star Wars Characters (10 a.m., Nov. 5, Clark County Library Large Conference Room, 1401 E. Flamingo Road). Learn to be the master of your own planet at the Writing Realistic Sci-Fi and Fantasy Workshop with author Maxwell Alexander Drake (12:45 p.m. Nov. 5, Historic Fifth Street School, Meeting Room 170).
Fangs vs. Fur
Attention, angsty teens: The Young Adult Paranormal Ball (7-9 p.m. Nov. 5, Historic Fifth Street School Auditorium, $10) is where you can live your fantasies. It’s hosted by Young Adult author Brodi Ashton of Everneath (Balzer + Bray, release date Jan. 3) and includes costume contests and a desert bar.
On Nov. 6, check out Feasting on Words, the culinary portion of the Book Fest. You must visit the Chefs’ Plaza, which offers tastings from celebrated local chefs who will be cooking on wood-fired grills. (11 a.m., Historic Fifth Street School, Centennial Plaza. $10).