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Experiencing the Greenroom Effect at Books Festival

A place to schmooze and score free food offers a refuge for authors at the busy event at UCLA.


Love is in the air. It's springtime in Lotusland, and the Los Angeles Times Book Festival is in full swing. Happy dogs in red bandannas stretch in front of packed classrooms on the UCLA campus while their owners, the very old, the very young, the readers of Los Angeles, 65,000 of them, fly in and out of panels on cooking, on fiction, on journalism, on kitsch, you name it.

And then there are the authors, with their distinctive badges and their look of wisdom, asking plaintively of the volunteers, do you know the way to the greenroom?

The greenroom is where the food is, the good free food. It's actually two large connected rooms in Royce Hall, done up in green on green--green carpeting, green upholstered chairs and couches--each dominated by huge, laden tables. It's where the writers meet before their panels. It's where the schmoozing is.

Anyone will tell you that writers are a lonely bunch. They screw their courage to the sticking place, they dress up a bit and they head for the greenroom, the sinful shallow reason many of them come to the festival. There's no alcohol in the greenroom, although last year Tim Parks was able to convince a waiter to secure him a beer. It's a resting place and a place of high nervous energy. You come in from the hubbub, you see the food piled high. Dom Deluise sits in the chair Malachy McCourt held court in last year, with a plate piled so high you think it might topple. He's relating a recipe for fatty duck that was too complicated to include in his new cookbook.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 2, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong pronoun--Mystery writer Val McDermid was mistakenly referred to as "he" in Monday's story on the greenroom at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

Michael Chabon, dapper in his post-Pulitzer glory, says, "This is great, this is great," to no one in particular. He looks a bit like he's been through the smiling, hand shaking, nodding blitz for the last few months. He has the stunned look of a suddenly famous writer.

Fellow novelist Susan Straight is here, with her three beautiful girls, wearing her workingman's blue Dickeys and some heavy black shoes. "I always bring the girls," she says. "They think what we do is weird and it's fun for them to come to the greenroom and see that writers are just normal people."

And surprisingly, this year they are. "I was expecting a lot of attitude," says a security guard, "you know, from the authors, but I've been surprised by how nice they are." Uh oh, I think, what's happening? Have they all been drugged?

A small commotion outside the greenroom. Michael York can't find his pass, and no one recognizes him. He tries for a few minutes to convince people that he is legit, which is probably a good exercise. Cathy Hemming, publisher of HarperCollins (ex-Ecco editor Dan Halpern's dream boss) is cutting a path for Louise Erdrich, who will be in town next week promoting her new novel. "I love this book," she says, "but the next book, now that one--."

David Kipen, a longtime greenroom fan, book critic and editor at the recently cut San Francisco Chronicle Book Section (the book section has been folded in to the pink section) looks happier than ever. "This is wonderful," he says. "I haven't missed one yet. They should have it in San Franscisco next year." Over our dead bodies.

Poets and politicians are the most voluble this year. "I love you," Mayor Richard Riordan says to his audience across the hall from the greenroom, where small children holding rainbows wait for him backstage, "and remember, every word of Harry Potter is true." "I was an only child and books were my playmates," says translator and teacher Richard Howard. "I read Whitman as a young man in China," says Chinese poet and dissident Bei Ling, "and I was strongest there."

"So many sea lions," Carolyn See was overheard saying last year, "and so few rocks." She refuses to make a scene for me this year. Daughter novelist extraordinaire Lisa See scans the room with a publicist. "There are 'yes' rooms and 'no' rooms," Lisa See says.

"You mean rooms full of people who ask you to do things you want or don't want to do?" I ask.

"Yes," she says. This is a "no" room, they agree, and move on.

"I love books," says 9-year-old Gabrielle Humes, whose father, Ed Humes, has a new book chronicling a year in the life of a neonatal clinic. Gabrielle makes me a list of her favorites: "The Wizard of Oz," "One Hundred Dresses," anything by Allen Say, although he has sad parts. K.C. Cole comes in off the street pursued by a science lover with a new theory of the universe. He has leaflets.

Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll comes in from his panel on democracy and monopoly and the media, where one of the final questions for his boss, Jack Fuller of the Tribune Co., was "Why don't the janitors in Chicago make a living wage?" "He had leaflets," says Carroll.

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