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Festival of Books: Real-life crises these novelists would never write about

April 13, 2014|By Margaret Gray
  • From left, Gigi Levangie, Jane Green and Lian Dolan take part in the "Fiction: Choices and Consequences" panel the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
From left, Gigi Levangie, Jane Green and Lian Dolan take part in the "Fiction:… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )

A Sunday morning Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel brought together four bestselling female novelists to discuss "Fiction: Choices and Consequences," a topic that (perhaps unsurprisingly, given its general applicability) is relevant to all of their work.

Warmly and humorously moderated by Leslie Schwartz, herself a novelist ("Angels Crest"), writers Lacy Crawford, Lian Dolan, Jane Green and Gigi Levangie began by summarizing their most recent books, all of which feature female protagonists and treat life crises that, to judge from the audience's rapt absorption, nods and tearful bursts of laughter, are far from inaccessible.

Crawford's debut novel, "Early Decision," was inspired by the parents she encountered in her 15-year career as a college admissions advisor. "When people say, 'God, they were nasty,' I think, 'You don't know the half of it,' " she said, adding that her goal in writing the satire was to free parents and students from the pressure of that increasingly traumatic process that has become "crazy time." 

"USC is almost impossible to get into," she said, alluding to the host campus of the Festival of Books. "I can't believe I'm here."

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Dolan's latest book, "Elizabeth the First Wife," is about a Shakespeare professor who is tempted into a lucrative project with her ex-husband by the hope of a remodeled kitchen, which she described as "a motivator for most women in America." 

Levangie's latest book, also a satire, stars a tutor and her seven charges, each of whom represents one of the seven deadly sins. Schwartz interjected that as exercises she often assigns creative-writing students to write about the seven deadly sins, the 10 Commandments -- or even the seven dwarfs. Levangie, who quickly emerged as the class clown of this extremely witty group, rejoined, "I've dated six of them."

Green's synopsis of her 15th novel, "Tempting Fate," which, as Schwartz announced to wild applause, is currently No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list, held the crowd particularly spellbound. The story stars a happily married 43-year-old woman, Gaby, who does not consider herself the type of woman who would ever have an affair -- until she becomes addicted to an email exchange with a handsome stranger.

"Women in their 40s can become very vulnerable to attention," Green said in her soothing British accent, as many heads bobbed with grateful recognition. She confessed that she herself has felt "suddenly invisible" now that she has reached her 40s, and she has watched women around her breaking up their own marriages in pursuit of something that will make them "feel alive again."

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"I've been getting a lot of confessions from people at these events," she added invitingly. "There's a cone of silence around anything you tell me."

The authors shared their sources of inspiration: the news, their own lives, the lives of friends and eavesdropping -- a practice Schwartz glowingly endorsed, while adding that the trick is not to look directly at the people you are listening to. Dolan said the revelation that helped her get through her novel, which she said was rather highbrow in earlier drafts, was to "aim low."

Schwartz asked each writer to reflect on her own choices and consequences as a writer, wife and mother. All four agreed that they loved their jobs. "Being a writer is a great job for a mother who cares about her children ... and her children's coaches," joked Levangie. (Or maybe it wasn't a joke: She had earlier said that she undertakes much of her research at her children's sports contests: "Football dads are the hottest. Baseball dads, not so hot. Lacrosse?" She lifted one eyebrow and nodded almost imperceptibly.)

And Levangie summed up the consequences of writing her book "The Starter Wife" with these words: "Gained a miniseries, lost a husband." 

The conversation took a slightly mystical turn when Green asked if Levangie thought that by writing about a divorce, she might make it happen in her own life.

"There are some things I won't write about because I'm afraid I might manifest them," Green said. "I won't write about losing a husband."

"I won't write about losing a child," Levangie agreed. 

All five writers nodded.

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