Sunday, August 7, 2011

NoCa & San Francisco Day 2 - 31st Annual Steinbeck Festival

Let me start this posting with a big THANK YOU and lots of compliments to the team of the National Steinbeck Center - executive director Colleen Finegan Bailey, festival co-director Erika Koss, officials and volunteers. I have some experience with organizing cultural events and an idea how much work it is. All sessions I went to were in time, all rooms and locations easy to find and set up, everybody around very friendly and helpful - just perfect.

I went to lots of sessions all day from 9.30 am to 9.30 pm (with breaks of course). I did it without falling off my chair sleeping (jetlag) and that tells you already how amazing it was.

Kim Moreland
My first session was with Kim Moreland about "An Organization Beautiful and Wise": Male Community in Reality and Legend in John Steinbeck's Monterey Trilogy" focusing mostly on "Tortilla Flat".

I had thought that I might like the book better when I learn more about it, but honestly that did not really work. Kim Moreland told us about Steinbeck's unhappy childhood and how he escaped into the world of books and legends - especially Thomas Malory's version of King Arthur's tale and how much Danny, the main character in "Tortilla Flat" resembles legendary heroes like King Arthur or Robin Hood. Makes sense ... but did not make me much happier.

She also pointed out how Steinbeck used very strong metaphors and symbols especially to tell the story of Danny getting mad and losing his mind.  Hm - yes. True. But for me it still feels like symbolism with a sledgehammer. Like the work of a young writer who did not yet found his real voice and the right balance in his stories.
I guess - this book and I  - in this life we won't become friends anymore, but before you get the wrong picture ... the session was great, very interesting and a good start of the day.

K. Rodgers, D. Conrad, T. Hernandez
The next stop was "Brothers and Rogues: A Panel on Steinbeck's Monterey Trilogy with actor David Conrad, poet Tim Hernandez and scholar Katharine Rodger". And since most of the audience had heard the "Tortilla Flat" session before, this one was focused on "Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday".

The picture of the speakers is hilarious. I have no idea how I managed with the one panel picture I took to catch everybody looking like the end of the world was scheduled for noon the same day. In fact this panel session was really fun and we all - panelists and audience - laughed a lot.

It started off with the first pages of "Cannery Row" and I could see immediately: I am not alone. I mean, these two books have some really serious, tragic storylines as well and are far from being all happy, but still - they make people smile
. You could watch that effect in the faces of the audience. 

The panelists in close interaction with the audience discussed some of the main storylines and characters of  "Cannery Row" and the follow up "Sweet Thursday"and David Conrad
read a selection of the best scenes - some even on audience request.

One of my favorite parts was the discussion about the frog hunt in "Cannery Row" and the generations of literary scholars who had tried hard to interpret some strong symbolism in the frogs while panelist Katharine Rodgers, who works a lot about Steinbeck's friend Ed Ricketts, revealed that there was unpaid bill for hundreds of frogs found in Ed's papers after his death. So Steinbeck very likely just wrote it like it was  ... it has been frogs because it has been frogs.
Sometimes it's that simple.

I also have to make a note to myself, that I need to check out the work of Tim Hernandez. He was great and I loved his sense of humor.

W. Green, D. Milch, D. & J. Peoples
As you can imagine I was already terribly tired in the evening, but I kept myself moving to go to the evening panel in collaboration with the Moneterey County Film Commission.

The titel was "The Villains Panel: Bad Guys and Why We Need Them" with Walon Green, David Milch, David and Janet Peoples and was moderated by Susan B. Landau. Please click on the links behind the names and you will see what kind of huuuuge TV and movie projects this group of writers / producers was and is involved in. It's really amazing. If you always wanted to see how the "powers to be"
look like ... here you go.

I had the joy to talk to Walon Green and David Milch before the session (of course - shame on me - not knowing who exactly they were). It was a great chat about literature and story telling. I am still stunned that I had the chance to exchange some thoughts with such people, but that was definitely a big part of the special festival magic: All speakers were very accessible. There was no "backstage" or VIP area and lots of the speakers used the chance to also join additional sessions as participants. It was very easy to talk to everybody, to ask questions or just exchange some thoughts. 

During the session all panelists told some stories about how to develop characters for movie or TV and it seems that the myth, that is so much more fun to write the bad guy than the hero, is actually true. The panelists also pointed out that in the end there are no real bad guys - just antagonists and characters the audience does not get the chance to learn about enough to understand and sympathize with.

Steinbeck was not really in the focus of the talk but the audience loved to get a little side tracked hearing about the opportunities and restraints of writing stories for movie and TV ... and get them produced. All together i
t was a very entertaining behind the scene view of the movie industry with great people sporting an amazing dry sense of humor. 

It was definitely worth to stay awake, although I was so tired in the end that I could not remember where in the lot I had parked my car and had to stumble around in the cold rainy night until I found it.

Pittsburgh, CA - Part 2

Remember ... we were out on a mission to find out how much Pittsburgh fits into a week in Northern California ;). And here comes the next episode:

Susan Shillinglaw
Back to the afternoon. After lunch I attended one of the sessions I was looking forward to most: "Our Year of Magical Beginning: Steinbeck, Campbell and Ricketts read Jeffers, 1932" with Susan Shillinglaw.

Why is that one in the Pittsburgh category? Because Robinson Jeffers, one of Americas greatest poets who is strongly associated with Carmel, where he lived in his legendary Tor House, and Northern California is actually not a native Californian, but from Pittsburgh - a Northside boy.

And John Steinbeck said about this in a letter written in 1932

"Jeffers came into my country and felt the thing, but he translated it into the symbols of Pittsburg[h]. I cannot write the poetry of Jeffers but I know the god better than he does for I was born to it and my father was."

Steinbeck, who lived only a few miles away from Carmel in Pacific Grove at that time, and his circle of friends definitely valued Jeffers' poetry, read and discussed it, but it obviously it bothered him (the same Steinbeck who later did not seem to see any problem in writing about New York, Long Island and other places) to have a guy from Western Pennsylvania being famous for his poems about Northern California.

This quote really hit me hard at my vulnerable spot because it is something I also often have defend myself for. As you know it happens that I REALLY fall in love with places. My passions for Dalmatia and Pittsburgh (THAT is a combination, isn't it?) are legendary and if San Francisco would be a person I would hug The City every day and declare my love ;).

With Pittsburgh it's not such a problem. Most people there really appreciate when a stranger is attracted by their weird but wonderful little city. And in San Francisco they are quite used to strangers falling in love with the bay. 
With Dalmatia it's a bit more complicated. Love for its beauty is accepted (and the money spent there as a tourist even more), but if it comes to culture and history some people tend to react the Steinbeck way and claim that I can't be the expert because I am not native Dalmatian, I am not born there and I cannot feel the way they do.
What these people -just like John Steinbeck at this point - doesn't seem to understand is, that this is not a competition. I do not even want to be the bigger expert than somebodyelse, but at the same time I see no reason to shut up. Yes, it may be the outside view, but isn't that an as valuable view than the one from inside? I also have an opinion, feelings and ideas. I will always talk and write about places, things and people I love and I cannot see any fault in it. 

But back to Jeffers and California: As a person that absolutely loves the ocean without being born and raised on the coast I think that we countryside-ocean-people will always feel differently about it than somebody who grew up with it. For us it always stays a little more the mystic wonder of nature like you find it in Jeffers' poems. But again - there might be differences in seeing and feeling about certain things, but there is no right or wrong here. 

Another highlight of that session was that we learned more about Steibeck's inner circle of that time and especially my favorite Ed "Doc" Ricketts and thankfully Susan Shillinglaw brought some more pictures to her presentation to put faces to names and stories. 

It was a great session and I enjoyed it a lot.

And then we got some more Pittsburgh in Salinas, a lot more .... as you can see:

David Conrad

David  Conrad's solo session was scheduled for Saturday afternoon and called "The Eye against The Ear: Actor David Conrad on Why Reading Steinbeck Aloud", but some short words ahead:
David Conrad is not only from Pittsburgh and still lives there - to be exact - near by in Braddock, PA, but is also one of the biggest ambassadors for his hometown. So just in case that you are one of these nasty Steinbeck like people (I am kidding .. a bit), who believe a native more who talks about his place than the enthusiastic out-of-towner like me, you should go and read his text about Pittsburgh. If you are not such a snob ;) and would believe me - read it anyway. Oh ... and for beginners also go to youtube, search for "Fort Pitt Tunnel" and just - watch.

But back to the session, which was great to listen to.
And tadaaa -  finally, finally even I got my positive "Tortilla Flat" moment when David Conrad unerringly picked my favorite scene from the book with Big Joe Portagee falling in love in a totally hysterical situation. The other chosen text passages were fortunately also almost all faves of mine and listening to a stage actor reading them was definitely a lot of fun. It's not a surprise that in the follow up Q&A one of the participants asked if he is doing audiobooks (no - at least not yet), because most of audience definitely would have bought one right away.

Additionally to reading some great text passages David Conrad shared some stories, anecdotes and insights about his personal lifelong passion for literature in general, Steinbeck in particular and about how reading aloud is enhancing the experience by adding the tone of the words and the rhythm of the language.

The session was definitely one of the festival highlights.

Personal side notes:

- I am honestly not a big fan of listening to my own voice and usually the only bits I read aloud from time to times are pieces for this blog. I write in my 2nd language and sometimes feel insecure about some phrases. In these cases it definitely helps to check if it sounds right in the ears.
But ... I'll give the reading aloud a chance considering to start with a short story by Aleksandar Hemon. I am really curious to find out how his special way to work with the English language actually sounds spoken out loud. I just will skip the part about doing it in public since the excuse of being an actress is not working for me ;)

- I later talked with two teachers, who were at the session and fascinated about how convincing it was. They pointed out that a speaker like David would be perfect to motivate kids to pick up books and that they would definitely take home some ideas about how to work with their students. I think this is awesome and good teachers are key personalities when it comes to guiding kids to world of literature, but I think it has to start even earlier with the parents.
My love for books was planted in my heart when I was little and my parents would read to me every evening at bedtime. See ... reading aloud can have a huge impact! I can see it already happen again when I look at my niece. She is not even 2 years old yet, but my sister started very early with reading and showing her the first little books and the baby LOVES it. She will climb in your lap with one of her books, give it to you and tell you to "READ". And you better do if you do not to dissapoint her badly ;). I think the next generation of book lovers is set in our family. 

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