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Posts Tagged ‘volunteering’

Last weekend was Los Angeles’ annual “Who Says We Don’t Read?” gathering. Every year 150,000 people gather at the USC campus over a weekend to “celebrate the written word.” And this year, despite an unseasonably warm Saturday and the March for Science, they did it again. If you care at all about books and you’re anywhere within 500 miles, you should come to this.

My wife and I volunteered (both days!) as author escorts, leading groups of authors (and entourages) to their panel discussions, and signing areas for autographs. This involves, naturally, a certain sense of longing, since for once I’d rather be led than leading, but it’s satisfying nonetheless. We’re performing a service for the speakers and the attendees, we get a reserved front-row seat, and it’s not arduous work–except…

Hmm. How do I say this? I’m an author, and I’d like to be on one of those panels some day, so I don’t want to speak ill of the team…I guess it’s just that authors are not used to being the center of attention. I’m not saying they’re treated like rock stars at this thing, but they do get a lot of attention. And sometimes when we need them to do one thing, they’re busy doing another, which is Being Admired. That’s when we have to find a diplomatic way to separate author from fan without offending either and get the author to where he needs to be because fifty other fans are waiting for him. (Yes, him. It’s usually the men, for some reason.)

Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at this, and as far as I know, I’ve never caused offense. But every time it happens, I have to ask myself: Is that Me? Will that, if the opportunity ever arises, be Me? I certainly hope not.

But then again, if the opportunity ever does arise, I’m not going to waste it either. So to that hypothetical author escort at that hypothetical Festival of Books where I’m a guest author, I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I’m making your life difficult. Believe me, I’ve been there.

But I’ve never been here before. And damned if it doesn’t feel good.

#SFWApro

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There is a new controversy in town–not a surprise–that concerns whether authors should be paid to attend book festivals. What is a surprise, at least to me, is how many authors feel that they should. When informed that many of these festivals work on a volunteer basis and can’t afford it, the response seems to be, “So charge more. It’s work, and I deserve to be paid for it.”

Well, I’m an author, and I have a counter: Nobody’s making you go to these things.

I volunteer for the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and have for nearly 20 years. Every year I have been an “author escort,” which entails accompanying authors to and from panel sessions (mostly so they don’t get lost). I have escorted dozens of authors in my time, the famous and the not-so-famous (and when I say “famous,” I mean it). Some of them are friendly, some are distracted, some treat the appearance as a business appointment. But none has ever complained about being there, none has ever complained he was mistreated (at least not by me), and most of them return year after year.

Now, I don’t know if the Festival pays an appearance fee. They’ve never asked me to appear, so it hasn’t come up (and I certainly have never asked). But I do know that none of these writers was shanghaied to the UCLA or USC campus, made to wade through crowds of 75,000 people per day–none of whom has paid an admission fee, forced to speak to a packed lecture hall for an hour, or chained to a chair in a shady tent while fans stood for up to an hour for a chance for an autograph and maybe a picture. They did it because they liked it. Every one of them has enjoyed his time in the limelight (and I would know, because from leaving the green room to returning, I am never out of sight of my authors).

So if you want to be paid to appear at a festival or a convention (which I have run, and we didn’t pay those authors, either; some showed up without even being invited), that is your right, and more power to you if you can get it. But to demand that all festivals and conventions pay their author-speakers is…well, if you don’t want to go, just give them my number. I’ll be happy to explain you were busy.

#SFWApro

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Like any other attendee, when I volunteer to be an Author Escort at the LA Times Festival of Books, I am hoping to get a chance to meet and talk to one or more of my favorite authors. This has happened a surprising number of times, but more surprising is the number of times I have escorted an author/authors of whom I have never heard, nor in whose field of work (If I even know it) I have ever even pretended to hold the slightest interest–and yet when I am sitting for an hour in the front row of an auditorium, forced to stay awake because the entire room is behind me and the authors are right in front of me and I’m usually on-camera, I find myself fascinated, or at least interested, in what this stranger or group of strangers has to say. This is not to say that I am some kind of Renaissance Man, soaking up information wherever I can find it–it’s a tribute to the variety of experience and the depth of speakers that the Times Festival of Books provides. And it’s one of the reasons I do this, because knowing you’ve got a good chance to meet someone you admire is great, but the idea that you may admire someone you meet is exciting.

I volunteered two days. The first day, John Scalzi was being interviewed by Wil Wheaton. Okay, what self-respecting SF geek could pass that up? I mean, we get guaranteed front-row seats. We get to hob-nob with the stars. Had to do it. Had to. And they were funny. Turns out Wil went to UCLA, and he felt about being on the SC campus as I did. His first “official announcement” as provided by the Festival was “Go Bruins!” Now I have to go out and read whatever he’s written. And that Scalzi guy was amusing too.

The second day I had no preferences, so I grabbed someone at random. Not until I sat down and started to listen did I learn that Claudia Rankine was a poet. A poet?? What had I gotten into? And yet it turned out to be quite interesting. Her poetic exploration of race relations in Los Angeles (readings from her book Citizen, winner of a Times Book Award the night before) made me think, in the way the previous panel had made me laugh. Had I not blindly volunteered to escort Ms. Rankine, I would never have known of her work, never heard of her, and been the poorer for it. I’m not saying I will go out and buy her book, but I won’t look at the Poetry Corner quite the same way again, either.

Obviously, most people can’t get to this festival. But it’s not the only one. And if you don’t have a local book festival, you’ve probably got a local library. Maybe the authors aren’t there in person, but they’re still there for you to meet.

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