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LATimes Festival of Books: Patti Smith and Dave Eggers Talk the Art of the Memoir

LATimes Festival of Books: Patti Smith and Dave Eggers Talk the Art of the Memoir

After pumping a $65 tank of gas this Saturday, I parked on a rather seedy block near the USC campus, this year’s new home for the LATimes Festival of Books, and managed to find Bovard Hall in time to watch LAT book editor David Ulin interview Patti Smith and Dave Eggers. They were talking the art of the memoir.

Smith promised her former lover and lifelong soulmate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, before he died that she would write a memoir about their story. Although some of the material in Just Kids, which has earned deserved raves and a National Book Award, comes from the prose poem The Coral Sea, it took more than 20 years to complete, for several reasons. Smith had to endure “hard times and a lot of loss,” she said, from Mapplethorpe to her husband (Fred “Sonic” Smith) and brother Todd, before she could dig in. And she wanted to write a “simple” book that non-reader Mapplethorpe would have wanted to read. That took more time than the longer more discursive version would have. The book was definitely aimed at “the people.” Also, she focused on her story with Mapplethorpe. The rest will come later, she added.

Both Smith and Eggers enjoy turning to several forms of creative expression. Smith targets different messages to different media– personal art: poetry, reach the masses: rock ‘n roll. Smith made fun of the need to slug people as one thing or another. “Michelangelo, are you a painter or sculptor?” she joked. Eggers started out as a painter, and turned to writing. While he was writing about terrorism in Zeitoun, at night he’d draw animals with crazy slogans, he said. It was a form of release. Besides all his publishing work at McSweeney‘s, he also runs 826 writing centers around the country: Smith’s daughter volunteered at one in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Smith’s constantly working on several book projects, including novels–about “mystical travel, and burned out alcoholic detectives who like opera”–Hollywood is hovering. Eggers is no stranger to Hollywood, but that did not come up. He can’t read his memoir about raising his brother after the loss of his parents, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which he considers a rough early work that he had to get out of the way before he could move on to other things. He recognizes that its emotional rawness contributed to its power and connected to many people. Only 2000 copies were printed at the time. He and his friends–many of whom thought it was amusing to put their real names and phone numbers in the book–thought that no one would read it. (He later took them out.)

Eggers admitted to being guilty that as of age 30 he was able to make a living writing. “It does seem ridiculous that that’s what you get to do,” he said. “I ought to feel pain. Is it really twisted Catholicism?” Smith tried to relieve his guilt by saying, “it’s a sacrificial life as well. You can’t live like other people. You’re always rewriting the movie, deconstructing the painting, writing about the party in your head. For the artist, your lot in life is to be a little removed. You’re condemned to be constantly observing it and recreating it. Don’t feel guilty. We suffer!”

Smith considers what she does “a calling,” and feels strongly that “we should live in an atmosphere of truth. She said to the crowd, “do your best” and quoted Jiminy Cricket: “Let your conscience be your guide,” and another Disney song: “Anything your heart desires will come to you.” She exhorts the younger generation to “feel their power and take to the streets” and make governments around the world effect the changes that they demand.

More details here; photo courtesy LATimes.

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