Written by Chloe Hawkins
On a crisp Spring morning, hoards of women gathered at the Pasadena Hilton hotel to celebrate one other, together. It was the 2019 Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, attended by enthusiastic readers, local writers, editors and all around badass women. Around 8:00 AM the ladies trickled in through the lobby, down the hall to a room filled with hundreds of tea, muffins, churros, croissants, jugs of coffee, and bowls of butter and jam. There was also flowers and books galore. The collective vibe of the room was caffeinated excitement. We had a roster of stunning writers scheduled to speak, including Paula McLain, Ivy Pochoda, Rebecca Makkai, Nova Jacobs, Aja Gabel, Zinzi Clemmons and the 2018 National Book Award winner: Sigrid Nunez. After checking in and oogling at tables of colorful books, I stacked my plate with croissants and butter as the ballroom doors opened and women flooded in eagerly to find their assigned tables.
Paula McLain was the first author to speak. She talked about growing up in the foster system, her humble beginnings as a poet, and how her dream state informed the contents of her writing. One fateful night, years ago, she read Hemingway’s Parisian classic, A Moveable Feast, and became swept away in the moment. The moment was early 1920s on Paris’ Rive Gauche, a historic slice of time buzzing with jazz, art, romance, red wine, prolific writers, and cobblestone rues. Paula began researching Hemingway and his wives, and soon discovered a well of untold stories. This research became her framework for bestselling novel, The Paris Wife, and her most recent book Love and Ruin. Paula dug particularly deep for any and all historical insight on Hemingway’s first wife Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, and his third wife Martha Gellhorn.
During her talk, Paula explained how this research became so absorbing, she reached a point where edges blurred between these women and herself. Paula explained, “when you lose yourself in someone else’s story, it sharpens your humanity, empathy and all the senses.” In her quest, she discovered some incredible facts that illuminated the plot for her books. Paula explained to the audience how some of the facts she discovered simply blew her mind, like the fact that Hadley was the only one of Hemingway’s wives who wasn’t a journalist, and that Martha Gellhorn’s father was Hadley’s family gynecologist. “You just can’t make this stuff up, the facts are better than anything I could have made up” Paula exclaimed.
After Paula McLain, we listened to Ivy Pochoda discuss a bit of personal history, her relationship to writing, and her experience as a writer and teacher in LA. She told us that one can begin a writing career any time, anywhere, during any period of their lives, and that writing does not discriminate. You just have to do the damn thing -- to write pages and pages! Ivy was not always a writer. Before achieving her status as acclaimed author, she was a professional squash player, ranked 38th in the world. She noted that with writing, similar in training for sports, you only have yourself to rely on if you are to make personal progress. Nobody forced her to wake up extra early for squash practice every morning in college before attending classes. Nobody forces an athlete to focus, or train, or eat well in their private time. It is a personal decision, just as it is to write a book.
Ivy’s talk was fascinating. She discussed her role as a teacher facilitating creative writing classes in Skid Row and how it has informed her writing. She noted how residents of Skid Row are largely discriminated against, and though each person has a unique story, their stories go largely untold because they are so stereotyped. Ivy explained that Skid Row is in fact, a culture, a neighborhood and a diverse community. She emphasized that her students “don’t live ON Skid Row, they live IN Skid Row. It’s a neighborhood, and the differentiation is important, because it gives agency.” Together with her students, Ivy helps to publish one of the oldest zines produced today, Skid Row Zine. You can find their booth at the 2019 L.A. Zine Fest.
After Ivy’s talk, we had a break with introductions to three breakout authors, a chance to buy books, drink more coffee, and choose one of the three young authors’ talks to attend in smaller rooms. After, we returned to the grand ballroom for mini fruit tarts, chocolate ganache cakes, avocado chicken salads lunch and our last two talks from Rebecca Makkai and the 2018 National Book Award winner, Sigrid Nunez.
Rebecca discussed the long and delicate process of writing her book The Great Believers, a story outlining the AIDS crisis spanning from 1980s Chicago to contemporary Paris. She noted the extensive research that this book required in order for Rebecca’s voice as the writer to feel tender, authentic and historically accurate. She described the effect this research had on her personal life as both a person and a writer, including hundreds of interviews with the people who were personally affected by this crisis. Fully committed to the authenticity of her book, Rebecca took four years to research the AIDS epidemic in Chicago, interviewing doctors, lawyers, artists, bartenders, activists, survivors, friends and friends of friends. She read every issue of the Windy City Times, Chicago’s largest gay weekly publication, from 1985 to 1992. Rebecca’s tender, meticulous, heartfelt dedication to her subject was truly inspiring.
The last speaker of the day was Sigrid Nunez. She spoke about writing in an eloquent and matter of fact way. My heart skipped a beat when I learned that in the 1970s, Sigrid shared an apartment with one of my all-time favorite authors, Susan Sontag. During this time Sontag was recovering from cancer surgery and Sigrid was a budding writer, having just earned an M.F.A. from Colombia. She began meeting up with Susan regularly to transcribe her letter correspondence. Eventually, Sigrid met Susan’s son and the two began dating. It was then that she moved in to Sontag’s New York apartment. One important bit of advice Sigrid took away from Susan was to “Teach if you want to, but not for safety. [To] forget tenure for safety, [to] forget safety and security all together, [to] take risks, [and] be bold.” Since getting that advice from Sontag, Sigrid has taught at Columbia, Princeton, Boston University, and the New School-- because she wants to! She’s also been a prolific writer in residence at Amherst, Smith, Baruch, Vassar, Syracuse, and the University of California, Irvine.
I purchased Sigrid’s book Siempre Susan and perused it during our midday festival intermission. During Sigrid’s talk in the grand ballroom, she discussed her most recent book The Friend, a story about a woman who endures the unexpected loss of her friend and mentor, and inherits her friend’s huge pet Great Dane.
Throughout the course of that day, a host of emotions swept over me. I found myself feeling both overwhelmed and inspired, eager to take action and write my heart out. Paula McLain noted that both protagonists of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin were twenty eight years old when they married Hemingway, and that she believed this was a significant age for women, a stressful but exciting time when something big is on the horizon. Having just turned twenty eight last month, I felt compelled to buy her latest book. She signed it for me: “For Chloe, who is 28 and on the verge of something.” I walked out of the Pasadena Festival of Women Authors feeling enthusiastic, hopeful and motivated to pen a book of my own.
Chloe says, "Many thanks to Dr. Kirsten Ogden for extending the invitation to attend this wonderful event, to Prof. Manuel Perea for facilitating my attendance and to Ellen Carroll from the Pasadena Festival of Women Authors Committee for the generous ticket donation to Pasadena City College."
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