By Eduardo Santiago
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — The Idyllwild Authors Series is back again this year and turning 6 years old. It has no solid reason to exist and definitely no reasonable reason to be as successful as it is. I started it on a whim in 2011, a time when Amazon was decimating brick and mortar bookstores by the hundreds. This was the year that Borders, the retail bookstore giant, closed down approximately 900 of its 1,200 superstores. Boom, just like that.
“With Borders gone, the future of mainstream Main Street book retailers is more uncertain than ever,” mourned the Huffington Post (2011).
The future, indeed, looked bleak for Idyllwild’s only bookstore, B’s Mountain Of Books. Because I’m a writer and because I’ve always found bookstores to be my refuge, I came up with a plan to bring more business to B’s. So the author’s series began as a publicity stunt — I would invite my writer friends to Idyllwild, show off my new home, and interview them in front of an audience — at the bookstore. The owner of the bookstore was baffled that this stranger, totally new to town, would walk into her store and make this offer. She was understandably suspicious but went along with it.
A publicity stunt only works if it garners publicity, so my next stop was at the local paper, The Town Crier. I was met with suspicion once again: “Who is this guy?” But we cut a deal that if I brought well-known authors to Idyllwild, they would interview them in advance of their event.
Now, I had to sweeten the pie. I had made a list of published authors I knew well and knew they would like to help me, particularly because my call to action was: “A little bookstore will go under if you don’t help.”
All my writer friends love bookstores the way I love bookstores. So before long, I had a line up. But, about that pie – what could I offer them other than hard cold cash that would make the two-plus hour trip down a congested freeway and up a winding mountain road a little nicer. How could I show my gratitude?
Cafe Aroma, by far one of our nicest restaurants, donated lunch for two. And when the authors showed up for lunch, the restaurant made a big deal out of them. The owner, Hubert Halkin, is a book lover, former professor, and one of the strongest supporters of the series.
Next, through a short process that was as simple as it would be convoluted to explain here, the charming Creekstone Inn offered an overnight stay for the writers should they choose to spend the night.
Last, but not least by any stretch of the imagination; Pen Center U.S.A., [L.A. based branch of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers, founded in London in 1921 – early members were Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere], stepped in with advertising money and a cash stipend for the visiting writers.
I had my list of guests, I had my pie, and now I needed an audience.
Our first event, on May 15, 2011 featured the Australian novelist, David Francis. Through no fault of his there were only 10 people in the audience. But 11 is my lucky number and I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I remember that the interview was relaxed, that David and I laughed a lot, and that the audience seemed pleased. Except for one – Bill Sheppard, who claimed he couldn’t hear us very well. Lucky for me, Bill is a sound engineer, and for the rest of the series, including the one to come, he has provided microphones and speakers completely free of charge.
At the next event, Hope Edelman, a New York Times bestselling author and one of the nicest people I know, drew a bigger crowd – and was clearly heard by all. Novelist Leslie Schwartz, whose novel, Angel’s Crest, had just become a movie also increased attendance.
Then, Janet Fitch blew into town like the good witch that she is, and this was the game changer. Her novel, White Oleander, had been an “Oprah’s book club pick” and became a movie full of the big movie stars and Oscar buzz. A standing-room-only crowd vied for a view of Janet and after that, the numbers in attendance never went down. It was always 60 plus no matter who was in the hot seat. And 60 is a big number up here!
“The consensus is that bookstores need to become cultural destinations where people are prepared to pay good money to hear a concert, see a film or attend a talk,” claimed The Economist (2013), so maybe I was on to something after all.
In the past five years I have interviewed about 60 authors. They have all been gracious, eloquent, humble, hilarious, and totally open. One year, somehow, most of my guests were named Amy – Friedman, Wallace, Finley, Ephron (yes, that Ephron). Hollywood is so close by that it is inevitable that some Tinseltown types will find their way into the roster. Oscar nominated actress/writers who stepped up for an interview, Karen Black (The Great Gatsby) and Quinn Cummings (The Goodbye Girl). Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner’s daughter, came to discuss her autobiography, Detour and her series of mystery novels.
Actor Steve McQueen’s wife, the gorgeous and very, very candid, Neile Adams, talked about her memoir, My Husband, My Friend, a very intimate account of life with a superstar.
Celebrities are fun to dish with, but all of the authors who trekked up the hill to face the microphone and my many questions were stars, and I fell in love, briefly, with each and every one of them – from the bestsellers to the no sellers, from the celebrities to the unknown, and I’m particularly partial to those like me, currently typing their thoughts, word after word, chapter after chapter, with furrowed brows and a heart full of hope.
And that’s why it’s hard to quit. Even if bookstores are still closing, people are still writing!
Idyllwild no longer has a bookstore, [B’s Mountain of Books changed ownership and name, then closed down in 2013]. A sad loss, but Idyllwild has an amazing public library and a huge population of book lovers who urge me to continue to bring books and writers “to the hill.”
It can be challenging. Every year I say it will be my last, then someone like Hollie Overton, who was my student at UCLA, gets her first novel, Baby Doll, published and I decide, one more year.
Then my dear friend Mae Respicio sells her first novel, which will be out in 2018 and I think…well…maybe two more years.
No, there is no solid reason for the Idyllwild Authors Series to exist, or for it to be so wildly successful — it is a runaway train and I am merely its hair-on-fire conductor.
I’ll stop when it stops.
The 6th Annual Idyllwild Authors Series begins Sunday, July 10 at 4 p.m. at Cafe Aroma, Idyllwild. Our first guest will be Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, author of the memoir Willow Weep For me. I hope to see you there.