Beauty of the BEAst, Part I

I’m back from BEA (BookExpo America), and — while not yet fully recovered — am at least ready to post about it.

I’m not sure that it’s something from which one can recover. An event that large (even though the numbers were low this year), that chaotic, that carnival-like in its showmanship and chutzpah — yet demonstrating a strange serendipity — is actually quite an individualized experience. My BEA will be different from all other BEAs, if only because of the sheer number of choices available. Nimoy or Shatner was probably the toughest, but that was day two … tomorrow’s post.

So where to begin? Culver City, I suppose. I stayed at the Culver Hotel, once owned by John Wayne, who, legend has it, won it in a poker game from Charlie Chaplin. This pairing strikes me as highly unlikely … rather like Michael Moore playing poker with Bill O’Reilly, but you know what they say — that’s Hollywood, or rather Culver City, the “Heart of Studio Land.”

Three studios once populated the landscape, and Sony is still located in Culver. More significantly for me, the Hotel is immediately across the street from the old Ince/Selznick/RKO/Desilu studios, where films like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Rebecca, and Citizen Kane were filmed. They are now the Culver Studios, and are still busy.

If you’ve ever seen a Selznick movie, you’ll remember the opening shot of a colonial mansion, sometimes confused with Tara, that prefaced all of his productions. I woke up to that mansion every day, looking down and to the west from my sixth floor room. That’s a magic kind of film history, and the Culver Hotel is a gorgeous, beautiful, wonderful and wondrous place to stay, with an exceptional staff of welcoming and helpful people.

Plus, I really loved the old elevator … an original from 1924, when the hotel opened.

Across the street is a newly-built Pacific Theater complex, designed to look Art Deco, and done so well that it fooled me from a distance. So at least somewhere there are architects and developers with souls, who remember what beautiful building design looks like.

Friday dawned early and orange in LA, and fellow debut author Andrew Peterson and I entered the huge complex together, first paying our respects outside to the enormous sign for James Patterson. Mr. Patterson was helping bring in the crowds, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in a slightly more cozy environment at Thrillerfest next month.

The Expo feels like a world’s fair, an amusement park, a circus, a conference and a business meeting. And depending on what you were there for, it could be all of the above.

People in elephant costumes, people in pirate costumes, people in practically no costume or clothes at all. People with signs, people with free cookies, people with free lip gloss, all wanting your attention, all wanting to call your attention to something, usually a book.

And then there were the free books. Books in every subject, hardbacks, paperbacks, magazines. People passing them out, people piling them on garbage cans because they couldn’t stuff them into one of the gazillion free book bags that were handed out along with the — yes, I said it — FREE BOOKS.

It was insanity. A woman walked around in zealot robes, carrying a sign that read “The Rapture is Coming … and it’s only 12.99.” The flip side said, “It is Written … but you can also get the audio rights.”

That’s BEA, Los Angeles-style.

I checked in at the MWA (Mystery Writers of America) booth, where I was volunteering and where I’d be signing on Saturday. The MWA relies on an organizational goddess based in New York named Margery Flax … Margery had planned everything to the proverbial t and the booth was hopping with excitement. Brad Meltzer (a wonderful writer and guy) was dishing out books like hotcakes, and the joint was jumping!

I hung around for a bit, greeting colleagues, and then wandered off to meet Dionne Warwick, who was signing free copies of her new children’s book Say a Little Prayer (complete with bonus CD). I grew up with Dionne, and have always appreciated the fact that she made San Jose a glamorous place when I lived there in elementary school.

Next was Diahann Carroll. OK, by now I was in pure fan mode … I grew up with Julia, and absolutely adore this woman. She is as sweet, generous and open as she is gorgeous, and signed ARCS of her forthcoming autobiography, The Legs are the Last to Go. We even got a chance to chat about new author syndrome, and she wished me a heartfelt good luck on my book. Wow!

I checked back with MWA to remind myself that I was still an industry professional, and ran into the wonderful David Morrell (founder of ITW (International Thriller Writers), author of First Blood and countless other best-sellers) and his talented, terrific daughter Sarie. As an ITW member (and participant in the ITW Debut Authors Program), I had to thank David for the amazing friendships, opportunities, and education I’ve received. Soon, a group of us were talking in the giant lobby, and I had a chance to meet uber-talented writer Denise Hamilton (Los Angeles Noir) and walk back to MWA with her.

By this time I was getting kind of woozy, and it was still morning. I headed back to the autograph area [and I need to interrupt myself to explain that authors signed one of two ways: in a specific autograph area, where lines were roped off, and in exhibitor booths, where people could could a little closer].

Now, it so happens that my mother is from Harvey, Illinois. And she grew up in a working-class neighborhood with a little boy named Tommy Dreesen, who grew up to become the wonderful, talented and very funny comedian (and great golfer!) Tom Dreesen. Tom is one of the last links to the Rat Pack, having worked as Sinatra’s opening act for the last fourteen years of The Voice’s life. Before that, Tom worked for Sammy Davis, Jr. And before that, he and Tim Reid (Venus Fly Trap on WKRP in Cincinnati and acclaimed director) had toured as Americans first (and only) biracial comedy team.

Tom, Tim and Ron Rapoport (the Chicago Sports columnist) have co-authored a book about this experience, called Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White. The book debuts from the University of Chicago press in September, and is as much a thoughtful, poignant look at racism in America as it is autobiographical reminiscence.

Naturally, when my mom found out Tom was going to be at BEA, she asked me to go see him (they’ve stayed in touch periodically). So when I said, “I’m Patsy Geniusz’ daughter!” Tom actually knew who I was, told Tim and Ron that he used to borrow Mom’s papers occasionally, and was just an absolute sweetheart — he’s such a kind, generous man. I gave him a copy of my book, and he signed mine, “For Kelli, who is as beautiful as her mom.” Something I’ll treasure forever!!

By now, my head was spinning, so we tried to scare up some food, but the food court lines were gigantic. Fortunately, we met up with pal and amazing thriller writer Robert Gregory Browne (Kiss Her Goodbye), who helped us fight for chairs (chairs were in shorter supply than tables, and harder to come by than parking at a Toys R Us during Christmas). We managed to score some low-fat muffins and frappucino for our efforts, and were joined by another BFF, Bill Cameron (Lost Dog and the forthcoming Chasing Smoke). These are two of my favorite guys on the planet, and their company was much more refreshing than the Starbucks food.

We all wandered into the main exhibit area, where we split up, Rob and Bill to another publisher area, I to wait in line for Billie Jean King. Yeah, the lady I watched demolish Bobby Riggs in straight sets, who gave courage to every little girl I knew, was there signing copies of her ARC, Pressure is a Privilege. I got a chance to thank her and tell her she’s a real Wonder Woman. Plus, she’s got a great laugh!

After this, we squeezed into the end of the line for Barbara Walters who was a late addition, and signing free copies of her best-seller Audition. Got a chance to thank Barbara for her inspiration, too. She’s quite beautiful in person, with amazing skin and bone structure, and a very gracious benevolence. Can’t believe she’s 78!

Once outside, I thought I heard a voice call my name, figured it was the angels, and it turned out I was right … it was Cara Black, the supremely talented author of the Aime Leduc series, good friend, wonderful, wonderful person and fellow San Francisco resident. We caught up on some of the BEA craziness.

After this, I headed back to the hotel and collapsed, finally locating real food at the Culver, and then headed back to downtown LA and into the trendy and fun bar, The Edison. The place looks like a Buffy set … I half-expected Angel to walk down the stairs. This was an MWA hosted bar, and I had a blast drinking Cosmos and chatting with Margery and husband Steve, friend and Lambda nominee Neil Plakcy (Mahu Surfer) and another great friend, Laura Caldwell (The Good Liar).

Back to the hotel, through the strange, apocalyptic streets of downtown Los Angeles. Back to the Culver, to the Selznick mansion, to the kindly and generous ghosts of the Culver Hotel.

Thus endeth Day I. Childhood icons, my mom’s childhood chum. What a day! More tomorrow.