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Arts and Entertainment

LAist chats with Kevin Smokler

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Kevin Smokler is a book man. He writes about contemporary literature all over the place and talks about it on NPR. He consults and lectures across the country about what we read and how and last year, when the NEA announced that reading was in decline, he got a little sad and then he got a little mad. He had run a very popular site about books and had created virtual book tours that were wildly successful. He read a bunch of sites that were very popular that talked lit and he knew young authors like David Sedaris, Nick Hornby, and Zadie Smith that could pack houses with young people that wanted to talk about their words. From there, his first book, Bookmark Now, was born. It is a collection of essays about writing and reading in our "unreaderly times." We got a chance to IM with Kevin during his own Virtual Book Tour about the written word in a multimedia world.

LAist: Morning Kevin! How's it going?

Kevin Smokler: Insane mostly. But a good kind of insane. Hard to complain when all sorts of good things are happening.

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LAist: I bet. What is it like being the subject of a virtual book tour instead of managing one?

Kevin Smokler: Like looking at yourself underwater. Ordinarily I suggest the content based on the interests of the bloggers. This time around I had to follow their lead much more or else it looks like I'm orchestrating a publicity junket which the VBT has never been about.

LAist: heh heh heh. What has VBT been about in the past if not publicity as the primary goal?

Kevin Smokler: For me it was always about exposing the NY publishing world to the world of blogging and vice versa. I guess book publicity is an indirect goal there but a junket to me smacks of fawning and bought praise. Everyone on the tour is free to speak their mind about the book in whatever way they see fit. When an author complains about a negative review, I remind them what they signed up for.

LAist: You talk a bit in the introduction of Bookmark Now about the desire of media consumers for that "inside look" into the process of creating art. Is this kind of interaction between writers and their audience the same
kind of thing...a kind of "Author's Commentary" track for a book?

Kevin Smokler: Yes, exactly. When the VBT works best, it's the "director's commentary" track of a book.

LAist: So, what would you want people to know about the process of editing this book?

Kevin Smokler: I've been asked a bunch about how I chose the authors, which essay I liked best, Why I chose an anthology as a first book instead of one written solely by me and were there any essays that didn't make the cut.

LAist: What I'd actually want to know is how you find new authors? And how do you find the time to read both writers you love and new voices? As a consumer of all types of media I find this my biggest problem: finding the time for it all.

Kevin Smokler: How do I find time to read? Location location location. I have one book on my nighttable, one next to the toilet, one in my car, another in my backpack. Whenever I'm sitting still in any of these places, I read 5 pages. Then on the weekends, maybe an hour or two at a stretch. You'd be surprised how fast you go through books. Second, how do I select what to read? I have trusted sources (friends, blogs, book review sections) whose opinions I trust. Also, when I finish a book I do two things. Write about it in a notebook and on my blog and "tag it", so Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians might be "contemporary, short story collection, native american." The next book I read can't have any of those same tags which keeps things as diverse as I can manage.

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LAist: What was the last really good book you read?

Kevin Smokler: Right now, I'm in the middle of reading Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop which I'm loving.

LAist: I loved that book! It is part of my 52 books in 52 weeks that I stole from large hearted boy.

Kevin Smokler: I read that on your blog. It's just a beautiful book.

LAist: Do you have a favorite book set in Los Angeles?

Kevin Smokler: I really love Steve Erickson's Days Between Stations which is set in a dystopic future Los Angeles. I'm also a huge Sandra Tsing Loh fan and love all her books. And I think Mike Davis is a genius. City of Quartz freaked me the hell out.

LAist: Okay, last question because I know you're on a schedule. Why do you think people have such strong love/hate feelings for Dave Eggars. I'm enjoying what 826LA is doing in town but I know a lot of literate 20-somethings that can't stand him.

Kevin Smokler: I'm very much in support of what Dave is doing in terms of education and outreach. But I think much of the appeal of McSweeney's and its other projects is the idea of "getting the joke", of laughing with just as much understanding as those making the joke. If you feel included in that laughter, great, McSweeney's is probably just right for you. If you feel befuddled and afraid to ask what everybody's laughing at, then I can see how you would feel alienated from their reindeer games. I think that may happen more than Dave and the McSweney's folks know.

LAist: Bookmark Now has that same kind of sensibility a bit but much more inclusive. There is an obvious desire to pull literature down from the rarefied air it so often finds itself in and reminding people that good words and ideas whether written, virtual, or spoken are out there. I love that. Okay. get out of here, Kevin. I have more I want to ask but I'm sure we can continue the conversation later.

Kevin Smokler: Thanks for thinking of me! Speak soon.

Kevin is all over the web this week. Check for him at some of our favorites (All About George, The Bradlands and Elegant Variation) later today.