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Reporter’s Notebook: Authors and admirers mingle at Festival of Books

Kim Fay, Elisabeth Frausto and Diana Giovinazzo after their historical fiction panel discussion at the Festival of Books
La Jolla Light staff writer Elisabeth Frausto (center) gets together with authors Kim Fay (left) and Diana Giovinazzo after their historical fiction panel discussion at the Festival of Books.
(Courtesy of Diana Giovinazzo)

It might surprise no one, since I write for a living, that I love words. They are my full-time occupation, but they’re also my all-consuming hobby. It follows then that when The San Diego Union-Tribune asked me to further immerse myself in words as a moderator at its annual Festival of Books, I readily agreed and added the two assigned books to my August queue.

The Festival of Books is aptly named. It’s a celebration for bibliophiles of many forms, from writers and readers to booksellers and librarians. At this year’s edition on the University of San Diego campus, thousands milled about the lawn, browsing titles or waiting to have an author sign a newly purchased tome, or packing the various theaters and classrooms for panel discussions or readings with about 100 authors.

This was my second year participating but my first in person; the previous two festivals were held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, I interviewed writing duo Christina Lauren (the combined pen name of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) and then moderated a panel with local author Kate Quinn. This year, ahead of the Aug. 20 in-person festivities, I interviewed author Alana Quintana Albertson on Aug. 4. All of those were via Facebook Live.

"Love & Saffron" and "Antoinette's Sister"
In preparation for her Aug. 20 panel discussion, Elisabeth Frausto was sent a copy of both “Love & Saffron” and “Antoinette’s Sister.”
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Being able to go in person to meet authors and fellow bookworms face to face added excitement, but the absence of a screen between us increased my performance anxiety.

There’s a reason I prefer print journalism to broadcast: the ability to edit myself.

Nonetheless, I charged forward, incorporating the assigned books into my usual stack of seven or eight books per month.

The topic for my panel was historical fiction, and my task was simple: prepare a 30-minute discussion of the books “Love & Saffron” by Kim Fay and “Antoinette’s Sister” by Diana Giovinazzo.

The books took me on journeys to 1960s West Coast USA (Fay) and 18th-century Europe (Giovinazzo), challenging me to stitch together a coherent discussion while jumping continents and centuries.

It turned out to be a wonderful few days of literary learning. Fay’s book is epistolary, driven by the letters between a Los Angeles-based food writer and a Washington-based magazine columnist. Giovinazzo’s book — about Maria Carolina (Charlotte), queen of Naples and Sicily and favorite sister of Marie Antoinette — features letters among the queens and other family members. I was able to piece together several questions based on the correspondence.

A majority of the discussion, however, was based on the authors’ construction of women making courageous and unusual choices given their place in time.

Festival day arrived, and I showed up an hour before my 2:30 p.m. slot, giving me time to stroll the many booths outdoors, wander past the food trucks, book club tables and larger canopies under which Warwick’s bookstore, the San Diego Public Library and others displayed items for people like me: stickers reading “I Like Big Books,” tote bags professing one’s love for books and … books. Many, many books.

I perused them, adding books to my TBR (To Be Read) list. I reunited with Scott Paulson, events coordinator for UC San Diego’s Geisel Library, as he manned the university bookstore’s table, and I spied local author Adam Davis as he read from his poetry collection.

Elisabeth Frausto stands among her fellow bibliophiles at the Festival of Books.
Elisabeth Frausto stands among her fellow bibliophiles at the Festival of Books.
(Luis Cruz)

Then I showed myself to the “green room” for panelists and moderators, going over the script and questions for my imminent discussion.

I met Fay and Giovinazzo, requesting that they sign my copies of their books and trying to tamp down my awestruck expressions as I relayed how much I enjoyed their stories.

We were escorted to a classroom across campus, where we encountered a full house of about 60 readers eager to hear from these women. We perched in not-entirely-stable tall chairs and the discussion began — a lively conversation in which each author asked the other follow-up questions and compared notes on research styles and editor relationships.

We discussed writing during the pandemic, producing historical figures who are a joy to read and evoking hunger through recipes.

We discussed travel and typewriters (Fay still uses one in her writing), challenges and choices.

The 30 minutes I had been apprehensive about filling flew by like the turn of a page, and 15 minutes of thoughtful audience questions later, we were walked back into the sun so Fay and Giovinazzo could sign their books at the UCSD bookstore booth.

I lingered there awhile longer, honored to be in the company of such creativity. We promised to stay in touch. I left them basking in the glow of their fans.

I ambled on, circling the tables once more before leaving the campus, energized by the celebration of authorship and ready to tackle more of my never-ending TBR.

Elisabeth Frausto is a staff writer for the La Jolla Light.