Literally Literary – PEN Center USA’s 23rd Annual Literary Awards Festival


Remnants of the PEN Center USA’s 23rd Annual Literary Awards Festival, on my dining room table.  I took a lot of photos with my android phone, but they all overwrote each other after the second one because my phone is inhabited by gremlins.

First off, why PEN is a great organization.  They are not all about awards. They are about helping writers in grave distress through their Freedom to Write program. They connect writers with kids through PEN in the Classroom, and they run the Emerging Voices program for emergent authors.  I was lucky enough to be an EV fellow years and years ago. While my writing hasn’t done for me what I hoped it would back then, being an EV fellow was beyond important in helping me understand how to be a part of the literary community while I continue to muddle along. It opened a lot of external and internal doors for me, and that’s one of the reasons I volunteer.

Also, it is a whole lot of fun. Libby Flores, Michelle Meyerling and Lilliam Rivera from PEN ran a great event.  Adam Somers gave a terrific speech about why he’s there as executive director. Wish I had the text to post here.  Check them out at the PEN Staff Page.

That’s the centerpiece from one of the tables, my table number and the program.  I volunteered for the third time and it was definitely a charm.  The first two times I was a runner, helping award winners, honorees and presenters find their way from the banquet tables to the stage at the appropriate time. This time I was a runner but I also was one of three women at the check-in desk, handing out table numbers to the attendees.  That was a fast-paced blast.

I arrived a bit before our 4:00 call time and used valet parking. I will walk a long way to avoid a valet, but not outside the Beverly Hills Hotel when I am dressed nicely. Pick your battles.

I’d volunteered for extra work because I know how excruciating it is to be at an event where everyone else has paid $200 a seat, and my whole nice outfit didn’t cost that much.  (Well, I am a good shopper when I have to be.) Plus, the fresh crop of Emerging Voices Fellows could benefit from the networking in a way that I don’t really feel I need right now. Because I have been focusing more on music and walking than on writing lately.

Anyway, it was great fun to hand table numbers to the excited guests and occasionally recognize an writer/winner in front of me. Most writers are genuinely surprised to be recognized. There were also some Hollywood folks, although the big guns sent their handlers around for their tickets–Harrison Ford, Angelica Huston, Laura Dern and Oliver Stone.  Danny Strong, whom some of you will know from his turn as Jonathon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is now a very respected writer and winner of the Teleplay award for the HBO film Game Change. (Did you see The Butler? That’s his screenplay!)

Better yet, was when a woman walked up to Stacy (the leader of our pack and a PEN staffer) and asked for tickets for A.M. Homes. Though we weren’t supposed to fan the guests, I said, “Oh, I love her work!”  and looked up right into the author’s shy face.  “Thank you,” she smiled. “My whole writing group admires your work.” I added.  Just so you know I was thinking about you, you who know who you are.

I recognized Randol Contreras from our list and the best thing about that was not just the look of surprise on his face, but the pride in his teenaged son’s eyes.

Also saw Susan Straight and Janet Fitch having a blast.  I escorted Joy Harjo to the stage. “I’m personally very happy you won this,” I said before I handed her off back stage. “Me too!” she answered.

Winner of my personal, unofficial Best Voice Award was Shohreh Aghadashloo, whom I had the honor of walking from table to backstage.  Wow, what a gracious woman and she did a lovely job of presenting the Freedom to Write Award to Sonia Nassery Cole, who won my personal Best Speech Award.  What a journey she had to get to that stage, having endured all sorts of hardships she could have avoided in order to bring stories into the world.

If you’re wondering why Harrison Ford was there, it was to present the Lifetime Achievement Award to Joan Didion who, at the last moment, was unable to fly to Los Angeles to attend. Angelica Huston accepted for her, reading a note from Ms. Didion.

Ford related that when he first arrived in Los Angeles one of his carpenter jobs was at the Didion’s house. “I was the first thing they saw in the morning, and the last thing they saw before cocktail hour.”  They liked him, and invited him to their dinner parties.  When he stopped having to work as a carpenter, they kept inviting him. They were some of his oldest friends in California.

BHH powder

The one photo that survived from the night: the pre-show powder room off the lobby of the Crystal Ballroom. It’s not this orange in real life. I noticed that the cotton hand towels in the basket have been reduced to washcloth size. Economizing measures are everywhere I suppose.

I have to say that the staff that I interacted with at The Beverly Hills Hotel were amazing. They turn the air conditioning on very high so that it will be comfortable when hundreds of people are in the room, but it was really chilly in there for those of us who arrived early.  One of the wait staff spontaneously brought those of us at the reception table pots of coffee and tea to help us warm up.  Another seamlessly handled a last minute request to escort a woman who couldn’t see well to the front of the hotel to meet her taxi, which she ordered for half an hour before the event ended.

It was a great evening.

Hmm. I think this post is worthy of the Any Given Sundry award for Most Hyperlinks in a Single Post.


2 thoughts on “Literally Literary – PEN Center USA’s 23rd Annual Literary Awards Festival

  1. Sheila says:

    love the A M Homes ref

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