By Richard Barker
Special to the Town Crier
I arrived at Eduardo Santiago’s house to find him hunched over his kitchen table pounding down shots of what turned out to be Lemon Lily tea. “I just picked this up at Merkaba’s and it’s delicious,” he said. “Join me; we can drown our sorrows together.”
We were both feeling a bit wistful and nostalgic, for an hour earlier the Idyllwild Author Series 2014 had just wrapped up, and the 2015 series was more than seven months away.
The final installment of the 2014 series had been a fitting finale. Eduardo had interviewed author Dete Meserve, whose novel, “Good Sam,” is going through that magical metamorphosis wherein a book becomes a film. Although they met each other just before the interview, Eduardo had created a vibe that was so relaxed and intimate that you would have thought they were old friends. And like most of the 40 interviews he has done over the last four summers, Eduardo had the author — and the audience — roaring with laughter.
But in this reporter’s opinion, the main reason the series is so compelling is that despite the relaxed and jovial tone, Eduardo does not shy away from asking tough questions. Indeed, after introducing each author, Eduardo invites him or her to “sit in the hot seat.” It’s almost a dare. His probing questions elevate the interviews above the coddling lovefests so typical of celebrity interviews (think Larry King).
When I asked him about this, Eduardo said, “I have a responsibility to the authors, but I have a responsibility to my audience, too. They’ve come to expect a certain level of depth, and I think that’s one reason they keep coming back.”
After the interview with Dete, as I watched her beaming while autographing books, I found myself reminiscing about the series that has evolved into one of the premier literary attractions in Southern California. Although I attended most of the 40 interviews, I knew little about how the series started, so I had asked Eduardo if he would tell me the story and share those moments that meant the most to him.
As we sat drinking tea and chatting, a soundtrack was unintentionally provided by his husband, Marc, who was playing an acoustic guitar in the next room. As Marc played James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” Eduardo told me that his original motivation was to help Idyllwild’s sole bookstore stay afloat against the rising tide of online book sales. A juggernaut, led by Amazon, was steadily bringing about the demise of independent bookstores throughout America, and the few that survived owed it to innovative promotional techniques.
Interviewing authors at what was rapidly and almost carelessly named The Idyllwild Author Series would not only draw a large gathering, but draw a specific demographic: book readers. Although it helped, the bookstore eventually succumbed. Fortunately, Cafe Aroma generously offered to host the series as well as provide free meals to the authors.
In my experience, the ultimate value of any event that occurs in the world is often the opposite of what you would first expect. Aroma has proven to be an ideal venue, especially since the owner is a master at promoting not only Aroma but the series as well. So in retrospect, the need to change venues was actually a blessing in disguise.
When asked for his personal favorite moments, Eduardo remembered that after a slow start, the third interview he did (Janet Finch) tripled the attendance, thus tripling his optimism. Attendance reached a new high in year two when the late Amy Wallace discussed her “My Life With Carlos Castaneda.” The series made some show-biz connections with Amy Ephron and Oscar-nominated Quinn Cummings.
One of my fondest memories from that year was the inclusion of an Idyllwilder, Sabrina Verney, who has since become a dear friend, as well as an inspiration to me as an author.
Year three opened strong with another Hollywood connection, Cheryl Crane (Lana Turner’s daughter). One of the authors that year, the great Duff Brenna, became so enamored of Idyllwild that he bought a house here; and another, Lisa Teasley, chose Idyllwild for her weekend retreat, “Painting for Writers.” Upon the release of Eduardo’s “Midnight Rumba,” he was in the hot seat, with Betty Anderson taking over the role of interviewer.
By this time, the Author Series had created quite a buzz amongst Southern California writers. Limited to just 10 authors a year, It had become a point of prestige to be one of the elite who receives an invitation to our mountaintop village, and PR agents began calling Eduardo rather than vice-versa. During Samantha Dunn’s interview, she reported, “In L.A.’s literary community, the authors are all asking each other, ‘Have you been invited up to Idyllwild yet?’”
This year’s series reached new heights in terms of publicity. Numerous newspapers and magazines ran feature articles about Neile Adams McQueen (former wife of Steve McQueen) opening the series. When Eduardo interviewed Josefina Lopez, it made the cover of a magazine and she was interviewed in Palm Springs for CBS’s “Eye on the Desert” news broadcast.
Eduardo is confident that next year’s series will be the best one yet. The president of the Palm Springs Writer’s Guild recently contacted him in hopes of establishing a “palms to pines” connection, such as bussing flatlanders up to attend. There has been talk of videotaping the series, and making clips (or even entire interviews) available online. Most exciting is the fact that the caliber of the authors continues to improve each year.
When the series was still being held at the bookstore, each week Eduardo would say, “A town without a bookstore is a town without a soul.” Ironically, this has been disproven by Eduardo himself, for his Author Series has singlehandedly taken Idyllwild’s literary community to unprecedented heights, and has replaced the bookstore as the literary soul of Idyllwild.