Litquake rocks the local literary scene

Palo Alto festival headlines Marcia Clark, with more than 40 best-selling authors, kids' events

Truth may be stranger than fiction but for Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, reality, no matter how bizarre, can't make as compelling a story as crime fiction. Clark, 60, has been a best-selling crime-fiction author for the past seven years. Her fourth novel, "The Competition," came out in early July.

Clark will now headline Litquake Palo Alto 2014, the free summer literary festival taking place in Palo Alto on Sunday, Aug. 17, at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center. Now in its third year, Litquake Palo Alto has become a moveable feast for readers and writers of all ages and interests, with more than 40 best-selling authors, 10 writers' salons, writing workshops, author "fireside" readings and events for kids and teens, including a teen poetry slam.

This is Clark's first time at a Litquake event. She will be interviewed by thriller writer Michelle Gagnon. Amiable, humorous and down to earth, she talked openly during a Monday interview about her writing and the wise-cracking protagonist of her novels, Los Angeles Special Prosecutor Rachel Knight.

"She had the life I wish I had. It's a lot of wishful thinking -- she has a hot millionaire boyfriend. There's a lot of wish fulfillment. But she can't be perfect. I gave her a lot of my flaws," Clark said, laughing.

She also gave the character her middle name, but Rachel is not Clark, she said. She gave the character that name to ease writing in the first person and to develop more realistic dialogue, she said.

The stories' lead character isn't modeled on anyone in particular, she said. But the stories are inspired by true crime. "The Competition" came from research on Columbine-massacre shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and is about the true nature of psychopathic killers. Her first novel, "Guilt by Association," was inspired by a rape trial in Orange County; "Guilt by Degrees" was sparked by the true story of a crime victim's rescuer who was left bleeding to death on the sidewalk by bystanders; and "Killer Ambition" was inspired by the death of her youngest son's best friend, who fell off a mountain top.

But no case she has ever tried, no matter how bizarre, is ever interesting enough to tell completely as nonfiction without embellishment, she said.

"True crime can only take you so far. Generally speaking, those cases are not that intriguing. They don't have enough twists and turns," she said. The only true crime case with enough intrigue to hold an audience is Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," she said. The case itself -- two men killed a farmer and his family in Kansas in 1959 -- while brutal, was fairly straightforward and simple, she said. But Capote spent six years interviewing the two killers and getting inside their minds.

"If it was a totally fictional account, it would not have been of that much interest," she said.

Clark's interest in crime fiction harks back to her childhood, when she loved reading "Nancy Drew" books. Listing all of her favorite authors is enough to get out of breath.

"I always loved crime stories, but I never had the confidence to go out and do it as a career," she said.

After her 10-year stint with the Los Angeles DA's office, Clark became a commentator on legal issues in high-profile cases for CNN, MSNBC, NBC and ABC. She wrote "Without a Doubt," her bestselling book on the O.J. Simpson trial, and she was a consultant for the legal drama "For the People" on the Lifetime network.

Clark also started writing scripts. She sold pilots to FX, Lifetime and VH1 networks and developed a comedy for NBC. Scriptwriting taught her how to write dialogue, which led to her first book, she said. For a time, she worked a full day as an attorney and wrote until late at night. She seriously wanted to give writing her best shot, she said.

"You don't get an unlimited amount of time in life," she added.

As a prosecutor, Clark was confined to what her witnesses would say, and often that wasn't terribly compelling, she said. "I couldn't tell them what to say," she said, although at times she wished she could.

But writing is liberating. Her characters can say anything she wants them to say, and live whatever life she breathes into them, she said. And they aren't maudlin.

"I'm not a 'chick lit' kind of person," she said. "I wanted a woman who would be able to take care of herself in a dangerous world."

But the character had to be believable, not a superhero.

"In real life, a woman is not going to win in hand-to-hand combat against a man -- you're just not. Give her a gun, and you are going to level the playing field. I wanted her to be able to take care of herself. I didn't want her to wait for a man to show up and make the arrest," she said.

Clark also didn't want her character to play into stereotypes.

"I wanted to show that women are strong but are good to each other," she said.

Clark is one of many celebrated authors who will appear at Litquake Palo Alto. Others include Kathryn Ma ("The Year She Left Us"), Ellen Sussman ("A Wedding in Provence"), Yangsze Choo ("The Ghost Bride") and Vikram Chandra, ("Sacred Games," "Geek Sublime: The Code of Beauty, the Beauty of Code").

Many local authors will also take part. Palo Alto author Keith Raffel ("A Fine and Dangerous Season") and Nick Taylor, a Menlo Park author, ("The Set-Up Man") will discuss "Genre Fiction: On the Fringes?" during one of the writers' salons. Cartoonists Owen Smith, Tom Toro and Mark Ulricksen will also discuss "The Art of the New Yorker."

Among the salons are "Redefining Mainstream: LGBT Stories"; "Shrinks with Ink: Psychotherapist Authors" and "Suffering and Success in Silicon Valley" with Lee Daniel Kravetz and David Feldman.

Workshops include writing oral histories, how writers write and blogging from a Jewish perspective.

There's also plenty to stimulate children and teens. For children, there are readings -- author Marcia Goldman, "Lola Goes to Work" -- shadow-puppet shows, music and face painting, fairy tales, a Dr. Seuss room, crafts, and a dinosaur book library and dig site. The teen poetry slam for ages 13 to 19 runs from 3 to 5 p.m. Litquake will close out with the Blues, Booze & Schmooze after party with authors and attendees from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The jazz duo All Blues will perform. Clark's appearance is at 7 p.m.

What: Litquake Palo Alto 2014, a literary festival for all ages

Where: Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

When: Sunday, Aug. 17, 2-8 p.m.

Cost: Free. Interview session with author Marcia Clark, $15, includes her latest book. (Registration advised.)

Info: Go to paloaltojcc.org.

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