“I’ve got to sign 800 of these in the next few minutes,” he said.
It was the day after Super Tuesday, before coronavirus fears had derailed countless book tours and public events, and 900 people were gathered at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre to listen to Pfeiffer, along with the other hosts of “Pod Save America,” riff on Joseph R. Biden Jr., Bernie Sanders, the road to the White House and how to unseat the man holding sway there.
The evening, organized by Writers Bloc, felt like a political rally, complete with attendees wearing “Warren” hats. But when you looked closer, you saw a Bartleby type in the third row leafing through Sigrid Nunez’s “The Friend,” and three women arguing over “American Dirt” while their daughters posted memes. This is what a modern literary salon looks like.
As the “Pod Save America” gang spent 90 minutes Monday-morning quarterbacking, the crowd cheered, clapped and laughed, while Andrea Grossman, who founded Writers Bloc, watched quietly from a seat in the back.
“Considering coronavirus and traffic, it’s a pretty good turnout,” she said.
For the past 24 years, Grossman, 64, has operated Writers Bloc, a Los Angeles literary and reading series that has become an important stop for politics writers. Authors typically go onstage with a journalist or artist who interviews them, then invites audience members to ask questions. Over the past few years, Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid and Ronan Farrow have appeared to sold-out crowds, and Democratic presidential candidates such as Sanders, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris have stopped by. (Back in 2014, Senator Elizabeth Warren was here, too.)
“In times like these, which can feel really dark, open, honest conversations are crucial,” Reid said in an email.
Representative Adam Schiff, who has spoken at Writers Bloc events, including one days after a mass shooting in 2015, said the series “allowed me to connect with local audiences on issues that matter most to those back at home and across the country.” Other members of Congress, including Gabrielle Giffords and Ted Lieu, have also been featured.
The speakers aren’t just Democrats and progressives. In 2016, the former Republican Senate majority leader Trent Lott was a guest, sparring with Tom Daschle, another former senator, about why the two parties can’t get along. “I remember Trent Lott discussing who he’d support for president. I believe he said Trump, not a huge surprise in the audience, but they talked about how years ago, Democrats and Republicans used to knock back beers together and play golf. And that stopped,” Grossman said.
Unlike the five-figure-a-plate venues where citizens might otherwise be able to have a conversation with these lawmakers, Writers Bloc events typically cost $20 to $40, and they usually include a signed book.
The only rule, Grossman said: “I will not host people who are divisive or sow hate.”
Fiction writers have long been part of the Writers Bloc lineup — guests have included Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro and Amy Tan — but they aren’t booked as much now, a change Grossman attributed to our 24-hour news culture.
“Novelists have taken a hit,” she said. “They can’t compete with an author or journalist writing about the White House or Washington. If you don’t have a Trump book, forget it. Political leaders are our new cultural avatars. They’re the new entertainers.”
“Obviously Andrea has to go where the crowd goes,” said the crime novelist Michael Connelly, who has been a guest multiple times. “I’m no different from everyone else: I’m consumed by the politics of our time and I can see why that’s become the bread and butter of the people she has.”
The series started in 1996 when Grossman managed to get Joan Didion’s publicist on the phone. Grossman started “rambling,” she said, about what a serious reader she was of Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne; she had first editions and knew their works by heart.
“The publicist said I’m really sorry, she can’t come, and hung up. Then 20 minutes later, they called back — ‘Joan will do Writers Bloc,’” Grossman recalled. “I really needed a great name, and I got it.”
The conversation series operated by the 92nd Street Y in New York and City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco were among the templates. As word of mouth boosted Writers Bloc’s profile, writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Hitchens agreed to appearances. Grossman, who maintains relationships with many publicists, described her programming sensibility as “people I would fight traffic for.”
Writers Bloc is a nonprofit organization, and there is a board, but it is exhausting work, and it can cost up to $8,000 to market, promote and put on each event, she said. Sometimes the venues are free. “There is no support system, it’s just me,” she admitted over croissants and coffee in a Beverly Hills patisserie around the corner from a home filled with books and guarded by Else, a German shepherd mix, and Carson, a Great Dane/Labrador mix.
“What’s the payoff?” Grossman asked aloud. But then she answered: “Sitting there in a greenroom with Elmore Leonard, John le Carré, Peter Jennings.”
Despite the challenges, having three children out of the nest helps her remain rock-ribbed. Grossman’s husband works as general counsel for a hospital network in San Diego, and since he travels frequently, Writers Bloc is her focus.
“Andrea has made this project her life’s work,” said the CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who has appeared at Writers Bloc several times. “The great thing about these events is they’re there for one reason only: to hear about your book and your subject, and that’s special. Even if you’re fortunate enough to write a best-selling book, you don’t see your readers except at events like these.”
Grossman, who has worked in political fund-raising, TV programming and cosmetics marketing, knows she can’t stop. Not yet.
“It’s really hard to get people out of their living room,” she said. “But people are so starved, so hungry for engagement and connection.”