Although she says she was raised in a “household that really supported the arts,” with the likes of poet Jack Hirschman “reading in my living room,” actress and writer Amber Tamblyn struggled to be able to read herself.
“I’m dyslexic and for many years, I hid from my parents and my school the fact that I couldn’t read,” Tamblyn says via phone as she scurried through traffic in New York City. “I had a real learning disability when I was really young. All of my friends would read the Nancy Drew series and I remember sitting in class and see them just fly through the pages. And I would pretend like I was reading and turn the page when other people were turning the page.”
Tamblyn, now an accomplished actress, director and writer (she’s published three works of poetry) says this disability “might be why I gravitated toward [writing] poetry, because of the things you can do with words and ways of thinking.”
“With syntax and structure and line breaks, you can play with poetry more than you can in any other literary art form,” she says. “I was drawn to that at a young age.”
Tamblyn and her husband, writer-comedian David Cross, are hosting the PEN Center USA’s 26th annual Literary Awards Festival on Sept. 28 at the Beverly Wilshire.
“More than the enjoyment of the actual ceremony, I think that PEN is one of the more important organizations out there supporting and protecting literature and supporting free speech,” says Tamblyn, who also attended the 2014 ceremony, which Aisha Tyler hosted. “It doesn’t have the shallowness of an award show. This stuff actually matters.”
Intentionally or not, the Santa Monica–raised Tamblyn’s support of the literary arts also adds one more nail in the coffin to the stereotype that Angelenos are too self-centered to pick up a paperback.
“I mean, look, there’s so many stereotypes of Angelenos that we’re all just vapid, Botox-injected losers,” she says. “And there’s a good size portion of them, for sure. But I think L.A. is home to the most complex, fascinating, interesting writers and reading series. L.A. noir is one of the most important literary genres in the world, and it’s specific to Los Angeles. Some of the great crime stories have come out of there and certainly some of the most poetic movements have come out of the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Having parents who were born and raised there too, I think it’s a different experience than people who move to Los Angeles.”
Tamblyn prefers her own reading materials to come via the old-school dead-tree style instead of via an e-reader, proclaiming specific adulation for stores like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, the Strand in New York and West Hollywood's Book Soup. This spending habit, in addition to her gig reviewing poetry for Bust magazine, have made quarters particularly tight in the home she and Cross share, with piles of manuscripts hitting the ceiling. In a fit of organization, she went on Etsy to find an artist who could design personalized serenity stones with messages like “garbage,” “unread,” “urgent” and “completely in love with.”
Their collection of books includes a first-edition, signed copy of Charles Portis’ Masters of Atlantis, a gift Tamblyn bought for Cross because he loves the book so much he had its cover tattooed on his arm, and Anne Carson’s Nox, a collection of poems that deeply influenced Tamblyn’s own Dark Sparkler, which was published last year.
“There’s also a collection of my late writing mentor and unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman,” Tamblyn says. “She was one of the most important voices not just in black literature but literature, period. She shaped everything and informed so much of who I am as a writer and how to use your anger at what you’ve not been given to find your voice and never be ashamed.”
When confronted with the notion that a publicist called Tamblyn and Cross “Hollywood’s most bookish couple,” Tamblyn laughs.
“We accept; I think normally we’re getting 'one of Hollywood’s weirdest couples,'” she says, a potential reference to the gossip magazines’ fixation on their May-December romance. “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a house full of what a famous comedian and a poet can accumulate, literature-wise.”
PEN Center USA 2016 Literary Awards Festival, Beverly Wilshire, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Wed., Sept. 28, 6 p.m.; $400-$500. penusa.org.