The question of what makes a Los Angeles writer initially seems simple.
“They live in Los Angeles or write about Los Angeles,” said Laurie Ochoa, a longtime Los Angeles journalist. But that’s just the beginning, Ochoa noted, of understanding a city so large and diverse, rife with stories of glamour, wealth, crime and want.
Ochoa moderated Zócalo’s panel at the Guadalajara International Book Fair on the subject, chatting with the LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold, Lakewood scribe D.J. Waldie, and novelists Gary Phillips and Yxta Maya Murray on finding the real Los Angeles and telling its stories.
The panelists’ choices for their favorite Los Angeles books made clear how vast the category of Los Angeles writing is, spanning genres and even different media. For Murray, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here captures “feeling really tiny in this gigantic sea of Los Angeles.” Phillips cited Jonny Otis’s Upside Your Head, an oral history of Central Avenue that captured Phillips’ father’s Depression-era generation of African American migrants.
Waldie said Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land was a favorite because he best explicated the longstanding and well-known Los Angeles mythology of sun and noir. And for Gold, the best Los Angeles book is about loving and hating the city: Richard Meltzer’s LA is the Capital of Kansas. “One of the necessary conditions for loving Los Angeles is being able to hate it with as bright a flame,” he said.
Gold and Phillips also named contenders that aren’t even books. Philips proclaimed his love of Car Craft magazine, which he read with his dad while they worked on cars. Gold cited “the 50 years of baseball broadcasting by Vin Scully, which sounds more like Los Angeles than any book I can think of.”
Because of the vastness of their city and its stories, the panelists noted, a Los Angeles writer is something of an archaeologist, an excavator. As Phillips put it, “I grew up in Los Angeles, yet of course, it’s a city that is constantly hanging around me.” In his lifetime, he noted, African Americans have gone from being the city’s largest minority group to its smallest. Immigrants have reshaped large swaths of the city and throughout the greater Los Angeles area, particularly the San Gabriel Valley.
Waldie agreed, but added that there are parts of Los Angeles that are essentially unchanged from the late 19th century. “The past is simply there. It’s gotten dusty, but it hasn’t been torn down or replaced,” he said. He also noted that he also explores the city from a different perspective – that of a non-driver. “I am one of the strangest of Southern Californians. There is a special place for us in hell. That is, in the MTA bus system,” he joked. Unlike the many writers who have lionized the city’s driving life – or berated it – Waldie noted that his experience is distinct and more intimate, one that covers him with “the dust and grime and smog of the city.” He imagines Los Angeles as “a pattern on the ground,” and so wrote a book that mirrored its series of small patterns.
Gold noted that though he buses often, he primarily discovers the city through his truck, looking for “the soft spots on the grid,” the hidden and unusual and transforming places. “It’s almost a trance,” he explained. “I go wherever my car takes me, and Los Angeles is so big and so spread out that you can drive for 100 miles and essentially still be in Los Angeles.” And it’s crucial the natives do the excavation, he added, rather than New York magazine writers who “parachute in, stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and write about what they can find within 10 minutes of their posh hotel room before they go back and have their room service dinner.” Los Angeles, he said, is more like Guadalajara than Hollywood: “There are certainly more Jalisco immigrants in Los Angeles than there are screenwriters.”
For Murray, the excavation is more intimate, with a perhaps unknowable aim. She noted that the Los Angeles that inspires her most is the Los Angeles of her memory. As she recalled, “You’re 12 years old, you’re living in the suburbs, it’s really sunny outside,” she said. “On TV there are all these amazing things happening in Los Angeles but you’re in your bedroom and you don’t have that many friends.” What keeps her writing, she said, is the “sense of dislocation,” and “the dream of trying to be something more than that little squid reading.”
Pio Pico to Queen of Lakewood
Another common thread in Los Angeles books, Ochoa said, is a fear of failure. Waldie explained why that fear is particularly suited to a city constantly reinventing itself, and full of people doing the same. “If the story of Los Angeles is you get a new life, and if that life doesn’t work out you get another one,” he said, “suddenly the story is endless anxiety about whether you bought into the right new life.” This sense of unease “makes noir a default condition in the narrative of the city.” Gold added that the city’s own reinventions make it seem as though it has no past. Its residents can’t recall its historical places and moments – the defeat of the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, for instance.
Still, Phillips noted, the allure of self-reinvention still attracts. “It’s always struck me that even today, every day, at the Greyhound bus terminal on Vine and Hollywood, people still come to Los Angeles in pursuit of a dream or in pursuit of the last chance,” he said, adding that it is a constant trope in mystery and crime fiction. Murray once pursued the classic Los Angeles dream as well. After winning the title Queen of Lakewood, she said, “of course the next step you have to take is acting.” Playing the “ethnic extra” or the “Mexican victim,” she said, “I grew up with a Napoleon complex, a maniacal gleam in my eye, and also the feminist dream that anything I wanted to do I could.”
Another classic Los Angeles mode is science fiction, even if, as Waldie put it, the genre “destroys Los Angeles over and over and over again.” The city is “the great model of dystopia,” Gold said. And though Murray imagined that Los Angeles may just end up taken over by zombies, the panelists seemed optimistic about the future of the city and its writing. As Waldie put it, “I have the strong impression that the literature of Los Angeles has not been written, and it will be written by people who don’t look like me.” Phillips agreed. “There is a Los Angeles canon that exists now, but that will of course be replaced by the new people who reflect and live and work.” But he, like the other panelists, said he would always be an L.A. writer, even if he moves, because “that’s how we roll.”
*Photos by Miguel Izquierdo.