Denise Hamilton writes crime novels and edited the anthologies Los Angeles Noir and Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics. Previously, she was a Los Angeles Times staff writer and she still contributes stories to the publication about perfume. Before participating in a Zócalo/Getty “Open Art” event on saving L.A.’s past, Hamilton discussed the files in her garage, the crime she’d choose to legalize, and what she thinks of when she hears Billie Holiday.
What superpower would you most like to have?
Flying, for sure. When I’m stuck in traffic on the freeway, I imagine I’m flying. Because I’m stuck and feeling so claustrophobic in the car, I project an aerial view over the freeway. I fly over the Sepulveda Pass and see the coastline laid out, jewels lit up from Point Dume down to Palos Verdes. I’d swoop along the Verdugos.
If you could legalize one crime, which would you choose?
I would legalize artistic graffiti but I would also give people a place to do it. I’ve really loved the graffiti that’s on freeway walls, on the banks of the L.A. River, on warehouses along the 5 [Freeway].
You’ve written about perfume. What is your favorite scent?
I am very promiscuous when it comes to perfume use. I have hundreds of bottles, some of which date back 80 years in Baccarat crystal bottles. Those perfumes are almost alchemical and magical. You open the stopper and it’s like letting a genie out of a bottle. They smell of smoke and musk and suede and Prohibition rum and gin.
Who is your favorite non-living singer?
I have always liked Billie Holiday. There’s something mournful, profound, and true about Billie. There’s a double or triple album where the cover has a picture of her with a flower behind her ear, and I used to drive around the city and listen to that. It evokes a certain mood of nighttime old L.A.—sad and melancholy.
What was your favorite story that you wrote for the L.A. Times?
My favorite one was the one that led to my first novel. It was about parachute kids—unaccompanied minors from places like Hong Kong and Korea, who came to places like San Marino and Hacienda Heights. Their parents would go back to Asia because they had to keep a factory running and the kids would live with a nanny or a sibling. I went out to the San Gabriel Valley and a teacher at San Marino High School said, “There are a lot of kids living by themselves.” So my ears perked up and I asked, “Can you introduce me to some of these kids?” I found out there were 60,000 of them in the U.S. When I turned it in to the editors at the L.A. Times, the editors downtown thought I had made something up because they had never heard of such a phenomenon. I thought, “We live in L.A. Why would I ever need to make up a story?”
How are you different from who you were 10 years ago?
Not that much. I still have a kid at home. I’m still writing, still living in the same house, married to the same guy. I probably have a little more time to myself because my kids are older and require different kinds of support now.
What’s your favorite sundae topping?
What do you think that most people get wrong about Los Angeles?
They think we’re all airheads here. It’s because they go to some fancy hotel on the Westside and talk to the bimbos lying around at the pool and go to these vacuous dinner parties. They think no one is an intellectual here and nobody reads. And there’s a vibrant literary culture and diversity here.
What are you keeping in your garage that you should have thrown out already?
Old L.A. Times files. I keep thinking I’ll need the research for some book that I’ll write one day or because they were about quirky, odd, interesting cultural stories. It’s way past time.