Native Angeleno David Kipen is a writer and the founder of Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library and bookshop in Boyle Heights. He has been the San Francisco Chronicle book critic and director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. Before moderating a panel that demystified the Santa Ana Winds, he talked about American cheese, the art of the book recommendation, and the L.A. diary project he’s working on in the Zócalo green room.
What cheese best embodies you?
American. Because it’s the first cheese I grew up loving, and it always reminds me of my happy Los Angeles childhood.
What’s the last book you recommended to someone at Libros Schmibros?
A book by a woman named Helen Thorpe that I’ve never read, like all too many books that I recommend. A couple of fresh-faced college students from Biola University came in, one of them wanting a book about growing up disadvantaged, and I’d always heard this was a good one. It jumped out at me rather than me spontaneously thinking about it, which is what usually happens. She seemed happy about it, so that feels like I won one. Maybe she’ll come back and tell me she hated it—but as long as she comes back, it’s a good day.
What do you wish you had the nerve to do?
Write a novel.
What’s your antidote to writer’s block?
Showers are good. Driving is good. There’s an Angeleno answer for you. Deadlines are great. A fat check, sometimes, is useful.
Where do you go to be alone?
The exact geographic center of Los Angeles. It’s off Coldwater Canyon, and you would think you were surrounded by a national park instead of 10 million people—next to Upper Franklin Canyon Reservoir.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
Copies of Los Angeles diaries for the book I’m working on that purports to tell the story of L.A. through diary entries. So, Christopher Isherwood, Anaïs Nin—tomorrow night it will be those plus what anyone within earshot recommends, because I need as many L.A. diaries written by as many people, published and unpublished, that I can lay my hands on before December, God help me.
What food would it be criminal for a visitor to Los Angeles to miss?
A Dodger Dog.
How do you pass the time when you’re stuck in traffic?
Listening to fractions of songs on all my presets. And when, as often happens, I don’t find any fractions I like, seeking amongst them. Unless I have something like this coming up, in which case I put on [Classical] KUSC and leave it there, because lyrics get in the way.
Does Washington, D.C. do anything at all better than L.A.?
The short answer is no. … They care about politics. They care too much and in the wrong ways, but Los Angeles can sometimes get me down with its inattention to politics, and so I have to reluctantly admit that it can be interesting to be there for that reason, if only that reason.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
People from other places.