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Literary L.A. 

Wednesday, Feb 4 1998

JERVEY TERVALON sold his first poem to Scholastic magazine while he was still in junior high school. "'My God,'" the Pasadena resident remembers thinking, "'I can make money at this.' And I've been deluded ever since." Raised in Los Angeles, he attended Dorsey High School and UC Santa Barbara, where he wrote stories about his neighborhood, publishing them in "little magazines that no one reads." After graduation, Tervalon taught at Locke High School before entering the MFA program at UC Irvine; there, he returned to a work in progress about South-Central that ultimately became his first novel, Understand This. Although the book won a Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award in 1994, Tervalon has been stymied in his attempts to publish subsequent work - his second novel was bought but never issued, and a third book is circulating now. "Most publishers," he says, "feel like they can't lose money underestimating the intelligence of the black reader, and there's no one out there to balance their preconceptions, and prove they're wrong. It's especially hard coming from Los Angeles, because they don't recognize the diversity of the city, so we can't see our lives represented for what they really are."

LAWRENCE THORNTON was 48 years old before he produced his first novel, Imagining Argentina, in 1987. "I made a deal with myself," explains the former professor. "I'd write one academic book, then devote myself to fiction." Perhaps because he turned to literature so late, Thornton works with a focus that is historical rather than personal; Imagining Argentina, for instance, creatively re-configures the repression that took place in that country between 1976 and 1983. In the decade since that book was published, Thornton has written three additional novels, including Naming the Spirits, narrated by 11 ghosts of the Argentine killing fields, and the newly released Tales From the Blue Archives, in which a promise of reconciliation begins to emerge from the act of recovering the past. "For me," he says, "politics is inseparable from fiction. A writer has a responsibility to say something about the conditions in which he lives, about what's going on in his world. I think that art, accomplished well enough, can make people take notice. It may not change things, but it can shine a light on something people will not otherwise see."

HECTOR TOBAR is suspended between two worlds. On the one hand, his job as a reporter with the Los Angeles Times Metro staff keeps him rooted in the daily life of Los Angeles; on the other, he is a fiction writer - his first novel, The Tattooed Soldier, will be published in April - who has "had to unlearn methods of work, ways of seeing things, while allowing my imagination to play." To compound the situation, The Tattooed Soldier goes against the grain of a mainstream Latino fiction, avoiding magical realism and issues of identity to tell the story of a retired Guatemalan death-squad soldier who is recognized in MacArthur Park by the husband of a woman he has killed. "It's a raw book," Tobar says, "extremely political. I'm not interested in sympathetic characters, but complex human beings." Equally important is his sense of L.A. as the locus of a wide range of contradictions, an imperial capital in decline. "I grew up with a vision of Los Angeles as the epitome of progress, but as an adult, I saw that vision turned upside down. What I had thought was this gleaming jewel of a city turned out to have at its center this big wound. To see it burn from the streets as a reporter - that informs a lot of what I write. It has been my generation's burden to live from L.A.'s apogee to its slow and steady decline."

MICHAEL TOLKIN is a man in the middle - too smart for Hollywood and too commercial for the literary world. His screenplays, including The Rapture and The New Age, examine the emptiness of material desires and the attraction of spiritual longings in everyday life, while his best-known novel, The Player, is a potent evocation of the cynicism at the heart of the motion-picture machine. (He is also the author of a second novel, Among the Dead, and has just been signed to rewrite the script for Mission Impossible II.) "Hopefully," Tolkin says, "there's some coherence between the best of my movies and my novels," although, he admits, the books "sum up something in a way akin to a journal," which his film work cannot do. "The novel," he points out, "is the last place anyone in Western culture can be free. Such freedom has a cost, but it's a good cost. The price of being a novelist in Los Angeles is - and always has been - that basically you're in exile. You don't have to run away to a Greek island to get away from literary culture, because you're already in L.A."

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