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I didnt know your mother was Jewish. What was it like for you to be growing up with those two cultures?
For me it didnt feel like two cultures. It was my mother and my father, and it was kind of a wonderful thing, because I had two families that reflected each other almost perfectly. They both came from poor communities, they all had an oral tradition, so youd get around on Friday or Saturday nights and tell what it was like. And youre telling terrible stories about terrible things happening to people, but youre laughing. It was very funny Oh, and ä then he got away, they were shooting at him, and he only lost a toe! That kind of thing. So it was kind of wonderful.
Now, in my family, my mothers side moved to Queens, and when we visited my fathers side, we were going back to Brooklyn. I remember very much as a kid driving from one part of New York to another. You grew up here, what was the geography of your families?
The Jewish side of my family lived in West L.A. and Santa Monica. They were working-class people, butchers and bakers and tailors, and they worked with their hands. My fathers family was mostly in Watts, and later in Compton and parts of Pasadena. Everybody in my fathers family worked with their hands, too, but they did it a little differently. My father actually built a house in the back yard, and did painting and mechanics. My uncle Chaim, who was a tailor, would show my father how he cut a suit. And my father would show Chaim how youd level a floor. It was an interesting kind of interaction.
The funny thing, the interesting thing, is that all my Jewish relatives are from Eastern Europe, and theyre all tiny people. Five feet tall, 5-foot-1, so their houses are actually very small. [Laughs.] I felt a little cramped when I visited them, but I knew I could walk to the beach, which was something I loved. But when I got home, I loved home, my neighborhood. This is Los Angeles, so when you get to my neighborhood, its not just black people but a lot of Mexican-Americans living in the neighborhood, and not that far away the Japanese, who had been there for 100 years. The multicultural effect of Los Angeles, which I hope comes through in my books, is something I was very influenced by.
Even though you moved to New York some 20 years ago, for the most part youve continued to center your books in Los Angeles and California. Why?
The simple answer is that I come from here. And I know the streets and the smells, and the flora and the fauna, and, you know, I just love the desert. And Los Angeles is a desert when you turn off the water, it turns back into a desert. Also, theres that period of time. Im trying to write about that migration from the Deep South, from Louisiana, etc., to Los Angeles, and what that meant, how that changed people. You read the old masters of the genre Chandler and Hammett and Ross Macdonald, for instance and they write about Los Angeles, but there are very few black people in [their] Los Angeles, and theyre really not all that well-understood. And by leaving out black people, youre also leaving out Chicanos and Japanese and Chinese, and these are places that I think, God, I want to write about them. They were there, theyre important. And really, the way you understand and celebrate your history today is through literature. Even if that literature starts in a book and it becomes a movie, you dont want to be completely left out. You dont want to get to the place where you make a movie like Star Wars, and there are only white people and aliens in the future, you know?
Well, absolutely. In Fearless Jones, youre dealing with the beginnings of a black entrepreneur class in Los Angeles. Where was that class located, and to what extent had it left its community at that point?
The entrepreneurial class starts in the Deep South, of course. It starts in the completely segregated communities where white people didnt go and black people didnt leave. So in that neighborhood, any business is going to be owned by somebody black, if its a blacksmith, a milkman, anybody who is going to build a fence or build a house, any kind of work. An undertaker, its going to be done by black people. So those people leave the Deep South, because theres not much money, racism, whatever. They come to California, and its not just starting over again, because theres no history of segregation black people will be somewhat segregated, but white people will go down there and have businesses. You have the classic women businesses, beauty shops and some kinds of restaurants, and you have bail bondsmen, etc. All that is happening, and people are trying to make it, theyre trying hard, and people are struggling . . . Its the same thing in the Easy Rawlins novels, where Easy in the worst way wants to be a real estate mogul, and he cant do it. But this young girl, Jewel, shes only 20, ä and shes better at real estate than Easy. Because she doesnt have that dead hand of history on her brain. She is who she is in this world today, and shes going to move ahead, and because she doesnt limit herself by her memories, shes able to move far beyond Easy.