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The Voyeur 

Holiday Reinhorn on her Big Cats

Thursday, Jul 21 2005
Photo by Ted Soqui
Holiday Reinhorn’s secret writing clubhouse has a bright red door. It is separated from the main house and overlooks the swimming pool. “Is this the pool in ‘Fuck You’?” I ask. In the story, which appears in Reinhorn’s debut collection, Big Cats, a woman shares a quiet suburban moment with a 13-year-old boy, a stranger who she has picked up on the drive home.

“Maybe,” she says slyly.

The slyness has something to do with my bigger question, the relationship between a writer’s life and her work. The Big Cats stories are set up and down the West Coast; over half of them were written here in Los Angeles. But Reinhorn says her aim is to minimize her self. “When I write I want to vanish and listen to the character. It’s my job to disappear,” she says. “If I have any event set in my mind, it gets in the way of my ability to listen.”

We are at Reinhorn’s home, a cozy Van Nuys bungalow, seated outside on two Adirondack chairs. It is a scorching summer day, but Reinhorn wants to be in the garden. Inside, her husband, Rainn McKenzie, is strapping the Prophet of Van Nuys (a.k.a. their infant son, Walter) into a highchair for a bowl of Cheerios. “The persona of the writer is much more important now than it used to be,” she continues. “At readings, I’m tempted to introduce myself as Holiday Reinhorn’s assistant.”

This is her persona: She once envisioned herself as a shoe painter, a hummus maker, a vet, an Olympic-caliber dressage rider, a radio producer and/or Chrissie Hynde. For a while, she was a stage actor, but eventually she completed the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When she was a kid, her dad was a dentist in the military, and the family lived in Guam, the Philippines, Japan. “Moving around so much I was never really a part of any place. I would sort of watch it for a while, then move on. It was like being a voyeur. Later, I’d want to recapture it somehow. The act of wishing to inhabit a place is more provocative in my work than actually being there. A lot of the characters want to inhabit a place very badly and can’t. And in that way it is autobiographical.”

I ask about the genesis of the title story, “Big Cats,” in which two teenage girls have a screaming-mad cat fight in front of the lion cage at the zoo. It’s a story about power and vying for territory and sexuality. “I used to work at a zoo when I was 14,” Reinhorn says. “We would be there early mornings when the animals were living their private lives. It was a little civilization with its own hierarchy. But I never had a fight like those girls did. Though I’ve always wanted to fight like that.” She is fascinated by the primality of it. The not knowing what your connection to someone is, and being unable to explain it. The wanting to “hate-kiss someone.”

In Big Cats all characters are on exhibit in some way, as they struggle to reconcile base instincts with more presentable ones. From the psycho narrator of “Get Away From Me, David,” wandering around in the desert clutching a bottle of cough syrup — just one drink away from the apocalypse — to Jenny in “Last Seen,” who never isseen, who we understand only via newspaper clippings, interview transcripts and diary excerpts. “I love the idea of animals escaping,” Reinhorn says. She also loves when people have wildly divergent ideas about who her characters are and why they do what they do. “It’s that surprise that keeps me going.”

As for the secret writing clubhouse, what’s going on right now is the writing of a novel — her first. “May I see it?” I ask. I catch a faint whiff of chlorine from the pool that may or may not be the one in the book, hear the clink of swings from a nearby school that the Prophet might one day attend. “Oh, no, no, no,” she demurs. No one is allowed inside except for her and, occasionally, the dogs. As a kid she had secret clubhouses. There were bunches of made-up imaginary people under her sway. She took minutes. “My siblings were not allowed in, but they wanted to. And I was sort of dependent on them wanting to,” she laughs. Her characters, she insists, are braver than she is. Now, they have escaped into the world.


BIG CATS | By Holiday Reinhorn | Free Press | 215 Pages | $15 hardcover

Holiday Reinhorn reads from Big Cats on Thursday, July 28, at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. Information: (310) 659-3110.

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Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com
  • Holiday Reinhorn on her Big Cats

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