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Literary L.A.


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."  


While AMY UYEMATSU was growing up in Pasadena, her grandmother produced haikus "constantly," and her mother contributed a column to a local Japanese-American newspaper. Later, as an undergraduate at UCLA, Uyematsu became involved in the nascent Asian-American movement, and decided that poetry was "the best vehicle to express the range of my emotions." Her first collection, 30 Miles From J-Town, won Story Line Press' Nicholas Roerich Poetry Contest in 1992, and a second book, Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain, is due out this spring. For the last two decades, Uyematsu has taught math at Grant High School in Van Nuys, but if that seems an odd job for a poet, she's comfortable with it. "I don't see the contradictions. Both poetry and mathematics are about getting the essence of things. They are bare but elegant forms." More contradictory are the expectations she faces as a writer, despite the fact that she has always addressed a broad range of themes. "I dislike the categories put on ethnic writers," she says. "You're expected to produce certain types of poetry, and I resent the limitations on my work." What drives her work, she says, are questions of "survival in Los Angeles. How do you live? How do you have hope?"


MICHAEL VENTURA was born in Brooklyn in 1945, and moved to Los Angeles in 1978, after a stint in Texas as arts editor of the Austin Sun. A founding staff member of the Weekly - he left the paper in 1993 - he is perhaps best known for his column, "Letters at 3 AM," which continues to appear in The Austin Chronicle. Since arriving in California, Ventura has worked in a variety of formats, writing the screenplays for Roadie and Echo Park, and collaborating with psychologist James Hillman on a book entitled We've Had One Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse. In the last several years, he's devoted his attention increasingly to fiction, producing a series of novels, the most recent of which is The Death of Frank Sinatra.


DIANA WAGMAN grew up in Washington, D.C., where she began her career as a writer working on political-campaign commercials. Eventually, she says, "I decided that if I was going to write fantasy, I might as well write real fantasy," so she moved to Los Angeles as a screenwriting fellow at AFI. Although Wagman has had a few screenplays optioned, with the recent publication of her novel, Skin Deep, she jokes, "I may never write a screenplay again." Astonishingly, Skin Deep is Wagman's first attempt at fiction; prior to it, she had never even tried a short story, and she still says, "I don't know anything about what I do." Now, however, she is 100 pages into a new novel, and circulating two stories written since completing her book. "I wanted to write about beauty," she says of Skin Deep. "Beauty is something I've always been interested in, because everything we say is filtered through how we look." Living in L.A. has only heightened her fascination because of what she sees as the city's desperate side. "Not long after I got here," Wagman remembers, "I met a woman at the grocery store who had to be 70, but she told me she was 40. I thought, Well, then, how old am I?"


BRUCE WAGNER first gained attention as a fiction writer when an early version of his Hollywood novel Force Majeure was published in a limited edition; the resulting buzz led to the publication of a full-scale edition in 1991. Since then, he's become a consummate chronicler of the movie business, continuing in the tradition of Budd Schulberg, Nathanael West and Horace McCoy, but with a quintessentially 1990s slant. A screenwriter and journalist, Wagner spent two years writing the "Wild Palms" comic strip for Details, and later adapted the work for the popular, if largely incomprehensible, television miniseries of the same name. His most recent novel, I'm Losing You - the first volume of his "cellular trilogy," which also includes the works in progress I'll Let You Go and Still Holding - continues his cynical explorations of Hollywood, whose bleakness, the author believes, is mitigated by "something redemptive, as well." Wagner bristles at the L.A.-writer label, arguing that he's never considered himself in such terms. "I grew up here," he points out. "If I'd lived in a steel town, I'd be writing about those people, but Rodeo Drive, Beverly Drive, those were my Main Streets."


DIANE WARD has long been associated with the "language poets," but a more important influence, she suggests, is her art-school training, which encouraged her to think of language in a tactile way. "I'm sort of an experimental poet," she says, "but coming from a visual-arts background, I work with words as a plastic medium, playing around with language to see what it might yield." Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Ward co-edits the bicoastal poetry magazine Primary Writing; of her eight collections of poetry, two - Imaginary Movie and Human Ceiling - were written in L.A. She believes the spareness of the California landscape has helped to strip her writing down: "My work is definitely more sparse. It's less proselike, more concise." The pluses and minuses of working here, she says, balance out. "I miss that intense East Coast support system, but at the same time I find the distance from it freeing."  


BENJAMIN WEISSMAN was 20 years old before he started reading; in high school, he says, "I didn't even read comics and didn't know what a book of stories was." Then, a quadriplegic artist for whom he worked gave him a book by Donald Barthelme, and Weissman found himself transformed. "I thought books were creepy things made by creeps," he explains, "the stuff old people wanted to shove down your throat. But Barthelme was better than any art form." A student at CalArts, Weissman began writing stories and publishing them in small local magazines like Barney and Little Caesar. From 1983 to 1993, he ran the Friday-night reading series at Beyond Baroque. Weissman's first collection of short fiction, Dear Dead Person, appeared from High Risk in 1994, and a second, Headless, is nearly complete. He also continues to work as a visual artist, and is on the faculty of Art Center, where he teaches writing and art. "Los Angeles," Weissman says, "is a violent city, and you can get inebriated by the constant servings of crime. But the overload breeds distance and a sense of humor, which, I think, come out in my work."


TERRY WOLVERTON is the author of Bailey's Beads, a novel, and Black Slip, a collection of poems. Since arriving in Los Angeles in 1976, she has written poetry, performance pieces and fiction; she has also compiled several anthologies, most notably Blood Whispers: L.A. Writers on AIDS, Volumes 1 and 2, and His and Hers, a semiannual series of gay and lesbian fiction co-edited with Robert Drake. "I always knew I'd be a writer, even as a child," she recalls. "My mother encouraged me to read, and my grandmother recited poetry. Early on, I developed a love of words and stories, and the way those things could keep you company." For many years a community activist and teacher of writing workshops, Wolverton sees these activities as essential to what she does. "I nurture the community," she says, "and it nurtures me.

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