Talking over sandwiches at a Hollywood deli, Sandro Meallet barely fits into the beige leatherette booth. He‘s a big man, way out there on the far side of 6 feet, a former ball player, but it’s not his size that gives off the impression he‘s about to burst from the booth, it’s his energy. His body is relaxed, slouching almost, in brown Dickies and a baggy blue button-down, but his green eyes are fairly glowing with the stuff. His laugh, when it comes, is deep and full, and his speech, despite the easy Southern California cadences of his voice, flows out of him like a river overflowing its banks, finding its course as it goes: touching on returning to San Pedro from his home in Sonoma (“It‘s like a blood transfusion”), on his heartache at seeing a childhood friend, now a crack addict on the streets of Wilmington (“He smelled so bad . . .”), on the “contemporary folklore” of the Rancho San Pedro projects, and the “dynamic beauty” of South L.A.’s shoreline, pausing occasionally to apologize for digressing. So when he says with great earnestness, “To me it‘s not a struggle to be a writer, it’s a struggle not to be a writer” — which would sound like a line coming from just about anyone else — it‘s pretty clear he means it, that this is a man who has some stories to tell.
The first batch of those stories, which together form Meallet’s first novel, Edgewater Angels, was published earlier this summer. The book follows young Sunny Toomer and his group of friends as they fight their way into adolescence in the projects of San Pedro, where Meallet was raised. (About 95 percent of it, he estimates, is rooted in real characters and events.) At turns idyllic and hellish, it‘s a coming-of-age story in a world where even little boys cannot afford to be innocent, where harsh moral choices come early and often. It is leavened with a slow-paced, easygoing humor (an obese “lowrider wannabe” and the bone-thin brother of a Crip, neither of whom can swim, race through the waves at Cabrillo Beach to avoid breaking a gang truce; the ex-con veterano father of a friend lectures the boys on “the instincts and urges”) and, at times, with quiet beauty.
If Meallet is now getting adulatory reviews from the likes of Carolyn See, it hasn’t always been so glamorous. He grew up in a three-bedroom apartment with eight siblings, his mother and her revolving cast of boyfriends. There was very little money coming in. “We were the underclass, way under,” he says now with a laugh. Book learning was never a priority — “I didn‘t read my first book till I was 19 years old,” Meallet says — but skill with language was. “We would always play with language,” he says, a triangle of tuna sandwich, yet untasted, looking comically small in his oversize hand. “There was always experimentation, even when we were baggin’ on each other.” It was doing the dozens, seeing “how badly we could abuse each other with words,” that got him interested in language, and that ultimately provided the voice for Edgewater Angels.
Meallet still seems surprised at how far he‘s come. “I never even considered going to college,” he says. “When summer came around [after high school], I was waiting for the 13th grade to pick up. I was hanging around the Ranch, hanging around with my partners, just being chill. We were going up to the Highs,” the rich neighborhoods like Palos Verdes that overlook San Pedro. “We were robbing houses a little bit. We were just doing petty shit, 17-year-old stuff.”
But he ended up getting a basketball scholarship to a small school in Wyoming and eventually transferring to UC Santa Cruz. “To this day I say basketball saved my life. And that’s kind of a cliche, but it definitely did because it got me up to Santa Cruz, where a little light bulb turned on.” After bombing his first term, Meallet began applying himself. “I didn‘t know how to write a term paper. I didn’t know what a thesaurus was . . . It was one of the most painful experiences of my life,” he recalls. “I couldn‘t tell you how proud I was that I wrote a five-page paper. I got goose bumps right now thinking about it.” To his surprise, “I got high off it, up-in-the-ether high, and I became obsessed.”
The obsession stuck. After leaving Santa Cruz he played basketball on a pro team in Germany, but decided after a year that “My life wouldn’t be complete at any point if I didn‘t go to graduate school.” He got a master’s at the New School in New York, writing his thesis on “the concept of cruelty . . . as the supreme organizer of modern culture.” When the program ended, Meallet says, “I didn‘t want to face the reality of doing a real job. I liked living off of loans and studying. I was institutionalized, in a very positive sense.” At around the time he was finishing up at the New School, he’d started putting some of his childhood experiences on paper, so, mainly to put off paying back his loans for a few more years, he applied to the MFA program at Johns Hopkins, and was accepted. Only then, when he was 31, did he begin writing in earnest.
The episodes that became the chapters of Edgewater Angels began not even as fully developed stories, Meallet says, but as writing exercises. “I was like, I don‘t know shit about fiction. I know stories . . . I have stories that I’m going to physically sit down and put on paper, and I‘m gonna make them read like stories. I don’t know how they‘re gonna come out. And I wrote three or four of them, and they were terrible.” They got better: One, about a badly abused and very odd Korean boy who joins Toomer’s multiethnic group of friends in their harbor fishing trips, was published by the Atlantic last year (it was his first submission to any publication). In a slightly different form, it became the first chapter of the novel.
If Meallet‘s background is different from those of most MFA grads, so is his attitude toward writing. He displays none of the self-torment and doubt that most writers wear like an extra shadow. “I feel no anxiety,” he says, with all the optimism of a convert recently born again, allowing that “I do in the sense that I need to get my work written and get it done.” He owns up to loving Camus and Toni Morrison, but asked specifically about influences, he scoffs at the very idea: “I’m not going to practice what other people preach, I‘m not doing that. I hate when people do that shit, like they want to live up to some ghost.”
Meallet is also decidedly unprecious about the act of writing. He does all of his writing in public places: “Home to me is always associated with chaos and screaming kids, impossible.” He wrote most of Edgewater Angels at a New York Barnes & Noble and has been rewriting his second novel, also narrated by Sunny Toomer, at a Starbucks in Northern California. “I know a lot of people hate it,” he says, but there are free refills on the iced tea and “they don’t give a shit if you‘re in there for eight hours.”
Now devoting all of his energy to writing — “I won’t do anything else,” he says — Meallet shrugs off the insecurities of the writer‘s life: being perpetually late on his rent, not having health insurance or a dime to spare. “It’s not a sacrifice,” he volunteers. “To me it‘s a full life,” Meallet says with a wide-open smile, and laughs. “I feel like I’m like a leopard and I got spots.”
Sandro Meallet reads from Edgewater Angels at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, on Friday, August 24, at 7:30 p.m.