Stereotypes die hard, of course, and if any city understands this, it's Los Angeles. Witness the national fawning over the new Getty Center – as if the superficial daughter of a great, cultured family had finally brought home a boyfriend who could speak the King's English. One of L.A.'s more persistent stereotypes – that few writers can claim the term without “screen” attached, that “literary community” is an oxymoron here – may well linger. But the fact is, the city is home to an astonishing array of authors: poets, novelists, avant-gardists, journalists, genre writers, black, Latino, Asian, Anglo, gay and straight, Westside, Silver Lake, East L.A., the valleys. The mix is vibrant and profound, and with this issue the Weekly celebrates the men and women who compose it. .
Given the vast number of writers out there, this guide cannot be comprehensive. Drawing lines was difficult but, in the interest of space, necessary. Writers living and working outside Los Angeles – like Susan Straight – weren't included, nor were playwrights or biographers such as John Steppling and A. Scott Berg. Yet we hope that, in some impressionistic way, it may work as a representative overview, a scrapbook of snapshots that functions as a collective group portrait of the communities and aesthetics on the L.A. literary map. In that sense, it may be best described as an attempt to record the essence of a certain moment in the city's cultural life without forced conclusions or interpretations. If this list has anything to tell us, it's that L.A. writing, known to most of us only in bits and pieces, is difficult to categorize. But reading (and listening to) these authors, one wonders if perhaps this is simply what L.A. writing is – diverse, uncentered, and unencumbered by community.
In any case, it seems only appropriate that literary Los Angeles finds itself defined by its own lack of definition, by its refusal to coalesce. Here then, against all odds, are 84 L.A. authors, together in one place and time.
ALEX ABELLA was born in Havana in 1950, and came to the United States with his family in 1961. After several years as a print and television reporter in San Francisco, he moved to L.A. in 1985 to work on screenplays and fiction; his first novel, The Killing of the Saints, was published in 1991. The Cuban-American protagonist of this detective novel, Charlie Morell, has a foot in both Anglo and Hispanic culture, but is part of neither one. That perspective, Abella explains, comes very much from his own experience in Los Angeles, where the Cuban population is a small and largely overlooked component of the city's Latino mix. Although Abella has just completed a sequel to The Killing of the Saints, his most recent published work, The Great American, is a historical novel that re-imagines the life of William Morgan, a former U.S. Marine who befriended Che Guevara and ended up helping to lead the Cuban Revolution. “My novels operate from the same impulse as my journalism,” Abella says, “which is to report something important about the world.”
At 41, DANIEL AKST seems to be living every writer's dream. After working as a journalist for publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, and writing a nonfiction book – Wonder Boy: Barry Minkow, the Kid Who Swindled Wall Street – he published a darkly funny novel, St. Burl's Obituary, that was a 1997 PEN/Faulkner nominee and a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Award. Now, with the exception of the occasional magazine or newspaper piece (including book reviews for the Weekly), the author is writing fiction full time. A resident of Los Angeles since 1985, Akst sees the city as a vast social canvas of the sort writers such as Balzac, Dickens and Thackeray once regularly invoked. “L.A. is a place where you can find a lot of the most extreme manifestations of self-indulgence and self-absorption in American life,” he notes. “William James once said of religion, 'Don't study the chronic form, study the acute form,' and this city offers the acute form in spades.”
Now that he's won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,”
LUIS ALFARO seems likely to become a symbol of the ways art and community can intersect. Alfaro, though, has been interested in such a notion since he first entered L.A.'s Inner City Cultural Center as a teenager and realized he could make something creative from the material of his life. A playwright, poet, essayist and activist, Alfaro uses humor to elicit painful revelation. One of the founders of VIVA!, an organization of lesbian and gay Latino artists, he currently co-directs the Latino Theater Initiative at the Mark Taper Forum, and was nominated for an Emmy earlier this year for Chicanismo, a short film he wrote and performed. “Part of writing,” he insists, “is making a community of writers. That's the thing about Los Angeles, it's like a bunch of little border towns, and you have to cross over those borders. If you figure out the dynamics of each little border town, you can get along well. My writing is very much along the lines of that – little short pieces that add up to something big.”
GIOCONDA BELLI first came to Los Angeles from Nicaragua in 1992, and now splits her time between them. A former participant in the Sandinista movement – “I started as a guerrilla fighter in 1970,” she recalls, “and ended up as spokesperson for the Sandinista electoral campaign” – she decided to take a break from politics after the 1990 election and concentrate on her writing. Belli is the author of eight books, but only the novel The Inhabited Woman and a poetry collection, From Eve's Rib, are available in English; her new novel, Waslala, about the quest for utopia, details her belief that art is very much a political act. In Southern California, she claims, she lives “in a sort of limbo, observing life but not really part of this society.” Still, Belli says, “I like Los Angeles. I like the energy. It has earthquakes, palm trees and riots, and I am very familiar with all of that. It's not an easy place; it's full of conflict. But conflict provokes creativity and growth.”
LEON BING took a circuitous route to becoming an investigative journalist; the Pasadena resident spent 10 years as a fashion model first. “I thought writing would be an interesting way of making a living,” she laughs. “If I'd known the drops of blood that would appear on the paper, I'd have found another way of showing off.” Bing's first published piece was a 1985 cover story in the Weekly about street kids living in illegal squats in Venice; after another Weekly story about gangs was reprinted in Harper's, agent Eric Ashworth suggested she turn her talents toward a book. The result was Do or Die, a 1991 account of life among the Crips and Bloods. Since its appearance, Bing has written two studies of youth in crisis – Smoked, about the shotgun murder of three South Pasadena teenagers, and the newly published A Wrongful Death, which examines the death of a 13-year-old San Diego girl, who hanged herself despite being institutionalized on a suicide watch. “America,” Bing says, “eats up its kids with relish. America says, 'Oh no, we love our kids more than anything,' but it still manages to have a healthy appetite for them.”
LAUREL ANN BOGEN has been an active participant in the Los Angeles poetry community since she won an Academy of American Poets Award as a freshman at USC in 1968. Now curator of the Writers in Focus reading series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – she's also run readings at both the George Sand and Arundel bookstores, and served as executive director for the Los Angeles Poetry Theater from 1979 to 1984 – Bogen has written nine books of poetry and short fiction, most recently The Last Girl in the Land of the Butterflies. “Poetry is a dedication,” she says, “because there are few tangible rewards. I've had every kind of job you can imagine – been a secretary, made tacos in the Farmers Market – but I've always been a poet.”
T. C. BOYLE was born in Peekskill, New York, in 1948, and moved to Southern California 30 years later to start the creative-writing program at USC. Now living in Montecito, he still commutes to Los Angeles two days a week to teach undergraduates, a commitment that has its roots in his own student days. “I first got turned on to literature as a junior in college,” he remembers, “when I took a creative-writing course. I guess I had an idea that I was a good writer – people used to buy term papers from me – but I got hooked on writing stories after that.” Boyle's first book, the collection Descent of Man, came out in 1979, and in the nearly two decades since, he's published six novels and three additional volumes of short fiction, marked by an exuberant style, and a sensibility that careens from the satirical to the absurd. His new novel, Riven Rock, is out this month, and his collected stories will appear in the fall. “I'm a very instinctual writer,” he says. “I begin with a phrase, or an idea, and follow it through to the end. The whole thing is an elaborate psychological puzzle you have to set up for yourself.”
RAY BRADBURY was born in Illinois in 1920 and moved to Southern California when he was 13. He sold his first short story at the age of 20, and since 1943 has made his living as a writer, publishing more than 50 volumes of work. Although he's most often categorized as a science-fiction author – “The label,” he says, “got hung on me, and it's hard to get rid of” – Bradbury has worked in a variety of genres, producing collections of poetry and books for children, as well as screenplays and teleplays, and serving as idea consultant for the United States Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Even his best-known, most speculative efforts – Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, for instance – have less to do with science than with the ways people behave in extreme situations. “I don't have a social agenda,” he says. “You have to keep that crap out, or you'll write a bad book. But I try to follow the advice of Albert Schweitzer: 'Do something good, and someone may imitate it.' If you write well, you can influence the world.”
Sixty-two-year-old EDWARD BUNKER is living proof of the adage “Write what you know.” A former thief and safecracker who spent over 20 years in prison before 1975, he writes crime novels marked by a gritty verisimilitude. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Bunker spent much of his youth in the juvenile court system; at 17 he was sent up to San Quentin, where he began to write. His first novel, No Beast So Fierce, appeared in 1972, and deals with the struggles of an ex-con to make it on the outside; it was filmed in 1978 as Straight Time. Since then, Bunker has published three additional novels, including last year's Dog Eat Dog. “Out of the mud grows the lotus,” he says of his decision to become a writer. “It was all that society would let me do. Once you have a record – even a juvenile one – you're effectively locked out, and there's nothing you can do but write or steal.”
More than 20 years after the publication of her first novel, Patternmaster, OCTAVIA E. BUTLER still may be the only black female science-fiction writer in the world. Raised in Pasadena, where she continues to live, Butler discovered the genre as a child, and began sending out her own stories at the age of 12. The appeal of SF, she explains in her autobiographical essay “Positive Obsession,” was a simple one: “I was shy, afraid of most people, most situations. I hid out in a big pink notebook – one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself a universe in it. There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.” The author of 10 novels, most recently Parable of the Sower, as well as the 1996 collection of stories Bloodchild, Butler has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1995 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
A native of Philadelphia,BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL moved to Los Angeles in 1984. She was a longtime feature writer for The Washington Post, Essence, Savvy and other publications before she published her first book, Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage, in 1986. She followed it with Sweet Summer, a memoir about her father, then turned to fiction in the early 1990s. Campbell's novels operate in the midspace between narrative and politics; her first, Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, was inspired by the death of Emmett Till, while her second, Brothers and Sisters, is set against the background of post-Rodney King L.A., where blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos must rediscover the means of coexistence in a city whose social apparatus has broken down. Her new novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir, is just out. “I've always written about race,” Campbell says, “but here the mix of people struck me right away. Los Angeles is not a black-and-white town. It's more complex, which made me expand my ideas, and look at race in a different way.”
FRANK CHIN has been a subversive force in American literature since 1972, when his play The Chickencoop Chinaman was performed at Manhattan's American Place Theater, making him the first Chinese-American playwright to be produced on the New York stage. In 1974, he co-edited AIIIEEEEE!, an early anthology of Asian-American writers; 17 years later, a second volume, THE BIG AIIIEEEEE!, featured Chin's essay “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” which vilified Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and David Henry Hwang as frauds who perpetuate white racist attitudes in their work. Chin's own fiction takes place in what he calls the “Chinatown-of-the-Mind,” where immigrant culture and the American entertainment state collide. His novel Gunga Din Highway addresses the stereotypes of Hollywood, focusing on a Chinese-American actor and his son, and the stories in The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co. look at the confusion of a community whose public face has been defined by Charlie Chan and Suzie Wong. Born in Berkeley in 1940, Chin spent years traveling between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California, but now calls himself “a Seattle writer unavoidably detained in L.A.”
KILLARNEY CLARY never considered writing a career; even now, with her third volume of poems nearly completed, she admits that the very idea is “amazing to me.” Raised in Pasadena, the 44-year-old Clary intended to be a painter, and didn't begin to write seriously until, as an art student at UC Irvine, she found herself integrating small bits of text into conceptual works. Encouraged by her professors, she studied poetry with Charles Wright, then remained at Irvine to get an MFA. Her first collection, Who Whispered Near Me, appeared in 1989, and a second, By Common Salt, came out last year. “I always wished I could be intentional,” Clary says, “but I tend to just take what comes. I never felt like writing was a world where there were any rules. Maybe it's because I started out as a visual artist and then became a writer, but I have the feeling that at any point, this could stop.”
WANDA COLEMAN's writing has always had an edge. “I have a journal that goes back to when I was 11,” the 50-year-old poet and short-story writer notes, “and from the beginning, the pages are virulent with hate.” Growing up in the 1950s in a predominantly white community in South-Central, Coleman was discriminated against even by her black peers because of the darkness of her skin; as an outsider among outsiders, she began to develop the fierceness that has come to define her work. During the 1970s, she spent a year as a staff writer on Days of Our Lives, winning a daytime Emmy, but since then, she's concentrated on literary pursuits. Her first book, Mad Dog Black Lady, appeared in 1979, and she's published seven collections of poetry and fiction, most recently Native in a Strange Land, and issued several spoken-word recordings as well. “Hollywood hates writers,” she says, “and it's 10 times worse if you're black. You can't get past other people's assumptions of what you write; it's like dealing with a kaleidoscope of stereotypes. They think you're either Toni Morrison or Terry McMillan or Maya Angelou, and because we a have no history, no one knows who's who in relation to whom. The bullshit is endless.”
MICHAEL CONNELLY never doubted that he would come to Los Angeles and write detective novels – the only thing he didn't know was when. As he recalls, “I wanted to write crime fiction since I was in college and saw Robert Altman's version of The Long Goodbye.” Born in 1956 in Philadelphia and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he finally made his move in 1987, when he was hired as a police reporter at the Valley edition of the Los Angeles Times. In 1990, he began The Black Echo, his first novel featuring LAPD detective Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch; the book won the 1992 Edgar Award for best mystery debut. Twelve months later, after completing his third novel, The Concrete Blonde, Connelly walked away from the Times for good. Now with six novels under his belt – a seventh, Blood Work, will appear in March – he is among the leading lights of the crime-fiction renaissance, a writer unafraid to take on the moral ambiguities at the heart of his adopted hometown. “Living in L.A.,” Connelly says, “is like having a front-row seat for the Apocalypse.”
BERNARD COOPER may be best known as a memoirist, but he himself remains uncertain about just how to categorize his work. Originally a visual artist, Cooper became interested in writing when, as a student in the Conceptual Arts Program at CalArts, he realized that “Any object I wanted to create, I could conjure through words.” In 1991, his collection of autobiographical narratives, Maps to Anywhere, won a PEN/Hemingway Award; some of its smaller pieces were originally conceived as prose poems, while others were published as short fiction in various magazines. With subsequent efforts, Cooper has remained equally eclectic, producing a novel, A Year of Rhymes, in 1993, and a book of personal essays, Truth Serum, in 1996. Currently, he is working on a volume of stories and a memoir about his experiences at CalArts. Of the sensibility that informs his writing, he says, “I'm constantly battling a sense of self-consciousness. Because of that, I love the anonymity I find in Los Angeles. I love the idea that as a literary writer, you're in this subset that nobody really cares about here. It gives me a little, strange bohemian thrill.”
DENNIS COOPER's books are visceral, violent evocations of a gay subculture where people only feel in extremes. As he explains, “I have an interest in things that are hard to look at, like child pornography, or power relationships between older and younger men.” His fourth and most recent novel, Guide, revolves around a writer named Dennis who keeps dropping in and out of the narrative in an effort to place his story in the context of real life. A native of Los Angeles, Cooper started out as a poet, and was a central figure in the Beyond Baroque scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s; his magazine, Little Caesar, played an influential role in bringing younger writers like David Trinidad, Benjamin Weissman and Amy Gerstler to print. Fascinated with the endless permutations of pop culture, he peppers his books with rock & roll references, and in 1996 co-authored a graphic novel, Horror Hospital Unplugged, which evolved out of the story “Horror Hospital” in his collection Wrong. “I sometimes think it's an odd thing to say I'm a novelist,” he says, “since I don't know how to write novels. Instead, I feel like I'm using the novel to do some kind of weird project, to get at the truth.
ROBERT CRAIS has loved Los Angeles from the moment he first arrived in 1976 from Louisiana. “I got here at rush hour,” he remembers, “and what impressed me most was that people on the freeway actually let me merge.” Times have changed since then, but for the 43-year-old mystery novelist, Southern California remains a little piece of paradise all the same. A former television writer, Crais has published seven novels featuring detective Elvis Cole, including the recent Indigo Slam. “What makes us human,” he suggests, “is the ability to tell the difference between good and evil. And mysteries help affirm our humanity by delineating that difference in a way that makes sense.”
MIKE DAVIS is Los Angeles' own homegrown social theorist, a writer whose insights into how Southern California's past and future intersect have transformed the very way we look at the place. Born in Fontana in 1946, Davis has worked as a truck driver and a meat cutter; he says he had no interest in writing about L.A. until the early 1980s, when he moved to London and found himself confronting “an unexpected homesickness.” His first book, Prisoners of the American Dream, appeared in 1986, but it was the 1990 release of City of Quartz that established him as a public intellectual. Subtitled Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, City of Quartz is a highly personal yet exhaustively researched explication of the Southern California dream, extending backward to the robber barons who founded L.A. and forward to a 21st-century dystopia. “There are always hegemonies,” Davis says, “but Los Angeles is made up of 450 distinctive communities, and I try to find the ways they embody some larger truth about the real frameworks of people's lives.” His new book, The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, continues these investigations and is due out in the fall.
HARRIET DOERRcame to writing late. Born in 1910, the Pasadena native returned to school in 1975 – at Scripps College and then at Stanford University – and began to create the stories that would become her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, published when she was 74. Since then, she has written a second novel, Consider This, Senora, and a collection of shorter pieces, The Tiger in the Grass. Doerr spent many years living in Mexico, an experience that informs her work, but the bottom line is, she says, “loving the word and loving the sentence is terribly, terribly important – even more important to me than plot.” Now 87 and struggling with glaucoma, Doerr continues to write. “Nobody knows what I'm doing or what it's about. They think that most people my age sit on the front porch and rock.”
CAROL MUSKE DUKESdescribes herself as “one of those kids who fulfill their mother's dream by becoming a writer”; born in Minnesota, she had her first story accepted by American Girl magazine when she was 11. Originally a poet – her sixth collection, An Octave Above Thunder, appeared in October – she began to publish novels in 1989, and is now completing her third. “I think of myself as a poet,” she explains, “and I guess I always will. But poetry and fiction can cross-pollinate. I work on both at once, and sometimes an idea can genre-jump.” A professor of English and creative writing at USC, Dukes moved to Los Angeles in 1983 after many years in New York, and has come to see Southern California as “one of the oddest and most oddly beautiful – and at the same time fearsome – places I have ever been.” She was recently awarded a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress.
HARLAN ELLISON has been a presence on the Los Angeles cultural landscape since he arrived in the city more than 30 years ago. A novelist, essayist, television writer and columnist, he has written or edited 73 books, including I Have No Mouth, & I Must Scream and the anthology Dangerous Visions; he has the distinction of being one of the few people ever to work on Star Trek (he authored the original script for the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”) to hold the entire enterprise in utter scorn. Ellison is now something of a pop-culture institution; in 1996, White Wolf Publishing began a decadelong, 20-plus-volume effort to publish his collected works in uniform hardcover editions, and a new volume of short fiction, Slippage, came out in September. At 63, he remains edgy and righteously indignant. “I go to bed angry at the state of the world every night,” he says, “and I get up angrier every morning. Yet I am goofily happy, because I am absolutely who I wanted to be.”
Since his first novel, Days Between Stations, appeared in 1985, STEVE ERICKSON has mapped out a literary territory that is equal parts visionary and dystopic, in which strands of history and fantasy swirl around each other but do not always coalesce. Even his one nonfiction book, Leap Year, an armchair account of the 1988 presidential election, operates along this nebulous border, portraying the ghost of Sally Hemings – Thomas Jefferson's slave lover – as a vivid embodiment of America's contradictions, and enabling us to see past and present, myth and memory, in a newly relevant way. In Arc d'X, he brings Hemings and Jefferson back for a fictional meditation on the a nature of history itself. An accomplished journalist and critic – he's a former Weekly arts editor – Erickson recently published his seventh novel, American Nomad, which in part chronicles his coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone – and his subsequent firing.
JOHN ESPEY was born 84 years ago in Shanghai – his father was a Presbyterian missionary – and came to California in 1931. His first book, Minor Heresies, a memoir of his China boyhood, was written in the early 1940s during a convalescence from tuberculosis; it was published in 1945 by Alfred A. Knopf. Since then, Espey has produced a wide range of work, including novels, poetry, criticism and several volumes of reminiscences, all the while teaching English literature, first at Occidental College and then at UCLA, where he was a professor from 1948 to 1973. A one-volume selection of his autobiographical writings, Minor Heresies, Major Departures, appeared in 1994. “We trash Southern California all the time,” Espey says, “but to me, it's a miniature map of the United States. You've got the stratified society of San Marino and Pasadena, like Philadelphia and Boston, and then you've got the Great Plains, the flat ground where people from Illinois and Iowa come to live. You've even got the West in Santa Monica and Malibu, the mountains and canyons and coast. It's a microcosm, and that's always fascinated me.”