I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this new book, Read Me Los Angeles: Exploring L.A.’s Book Culture from Prospect Park Books. I purchased a copy of right before the Safer at Home initiative was instituted, but I didn't start reading it until I was stuck at home. As a self-professed Los Angeles history junkie, I pored through the book in a matter of hours but almost instantly regretted it because it made me want to visit every corner of Los Angeles that author Katie Orphan writes about. But, like everyone else, I was doing my civic duty by staying at home. Safer at Home created several challenges in being able to share this book with the community. I wrote a review for LAPL Reads that couldn't be published because an electronic version of the book wasn't available (the spectacular design presented a myriad of challenges); moreover, the library system was closed, making it impossible to check out a physical copy. Nevertheless, I love this book, and I want people to know about it, so I waited. Thanks to the miracle of our Library to Go service, I was finally given the go-ahead to share what I think is one of the most engaging and fun books ever written about L.A.'s literary heritage. One of the blessings of waiting was that one of my colleagues in the Literature Department reached out to Colleen Dunn Bates of Prospect Park Books and relayed my reverence for this book. Colleen put me in contact with Katie, who I begged to be interviewed for the LAPL blog and, fortunately, she agreed.
So tell us about yourself...
I am an L.A. transplant, like so many. I grew up in Reno, Nevada, but from the first time I read Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block at age 11 or 12, I had visions of Los Angeles dancing in my eyes. I went to college in Spokane, WA, and grad school in Sheffield in Northern England, and then moved to Los Angeles two days after I got home from graduation. Unsurprisingly, I studied literature and had professors who gave me a name for one of my favorite pastimes: literary tourism.
How would you describe this book to people who haven't read it yet?
It's a love letter and guide to the wealth of literary life in Los Angeles. There is something for everyone, whether it's a recommendation for children's books by L.A. authors, gritty L.A. noir, or places to go read and bars in which to drink.
The writers you spoke with were an incredibly diverse group, not only in the styles and genres they write but also socially and culturally. Did you purposely set out to incorporate a diverse cross-section of writers, or do you think that was just reflective of the diversity in L.A.?
Both. It is important to me that the authors featured reflect the diversity of Los Angeles, and then trying to be really intentional about choosing authors to highlight all these different aspects of the city. One of my earliest motivating factors in putting together Read Me was the way only Raymond Chandler was ever featured in literary tourism guides if they even mentioned L.A. I love Chandler, but I was disappointed that the only author folks outside of L.A. associated with our literary culture is a dead white guy when there are so many women and BIPOC living in and writing about Los Angeles.
A substantial portion of the book is dedicated to interviews with contemporary writers. In the case of authors who were no longer with us, you chose to explore the L.A. that exists within their writing. I have to ask, of the authors from the past, whom would you most want to have interviewed for the book?
Today, my answer is Octavia Butler. Another day, it might be Wanda Coleman. I would love to talk to Octavia Butler about how she would write about this moment in time, not necessarily directly, but through speculative fiction. I'm also so curious about ways she folded her hometown into speculative fiction—I could see places where that happened and want to know what I missed. And, having spent a lot of time poring over her commonplace books full of encouragement to herself about writing and how she wants to live, I'd want to talk about that aspect of creativity and process. Lots to talk about! I'd also want the conversation to include some topics not necessarily germane to the book itself, like what aspects would she want to translate into another world? And to talk about how prescient Parable of the Sower is, and her legacy as more and more Black women succeed in science fiction.
My favorite part of the book was your literary walkabout throughout the city. Was there a particular author or book that captured your imagination while you were touring these sites?
Thank you! John Fante's Ask the Dust made my old work neighborhood, DTLA, come alive in a new way for me. There was plenty of history with which I was already familiar with the area, but then to see it through Bandini's lived experience in the 30s was also special. I tuck into Bandini's life in San Pedro less in the book, but my mom used to live in San Pedro, and I spent lots of time down there with my family, so getting a new perspective on that part of Los Angeles was also transformative. I would be remiss in not also saying that Eve's Hollywood is a favorite of mine and a book that I would often recommend as an unofficial travel guide to L.A. in the 60s.
Many times in conducting research you find out information that completely upends your ideas about people and events. Did you discover anything especially profound that altered the way you looked at someone or their work?
This question has been oddly difficult for me, I think, in part due to the passage of time. Things that were a surprise have been so folded into my perspective on folks that it's hard to remember what I thought of them before. I was struck often by the generosity of the authors I spoke with—in giving me their time and connecting me with other writers to interview—and that certainly made me like them even more. I also think about the impermanence of some of the work that happens here (and everywhere, I'm sure), but in talking with my friend Mike "The Poet" Sonksen about all of the poets in Los Angeles who have never put down their work into chapbooks or collections, I've realized that taking advantage of being in this city, in this moment is important to me.
Was there anything you noticed that all the writers, past and present, had in common?
Oddly enough, no. The city itself is the main connection, but in talking with folks and doing the reading, it became clear that they and their work are representative of all of Los Angeles, in that there is no one lived experience of the city. It's so vast and contains so many communities, in every sense, that one experience, one life, one work cannot express it all. For the things that seem closest to being universal—like the aspect of literary community, whether it's in contemporary writing groups or the New Room at Musso's—there's always someone (or a few someones) who don't participate in the same way.
Was there anything memorable or unusual that you learned about the city during your research?
I dove more into the earlier history of Los Angeles during this research than I had before. I had a basic grasp of L.A. history, and despite being a transplant, I've had family living in Los Angeles since the early 1900s—including a woman store manager in downtown Los Angeles, just like I myself would be 80 years later!—so I knew a decent amount, but there's always more to learn. The things that stuck with me were really the indigenous history of what is now Los Angeles and the early role that people of African descent played as pobladores. And with that, how little surviving literature there is of that era. It reflects some of the same issues we're still seeing played out—it's not that people didn't want to tell their own stories, but gatekeepers weren't letting them reach a wider audience through publishing.
What is something going on in the local literary scene that you would like to see more of?
It's strange to think about the literary scene in a pandemic when it's already shifted so drastically. Bookstores can't do live events; the L.A. Times Festival of Books was delayed and is now virtual. Lots of writers I know are just struggling to write in a time full of uncertainty and distraction. I would love to see people using the available technology to virtually invite people from around the world to experience some of the depth and breadth of what literary L.A. has to offer. And now I feel inspired to do that myself!
What is something going on in the local literary scene that needs to go away completely?
Nothing that I can think of at the moment. One of the beauties of the Los Angeles literary scene is that there are places for everyone, or at least it feels that way to me. There are always ways to grow and improve, and there are places for literary events in other languages, a broad spectrum of genres, and how to participate in literary life. The first romance-focused bookstore in the U.S. is here, so even a genre that gets unfairly maligned by people who don't read it has a place to celebrate the most popular genre of fiction. It doesn't feel like a snobby scene to me, but I'm also aware that I say that as someone with privileges, so there may be ways it is inaccessible that I don't see. On that note, having more accessibility like sign language translation as a given would be really cool.
Now that you’re an expert on the city’s literary heritage, what’s your favorite novel about L.A.?
I am so honored to be considered an expert! I am always loyal to first loves, and for me, Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat and subsequent novels about her family and friends are the foundation of my childhood longing to move to Los Angeles. Weetzie Bat encompasses some of the magic of the city that endless potential for wild and improbable things happening. It centers an unusual family, queerness, interracial relationships, and that balance between the sun-soaked aspects of the city with the darkness that so many noir writers highlight. Of the books that I read first in researching Read Me, I love Dana Johnson's In the Not Quite Dark, it's a collection of short stories, rather than a novel. She moves through different neighborhoods and socioeconomic strata and even time periods in a way that captures so much of Los Angeles.
What is your favorite spot in L.A.?
When I used to leave home, I love the Huntington for its perfect blend of outdoor spaces and literary treasures, plus there are snacks and drinks. I also just really miss going to the Arclight Hollywood and shows at UCB and sitting at the bar at Musso's and getting to wander bookstores and libraries to find a book I didn't know I wanted to read.
Do you have a go-to writer or book that gives you inspiration or relief when life is difficult?
Yes, I turn to Madeleine L'Engle in all kinds of moods. Like most folks, I came to her through A Wrinkle in Time, but I stayed for all of her work: adult novels, memoirs, poetry, and reflections on life, relationships, faith, and creativity. I can recommend a book of hers for any situation I face, and always find a home in her work.
Are you working on another writing project at the moment?
I'm trying! I've got so many files of notes and bits and pieces of a lot of things, but I'm unsure which potential project is going to take flight first.
If you haven’t already done so please check out Read Me, Los Angeles: Exploring L.A.’s Book Culture by Katie Orphan. It's a lovely tribute to the literary heritage of our great city.