Richard Lange is the author of the short story collections Dead Boys and Sweet Nothing and novels This Wicked World, Angel Baby, and The Smack. Lange was honored with the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow.
Lange’s works are primarily character-driven, and they also powerfully evoke a sense of place. A Kirkus reviewer noted in a review of Sweet Nothing that it was “ ...a story collection set in Southern California that won't be found in any travel guides.” Southern California and Los Angeles feature prominently in his work.
Born and raised in the Central Valley, Lange arrived in L.A. at eighteen to study film at the University of Southern California. After teaching English for Berlitz in Barcelona, he returned to L.A. and was a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications and eventually became managing editor of the heavy-metal magazine RIP. After a spell as a textbook editor, he was the managing editor of Radio & Records, a radio-industry trade magazine.
Lange’s stories have appeared in The Sun, The Iowa Review, and Best American Mystery Stories, and as part of the Atlantic Monthly’s Fiction for Kindle series. "Bank of America" was selected for Best American Mystery Stories of 2004, "Baby Killer" for Best American Mystery Stories of 2011, and "Apocrypha" for Best American Mystery Stories of 2015. "Apocrypha" was also awarded the 2015 Short Story Dagger by Great Britain's Crime Writers' Association, and was selected by the New York Public Library for inclusion in the Subway Library, a program that makes stories electronically available to subway riders, and in their SimplyE.net mobile reading app.
His novel Angel Baby (2013) won the Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers. His most recent novel, The Smack, received wide acclaim. The Wall Street Journal named it one the best mysteries of the year (2017), Le Figaro and Le Soir raved about La derniere chance de Rowan Petty (The Smack), and Recorridos Literarios featured Un Golpe Brutal (The Smack) on their lockdown reading list, calling it "an absorbing, remarkable thriller”.
His latest novel, Rovers, is described on his blog as "A hard-boiled supernatural thriller unspooling across the American Southwest in the summer of 1976 and following a set of characters who need human blood to survive." It’s due to come out this summer.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer, and which books were an influence on you?
I’ve always written. The earliest thing I can recall is an Easter play I wrote when I was in 2nd grade, which was performed in front of the class. I wrote a few stories set in the First World War when I was in 3rd grade, and a play set in the Civil War in 5th grade. I was obsessed with war movies and horror movies as a kid, and most of my early writing was concentrated on those two genres. Later I got into Marvel comics and science fiction, especially Star Trek. When I was 14 I picked up The Nick Adams Stories by Hemingway and On the Road by Kerouac. Those books changed everything for me. I suddenly realized you could tell stories about real people set in the real world that were as compelling as those set in outer space. More compelling. I never read sci fi or comics again.
Are there any books that you emulate?
No, but my style has definitely been shaped by certain writers. Some clear influences are Hemingway, Kerouac, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Denis Johnson, and William Vollmann. I also recently reread Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers and realized that he and specifically that novel were big influences. Also a nonfiction book, Straight Life, an autobiography of jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, a musical genius and stone-cold junky. The book is mostly transcriptions of audiotapes he recorded, and the way his verbal rhythms translate to the page was influential on me. It’s also a great snapshot of L.A. in the 40s and 50s. He lived in Echo Park, and there’s a famous photo of him standing all strung out on Fargo Street, one of the steepest streets in L.A.
Every book of mine has different influences, though, depending on what I read while I’m writing it. For the new one, Rovers, the four most influential books were Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck and The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner.
Who are your top five favorite writers as a reader?
Do you have any writing routines?
My whole life is built around routines. They are the track that allows me to chug along without having to devote time to making myriad quotidian decisions. This is probably the result of working 9-to-5 jobs for 20 years before I began to write full-time. I have schedules for exercise, for meals, I plan all my lunches a week in advance, for sleep, and for writing. Ideally, that would be two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon and an hour at night Monday through Thursday, two hours Friday morning, and a few hours over the weekend. I handwrite in pencil, then input that into the computer.
You worked as an editor at magazines for years (Managing Editor of RIP, a heavy-metal music magazine published by Larry Flynt, and Managing Editor of Radio & Records, a radio-industry trade paper). Has your editorial experience helped your writing?
Absolutely. I spent years tweaking material by writers of varying skill levels into readable prose and so learned a lot about what works on the page and what doesn’t. I can’t help but apply that knowledge to my own work, and my streamlined, precise style comes from that as much as from my “minimalist” influences. I tend to cut everything to the bone and get right to the point. I’m also a pretty decent copy-editor and proofreader. I’ve been told my manuscripts are the cleanest many of my editors have come across.
Any good Larry Flynt stories?
Here’s one: He used to visit the offices once in a while, be pushed through the halls in his wheelchair. He was a rather erratic person in those days, pretty drugged up, and had a rep for firing people for things like “looking stupid.” So, whenever he was on the floor, I’d hide in the bathroom.
One day he caught me unawares at my desk. He rolled into my office and asked, “Who the hell are you?” I’d been working for the company for about six years at that time and interacted with him on more than one occasion. Shaking in my boots, I told him my name and title. He stared at me bleary-eyed for a second, smacked his lips, and told the guy pushing his chair, “Let’s go,” and I lived to edit another day.
What was it like working on a metal magazine in the 80s and 90s?
It was exciting being at the epicenter when that genre of music was so popular. I got to meet a lot of the musicians and see a lot of shows. It was never my favorite style though. I was more of a punk/alternative dude, and, truthfully, by the time I was at RIP, I wasn’t really that much into any kind of music.
Why is that?
I'm not a person who likes to listen or watch or read the same thing over and over. I prefer something new or something surprising, which is why I'd rather listen to the radio than play a CD. When I was at RIP, I was over pop music. I felt like I knew the tricks, both lyrical and musical.
Also, and this applies to pop culture in general, it seemed so temporary and commercial. Punk was the big thing when I started listening to music seriously in college, so that's what I was into then—buying records, championing obscure bands. It was cultural currency, a way to interact with other people my age. After a few years, though, other musical styles started taking over (rap, metal), and I realized, "Oh, so this is how it goes." It's a lot of work to keep up, and I didn't want to do that work where music was concerned. It was hard enough keeping up with movies, books, and art. I've had a few periods since then where I got back into music—the blues, jazz, early 2000's alternative—but never to the extent I once was. If a song comes on that I dig, I'm happy, but I don't seek that feeling out.
I can't remember the last time I've listened to music in my house beyond a song or two, and I haven't bought music from a new band in a long time. I like live rock shows, but again, I don't keep up, so I end up seeing old bands on nostalgia tours or shows by a band I'll hear about on social media. I got into going to see jazz at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo but just heard it closed down for good due to the lockdown. Sad. That was a great place.
In truth, I prefer silence, especially while driving. I never wear headphones or earbuds or whatever. I don't want music coloring my observations, and I'm afraid of missing out on overheard conversations. My wife is amazed at how I can sit for an hours' long bus or plane rides without reading or listening to music. I've got a lot going on in my head, constant chatter, but I'm also able to slow it all down and just watch the passing landscape. I do some of my best thinking during those times. I don't need anything to entertain me.
Your stories have been anthologized in Best Mystery Stories of the Year a number of times (2004, 2011, and 2015), and you are often referred to as a noir writer. How do you feel about labels like that?
Marketing departments need to have ways to talk about the work that’s easily understandable by consumers. You can’t fight that. If calling me noir sells more books, go for it. I don’t mind the “literary crime” tag, because at least “literary” is in there. I just write what I want to write and don’t worry what other people call it. Besides Ross Macdonald and Elmore Leonard, I haven’t read much crime and detective fiction. Genre writing is often concerned with checking off boxes, and I get bored with that. I like writers who, while they may be using crime tropes, go beyond the usual through language, style, or structure. A couple of good examples are the books of George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. The Great Gatsby is a fantastic crime novel, and so is The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. Going even further back, try Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.
And now you’ve written a vampire novel, Rovers, out in July.
Yes. I’m determined to confuse people—not a good career strategy, but there you go. The elevator pitch is Of Mice and Men with vampires. I picked and chose from all the many vampire “rules,” and created my own monsters, who call themselves rovers. They are immortal, nocturnal, and drink human blood (they don’t have fangs, though, they use knives), but that’s all they have in common with classic vampires. They’re more like serial killers, constantly on the roam. I tried to get away with not using the term “vampire” in the book, but that proved impossible. Besides the supernatural shadings, it’s a hard-boiled revenge thriller set against the backdrop of the Bicentennial. In addition to the books I mentioned earlier, I was influenced by drive-in exploitation films, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the old Marvel Tomb of Dracula comics.
What are some of the influences for The Smack?
The Smack is about a low-level conman and gambler on the skids who stumbles onto a plot by some soldiers to smuggle money stolen from the U.S. Army out of Afghanistan and back to the U.S. The original inspiration was an article in the L.A. Times about a group of soldiers who actually pulled a caper like this. They were caught, tried, and convicted. I'd been wanting to write about a hustler, a con man, for some time, and decided to use that character as a way into this story. I've always been a fan of movies like House of Games, The Sting, and Paper Moon, where we watch cons unfold, so I'm sure those were influences. As far as plot goes, Elmore Leonard, as usual, and Robert Stone, who wrote what his biographer called "convergence novels," where we follow a couple of groups of characters that eventually collide. I read Melville's Confidence Man before and during the writing of The Smack. Maybe something from that book leached into mine. And I've had a few friends who've been somewhat shady. They're in there too.
You studied film at USC, and you’re a very visual writer—any connection?
I’m sure there is. Any writer born in the 20th century is going to have filmic influences. It was the dominant art form of the time and the way many writers learned story structure. One thing I have consciously stolen from film is the quick cut. I use it all the time to push my stories forward. I also end up having a shootout or two in my novels, which seems to me a thing of cinema, not literature. I love Westerns, so that’s probably where that comes from.
Any films that have influenced your writing?
Right off the bat, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. I saw it when I was 14, around the same time I first read Hemingway, and it shifted my paradigm in the same way. Certain films I saw in my teen years have stuck with me the most. Raging Bull, Days of Heaven, Badlands, Aloha, Bobby and Rose, Apocalypse Now, Werner Herzog’s Strozek and Aguirre the Wrath of God, the French New Wave stuff, The Exorcist, Alien —and that’s just for starters.
Has Hollywood noticed your books?
Some of my stuff has been optioned, and a few scripts have been written, but nothing’s made it over the finish line yet. I keep my fingers crossed. It’s good money. Warner Bros. had me write a screenplay for Angel Baby, and even though it didn’t come close to getting made, it paid enough to live on for a few years.
You’ve done a couple of photo zines recently. Tell me about those.
I’ve been taking photos with intention for twenty years now. I started out doing pinhole work, then went to a cheap 35mm and a Holga, which is a toy camera. For years I resisted digital photography, but the quality, cost, and ability to easily manipulate the images were finally too much to resist. Now I use both film cameras and my iPhone and shoot mostly black and white. I’ve never been into taking perfect photos, postcard shots, and glamour portraits. I like scuzz, distortion, blur. Lens flare and light leaks. Images that evoke a feeling you can’t necessarily put your finger on but that raises the hair on your arms. I started putting stuff up on Instagram and got a good response so decided to put out these xeroxed zines. The first was a bunch of pinhole photos of Tonopah and Goldfield, Nevada, and the second was a series of tableaus I created in my office during Covid lockdown. Each booklet is handmade—scanned, laid out, folded, and stapled by me—and the process of creating them was a great break from writing. I’ve got ideas and images for lots more.
Do you have other writers as friends? Do you talk about writing with them? Is it helpful to have those relationships either for business or aesthetic reasons?
The only published writer I knew when my first book, Dead Boys, was published in 2007 was T.C. Boyle, who was my professor at USC. Since then I’ve met lots of writers through festivals, but very few of the people I socialize with write seriously. When I do hang with writers, we mostly bitch about publishing and film businesses. I don’t talk craft or anything with them. That’s not interesting to me. I’d rather talk with a plumber or a cop or a drug dealer than another writer. Those kinds of people have stories I can use!
Your short stories are very powerful. Discuss differences between them and your novels.
My short stories are often more about capturing a voice or evoking a mood than telling a tale. The best of them start as disjointed scenes that I figure out how to stitch together as I go along. That works great for short pieces, but I haven’t yet figured out how to keep it up for a whole novel, so in novels, I use plot to keep things moving along. I like novels where things happen better than novels where characters sit around talking for pages and pages, so I write novels where things happen. Plot is always secondary for me though. On a basic level, I’m much more interested in the characters and the descriptions than the plot, and on a deeper level, I’m much more focused on sentence rhythm and word choice. What excites me most about my books is never what happens, but how good the writing is. My favorite parts of my books are special sentences and paragraphs I’ve labored over but that most readers fly right past. That’s the curse of being entertaining, I guess.
You have a great sense of place in your work. I often recommend your books as evocative of Los Angeles as well as other areas. The desert burial in The Smack is really evocative of remote California, as is the border tragedy described so beautifully in your story “To Ashes.” Obviously, the setting of a story is secondary to the story itself, but have you ever visited a place and then thought of a story that takes place there?
Only once that I’m conscious of, and that’s the story “The Wolf of Bordeaux” in Sweet Nothing. I was lucky enough to spend a month as Writer in Residence in Bordeaux, and while I was there I ended up writing a story set there. It’s a period piece, set in 1899, so one of the things I did as research was going to a cemetery and look for old names from that era. It was so cool to be able to do that.
A lot of my work is set in Southern California because that’s the region I know best. In fact, I set a lot of stuff in or near my neighborhood (Echo Park/Downtown/Hollywood/Historic Filipinotown). If a character takes a drive, you can be sure I’ve done it, too, and the route will be accurate down to local landmarks. I like to visit a place before I write about it in order to soak up details. If I can’t get there, I do lots of online research and Google Earth views.
Motels and hotels feature a lot in your work. How do you choose a specific hotel as a location?
If the characters are near downtown, as they are in The Smack, I try to put them in a real place. I pull up a map or drive around till I find a motel that fits the story. The new book, Rovers, is a road story, so, again, more motels! Seems like, especially in the novels, my characters are always on the move. I guess my own wanderlust is reflected in them. I love going on long driving trips.
In The Smack you have a meeting that takes place on Mission and Artemus. I found this interesting because there’s a library maintenance building, on the southeast corner of that intersection, which was heavily used for relocating collections after the Central Library fire of 1986. Why did you choose that intersection?
A painter buddy of mine’s gallery was down there. I went to an opening there and saw how desolate and deserted it was at night, so when I needed a desolate, deserted place, that came to mind. My buddy ended up doing a drawing of the intersection after the book was published. I’m saving my pennies to be able to buy it someday.
What are some of your favorite places in Los Angeles?
Except for my time as a student at USC, I’ve lived in the rough rectangle bordered by the 10 freeway on the south, the 5 on the north and east, and Fairfax on the west. Echo Park/Silver Lake/Los Feliz, Downtown, Boyle Heights, East Hollywood/Hollywood, Westlake, and Koreatown. The landscape has changed immensely in that time—there are sections of Hollywood that are unrecognizable to me—but there are still pockets of my turf that look much like they did when I arrived here some 40 years ago. I’ve always been a fan of old, weird L.A.—old, weird anywhere, really—so I still get a kick out of walking down Hollywood Boulevard. Favorite places there, from east to west, are the Pantages theater (I’m a big musical theater fan), the Frolic Room (the last real dive on the Boulevard), Musso & Frank (Stoli martini, please), and the Egyptian Theater, which houses American Cinematheque. My other favorite place to see a movie is the Hollywood Arclight on Sunset. The old Cinerama Dome, where I saw Apocalypse Now back in 1979, is part of the complex.
I tend to eat at restaurants that have been around forever and that I’ve been eating at forever. Places like El Coyote, the Pantry, Musso’s, Canters, Philippe, Won Kok, El Tepeyac, and Tommy’s. These are also the places I take guests from out of town to show them the real L.A. We could do a whole interview just about old L.A. restaurants and bars I have known and loved. I get around.
Then there are the cultural institutions. I’m an art lover and see most of the shows that hit LACMA, MOCA, and the Hammer, which is a fantastic place to see shows and also gets me over to the Westside so I can hit Tito’s Tacos. Two new venues that put up interesting shows are ICALA and Hauser & Wirth, both downtown. Check them out when they reopen after the pandemic. My wife and I have been opera subscribers for many years, so I spend a lot of time at the Chandler. You get dressed up, mingle with the opera loons, and see and hear some incredible productions. We’ve also been subscribers at A Noise Within in Pasadena forever. It’s a repertory theater company where you can see fine productions of plays by Shakespeare, O’Neill, Williams, Moliere, Beckett, and many more, things it’s hard to see live anymore.
As for outdoors stuff, we get coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts in Atwater and walk our dog, Judge Judy, along the river. It’s quite beautiful to see a blue heron standing on a soggy abandoned couch in the middle of the stream. Very L.A. I work out and walk Judy in Echo Park, which is a little grim these days, with all the encampments, but still has a fantastic view of downtown and great food stands. Again, very L.A. And then there’s Griffith Park. Great hikes (mine goes from the carrousel to the top of Mt. Hollywood and down again), great views, and a chance to maybe see a deer, coyote, or mountain lion five minutes from Hollywood.
Are there other books set in California that really get at the character of a place?
Fat City is a great evocation of old Stockton. I lived there when I was very young, too young to be aware of the bars and flophouses where the story plays out, but there’s a “realness” to the book that’s undeniable. East of Eden has some nice writing about the Monterey/Salinas area. I went to high school in Morro Bay and spent a lot of time in that part of the state. And for Santa Barbara, L.A. —all of Southern California, really, you can’t go wrong with Ross Macdonald. He often captures the essence of a place in a few sentences, and I admire that skill. If you’ve got a strong constitution and a taste for street life, William Vollmann’s Whores for Gloria is a harrowing but gorgeous depiction of San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the 70s and 80s.
In your work you give humanity and grace to people who are operating at the margins of polite society. Understanding that all characters are on some level autobiographical, are there particular people you’ve met who have inspired your characters?
I know and have known lots of “characters” and shamelessly stolen their life stories and embellished their exploits in my work. One of these sources, a friend who struggled with his demons for 40 years, recently relapsed, overdosed, and died. He’ll live on, though, for me, in the margins of everything I write. I’ve also spent a lot of time outside of polite society (whatever that is) and have a working knowledge of how things operate on the edge. The key when creating characters is to put something of yourself in all of them, even the villains. That’s how you create individuals instead of archetypes.
Your books have been translated into many languages. Any difference between the American and European reception to the work?
My books have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, and, soon, Japanese! Foreign readers seem to be interested in California, and specifically Southern California. It’s a mythical place for many people around the world. As for different receptions, I do a lot of festivals in France, and the questions there are more politically and psychologically oriented than the questions I get from audiences here. Americans tend to ask more about how to get published.
In L.A., it’s my two locals, Stories in Echo Park and Skylight in Los Feliz. City Lights was the first real bookstore I ever visited when I was a kid bopping around North Beach back when it was a sleazy wonderland. I was a big Beat fan, so it was like a church for me, and I still stop in every time I’m in San Francisco. It was a real thrill the first time I saw my books on the shelf there. I also did a reading at an amazing place in Biarritz, France, Bookstore Biarritz. If you’re ever there, check it out.
Favorite dive bars?
There are very few real dives in L.A. anymore, and most of the ones I used to haunt have closed. RIP Smogcutter. I clocked a lot of hours there at one time in my life. Everything’s so crowded now. You used to be able to go to a place like the Kenmore, which was on Sixth and Kenmore, and it’d be you, the bartender, and two or three real barflies; no TV blaring sports; and dirty looks if you dared play the jukebox. Always a stool or booth, always an empty pool table. There were also a bunch of sad-ass bikini bars in what’s now Koreatown. I used to frequent one called Dragon Lady. Turns out so did Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. I miss those days. I’m always on the lookout for good bars on my travels. Once you get out of L.A., there are plenty of them. Of course, now I’m usually in and out after a couple of beers. No more eight-hour shifts for me. Time is precious now!
Are there any books you really enjoy that you think everyone should read?
If you’re going to be reading a lot of classic western literature, you should familiarize yourself with the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, or a lot of references will go over your head. Read all of Shakespeare’s plays too. Most influential writer in history.
Anything you’d like to tell new writers? E.g., any helpful experience you’d like to impart?
These tips are for fiction writers, though they might work for other kinds of writers too. First, read. Read all the time, and read everything, not just writers who write like you think you want to write. For example, if you want to be a horror writer, don’t just read other horror writers. That’s a terrible strategy. The wider you range in your reading, the more you’ll be able to bring to your chosen genre, and you may even stumble upon a voice all your own, a unique combination of and reformulation of all the good stuff you’ve ingested.
Second, write. And I’m not talking about journaling or blogging or taking notes. If you want to write fiction, you need to write with intention. You need to learn to tell stories, and the only way to do that is through practice. I started with short stories, which was a great way to develop a style and learn the mechanics of fiction and prepared me to make the leap to novels.
Third, develop a writing routine and stick to it. Routine is what keeps you going when inspiration fails. Put your ass in the chair and pick up the pen. If you sit there for two hours and only get a sentence or two, that’s a sentence or two you didn’t have yesterday. Little by little, it adds up. When I worked a day job, I’d write two hours a night four days a week, and maybe a little on Sunday. That’s all I could fit in. I worked on short stories because that worked best in the little chunks of time I had available. Ten years of that, and I had Dead Boys, my first collection of stories.
And, finally, get a decent day job and an understanding partner. Your chances of making a living off writing are slim. Prepare for that by having a career you can at least tolerate. And find someone who loves you for what you are and who is supportive of your weird hobby, because that’s all writing is likely to be for you. Find other things you like to do besides writing. Live a full, well-rounded life. It will make you happier and also a better writer.
What are you working on now?
I’m halfway through a new novel. It’s too early to talk about it yet, but it seems to be coming together. It’s something different from Rovers. I set myself a challenge with each book, so this time I’m trying to write a novel that utilizes more of my short story tricks. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
Places of Interest (to me anyway)
Reno, Nevada: Parts of my last novel, The Smack, and my upcoming one, Rovers, are set in Reno. The scruffiness of the city appeals to me. The powers-that-be there keep trying to upscale it, but none of their attempts have worked, thank God. It's still got a working-class, cowboy vibe, a Western toughness, and bleakness, that inspires me. I stay at a bargain hotel downtown from which I can walk to everything I need: cheap drinks, low-stakes blackjack tables, and a few good restaurants. I love all casino towns. They're like Hollywood: full of dreamers and schemers, winners and losers, triumph and tragedy. All the extremes at once. I can spend a few days in one soaking up material and then get back to my, thankfully and intentionally, boring regular life.
MacArthur Park: This hardscrabble oasis is a couple of miles from my house, and it's a great place to dip your toe into the vibrant immigrant neighborhood of Westlake, one of the densest areas of L.A. I've been coming to the park since I was a student at USC in the 1980s. A buddy of mine worked at a camera store on 7th and Alvarado, and I'd ride the bus up to visit him. We'd eat at Beef Bowl and buy dime bags of crappy weed in the park. Back then there were a lot of newly arrived Cubans living in the neighborhood, Marielitos from the boatlift. They moved on after a time and other newcomers moved in, Central Americans fleeing poverty and various conflicts: Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Hondurans. The area hasn't changed much over the years. Same crowded tenements, same street corner preachers and fake-id salesmen, same sidewalk vendors lining Alvarado on the weekend. I can afford Langer's now, so I eat a No. 19, then walk it off in the park. I saw a fishing derby here one day. One of the contestants hooked an old typewriter, and when he brought it up, a dozen crawdads scuttled out of it. Good stuff.
El Coyote: My favorite mersh (commercial, a slang term stolen from the late, great San Pedro punk band the Minutemen) Mexican restaurant in the world. Mersh Mexican is its own subgenre: two-item combos covered with molten cheese, strong margaritas, sombrero kitsch covering the walls, and the waitress, in a colorful, billowy dress, always says "hot plate" when she sets your meal on the table. I've been going to El Coyote since I was 18 years old. The menu's changed some, and the prices have gone way up, but I know this place's secrets, like how to ask for the "old school" chili relleno, which is like a Twinkie filled with cheese and Ortega canned chiles, instead of the more authentic one they added a few years ago, and to order my margaritas "straight up, ice on the side" which gets you one and a half for the price of one. It's the kind of L.A. place where you see everyone from movie stars to your mechanic to a table of tourists having a good time. Fun fact: Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski had their last meal here before they were murdered by the Manson gang.
Tijuana, Mexico: TJ played a big part in my second novel, Angel Baby. I've been going down there since I was a kid. Like all great cities, L.A., New York, Paris, Barcelona, it's a thing unto itself, separate from the country it's part of. In addition, it's a border town, which adds a whole other layer. There's so much energy there, so much desperation, so much hope, so much ingenuity, so much life. Again, extremes. I get a real thrill parking on the American side and walking across the border and over the bridge. BAM! You're immediately transported into a chaotic swirl that's vaguely familiar, being a few steps from the U.S., yet at the same time utterly strange. The strip joints and dive cantinas on Revolucion may have been replaced by pharmacies selling viagra and valium (with the same sidewalk barkers, only now wearing white lab coats) and chain tourist bars, but there are still great tacos to be had, funky souvenirs to be perused (my greatest find is a black velvet painting of satan sitting on a toilet), and those donkeys painted like zebras you get your photo taken with. Sit at a sidewalk table with a Tecate and a plate of al pastor or carnitas oozing grease onto little handmade tortillas and watch the mad world go by.
Musso & Frank Grill: A perfect night for me would be walking into this place and finding the bar almost empty, good luck after 6 p.m. or so, especially since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, sitting down to a vodka martini served by Ruben (RIP) and hearing his stories about Sam Peckinpah or Gore Vidal or about how he bought his kids an iguana named Freddy Kruger, and it grew too big so he had to donate it to the local elementary school. Then I'd head for a booth in the "new room" and split a New York steak with my wife, accompanied by a hearts of romaine salad with Roquefort vinaigrette (RIP) and julienne fries. Patina is important, and this place has it in spades. Musso's is what Hollywood means to me, and I've celebrated lots of good luck here. Afterward, I'd take a stroll down the Boulevard to the Frolic Room, the last dive on the street, for a nightcap. The best of the high life and low life in a couple of blocks. As soon as they clear us to have fun again after the pandemic, this is where I'm headed.