On Writing Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a tough city to write about.  There are so many elements, so many angles, that writing about the City of the Angels can be approached from a myriad directions.   On one hand, there is the Hollywood scene, the glamour and sex, a la Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon and dozens of others.  There is the crime scene literature, be it the classic noir of Raymond Chandler, the wonderful and biting irony of Ross Thomas, the mixed bag mysteries of the prolific T. Jefferson Parker, or the police procedural novels of  first Joseph Wambaugh and now  Michael Connelly.   To name but a few.

Even Thomas Pynchon took a whirl at the LA mystery, having written Inherent Vice, a quirky period piece set in seventies Los Angeles, as the hippie era was ending and becoming something even much more strange.  Charles Bukowski, is noted for writing about the lowlifes and the dingier side of the Los Angeles experience.   Joan Didion exposed the quirky and the quixotic, the perennially haunted.  Especially in her first novel, a seminal work, to me, of LA fiction, Play It As It Lays.

Tod Goldberg’s recent article in the Los Angeles Times, To Live and Write in LA, addresses the prismatic context and the incumbent difficulties of writing about a city that in some ways is nowhere and everywhere.  Goldberg describes his arrival to Los Angeles at the age of nine and how he came to reckon with this unique city.  Yes, I say unique.  Once upon a time it had been denigrated for its tinsel, its expanse, and its lack of a center.  But as we advance into the twenty first century, it is clear Los Angeles is a city of its own.  There is no other city like it.  No other city where through art and literature you can approach it from any direction and find the subject and story refracts of its own will through the prism of perception that leaves each Angeleno with his own particular take on the city in which he lives.

Despite all cliches to the contrary, Los Angeles has a history.   It’s Spanish History dates back to 1789 when ten motley families , escorted by Spanish soldiers ventured through the perils of the desert.  It took Spain some ten years to get these mix blooded explorers to undertake the journey.  When they, first arrived, they cast their eyes  on what was described  as an Indian village situated along the banks of the Porciuncula River…a spacious valley, lush with cottonwoods, sycamores, wild grapes and thousands of wild roses in bloom.  During their brief stay in the village, the members of the expedition counted nine earthquakes, and they encountered boiling tar pits and dense marshes. And thus a city was born.

There is the periodic sales pitch of sunshine, health, and wealth, going back to the middle of the nineteenth century.  There are the oil wells, the cattle ranches, and, of course, Hollywood.  The beat goes on, to borrow a lyric that was manufactured just off of Sunset Strip.

Los Angeles is a character.  A good book about Los Angeles, shows the city as a character, or perhaps more so, as a presentation of different characters, myriad interpretations who populate the Facebook Friends in the City of Dreams.  With most art and literature, you can start from somewhere and find your creation has taken a life of its own.   But with Los Angeles, every story not only takes on a life of its own, but the better stories reveal a series of characters in a series of incarnations, all working on various planes of reality, and somehow, in some weird way, all making imperfect sense.

Many writers have tried to capture the city.  Some do it better than others.  But Los Angeles, rich, poor, lavish, spare, ethnically diverse, and social exclusive, offers many stories to tell.  The only thing that doesn’t change much here, really, is the weather.

I’ve tried to capture the city in several books I’ve written. The Guys Who Spied for China, is a roman a clef, detailing the discovery of Chinese Espionage networks operating in the city during the eighties and nineties.  It is a story that rambles from the Asian neighborhood and business parks in the San Gabriel Valley, to characters and conclaves in the Santa Monica Mountains, just above Beverly Hills.

The Blood Orange is a romantic mystery thriller, a contemporary novel in the tradition of Los Angeles Noir.   The novel incorporates the bandit legends of  old Spanish California with the modern internecine battles for power and money among the tonier set in the exclusive neighborhoods.   In a sense, the modern day movers and shakers are following the tradition of the mid-nineteenth century Mexican Pistoleros who between their marauding found sanctuary in the Hollywood Hills.

And my best selling, Beautiful Bad Girl, The Vicki Morgan Story, there’s a tale that could only be spun in Los Angeles.  The book describes a 13-year affair between Vicki Morgan and Alfred Bloomingdale, scion and socialite and bona fide member of Ronald Reagan’s kitchen cabinet.   The non-fiction novel is a tale of obsessive money, power, and love, especially love,  and the Machiavellian machinations, that ultimately killed the two lovers, and left a wake of scandal and collateral damage that Beverly Hills Society still talks about to this day.    It was the perfect tragic romance, a notable addition and venerable legacy to the myriad scandalous love stories that have rendered these lyrical oddities a hallowed tradition.

The Constant Travellers.  Well, it’s an allegory.  The publisher, in its initial book cover description, mistakenly believed the novel and its odd accumulation of characters was set in Alaska.  What can I say?  Only Los Angeles could offer the mental habitat for such a mystically delicious, sex and stoner depiction of the West that Never Was.

Despite all dire predictions to the contrary, LA is blessed in some obscure and indecipherable way.    Its guardian angels serve up the middle finger to propriety and uniformity, to the predictable, and to the constraints of urban configuration.  Which is why it is such a fascinating city to write about.

Other artists and writers came before me.  Others will come after.  But the City of the Angels, will always live on.