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LA Fiction Anthology Interview: Zach Locklin

An Interview With Zach Locklin

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What role does Los Angeles play in your fiction?

Growing up L.A.-adjacent (in Long Beach, a suburb on the farthest south reaches of L.A. County), Los Angeles has always occupied a weird place in my life.  It’s both exotic (that distant place you go to for an art exhibit, a play, or a concert) and home (I would defend Los Angeles furiously in college in the Bay Area when my friends would criticize it).  Because I’ve always lived at a remove from L.A. and thus knew it only as a visitor, I didn’t really start writing about it until a few years ago.  By then I’d spent two years commuting there for graduate school and another several years visiting my friends who lived there.  I gradually developed a sort of outsider’s insight into the way L.A. works, how people live there.  On thing that fascinates me the most is the variety of the cultural landscape; Los Feliz and Silver Lake are far removed from Downtown or Santa Monica, and that’s not even bringing Pasadena into the picture.

So as I’ve started writing more about Los Angeles, it’s been from that outsider’s perspective: I inevitably bring an ironic tone to my descriptions of the peoples and cultures.  Unintentional, at first.

 

To what degree do you think place shapes fiction in general?

Well, I never start a project without thinking at great length about where the story will take place.  Often my fiction takes place in one of the three cities I’ve spent the most years living in: Long Beach, Santa Cruz, and San Diego, CA.  Each of those locations has a specific set of ideas attached to it: Long Beach is “normal,” plain, and thus a good place for existential despair; Santa Cruz has a varying climate, shifting from dark and cold to brilliantly sunny and hot, making it ideal for all kinds of angst; San Diego is sprawling (very like Los Angeles, actually, in its multiplicity of locales and cultures), and its uneven topography, with its hills and canyons and shifting coastline, makes it oddly appealing for a horror story.

We write what we know, but that also means we are driven to write by what we know: our landscapes are our societies and cultures; just as a writer like Bukowski or Faulkner doesn’t work without Los Angeles or the South, someone like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or Graham Greene is defined by the sense of homelessness, the outsider’s view of a world.

In other words, it seems to me that in many ways, the place builds the story more than anything else because the characters are born out of it, and the story or plot is a function of the possibilities of the region.

 

Do you see your work as coming out of any traditions of LA fiction or poetry?

For a long time now, I’ve been interested in 1930s-50s crime literature, particularly the non-detectives like Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Patricia Highsmith (none of whom are particularly associated with LA).  For Los Angeles, that has translated, of course, into an interest in the LA crime writers like Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.  What has always attracted me to Chandler in particular is the roving, almost aimless wandering around the city and its environs.  Bukowski has that, too, of course, as does Nathanael West: more than the mystery, what I like about LA noir is the roving, homeless feeling: these people who live here, in this tradition, are all nevertheless outsiders.  That’s a theme I can identify with.

How does being a writer affect your work as a teacher and how does your work as a teacher affect your writing?

Stephen King says that teaching may actually be the worst career for a writer, and he may be right.  The summers are great except that by the time you get to the summer, you are so burnt out that you spend a month just recuperating; then you start a project, and a month later you have to put it aside because you need to start preparing for the fall semester.  If you try to write during the school year, either the novel suffers from a lack of attention or you fall very far behind in your grading (which is where I am right now).  (all of this, of course, is a lecturer’s perspective; I like to dream that those of us lucky enough to get tenure-track positions have a little more time for their writing, but it’s probably not true).

However, teaching also means that you come into contact with a never-ending supply of new people, from whom you learn new ideas, new stories, new problems.  Teaching provides an endless source of inspiration.  I’ve always said that the thing I like most about being a teacher is getting to know all of these people (although I’ve also always said that the worst thing about being a teacher is having to meet all of these people–but that’s social anxiety for you).  Teaching can humanize you, can help you learn empathy, and can broaden your perspective, if you let it: all things I think are necessary for being a real writer.

 

What is your current project?

I don’t like to talk too much about a project while I’m working on it–a superstition–but I will say that it is a Long Beach-based lesbian Gothic suspense novel: think Carol meets Crimson Peak.  It’ll probably turn out terrible, but them’s the breaks.

 

 

BIO: Zachary Locklin is the author of My Beard Supports Nothing: the facebook poems.  His work has been published in PearlPoetic DiversityMagnapoetsRe)VerbFreefallBeside the City of Angels, Slagdrop, Beggars and Cheeseburgers, Weekly Weird Monthly, Cultural Weekly, and a slew of other places.  He is a graduate of the Master’s of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, and he teaches English composition, creative writing, and literature at California State University, Long Beach.

LA Fiction Anthology Interview: Kathy Hall

An Interview with Kathy Hall

Kathy Silvey Hall

What role does Los Angeles play in your fiction?

I have lived my whole life in Los Angeles, so pulling apart what piece the city plays in my fiction is challenging.  I guess I would say my stories are LA stories in that they reflect the fact that disparate groups of people rub up against each other in interesting ways here, ways they don’t in more hierarchical societies like Mumbai or Boston or New Orleans.

To what degree do you think place shapes fiction in general?

Place shapes minds.  The image of the laid back Californian is more than a stereotype.  It’s about the fact that we live at the mercy of elements from earthquakes to wildfires to mudslides to traffic.  We have to relinquish control.  Every time I hear someone honk a car horn in LA, I want to tell that driver to return to the east coast before they hurt themselves or someone else.

There is a spirit in every part of the Earth.  In Los Angeles, that spirit is at the beach and in the canyons and hanging out at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine–where a statue of Krishna and a statue of Buddha and a statue of St. Francis share space with Gandhi’s ashes, entirely unironically.

Do you see your work as coming out of any traditions of LA fiction or poetry?

I wish I could say that my writing is the next link in a chain that connects everyone who ever wrote in LA including T.C. Boyle, Walter Mosley, and Nathaniel West, but LA is such a polyglot chorus.  LA fiction is always honest, though, and it acknowledges community in a way that not all US fiction does, even if it is acknowledging how exceedingly difficult community is.  No one from LA ever wrote about graduating from an Ivy League college and moving to New York and figuring out something about him or herself as an individual or how their parents messed them up.  If we are gazing at our navels, it’s because we are doing yoga or meditation or eating an orange.  The rest of the time, we look out at the gorgeous people around us.

How does being a writer affect your work as a teacher and how does your work as a teacher affect your writing?

Teaching taught me what makes good writing good.  When I read student work that moves me or that I enjoy, I am reminded that communication has value both as a connection between people and in itself as pleasure.  Of course, I also tend to write about teaching–partly because school are where my best stories happen to be located, partly because schools are better microcosms than whaling ships, and probably mostly because young people tend to act out all the really significant questions of life in a way which midlife adults with mortgages do not.

What is your current project?

I spent 2015 writing Alta Vista High, the antidote to every inspiring story about an urban high school teacher ever to be adapted to film, one chapter of which appears in the LA Fiction Anthology and another of which appeared on the McSweeney’s website in February.  I also recently finished Conspicuous Child, the story of a girl who integrates an elementary school in the 1970s.

LA Fiction Anthology Interviews: Lloyd Aquino

An Interview with Lloyd Aquino

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What role does Los Angeles play in your fiction?
When I’m writing genre fiction, Los Angeles is rarely a setting. Otherwise, I find that my stories are almost always set in the Los Angeles area. It’s partly a product of writing what I know, but I’ve also become increasingly interested in the lives of Los Angeles residents, especially those in the less affluent areas (such as Filipinotown, where I lived until the age of five).

To what degree do you think place shapes fiction in general?
The best fiction, regardless of genre or medium, makes the setting one of the characters. I’ve also learned by writing a few plays that setting can drive and determine the action that occurs. Admittedly, this is something that I’ve struggled to transfer to my fiction.

How does being a writer affect your work as a teacher and how does your work as a teacher affect your writing?
I tend to keep the two separate, with the exception that I teach composition and creative writing, so I’m either teaching writing or else writing myself. Teaching is my primary profession, so it is my first priority, and my writing often comes second. I’ve found that I only have so much creative energy, and it has to be divided between teaching and writing.

What is your current project?
Depending on the week, I am working on several projects. I’m in the revising and editing stage of my first novel, a western titled “All The Worst Cheats.” I’m also in the beginning stages of a new poetry project, focused on the theme of healing. Finally, I’m really excited to start working on a piece of fiction centered on a Filipino street artist; I don’t know yet what medium it will be, though I’m leaning toward a graphic novel.

LA Fiction Anthology Interviews: Marcielle Brandler

An Interview with Marcielle Brandler

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What role does Los Angeles play in your fiction?

I was raised in LA. My story, “Chuze Off!” is about when I was a skinny girl at Bassett High School, and a Hell’s Angel girl wanted to fight with me. She said, “Hey, Chick, I saw you staring at me in class.”

Another story I am working on called “Perv” features La Puente.

“Sticks and Stones” is about a boy whom I liked when I was about eight years old while living in San Bernardino.

These are part of my book, Underbelly of My Soul.

I am very much an LA girl. When the family moved to Utah, I just could not relate to it. We had converted to Mormonism and were all baptized and “sealed” to each other in the Los Angeles Temple.

My abusive mother dumped me in Salt Lake City in a boarding house when I was nineteen. I didn’t even have a sweater. Those were extremely difficult years. My poem, “On the Street” from my book of poems, The Breathing House, features a homeless person. I have been homeless a few times, both in Utah and in California, so my heart goes out to the poor.

To what degree do you think place shapes fiction in general?

Wow! Great question! LA certainly shaped me as a person, so I think place is vital in influencing our work. The South certainly shaped the styles of southern writers. There is a particular sensibility in a location. It has a certain energy. LA is full of light, movement, frustration, broken dreams, new millionaires, cutting-edge thinking, crime, sweetness, Beverly Hills, homelessness, and Hollywood-contradictions.

I know that Southern writers have a very specific flavor to their work. There has been some talk that the heat and humidity forced people to hang out on their porches and neighbors would stop by, talk, play checkers or chess, and drink. Then, when the air conditioner came into the picture, the “edge” and “dark powers” were drained from Southern writing. I have no idea if this is true, but it is an intriguing idea to contemplate.

Oftentimes, place itself can be a character. Yes, place is vital to a piece.

For me, the long walk home in the concrete heat and reflective surfaces plays a very important role in my piece, “Perv.”

Do you see your work as coming out of any traditions of LA fiction or poetry?

Not really. I studied Goethe’s Faust, Kafka, and other writers, many of whom were required when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah.

I studied many poets like Yevtushenko; Dylan Thomas, whose work has inspired many of my poems; Robert Penn Warren, whom I met; Langston Hughes, who touches me so deeply;  William Blake, who is magical and touches my intuitive side; Allen Ginsberg, whom I admire for his political work and whom I was fortunate to meet; William Matthews, who mentored me, Denise Levertov, who commented on my poems before I published them; Dave Smith, who was my instructor at the U of Utah; James Ragan, who was my advisor at USC; and numerous others.

I was a singer/songwriter in the seventies, and my influences were Joni Mitchell; my beloved Cat Stevens; the great Leonard Cohen, who sent me two cards saying how much he liked my poetry; and Georges Moustaki, who sings mostly in French. My style is not particularly an LA style. My poetry is considered Imagist. Having said all of this, yes, I guess my work does come out of the above traditions.

How does being a writer affect your work as a teacher and how does your work as a teacher affect your writing?

It helps me to share with students the writer’s struggle and the need for numerous rewrites. I am open to their many styles and sensibilities. My work as a professor certainly gives me many stories for my writing. It also helps me to have more compassion for what students are going through. Their struggles become my struggles.

What is your current project?

I am still expanding “Perv,” and I am also writing several articles. My animated screenplay, Whales! is done, and I am finishing Abe’s Question, a science fiction feature. These last two have trailers on YouTube. I produce the trailers and have to re-edit Abe’s Question, because it goes too slowly. That takes money and time, but it will be worth it.

Bio: Marcielle Brandler’s poems have been translated into Czech, French, Arabic, and Spanish. She has judged poetry competitions and directed workshops for California Poets in the Schools and Performing Tree. Brandler lives in Pasadena. Find more at https://marciellepresents09.wordpress.com/poetry/

LA Fiction Anthology Interviews: Ruth Nolan

An Interview with Ruth Nolan

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What role does Los Angeles play in your fiction?
Los Angeles plays a vital, if indirect, role in my fiction and all of my creative writing. LA is the cultural and literary anchor for my writing, which careens wildly through the unbridled, remote landscapes of the Mojave Desert—my lifelong home—and other over-the-edge inland Southern California towns and outposts. In order to harness the wilderness I explore in my desert fiction leans on the necessary shoulder of LA, the stable city close to the sea that serves as parent-figure, priest, hated and beloved sibling, and inescapable counterpart.

Here’s an apt analogy for the symbiotic relationship in my fiction writing between LA and the Mojave: think of the opening scenes of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, which bends the discernible lines between fiction and truth in the literal and metaphor road trip that starts in LA, takes a necessary and increasingly hallucinogenic journey through the Mojave, and plops down in Las Vegas to evoke an altered reality filled with both exiled LA and backwater desert characters who are compelled to interact.

I like to think that I can emulate a bit of this thrust in my own fiction, this tension that is tightly interwoven between these two absolutely interdependent places that give life to my storyscapes. Interestingly, large parts of the screenplay for the film Citizen Kane were written on a remote dude ranch in the Mojave Desert, the only place screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz could be kept sober enough to work, apparently, away from the temptations of LA—this is a ranch I just happened to live on for many years.

To what degree do you think place shapes fiction in general?

Place is an essential component of fiction, be it an interior or exterior location or reality. I can’t speak for all fiction writers, whose use of space as a literary device varies more widely than I can describe, but for me, literal space is essential. I like to build my stories on real-life places in the Mojave, and evoke stories from the places themselves, which rise to the surface and become malleable, with a little imagination on my part. Place becomes an agent, a character in its own right, and strongly influences other character’s actions, reactions, and interactions with place and with each other.

Do you see your work as coming out of any traditions of LA fiction or poetry?
Most definitely. I am greatly influenced by well-established, LA-affiliated authors, who have firmly put LA on the literary map and some of who have also embodied the type of the unlikely LA-Mojave Desert relationship that I aspire to convey in my writing. I’m in great awe of Joan Didion—especially in Play It as It Lays, which moves seamlessly through a middle-aged woman’s breakdown in scene shifts and back and forth movement between Hollywood film-making culture circa 1960s and the remotest, most unbearable corners of the Mojave Desert. I am inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler, and his gritty evocations of a noir-flavored, mid-century LA, and also by Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. In my poetry, hands down, Charles Bukowski is a strong inspiration, with the type straightforward narrative poetic style depicting the compass of place down to the last detail. I like to think that I evoke the Mojave Desert in my poetry (and other writing) as distinctly and intimately as Bukowski, the ephemeral LA resident, does his hometown.

How does being a writer affect your work as a teacher and how does your work as a teacher affect your writing?

Being a writer makes me a much better teacher, because I’m looking at fiction, poetry, and other literature through a writer’s point of view. I’m able to look at structure and storylines in ways that help my students become better writers, rather than just taking the common path that many literature and writing instructors embark on, which is to analyze and interpret meaning and understanding of a text. In particular, because I teach a lot of basic essay writing classes at a community college, it’s more important for my students to learn how to perform the nuts and bolts of good writing rather than just sit around and dig for meaning in others’ writing.

My work as a teacher influences my writing, because in my teaching, I articulate and explain and frame others’ writing. It’s been a joy to be able to share my own creative writing with my students, too. In addition, my students, who mostly come from humble working-class backgrounds, have provided incredibly astute and honest feedback when I have shared drafts of my writing with them, which in many ways has given me a good earpiece to understand and anticipate the reading interests of a wide audience that doesn’t just come from literary-academic populations.

What is your current project?
I am on sabbatical this academic year, writing a researched creative nonfiction book with the working title “Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.” During my undergraduate college years, I worked as a seasonal wildland firefighter for the USFS and BLM, which sparked my interest in this project, as well as a memoir-in-progress about my wildland firefighting experiences. I’m also tinkering with the final edits for a few fiction stories that I will be submitting soon for publication, as well as a few nonfiction essays. I continue to blog about desert culture and the environment for several news/feature publications, and I’m generating new poetry, too, as always.

Bio: Ruth Nolan is an author based in California’s Mojave Desert. A former seasonal wildland firefighter for the USFS and BLM, she is now professor of English and Creative Writing at College of the Desert. Her fiction appears in LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press, 2016), and her poetry book Ruby Mountain is forthcoming this year from Finishing Line Press. She’s recently published essays in Desert Oracle and the Desert Sun. She writes for KCET/Artbound LA, Inlandia Literary Journeys, News from Native California, and Sierra Club Desert Report. Ruth lives in Palm Springs, CA.

LA Fiction Anthology Interviews: Sean Bernard

An Interview with Sean Bernard

This week in the Faculty Lecture Series, associate creative writing professor Sean Bernard took his turn. Bernard’s lecture was entitled, “In Bloom, a Critical and Creative Revisioning of James Joyce’s Ulysses”, in which Bernard shared excerpts from the book that he is currently writing that takes a different look at the famous novel Ulysses. In 2011, Bernard won a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for his work in fiction writing.

What role does Los Angeles play in your fiction?
Certainly in a handful of stories—“California,” which appears in the anthology, and others (set variously at Santa Anita Racetrack, in Santa Monica, etc.)—Los Angeles plays a crucial role in my fiction. But for the most part, my stories are usually set in places away from LA; like a lot of people, I moved to Los Angeles and don’t quite feel—at least not yet—implicated in the landscape enough to feel that I can draw on it a lot of the time for my fiction; it’s something that’s convenient to use, I think, but not yet an instinct for me.

To what degree do you think place shapes fiction in general?
The way that place impacts fiction is variable, isn’t it? There are authors famous for being regional (Louise Erdrich and many more), authors who are almost indifferent to place (e.g. Calvino, in his stronger works), and those who vacillate between (Bolano and, of course, many more). Personally, I fall into the last category: when place becomes a defining aspect of a story (such as “California”) or a longer project (my first collection, Desert Sonorous, is all about Tucson, Arizona), it becomes almost the defining aspect: the polestar, the way everything in the work is oriented. Other times, place becomes as important as stage decoration—more important is character, tone, imagination. It depends on the project, really.

Do you see your work as coming out of any traditions of LA fiction or poetry?
Not generally, no, but again, the story “California” is intentionally a nod toward detective noir—it’s as LA fiction as I can possibly be.

How does being a writer affect your work as a teacher and how does your work as a teacher affect your writing?
Enormously: I teach fiction to college students, and so I’m constantly reading, critiquing, trying to finds ways to communicate the mechanisms of writing fiction. Teaching has forced me to figure out a way to show students ways of looking at fiction so that they can see how it’s put —to break it into workable components so that they can assemble their own excellent work. Just by doing this, by trying to develop a language and way of seeing how fiction is composed, has helped me with my own writing, my own way of looking at fiction.

What is your current project?
I’ve begun the imagination phase—the early phase, the dream phase—of a project that may feature telescopes, spies, astronomers, artists, and more. Very undefined, but fun.

Bio: Sean Bernard teaches fiction at the University of La Verne. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of an NEA fellowship among other awards, his fiction has appeared in many journals. His debut collection, Desert Sonorous, received the 2014 Juniper Prize, and his debut novel Studies in the Hereafter was published in 2015 by Red Hen Press.

LA Fiction Anthology Interviews: Zachary Locklin

An Interview with Zachary Locklin

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What role does Los Angeles play in your fiction?

Growing up LA-adjacent (in Long Beach, a suburb on the farthest south reaches of LA County), Los Angeles has always occupied a weird place in my life. It’s both exotic (that distant place you go to for an art exhibit, a play, or a concert) and home (I would defend Los Angeles furiously in college in the Bay Area when my friends would criticize it). Because I’ve always lived at a remove from LA and thus knew it only as a visitor, I didn’t really start writing about it until a few years ago. By then I’d spent two years commuting there for graduate school and another several years visiting my friends who lived there. I gradually developed a sort of outsider’s insight into the way LA works, how people live there. One thing that fascinates me the most is the variety of the cultural landscape; Los Feliz and Silver Lake are far removed from Downtown or Santa Monica, and that’s not even bringing Pasadena into the picture.

 

So as I’ve started writing more about Los Angeles, it’s been from that outsider’s perspective: I inevitably bring an ironic tone to my descriptions of the peoples and cultures. Unintentional, at first.

 

To what degree do you think place shapes fiction in general?

Well, I never start a project without thinking at great length about where the story will take place. Often my fiction takes place in one of the three cities I’ve spent the most years living in: Long Beach, Santa Cruz, and San Diego, CA. Each of those locations has a specific set of ideas attached to it: Long Beach is “normal,” plain, and thus a good place for existential despair; Santa Cruz has a varying climate, shifting from dark and cold to brilliantly sunny and hot, making it ideal for all kinds of angst; San Diego is sprawling (very like Los Angeles, actually, in its multiplicity of locales and cultures), and its uneven topography, with its hills and canyons and shifting coastline, makes it oddly appealing for a horror story.

 

We write what we know, but that also means we are driven to write by what we know: our landscapes are our societies and cultures; just as a writer like Bukowski or Faulkner doesn’t work without Los Angeles or the South, someone like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or Graham Greene is defined by the sense of homelessness, the outsider’s view of a world.

 

In other words, it seems to me that in many ways, the place builds the story more than anything else because the characters are born out of it, and the story or plot is a function of the possibilities of the region.

 

Do you see your work as coming out of any traditions of LA fiction or poetry?

For a long time now, I’ve been interested in 1930s–50s crime literature, particularly the non-detectives like Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Patricia Highsmith (none of whom are particularly associated with LA). For Los Angeles, that has translated, of course, into an interest in the LA crime writers like Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. What has always attracted me to Chandler in particular is the roving, almost aimless wandering around the city and its environs. Bukowski has that, too, of course, as does Nathanael West: more than the mystery, what I like about LA noir is the roving, homeless feeling: these people who live here, in this tradition, are all nevertheless outsiders. That’s a theme I can identify with.

 

How does being a writer affect your work as a teacher and how does your work as a teacher affect your writing?

Stephen King says that teaching may actually be the worst career for a writer, and he may be right. The summers are great except that by the time you get to the summer, you are so burnt out that you spend a month just recuperating; then you start a project, and a month later you have to put it aside because you need to start preparing for the fall semester. If you try to write during the school year, either the novel suffers from a lack of attention or you fall very far behind in your grading (which is where I am right now). (All of this, of course, is a lecturer’s perspective; I like to dream that those of us lucky enough to get tenure-track positions have a little more time for their writing, but it’s probably not true.)

 

However, teaching also means that you come into contact with a never-ending supply of new people, from whom you learn new ideas, new stories, new problems. Teaching provides an endless source of inspiration. I’ve always said that the thing I like most about being a teacher is getting to know all of these people (although I’ve also always said that the worst thing about being a teacher is having to meet all of these people—but that’s social anxiety for you).  Teaching can humanize you, can help you learn empathy, and can broaden your perspective, if you let it: all things I think are necessary for being a real writer.

 

What is your current project?

I don’t like to talk too much about a project while I’m working on it—a superstition—but I will say that it is a Long Beach–based lesbian Gothic suspense novel: think Carol meets Crimson Peak. It’ll probably turn out terrible, but them’s the breaks.

 

 

Bio: Zachary Locklin is the author of My Beard Supports Nothing: The Facebook Poems. His work has been published in PearlPoetic DiversityMagnapoetsRe)verbFreefallBeside the City of Angels, Slagdrop, Beggars and Cheeseburgers, Weekly Weird Monthly, Cultural Weekly, and a slew of other places. He is a graduate of the Master’s of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, and he teaches English composition, creative writing, and literature at California State University, Long Beach.

 

LA Fiction Anthology Interviews: Grant Hier

Today marks the release of the LA Fiction Anthology, a collection five years in the making. In its pages you will find stories from some of the Southland’s most prolific authors, including Ron Carlson, T.C. Boyle, Judith Freeman, Rob Roberge, Dana Johnson, Percival Everett, and more!

With discussion and essay questions closing each story, this book is designed to start a dialogue. So in that vein, the Red Hen Blog will be posting interviews with the anthology’s authors once each week. Contributor Kathy Hall kicks things off with an interview of fellow contributor Grant Hier.

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Grant Hier Interview
Conducted by Kathy Hall, Mt. San Antonio College
December, 2015

 

Kathy Hall (KH)
Thank you for agreeing to speak to me about writing and Los Angeles. I want to talk first about cities and nature. New York is a city that has weather. Chicago is a city that has weather. Los Angeles is reputed to be a city of no weather, yet it is often written about in terms of really elemental forces—like in that right column of your poem “Untended Garden” which I kept reading in the voice of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Why is it impossible to write about Los Angeles, this ostensibly most synthetic of cities, without returning to fire and water (including its concrete rivers) and earth?

 

Grant Hier (GH)
That’s funny you hear that voice as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but now that you say it, I can hear it that way. I consider that a huge compliment. (And now that gives me an opening to send him a copy of the book!) I think your observation about the fierce elemental forces of nature being a common feature in the writing about Los Angeles is an astute one. Anyone who lives here for any length of time certainly gets used to the local news blaring “Special Reports!” about these elemental forces. The earthquakes. The riptides and floods. The wild fires (which are a vital part of the natural cycle of life restoring itself). The sonic landscape, too: the constant sound of sirens. All of this becomes part of the consciousness of Angelinos and Southlanders. Even the air here. The smells and the smog. The Santa Ana winds. So, we have unique weather extremes here, but the norm is mild. And these contrasting extremes are then used by writers as metaphors for life here. Raymond Chandler writes about how “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks,” when the Santa Anas blow. Joan Didion notes how the “violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” They manifest into our literature, I think, precisely because they so dramatically contrast the myth of paradise we also affix to life here, and the contrasts shape our interior landscapes too.

This applies, as well, to those features that have been radically altered by us—those concrete ravines that cut obtrusively across the land, replacing the natural rivers and creeks. I think that those human-made alterations reveal even more about who we are. Those majestic eucalyptus trees imported and planted in rows to shield the agriculture crops from winds, yet they poison the soil all around them so that nothing else can live nearby. Or those iconic palm trees, which are similarly non-native—and which the government has just voted not to re-plant when they die off, by the way, which should be in the next decade or so since their life span is similar to humans, so that will leave us with all but a few “permitted” non-native palms and the L.A. skyline will look dramatically different once again. All of the shaped and re-shaped landscapes literally reveal our story, which is largely the story of the transplanted, flooding in and changing the natural order. Remember that every human who has ever settled here was a transplant, from those who boated in or walked a land bridge, and most everyone (except the slaves) came to chase the dream of a better life. And what we do to achieve those dreams will determine whether ours are stories of exploitation and dominion or respect and stewardship. How is it we should act in this place? The flooding L.A. River caused the Tongva to build homes of willow wikiups so they could move them out of the way in “This frozen zone so prone to overflowing…” as I write in Untended Garden (the frozen zone being the botanical term for this region). The Paleolithic peoples of the Americas, then the Millingstone Horizon Cultures, and later the Tongva, they each lived as one with the nature as it existed and co-habitated with the flora and fauna, which is the essence of the “Reinhabitation” theme. Then centuries later came the new settlers, exploitation, and the modern re-carving and re-routing of the rivers and industry to better serve the population, or at least to better serve those who could buy in. But imposing a re-design of nature has repercussions, creates imbalances, so there are also the stories of the alienated and overlooked which need to be told. In my novel, which is about the homeless who live on the streets of this ever-changing city, the climax is lit by images of palm trees on fire during the riots, their tops igniting like match heads while the city burns below as the dream is deferred. For the epigraph of that novel, I use these great lines by Sandberg:

“I will die as many times

as you make me over again,

says the city to the people,

I am the woman, the home, the family,

I get breakfast and pay the rent;

I telephone the doctor, the milkman, the undertaker;

I fix the streets

for your first and your last ride—

Come clean with me, come clean or dirty,

I am stone and steel of your sleeping numbers;

I remember all you forget.

I will die as many times

as you make me over again.”

 

—Carl Sandburg

from “The Windy City” (1922)

 

KH
Yes, your novel is bookended by the two riots in 1965 and 1992, and Sandburg’s words about Chicago could certainly be about those manmade fires which, like California’s wildfires, offer hope for renewal in the future but remain painful in the present. Like Sandburg’s, your poetry and prose relate the knowing of one’s literal place to the knowing of one’s place in the world. What has knowing Southern California taught you about yourself? This is the closest I have come to understanding the idea of reinhabitation. If you have anything else to say on that topic, I would be glad to hear it.

 

GH
Sure. The term was coined by Gary Snyder, in an essay by that name: “Reinhabitation” (which he originally wrote with a hyphen, as Re-Inhabitation). Untended Garden starts with an excerpt from that essay: “How does knowledge of place help us know the Self? The answer, simply put, is that we are all composite beings, not only physically but intellectually, whose sole individual identifying feature is a particular form or structure changing constantly in time. There is no ‘self’ to be found in that, and yet oddly enough, there is… no self-realization without the Whole Self, and the whole self is the whole thing. Thus, knowing who and where are intimately linked.”

Snyder goes on the conclude, then, that we must therefore re-learn the old ways and re-inhabit the earth with a better knowledge of our place in it. His thesis is that we must go back to a more natural way of co-inhabitation, with respect to all life forms. The idea of reinhabiting the land after being away and estranged by it in order to learn to live there sustainably. Untended Garden likewise asserts that knowing who and where are intimately linked, but without calling for any particular way of living, as Snyder does—although I absolutely agree we should live sustainably. I celebrate the progress and the change as natural, inevitable, but my thesis is that we can’t be myopic or exclusionary in our growth or our actions or else that disconnectedness will have dire consequences. My poem at its core is an argument for inclusion and egalitarianism, as Whitman’s is in his long poem, and it urges the individual to keep encouraged, to consider oneself and every other person as vital and important. To consider everyone’s story as part of the web and of our collective larger story.

So, this journey to know one’s self by knowing one’s place in the continuum really began as a way to research those questions I had as a child, digging in the dirt of the new tract home in suburbia, wondering what I would find beneath me. What came before? What stories are there hidden in the past, on this very spot? And who the heck am I here, and what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? (to quote one of my favorite lines by Mary Oliver). Learning what came before necessarily connects one to the larger, longer history, and that necessarily informs how one should live. We are all connected. That is what is to be learned—rather, remembered. The poem is against forgetting, really. So, even though Untended Garden is a story steeped in a specific place, it truly is a universal story. A song of myself, yes, but also a song of the interconnectedness of all life forms, of all that came before, and all that is here now—and of which we are all a part. With no exceptions. And these connections extend out in all directions, and include what was before, is now, and will be after we are gone. All one, really. Which makes separateness an illusion.

 

KH
Untended Garden is often compared to Whitman, as you suggest when you call it a song of yourself, but it feels to me more like Robinson Jeffers. How did California influence his poetry, and how are writers experiencing the same influences now?

 

GH
Great question. Jeffers was as rugged as the places he wrote about, and he saw a fierce beauty in the violent universe. In “Self-Criticism in February,” Jeffers confesses, “It is certain you have loved the beauty of storm disproportionately,” referring to the violence and brutality in his poems, of course, but it was also true of his literal love of the weather. One of my favorite lines of Jeffers is from a private letter to Lawrence Clark Powell: “We are having a beautiful rain and wind storm here.” I love that. Having a beautiful storm. Wish you were here! I certainly share that deep love of storms and churning surf, the thrill of standing outside, exposed to the rough, wild elements — though I’m not sure that’s something others necessarily share! (Back to our ridiculous local news: “Special Report: Storm in the Southland!” “BULLETIN: It’s raining! Beware!”)

I absolutely love Jeffers, and would encourage everyone to read him.

A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go to the lovely Sur Rivers
And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts…
Mercy. How beautiful is that? Jeffers is considered the first environmental poet by many, and few realize that he was one of the very first to use the term “ecology.” Late in his life, Jeffers reflected on how his dad, determined to give him the best education possible, tutored him indoors all day, every day, and he says that only occasionally would his father allow him to hike the countryside. Jeffers thinks that resulted in his lifelong desire to live in open country. Few realize, too, that he was the physical specimen he was. At age 8 he taught himself to swim, and as an adult he would swim the rugged open waters of Northern California coast, off Point Lobos, in ridiculously rough seas. He was thin and sinewy. While attending Occidental and USC he was a tireless hiker, and would often hike a small trail up Mount Wilson to the Observatory, which is at some 5,700 feet elevation. His professor (of Bacteriology) at USC taught him to wrestle, and within the year, no kidding, he had won the heavyweight wrestling championship. Pretty impressive. It was the similarly rough and rugged California landscape that most influenced his writing, his philosophy. He writes, “My love, my loved subject: mountain and ocean, rock, water and beasts and trees / Are the protagonists; the human people are only symbolic interpreters.” Jeffers literally rolls enormous boulders from the Carmel River, some more than 400 pounds, up a bluff and then rigs wooden planks and a block & tackle system with ropes and pulleys to lift the stones and mason them into a 40-foot tower overlooking the rugged coast—for his wife Una (they both loved Yeats and his Thoor Ballylee Tower in Galway, Ireland). “Hawk Tower” (with a secret passage stairwell between the walls for his twin boys) is designed and raised solely by Jeffers working alone, laboring hard with his body while his mind composes and memorizes the poetry he would transcribe and refine on paper later. “I hung / stones in the sky” he writes. “…my fingers had the art / To make stone love stone.” Which parallels his craft of assembling words. Jeffers is a marvel and a master. One of a kind.

As to how writers are experiencing the same California influences now, well, I think we each do it in our own way, based on where we come from and how we live. For me, I wrote my personal epic of place, Untended Garden, about this home in suburbia and the surrounding area. “Write what you know” is the starting point, yes, but my best writing is an exploration of what I don’t know. I described the project to Snyder while I was writing it, by the way, and we discussed the challenges of structure and craft in writing a sustained long poem (Snyder was just completing his epic long poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, at the time). He said he was delighted that I was applying Reinhabitation to suburbia instead of the more remote nature that he wrote of. But, that begs the question, what is meant by “nature” anyway? One might argue that nature exists everywhere.

 

KH
Yes, there is nature even in suburbia. But regardless of the kind of regions we write about, regionalist poetry—regionalist art in general—has come under a kind of attack recently. Does it require a defense?

 

GH
I don’t think it does. Any more than any other creative form does. Art either stands and lasts, or it doesn’t. No amount of arguing or persuasion about its relevance will affect that, in the long run. The survival of any art will depend on the connections it makes with the audience, how it affects us and informs us—and that is greatly dependent on its relevance to the time and place it emerges from. All art, I’m talking about here. Art is, necessarily, a product of its time and place, and since it a human act, since it emerges from humans, it is thus a reflection of a people in that time, that place, that particular culture (or segment of culture). And this is really the essence of my response to your question about why the literature about Los Angeles appears as it does.  Now then, there is a separate issue that is critical to this discussion, and that is the issue of how the art reaches its audience—or doesn’t. You can’t appreciate a poem of Jeffers, say, if you’ve never ever seen it. So, it is absolutely critical for a society’s survival to support and nourish the arts. And that is in real danger now. That sad fact reveals a real weakness of our time and our culture: the zeitgeist of an America that underfunds the arts, that eliminates art education and practice from required curricula, that downplays its importance by treating it as not relevant to our culture or survival, or even mocks it or dismisses it outright. That is why it is so important that the little mags, the online literary sites, the local writing communities, find a way to survive, so that people get exposed to the literary arts. You asked, does regionalist poetry and prose require a defense? No. But it does require a concerted force behind it so that it gets into the ears and mouths and brains and psyches of the people. It requires continued support so that it gets released out into the world, for art is vital to our survival—and that is not mere hyperbole. “There is something / something urgent / I have to say to you,” William Carlos Williams wrote. “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

 

KH
If only the arts received a fraction of the local support that sports teams do. I am amused by the fact that you live behind the Orange curtain and appear to be a Dodgers fan while I live in Los Angeles county and drive to Anaheim for baseball. Your stories in the Anthology of Los Angeles Short Fiction are about baseball as a metaphor for life and sex and suchlike. Why focus on baseball when writing about Los Angeles?

 

GH
The baseball theme of those pieces was a specific project that emerged from an idea of what bubble gum trading card packs made for Little League Baseball might look like. But I must say that I do love baseball more than any other sport (the reason my right shoulder is now a mess), and I’ve attended a lot of Dodger and Angel games throughout my life. Speaking of local history, I own one of the first issued “Junior Angel” membership cards, from back when the team joined the majors. My dad (who pitched several no hitters in high school and was scouted by the pros) used to take us to the L.A. Coliseum to see Wally Moon, Albie Pearson, Dean Chance, etc. And my dad also drove us in our family DeSoto across the bumpy dirt construction site as the Big A and Angel Stadium was being erected. And later, as a teen, I’d drive the 5 Freeway north to Chavez Ravine to sit in the left field pavilion for most Dodger home games during the early ‘70s, and watched those great teams play. So, I’ve rooted for both the Angels and Dodgers equally in my life. I love the game more than I do any one team. And I love this beautiful place we live in and run across the grass of, regardless of the color of the clothes we might wear while playing in any one field. Yes, I see baseball as a metaphor for life, too. The significance of neighborhood baseball games in “the middle of streets / where children still imagine fields” as I write in Untended Garden.

 

Home:

omphalos manhole cover…

Second base, a stain of oil
leaked in the middle of the street
from the old family DeSoto, or perhaps

the pale yellow Helms Truck last summer.

No pitcher’s rubber or mound, just a small
round surveyor’s benchmark
bolted to the center of the cul-de-sac.

 

Play ball –

Sunday afternoon, 1963.

Vin Scully’s tin voice

wafts down the block

 

from black plastic radios

on vacant work benches,

the garage doors kept open

as children play

 

wide eyed

until the ball

is lost against

a darkening sky.

 

About the Interviewee:

Grant Hier was named winner of Prize Americana for his book Untended Garden—Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia (The Poetry Press, 2015), which has also been nominated for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and an American Book Award.  He was recipient of the Nancy Drew Taylor Prize for Literary Excellence in Poetry (2014) the Kick Prize (2013), and several of his pieces have been nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE. His poetry has been anthologized in Monster Verse—Human and Inhuman Poems (Knopf/Everyman, 2015) and The Barricades of Heaven: A Literary Field Guide to Orange County, California (Heyday, 2017). In addition to writing, Grant is a musical artist, visual artist, and former graphic designer and art director. He is Professor of English and Chair of Liberal Arts and Art History at Laguna College of Art and Design where he teaches creative writing and various other courses.

About the Interviewer:

Kathy Silvey Hall teaches composition at Mt. San Antonio College, Cerritos College, and El Camino College.  Her story is part of an unpublished novella Alta Vista High, an effort to apply the principles of ecriture feminine to semiautobiographical vignettes; her work is concerned with the miscommunications, disruptions, and imbalances of power and privilege between the varied cultures which make up Southern California.

 

Kim Dower featured on America Meditating Radio Show w/Sister Jenna

This past Wednesday, Red Hen author extraordinaire Kim Dower joined Sister Jenna on the America Meditating Radio Show. Once you listen in, we’re sure you’ll be just as excited as we are about her new collection. Last Train to the Missing Planet hits the shelves March 29!

Kim Dower was born and raised in New York City and received a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, where she also taught creative writing. Her first collection, Air Kissing on Mars was on the Poetry Foundation’s Contemporary Best Sellers list and Slice of Moon, her second collection, nominated for a Pushcart Award, was called, “unexpected and sublime,” by “O” magazine.

Kim’s work has been featured in “The Writer’s Almanac,” and “American Life in Poetry,” as well as in Barrow Street, and the Los Angeles Review, to name a few. Kim is also the founder of the Literary Publicity and Media Training Company, “Kim-from-L.A.,” and teaches a workshop called, Poetry and Memory in the B.A. Program of Antioch University. Her third collection, Last Train to the Missing Planet, will be published in the Spring of 2016.  Visit www.kimdowerpoetry.com

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