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To live and write in L.A.

April 27, 2009 |  8:30 am


Ten minutes after the designated start time Sunday, the panel members of “Fiction: L.A. Writes the World” still hadn’t shown up, and I started wondering if I could write a post if a panel never occurred, a la “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” where the author writes a whole piece about never getting an interview with Ol' Blue Eyes.

Thankfully, they arrived. Ben Ehrenreich moderated a discussion between Chris Abani (“Graceland,” “The Virgin of Flames”), Steve Erickson (“Zeroville,” “Our Ecstatic Days”) and Rachel Kushner (“Telex From Cuba”) (pictured, left to right). Unlike other panels that spend half an hour promoting the authors’ latest works, they dove right into the topic, with Abani and Erickson lending the talk a decidedly academic tone.

Ehrenreich parsed the panel title into two parts: What it means to write in Los Angeles, and what it means that the world has been written by Los Angeles.

All three authors compared Los Angeles and New York. “L.A. doesn’t impose the same kind of civic identity as New York,” Erickson said. In his view, writers who live in New York are New York writers, but writers who live in Los Angeles are not Los Angeles writers. He also refused to identify himself as an L.A. writer.

Erickson said that many of his books start in L.A., then move on. New York fiction asks, “Why would you want to leave here?” while Erickson said that his Los Angeles fiction asks, “Why would you want to stay here?”

Kushner added that novel writers in Los Angeles get treated as second tier, because if authors aren’t tied to Hollywood, then they don’t matter.

The panel then shifted to how Los Angeles has affected the world. Ehrenreich read a passage from Erickson’s book “Zeroville,” where protagonist Vikar refuses to leave Hollywood but is told that Hollywood is everywhere, except in actual Hollywood. Erickson admitted that the proliferation and distribution of American films had made it impossible to avoid Hollywood, even halfway around the world.

Chris Abani questioned whether it was even possible for America to restrain its international influence. “The question is not: Where is America, but where is not America,” he said. His novel “Graceland” bears witness to the overflow of American pop culture: The Nigerian protagonist is an Elvis impersonator.

Abani also worried that Americans mistake their country for the world. The World Series, he pointed out, is really just the American Series of Baseball.

The questions posed by Ehrenreich were nearly as interesting as the answers: “Is L.A. a place that is placeless?” “Does it lack some kind of essence?” “What do we mean when we use the word ‘world’?” Not all of his questions were fully addressed, but the deep lines of inquiry made this the heavyweight panel of the day.

Best snippets of the panel:

  • When someone said that an Abani character, one who cross-dresses as the Virgin Mary, was too crazy to be believable, another person said: “What are you talking about? Look at Dennis Rodman.”

  • “There’s a dark undercurrent that runs through L.A. too,” Erickson said, pointing out that he lived in Topanga Canyon. “Remember, it’s the canyon that Charles Manson moved out of because it was too weird for him.”

  • Abani on fairytale cross-dressing: “What you have to remember about Little Red Riding Hood is that the wolf died wearing a dress.”

-- John Fox

Photo: John Fox