A Love Letter to Los Angeles




IN MY EXPERIENCE, convincing friends and family to visit Los Angeles — not for a Dodgers game against their favorite team, not for theme parks, not for a show at the Hollywood Bowl or Staples Center, but to take in the city itself — has proved challenging. Their most common excuses involve smoggy skies, gridlock traffic, unpotable tap water, and the unbearable personalities depicted on The Real Housewives. These naysayers are thinking of Bravo’s Beverly Hills, MTV’s Hollywood, and Michael Mann’s downtown. They’re unacquainted with NoHo, Culver City, and Highland Park; they’ve never had a summer picnic with wine and live music at the Hollywood Bowl, watched Asian Elvis impersonators at Palms on Hollywood Boulevard, or watched a stripper’s Metallica routine at Jumbo’s Clown Room in Thai Town.

Wendy C. Ortiz might be their perfect tour guide. She knows LA inside out: the common, the uncommon, the underappreciated, and the incomparable. In her latest book Hollywood Notebook, Ortiz offers glimpses of the Los Angeles that appears less often on television and more often in the everyday lives of real residents. In Hollywood Notebook, a Valentine to the city she loves (the one in which she came of age) she scatters memories and life lessons, and leaves them like a trail of breadcrumbs for readers to follow from her early years in North Hollywood to the end of her 20s in Los Feliz. Recently, she and I emailed back and forth to discuss different kinds of readers, cross-genre writing, and how her new book came to be.

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NICOLE ANTONIO: Let’s start with the cover art — a painting of a woman whose baggage is spilling and splattering all around her, creating both a skyline and garden of vices and passions that smear onto the back jacket. Where’d you find this picture?

WENDY C. ORTIZ: The cover art by Ken Garduno was commissioned by Writ Large Press and presented to me as a possibility. I love how you describe it — that feels very true to how I felt when first writing the book — in transit, messy, amid vices and passions.

And yet the chapters are beautifully arranged — they have such a subtle arc — how did you curate this collection? How much came from the notebooks you mention in the book, and how much did you write specifically for this manuscript?

The majority of the chapters were originally written on a website that I called “Lab of Lux.” At the time I didn’t think of it as a blog, but in today’s terms, that’s what it was. As I started editing, roughly nine or 10 years later, I had to look for places where the entries were not part of the overall rhythm, or didn’t add to what I saw as the very spare narrative arc. Then Chiwan Choi of Writ Large Press asked me to write a few more chapters to help bring that out — which was difficult, actually: I felt like I was interrupting the flow and trying to match the language and tone of a person I once knew, though in a way that no one but me would notice.

The opening acknowledgments indicate that you specifically wanted to be published by a Los Angeles–based indie press. How would you describe your target audience, or did you have one in mind?

The book is one love letter of many I’ve written to Los Angeles. When I felt it was ready, I didn’t send it anywhere but Writ Large. I admired how the press was operating in the LA literary world.

I didn’t think in terms of target audience exactly, but I can say that I imagined readers who love Los Angeles with all of its contradictions, readers who’ve dropped in on this city without a plan, maybe after a loss of some sort, trying to find their way. I also imagined people like me reading the book, writers outside of the “industry” involved in the daily struggle of living and writing.

But did you envision it specifically for Angelenos, or were you trying to provide an everyday look at a city that so much of the world knows only for dense traffic and Hollywood movies? Or something else?

When we talked about titles, something Chiwan Choi and I considered was calling it “East Hollywood Notebook,” since I describe living in Los Feliz and frequenting a lot of places people sometimes call “East Hollywood.” It struck me, though, that calling it simply Hollywood Notebook would emphasize that my Hollywood is not the same as the Hollywood of popular imagination. The Hollywood I know is not about movies, or the industry, or even dense traffic. (And back then, I mostly rode the Metro and city buses.) Calling the book Hollywood Notebook felt a bit like claiming a reality that people don’t immediately associate with the place, and offering an alternate perspective — one that I imagine many who’ve lived in similar circumstances in this city can relate to, and that feels important to me.

How do you reconcile the pace of the city with the writing itself, which seems thoughtful and deliberately slowed down? Was that on purpose or was it instinctive?

I’m glad you see it as possibly instinctive — that feels true to me. The LA I came back to versus the LA of popular imagination is pretty different. There are plenty of people completely outside of “fast lane LA,” and back then I considered myself one of them, and often still do. My process is slow, I digest experiences slowly — and I appreciate it when I’m asked to slow down and take in what is being said, which may account for the style of this book.

I remember, about two-thirds of the way through the book, stopping on this line: “I like it that way, a snail’s pace of memories.” Meanwhile, I finished the book in one sitting. Do you imagine readers devouring Hollywood Notebook all at once as I did, or living with it for a few days or weeks as they absorb the musings?

I can imagine readers taking the book in in one sitting because of the brevity of the chapters, but I can also imagine taking one’s time. The original text had date markers, which were removed (but for a few chapters in which current events give clues as to dates). The dates might have served to slow down the reading — I notice that happens when I read books with dates and I wanted the reader to find natural pause points. Still, because of its fragmentary nature, my intention was to keep the reader in it for as long as possible, which might mean reading in one fell swoop.

The text is peppered with authors: Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Michael Ondaatje, Amy Gerstler. Will you tell me a bit about your influences?

I’m picking up influences with every book I read. The authors mentioned in the book were the ones I was talking to in my head at the time. I still turn to these authors (and others) regularly and those “conversations” often leak into my work. More recently the dynamic has changed to include the work of two contemporary authors — Megan Stielstra and Elissa Washuta — I feel my books are in conversation with theirs.

There’s a chapter about taking a one-day screenwriting class in East LA. What are your thoughts on the intersection of genres? Have you found shared elements in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenwriting?

For me, the genres overlap and their intersections add up to the literature I live to read (and write, probably, too). I find that the work I most connect to is prose written by poets. I can’t really speak about screenwriting — that one-day class is the only screenwriting “experience” I’ve ever had. I do have a friend’s TV pilot on my computer, to read when the time is right — I’m definitely interested in television writing. At the moment, though, my own drawer only contains poems, a novella, short stories, and memoir drafts.

In the past few years, the “new adult” genre has emerged, targeting younger readers and often describing the transition through torrential 20s into the seemingly safe zone of the no-longer-dreaded 30s. In a way, it’s similar to the way middle schoolers read young adult books about high school characters to both fantasize and mentally prepare for that coming life stage. Hollywood Notebook falls into the time frame of “new adult,” but would you call it that? Would you want it to be thought of that way?

I totally believe that many people don’t really become “adults” until they’re well into their late 20s, so I can imagine Hollywood Notebook as part of a “new adult” genre — the tail end of “new,” perhaps. I don’t mind it being thought of that way, because the truth is, readers will think of it, frame it, recast it, and interpret it however they wish. I’ve noticed a number of reviewers of Hollywood Notebook remark on how it’s “a book for writers.” I hadn’t set out to make it a book for writers, but if that’s something readers (and writers) are connecting to, great. I can’t control it. I welcome different interpretations.

A big turning moment in the book was quitting your day job. How has your life changed since that moment? What balance do you strike between writing, interning, and the rest of life?

I was unemployed for just four months after I quit my full-time day job in the book. My life changed pretty dramatically — I gave up my apartment, found a part-time job so I’d still have time to write, made the decision to move in with the man who would become my husband (then pretty immediately, my ex-husband) — and then had to find my way once again, this time in a part of Los Angeles that I didn’t know so well. (I never went west of La Brea during the Hollywood Notebook years, but that changed once I was separated from my husband.)

I can’t say I strike a fine balance between writing, interning, and the rest of life. When I stop to think about the fact that I’m pursuing two careers — psychotherapy and writing — and co-running a household and co-parenting a small child (and my partner has, at the moment, two careers in the mix as well), well, there’s just no real balance there. It’s perfectly imbalanced. I also know that this is temporary — some days will feel more balanced than others. I’m just doing the best I can.

For many, it can be difficult to find the right amount of distance when writing about oneself. Memoirists are often accused of being self-indulgent. How do you feel about that?

As a queer woman of color, I have to fight through any criticisms I’ve downloaded from the culture about what’s “too much” to write about; what is “appropriate” or “inappropriate.” As a writer of memoir, I’m mostly guided by internal boundaries. And yet: if we look at the definition of self-indulgence as “excessive or unrestrained gratification of one’s own appetites, desires, or whims,” well, there are moments when I can jump into that place and use it as a means of celebration — that this is the life I’ve chosen to live, and I’m writing it out no matter what anyone thinks. Then too I’ve got first readers and editors who’ll keep me honest and remind me of what my intentions are — “self-indulgence” is not one of them.

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Nicole Antonio studied screenwriting and poetry in Los Angeles. Her chapbook Another Mistake was published by Slipstream Press in 2014, and her work has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, The Truth About the Fact, and Watershed, among other publications.


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