DAVID KUKOFF’S debut novel, Children of the Canyon, is set in the fabled location of Laurel Canyon. It is one of those geographies that evokes a variety of reveries and musings from both those who have and haven’t lived there. The writer Rebecca Solnit recently defined place as “the intersection of many changing forces passing through, whirling around, mixing, dissolving and exploding in a fixed location.” This is a good description of the Laurel Canyon of Kukoff’s novel.
Children of the Canyon is the story of a young man named David, who grows up during the 1960s against the backdrop of drugs, surf music, and the Manson family. David’s father is a music producer whose top client is a musician clearly based on Brian Wilson. His mother is largely absent, traveling the world in search of that elusive enlightenment so many sought during the 1960s. David pieces together an idea of how to grow into adulthood despite the fragmented guidance of his parents. Along the way he meets a girl his age on the beach, named Topanga, on the very night his parents decide to divorce. David senses he has found his soul mate and spends the decade searching for his elusive friend after circumstances separate them.
Kukoff creates a sense of time and place in a way that only the best fiction can. David’s family suffers from the fallout that came with the 1960s while he attempts to escape unscathed into the future. His is a story of survival, longing, and wonder.
Children of the Canyon utilizes Kukoff’s extensive experience in LA and Hollywood. He has 11 film and television credits to his name and has published two books on those subjects. We spoke recently of the mesh between film and literature and how it helped him create his novel.
DAVID BREITHAUPT: You have had a successful career screenwriting in Hollywood — could you talk about how that shaped your novel, did you tend to envision it in more cinematic terms?
DAVID KUKOFF: My experience as a screenwriter was incredibly instrumental in the writing of Children of the Canyon, both with regard to the book’s structure and overall execution. I’d always wanted to explore Joan Didion’s world through the eyes of a child, but it didn’t take concrete shape in my head until I envisioned it as a limited series of 13 stand-alone episodes that, together, comprised a fully actualized story. I realized I could use the 1970s as the spine, with two chapters in 1969 and one in each 1980 and 1981, and that each year could work both alone and as an important piece of sequencing serving the larger narrative.
As for my approach within the stories themselves, I found myself influenced again by some of the better television storytellers these days — how the better episodes of The Sopranos and The Wire took such surprising story twists that, once you really understood the dimensions of the characters and the thematic composition of the episodes, made complete sense in retrospect. I only had one chapter per year, so I found myself thinking that, in addition to moving the book’s storylines forward and further exposing and complicating the characters’ inner workings, the book’s chapters would ideally evoke how the better television shows’ episodes identify, examine, and explore a set of themes as well.
Laurel Canyon, where most of your book takes place, is pretty much a major character in your book. What makes that place so magical in your life?
While I didn’t grow up in Laurel Canyon, I had a lot of friends who either did, or who had parents or relatives in the film and music industries. So I’d hear secondhand stories from time to time, all of which left me vaguely aware that something special had gone down in Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and 1970s. But it wasn’t until I read Michael Walker’s book Laurel Canyon, which is something of a one-stop shop for all the canyon’s mythology and folklore, that I realized how important a time and place this was in the city’s history. What feels even more personal to me, however, is the takeaway that I’d hope exists for other artists as well. Basically, you had some of the most incredibly, enduringly creative people in the world living in one location at the same time. Michael Walker explained to me that Laurel Canyon was especially well suited because it was this bucolic place only a couple miles from the music industry and its related haunts — conveniently situated, yet aesthetically inspirational. And the artists’ collective that flourished as a result … I mean, you had Jackson Browne, who’d been roommates with Glenn Frey at one point, handing the Eagles a song he’d written called “Take It Easy” because he didn’t see it fitting his own needs, and it turned out to be their first major hit. That kind of aesthetic spirit and ethos keeps me inspired to be on the lookout for other artists’ collectives, whether formally acknowledged as such or not, that might be the next Laurel Canyon, or Seattle, or Williamsburg, or …
What are some of the great LA novels that are standouts for you?
Los Angeles is, in my humble opinion, the origin point of some of America’s greatest fiction, past and present. Sure, Hollywood gets all the attention, but if you think of all the great novelists and short-story writers who have done their best work here, it’s just astonishing.
I’d have to divide my answer into writers and individual works; it’s too hard to make lists when you’re talking about people like Fante, Bukowski, Hammett, and Chandler. Similarly, you can’t go wrong with some of the more contemporary LA voices like Kate Braverman and Steve Erickson. Eve Babitz tends to get if not exactly overlooked then definitely underappreciated, but she definitely belongs here. And Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, and James Ellroy have given us some of the most relentlessly entertaining, genre-driven literature written here, or anywhere for that matter.
As for some individual titles, let’s start with Hollywood. You’d have to include — and there’s no real newsflash here — Day of the Locust, What Makes Sammy Run?, and The Player. And The Last Tycoon, although at the end of the day its unfinished status makes me wish Fitzgerald had gotten enmeshed in Hollywood enough to write about it, but not so much so as to be brought down by it. More recently, Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine is an intergenerational tale of fathers and sons in Hollywood that manages to avoid the all-too-tempting trap of being too “inside baseball.” Moving out of the Hollywood space … Less Than Zero, like its protagonists, might not have aged especially well by contemporary standards, but you won’t find a better-preserved time capsule of Los Angeles in the 1980s anywhere on the printed or electronic page. (Although, for my money, Lunar Park was the most memorable of Ellis’s books … and it is VERY LA.) Marisa Silver’s first collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise, is just wonderful, as is Jim Gavin’s recent collection, Middle Men. As for important works from the city’s oft-overlooked — at least where literature is concerned — majority population, I would lead with Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonnas of Echo Park, which is one of my favorite books recently, period. And Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier, as well as Yxta Maya Murray’s Locas, both of which examine the complicated histories of recent Latino immigrants and longtime Chicano Eastside culture. Lastly, I’m currently reading a beautifully crafted book called Further Out Than You Thought by Michaela Carter, which takes place during the dark days of the Rodney King riots.
Because there are some thinly veiled characters in your book such as the musician who seems based on Brian Wilson, I can’t help wondering how autobiographical your novel is.
This is a great topic, one I feel elucidates not only my own writing process but also, I hope, that of my fellow writers. It’s been said that the best fiction might not contain many facts, but it should be chock-full of truth; other than pure escapism, we read fiction to give our own lives a better-defined sense of framing. The problem with assuming that any given work is autobiographical is that it presumes the author did relatively little to manufacture a story, that he or she is presenting something akin to thinly veiled memoir, which I’ve rarely, if ever, seen be the case. Even in the movies, whenever I adapted an ostensibly “true” story, the number of concessions I had to make to dramatic license rendered the final product virtually unrecognizable from the primary source material upon which it had been based. (Just consider, for example, the third act of Argo for an example of complete and utter fabrication rendered in order to produce a more satisfying storytelling experience.)
And yet it would be disingenuous for me to insist that a novel about Laurel Canyon in its heyday, replete with chronologically correct historical events and characters so obviously based on Brian Wilson, Huey Newton, Gram Parsons, et cetera — and even a character named David, no less — sprang from my imagination completely unfettered by any of my life’s actual details. I don’t know how it works for other writers, but for me there was no formula; I treated it as I would a piece of historical fiction and took from my life the fragments that felt organic and dramatically rich. For example, I was actually asked to leave a very crunchy kindergarten because I wanted to check a book out of the library years before that was encouraged at that school; fortunately, the psychologist my mother took me to just shrugged off my alleged anxiety as boredom and told my mother to put me in a different school. Had that happened now, I would probably have been written two different prescriptions for God knows what.
Books are better than Ritalin, yes?
Ha! That would definitely be as constructive a takeaway as my book (or any book) has to offer.
How is the book tour going? Is a tour essential to marketing a book?
The book tour is going really well, although like most book tours for smaller books, it’s done more on a city-by-city basis. When you’re a first-time author, the onus is on you to fill rooms. Your publisher can get you bookings at bookstores, and the bookstores will do their best to get the word out, but if you’re not a well-known author, it’s pretty much up to you to fill rooms. And that’s really hard, especially when you’re outside of your home base.
What I’ve been doing is concentrating first on the West Coast, booking readings in stores in Los Angeles and up north in San Francisco. There are only so many times people want to come hear you read the same work, however, so my upcoming events out here will involve other authors as well. We’re trying to view them almost as panels, not simply as “author reads from work” events, in order to reach as many potentially interested readers as possible. I’ll probably end up doing some readings in other cities where I know a fair number of people, but I have to be prudent about how much sense it makes to book travel and board for an event that will, at best, sell maybe twenty or thirty books.
As far as how important a tour is, I think in this day and age it just isn’t crucial. Print and radio are probably your best bet to introduce yourself to new readers, and there are countless other ways to reach and engage readers that cost nothing. So my advice would be to make appearances in as many local bookstores as possible, maybe schedule as many panel-type events as possible, and then bone up on your social networking skills.
What’s on your event horizon? Books, movies, all of the above?
Writing a new book, working on a few TV pitches, and trying to get a movie that takes place in Children’s time period pushed through the ranks. Mostly trying to get the word out about Children however possible — publicity is a 24/7 gig in this day and age!