Bridget Hoida on: California Top Ten

Not many people know this, but a novelist invented California. Really. Over five hundred years ago, long before it was a real geographic place, California was described in the pages of a book, written by Garci Ordonez de Montalvo, as a golden land “very near the terrestrial paradise” and populated, almost exclusively, by courageous women. I cannot tell you how fabulous I think this is. Not only because California existed in the imagination before it existed on a map, but also because California was quite literally written into being.

As a Nor Cal native (and So Cal transplant) I’ve always been drawn to California writers and it’s no secret that I have an incurable girl-crush on Joan Didion. Her use of whitespace is particularly inspiring to me and, if forced, I’d have to choose her novel, Play It As It Lays, as my favorite book. Ever. Although some may call my Didion ardor an obsession—it’s not stalking if she writes you back—I maintain it’s not so much Didion the woman but rather the sound of Didion’s words that have me so hung up. If you have yet to read Joan Didion I recommend all of her California cannon (from Run River to Where I Was From, with large bits of Blue Nights, and huge pieces of Slouching Towards Bethlehem strategically tossed in-between) but most especially, I recommend Play It As It Lays (with the original 1970s paperback cover, if you can find it, because nothing says “serious literature” like a topless blonde and a snake).

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After Didion, who for me will always be the author of my California I offer neither a rank list, nor the usual jacket covers, but a compendium, of sorts; the models and voices that inspired me when I set to work on So L.A. There is no London. No Norris. No Steinbeck, or Chandler even. Not that their moonish valleys, railroad entanglements, big sleeps and brambling grape vines aren’t inspiring, quite the contrary, but chances are if you’re reading this, you already know their works—if not also their words—and so instead I offer you:
Ask The Dust (1939) by John Fante
Although it is chronologically impossible, I’m secretly convinced Ask The Dust is what happened in the stacks of the L.A. public library when Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939) and Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (1971) had a torrid, and heart-achingly beautiful literary love affair. Pages were dog-eared. Spines were spent. And nine months later Ask The Dust was born.
Cover of "Ask the Dust"
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Why Did I Ever? (2001) by Mary Robison
Fragmented, fractured and wildly brilliant, Robison’s Why Did I Ever tells the story of Money Brenton, a Hollywood script doctor who struggles to make her way, while making the rent. Money has ADD and a dysfunctional home life. What’s more, her son Paulie was recently the victim of an unspeakable assault and her daughter Mev is a meth-addict. This book is dark. This book is angry. This book (and everyone in it) is emotionally damaged. And it’s also one of the funniest books I have ever read. In Why Did I Ever Robison masterfully allows illness to not only define the structure, but also the narration of her novel and the result is stunning. I don’t use the word “genius” all too often, but Mary Robison is a genius. Because she can write a chapter in three sentences, like this: “I feel around in my handbag, extract something, use it, and put it back.  Later on I might need something else.  This is my life, what my life is really made of.
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The People of Paper (2005) by Salvador Plascencia
A bit of a disclaimer, I happen to know Sal. We went to grad school together, but I am convinced that even if I had never met him I would adore this book, because beneath its paper cover is a magical boldness that I covet, as Sal’s people are literally made of paper. There are bees and knees, international borders drawn in chalk, little girls who rot their teeth eating lemons, a graveyard of mechanical turtles, and a violent gang of carnation pickers who wage a war against sadness and omniscient narration. If you can find the McSweeneys rectangular edition buy it! Not only because you can stick your finger straight through the pages in spots, but also because it conforms to the papal decree.
The Land of Little Rain (1903) by Mary Hunter Austin
When I came across The Land of Little Rain I didn’t expect to like it, let alone fall madly in love with it. I mean who picks up a book about basket makers and sheep farmers in the desert and falls in love? But amazingly, that’s just what happened. The descriptions of California are so vivid and so reverently environmental that you feel not only as if you are walking Austin’s exceptionally described trails, but that you are also a damned fool for living in a man made house and abandoning the divine harmony of a more natural dwelling. Reading this book is like yoga without a mat. And if that’s not a high enough endorsement, I’ll also share that I named my firstborn child after a story in this collection. Really, I did.
Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1990) by Maxine Hong Kingston
There’s an opening moment in Tripmaster Monkey where the gloriously named Whittman Ah Sing contemplates suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Would he jump, like the other 235 others had, facing the land with “Coit Tower giving you the finger all the way down?” No. “Whittman would face the sea.” In Kingston’s book, Whittman thankfully doesn’t jump. Even though the sun setting over the ocean is tempting, Whittman never jumps. And that’s why I like him. I first read this book in Berkeley, on a co-operative rooftop with a view of the city –and on good days a view of the Golden Gate Bridge—and Whitman’s dilemma became for me, a sort of party favor. I’d bring it (and the book) with me almost everywhere and in a metaphorical game of truth or dare I’d ask unassuming cocktail guests from which side they’d jump. Not that I would. Not that any of us ever would. Ever. But it is such an interesting question. A question that complicated my relationship with San Francisco in ways even East Bay public transportation maps are still unable to accomplish.
 
The Serial (1977) by Cyra McFadden
I honestly don’t remember how I came across this book, which isn’t a book really, but a spiral bound collection of 52 short columns exploring the marriages, child rearing tactics and label laden domestic lives of Marin’s post-hippy and pre-yuppie “flash on” culture. It is satire at its best, and best of all, McFadden never shies away from using loads of cultural jargon, consumer references and “real” places.
America (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
Even before I attended college at UC Berkeley I’d make day trips to San Francisco and walk the “Beat” streets of North Beach. I’d duck into City Lights with the earnestness of most any awkward fifteen-year-old bookworm, and if I walked back to BART—instead of talking the bus or the trolley—I’d have enough money to buy a single used pocket edition of a City Lights book. I bought “America” in the early summer of my junior year in high school. By summer’s end I had memorized all of it.  Twenty years later I now teach it to my students “every chance I get.” For me, it never gets old.
In A Country” (1977) by Larry Levis
My final selection is a single poem by Larry Levis. I chose one poem because it seemed too gluttonous to choose all of them (although truth be told, I haven’t read a Levis I didn’t like). One of the infamous “Fresno poets” Levis’ poetry taught me how to write, with love and fear, about the soil of the San Joaquin and in So L.A., although the title invokes the perceived glamour of the Southland, it’s actually equally concerned with the hardscrabble beauty of agrarian culture,  which as Michael Ventura might admit is an equally “hard, hard beauty to love.”

*This post originally appeared on my new favorite blog spot, Conceptual Reception, thanks to the huge heart of poet and collector of obscure vocabulary, Karen!
From Karen: “I am so excited to post today.  In fact, this might be one of my favorite all-time blog entries to date.  The lovely women behind TLC Book Tours linked me up with the amazingly smart, fun author Bridget Hoida, whose new book  “So L.A.” is tearing it up. Completely convinced that Bridget is my kindred California spirit, I asked her to write a guest post of her “Recommended California Reading.” For more info on Bridget and her book, check out her rad website (and check back here for an upcoming review).  But I am now so excited to hand you over to her sharp, inspiring guest post for today.  Look out, though.  Your “to be read” list is about to get several books longer.”

-Karen Marie, Conceptual Reception, September 12, 2012

Bridget Hoida On: Top Down Days

It’s hot in Southern California.

Which means everyone is talking about the weather. Spoiled as we are on the coast, we tend to complain, loudly, every time the temperature drops below 72 degrees or rises above 78.

There’s a reason our license plate frames read: Best Climate on Earth, and when mother nature denies us this boast, we get a little cranky, and more than a little vocal. Mostly because we don’t have in-home air conditioners, or if we do, we’ve forgotten how to clean an air vent, to turn them on.

In addition to living at the beach, or splashing in the pool until your toes are prunish, one way to escape the heat is to drive. Tops and windows down, we crank up the radio and blue dial the air-con and drive until the heat breaks.

In Play It As It Lays—or the best Los Angeles novel ever written as I call it—author Joan Didion drives her protagonist Maria through the heat as she takes on the iconic interchange of the L.A. freeway in brilliant and breathtaking fashion. She writes of roads and off ramps, rest stops and lane changes unlike any other writer.

In my book, So L.A., I was very much inspired by Didion’s freeway devotion. Particularly, the ways in which driving becomes a brilliantly choreographed dance, like in this passage:

Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour. Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy I. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.”

-Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

So, in an effort to escape the heat, I invite you to join Joanie D. and me as we hop into something convertible, our hair wrapped in brightly covered scarves that flutter in the wind. Remember to buckle up. Use your hands free device, and above all, do not forget to press your oversized sunglasses tight against your faces as I put the car in drive.

Backing out of the driveway at Joan Didion’s “suburbia house” in Brentwood Park, the one that used to harbor a garden of “mint, stephanotis and the pink magnolia,” we’ll have to navigate the city streets until we catch the 10 freeway east to the 110 to the 101 before briefly hopping back on the 10 again to exit on Temple. There, we’ll find ourselves (if, of course we find parking), on streets well walked by another Los Angeles writer I adore, John Fante.

Often hailed as the best Los Angeles book that no one has read, Fante’s Ask The Dust (1939), is situated in Bunker Hill, in the heart of downtown. Part love song to an illusive women, and part love song to the city of L.A. herself, Fante declares his devotion (and his distaste) for the city of angles in breathless lines such as these: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!”

-John Fante, Ask The Dust

From here we can walk to the corner of Alameda and Main. I know, I know. I’ve heard the song plenty and nobody walks in L.A., but trust me, in the time it would take us to find our keys, make a left turn on a red light and repark we could walk to Alameda and back five, maybe six times, so settle up your peep-toed shoes and follow me to old Terminal Annex Post Office building where Charles Bukowski spent years sorting the mail (and his various rejection slips) before the publication of his book Post Office (1971) where he confesses: “I wanted the whole world or nothing.”

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Next door, at Union Station, we can buy a round-trip Metrolink ticket to El Monte, home of the imaginary sun-bleached flower fields of the El Monte Flores, a notorious carnation picking gang who wage a war against Saturn and omniscient narration in Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2004). And if we listen carefully, we can hear the words of Plascencia’s papered people: “She had heard that Los Angeles was the last refuge for those who had lost their civilization and were afraid of the rain.”

-Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper

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Off the train, we can walk back to fetch the car and end the day with a drive down Hollywood Boulevard, stopping for a drink at Musso and Frank, a place Gore Vidal said, “is like stepping into a warm bath.” Frequented by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, the martinis never fail, and neither does Manny Aguirre, the 78-year-old bartender who is rumored to have once poured a drink for James Dean.

 —

With cocktails and dinner done, we can then turn in at the Hollywood Patio Hotel, with the “ugly maroon bedspread” where Money Brenton, the protagonist of Mary Robison’s brilliant Why Did I Ever (2002) spends her undermedicated days doctoring Hollywood scripts, while passing out beautiful zingers like: “There’s an anemic moon out there, milked over, hanging low in the low green sky. That couple in the heated pool. How do they, I wonder, figure into things?”

-Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever

 —

In the morning as we ease into rush hour traffic, remember, to put on your blinker. As Magdalena says in So L.A.:  “Ricky, like most Angelinos, doesn’t believe in the blinker. He maintains that by initiating the blink you actually hinder any small chance you have of actually getting over. The guy on your right, when he sees the click-click of the yellow light, will speed up and close in on the gap. But I disagree. One of the remarkable things about Los Angeles, one of those things that no one seems to talk about, is how we all do manage to get where we’re going. We slide from the fast lane (wave) to the middle lane (wave) to the slow lane (wave) to the exit ramp (blinker off), and we merge. It may not be singularly graceful or without incident, but 99.9 percent of the time we do manage to make our exits, our left turns, our way home.”

-Bridget Hoida, So L.A.

Bridget Hoida on: Blue Bottle, Angel Food & Words

The lovely PB and I talk about Blue Bottle Coffee, angel food cake and books on her blog: PB Writes.

The following article originally appeared on PB Writes: http://pbwrites.wordpress.com/, June 18, 2012

Introducing Bridget Hoida, whose first novel, So LA, is due out in bookstores June 20th. I happen to personally know that Bridget is brilliant, but I can also tell you without a hint of bias that she writes about Los Angeles with an original, fresh voice you won’t want to miss. Her prose is exquisite and full of surprises. You can purchase your copy here at Lettered Press, or on Amazon. Bridget’s website is here and from there you will find many interesting links. One of the truly fun things about Bridget’s website is that various blog posts are written in the voice of So LA’s heroine, Magdalena de la Cruz. If you have ever been to Los Angeles, if you are a Californian, if you want to be a Californian, if California attracts or repulses you, even if you can’t imagine ever visiting Los Angeles, you will want to read this book (go ahead, live vicariously!). And now, the interview (10 questions + 1–yes, that’s right):

1.      Describe your heroine, Magdalena de la Cruz, in five words or less.

nostalgic, impulsive, desperately lonely, brave-ish, and tall

2.      Now describe her like you really want to—don’t hold back, feel free to go beyond the book’s synopsis (which is excellent, by the way).

She scares me sometimes, both in her boldness and in her very public exclamations of sadness and grief. She’s a bit “off-kilter” as one reviewer described her, and she haunts me. I’m still not sure if I want to be her or if I just want to give her a hug.

3.      The Book Club Member in me wants to know what was most challenging for you with this novel and why? Then please counteract the bland, institutional quality of this question by telling us where you would most like to eat a piece of your favorite cake—and tell us what flavor that might be.

Selling it. Seriously. I wrote a satirical novel about Los Angeles and if editors didn’t want to slap a pink cover and a pair of high heeled shoes on the cover, then they wanted to impregnate Magdalena with a happier ending and a bundle of joy to “counterbalance her anger.” Her brave outpouring of emotion, her startling display of loneliness, these were all VERY intentional and VERY real emotions for me. Necessary to the telling of a “L.A. story” and I refused (at the expense of a “bigger book deal”) to compromise. I stand by that decision. I’m thrilled with stubbornness. I’m also thrilled with angel food cake, heavy whipped cream and berries.

4.      Revision: BF or Nightmare? How do you handle/attack/plead with/embark upon?

Although I did refuse to “Pollyanna” the book, and/or the ending (and I also refused on more than one occasion to “make it the Sex and the City of L.A.) I was VERY open to revision and revised this novel, fully, at least seven times. Seven full-scale, all-encompassing, 300+ page revisions. In fact, the short story that started it all, “The Blonde Joke” that Magdalena tells about herself (and a story that won several awards) has been completely edited out of the book. Sometimes the spark is just that: a small light that eventually becomes engulfed by the flames.

5.      Robert Mckee’s book STORY was an important resource for you when writing SO LA. What other resources would you recommend for writers? Also, what types of coffee resources would you recommend for writers?

I recommend a mompair. I recommend a best friend, an understanding mother, and children who can entertain themselves with glue sticks and glitter while you write into the wee hours of the night. You need other people, and their honesty, and their generosity in order to succeed. I also fully, and without reservation recommend Blue Bottle Coffee. Specifically the Bella Donovan blend. (Really, even your mailman, once he smells the priority mail package, will invite himself in for a cup. It’s that lovely.)

6.      What color and circumference are your sunglasses?

My best pair of Sunnies, by far, were a vintage pair of off-white Dior glasses. They were HUGE in the best possible way. And they died a tragic death in the hands of my daughter, who, when she was two, went on a spiteful sunglass busting bender. She just snapped every pair she could find: crack, pop, burst, like a wishbone the week after Thanksgiving. I was devastated. In fact, I still am. I keep the left “arm” as well as the right “three-quarters” of these glasses on my desk as a reminder of who I used to be. They are joined by four other, less meaningful pairs, that were also busted by my baby. It’s a variable vintage sunglasses graveyard.

My current Sunnies are newer and slightly smaller (not by choice) and much less fabulous, but in quintessential Didion fashion, they are about three-and-one-half inches round and a muted grey (perhaps because I am still in mourning?)

7.      Do you have a critique group (and, if so, do they adore champagne, Joan Didion and chocolate)?

My group is The Groop. We found each other as undergraduates in Tom Farber’s creative writing workshop at UC Berkeley and after the workshop ended that semester we met at a wooden house on Ashby Ave. When the house burned down (true story), we took to meeting in various locations from San Francisco to Davis. We’ve known each other over 16 years and I still depend on their daily advice and critique (now virtual or phone-based). We prefer whiskey and gin, but we devour dark chocolate and Didion on a regular basis.

8.      Music: Yes, or huge no-no when writing?

Absolutely! Is there any other way? In fact, I’ve been known to create full soundtracks based on a single chapter, and if you’ve read the book, you’ll know my chapters are maybe three paragraphs in most instances. This means I have a lot of “mixed tapes.”

9.      Has your perception of Los Angeles changed/evolved since writing SO LA? Is it the same city for you, or better, or worse?

I was raised in Northern California, which is to say I was raised (through no fault of my parents) to hate Los Angeles. Even still, So L.A. is my love song to a city I adore. Sure, I’ve divorced the 405 freeway on several occasions, and La Cienega and I are still not speaking, but L.A. is my girl. I have always had a terribly difficult relationship with Los Angeles.  It’s messy.  It’s tumultuous.  It’s like that with things you love enormously. So when I came across this breathless quote by Michael Ventura, in his essay “Grand Illusion” I knew it was my epigram, it was the only place to start:

“The beauty [of Los Angeles] is the beauty of letting things go; letting go of where you came from; letting go of old lessons; letting go of what you want for what you are, or what you are for what you want; letting go of so much—and that is a hard beauty to love.”

So L.A. –dare I suggest like Los Angeles itself– is fraught with beauty and self-loathing. Not only do the palm trees of Sunset clash with the Central Valley combines that supply L.A. with the organic soy for its venti lattes, but I’m convinced that the tanned and toned flesh of most every Angelino secretly yearns for the soothing balm of an aloe wrap in San Joaquin starlight. When I first moved to L.A. I was told I would have to give up the levees and lakes of Northern California, where I was raised, in order to embrace the wave-crashed beaches of the Los Angeles enigma. Twelve years later, I realize that you can let go without relinquishing everything and that beauty, no matter how hard (or hard earned) is always, still beautiful.

10.  What are your exorbitant whims as a writer?

I (gasp, sigh) refuse to use quotation marks. Does that make me a diva? Can you even “quote” this?

11.  And, finally, what are you working on now?

I have a stack of fragments. I thought at first they were poems, but then I attended Tin House as a poet, which was new for me, and I learned they were most certainly NOT poems.  So I’m sticking with fragments. Collectively I call them “And Down We Went” after T.S. Eliot’s “The Burial of the Dead” (which I am told certainly WAS a poem). They are about magic, and madness, and motherhood. In the opening “segment” a woman marries a house. It makes perfect sense to me.

Thank you, Bridget! #3 is FASCINATING, the quote in #9 so true it hurts. Thank you for such a wonderful interview. The next time you visit, this blog will be serving generous mugs of Blue Bottle coffee.

This article originally appeared on PB Writes: http://pbwrites.wordpress.com/, June 18, 2012

Bridget Hoida on: Misremembered Moments

California has a rich dystopian literary tradition, one that I secretly admire and, in fact, invoke on the pages of  So L.A.

In So L.A, California may not be a literal paradise lost, but the protagonist certainly is. Magdalena favors feeling over historical accuracy, or what most people call “the truth.” In her mind, her feelings are her truth and her misremembered moments are the basis and, dare I say foundation, upon which she builds her life. She’s an incurable nostalgic in that she wishes for a past that is so idealized that it probably never occurred. This makes her frustrating and overly dramatic, but it also makes her very human. Because she, like many people, is struggling to find zero interference.

For example, how, in 2012 with Facebook and Twitter, texting and instant messaging do you turn it all off and find your present? Peggy Nelson questions this extensively in her recent article, “The Tragic Speed of Modern Life.” And like her, it bothers me that modern cluture has seemingly been reduced to a three minute interaction. It bothers me that “facts” are so easily procured. What happened to endless hours of road trip car rides arguing about song lyrics?  I vividly remember, as a Didion character might, one of many road trips with my brothers in the back bench seat of our family’s faux-wood paneled station wagon. Undoubtedly the pop-up tent trailer was anchored securely behind us as we towed our way up the northern California coast to Humboldt, Gold’s Beach, Honeyman or Florance for vacation camping. On such road trips we’d play license plate bingo and sing, loudly, along to the radio and while I swore I heard:

“Billy-Ray was a Preacher’s son, /And when his daddy would visit he’d come along,/ When they gathered round and started talking, / THAT’S WHEN Billy would take me walking…”

my brother was adament it was:

“COUSIN Billy” who would “take me walking.”

Do you see the potential narrative (mis)truth in that? How you have two different stories? Two different moments, meanings, truths? And not to mention the beauty of not having a cell phone in which to dial the radio station and demand the “truth” (or at the very least a replay).

But now we have smart phones. And you can bypass the DJ, the radio station, and the ensuing conversation about lyrical integrity entirely. Today you can just Shazamm the song and have the “correct” lyrics in your face in less then five seconds.  And this: Breaks. My. Heart.

 Joan Didion, the queen of the misremembered moments, might be able to offer some solace. She might be able to remind me “what it was to be me,” and I cling to that potential fiercely. In fact, I am forever, fondly, and absolutely enamoured by the way she spins a yarn so that it shrieks of truth.

I tell what some would call lies. ‘That’s simply not true,’ the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event…. Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters…. How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook…. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.

-Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

I’m scared, as I suspect many writers are, that technology is taking away our “misremembered moments.” Because it’s not just music, it’s how heavily documented our lives are too. I fully expect my kids to rewind their iPhone videos of me and say: No way, mom, right here, at 0.32 seconds you SAID we could wash the dog after we went out for Pinkberry. I mean how the hell do you argue your way out of that? And even worse, it moves to the page. Unless you’re writing something speculative or fantastic, etc. you’d better NOT put your character in tortoise Dior sunglasses from the winter 2009 line because as any idiot with a computer can check, Dior didn’t do tortoise that year. I’m being glib with my “examples” but I think you can understand what I mean. On or off the page it breaks my heart and I hope the reader will see the satire in So L.A., I hope the reader will stay with me long enough to get to the “Director’s Cut.”