Observing Los Angeles Noir

NAOMI HIRAHARA

From the Film Noir Festival in Hollywood to various Cover_3
signing events related to the launch of Akashic’s LOS ANGELES NOIR, I’ve been plunged into a new world (for me, at least). The dark, masculine world of noir, and it’s been both invigorating and simulating. It’s been pushing me to think more about mystery historicals set in the Forties and Fifties and how placing Japanese America in that context is a perfect and timely fit. (Yes, I’m thinking about a new project, a mystery standalone.)

As a nod to LOS ANGELES NOIR, which includes literary luminaries like Michael Connelly, Janet Fitch, and Susan Straight, I thought I’d pose a few questions to the editor of this special collection, Denise Hamilton, as well as the publisher of Akashic, Johnny Temple.

Why did it take so long for LOS ANGELES NOIR to come out?

DENISE: From my perspective once Johnny brought me on board, I took a very cautious and measured approach. I gave the concept a lot of thought to decide what kind mix of stories and authors I wanted and who was available. I didn’t want to rush pell-mell into things. The fact that Los Angeles is the birthplace, the ground zero of all things noir, also made the stakes higher for me, and I wanted time to let everything stew, steep. When you can only choose 17 stories, each one you don’t choose is excruciating. I also had my own Scribner annual deadlines to meet, so it was necessary for this project to fit into those parameters. We also decided that the perfect time to launch the book would be the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, so that meant late April and we had to back it out from there.

JOHNNY: It’s a lot more difficult to assemble an excellent literary anthology than most people think. For me, it was a matter of taking however much time I needed to find the right editor. Denise was the perfect choice, and we were honored that she opted to take it on. Fiction collections can be unwieldy beasts, and, as I suspected, Denise was able to harness this one.

DENISE: Why, thank you. I’ve been a big fan of Akashic since I discovered Nina Revoyr’s SOUTHLAND that you published, which is a fantastic literary novel with a huge mystery at its core. It was a finalist for an Edgar several years ago.

With so many books in the Akashic noir series and more to come, do you think that you’ve oversaturated the market? Or do think that there always will be room for noir?

JOHNNY: We definitely haven’t oversaturated the market, judging by the commercial success (on our humble level) of every title in the series so far. Many people feel a sense of loyalty to their cities, and as long as we can work with people like Denise, we’ll always be able to make great, suspenseful, unpredictable books.

What did you hope to achieve with LOS ANGELES NOIR? With the grand body of work out there, from noir films to works from Chandler and Ellroy, were you ever daunted by your task of collecting these stories? What was your strategy?

DENISE: It is an impossible task to collect 17 stories that “represent” L.A. I didn’t even try to tackle that one. I only tried to capture 17 facets of this bejeweled and begrimed and benighted city at one point in time, through 17 different perspectives. I asked each contributor to pick a neighborhood to write about, and one of my caveats was that the authors all had to have lived in Los Angeles. I wanted the book to have that gritty, authentic feel that comes from living here day in, year out, of piercing the veils that this place tries to shroud itself in, of getting the geography and idiosyncrasies right, because something that really pulls me out of a book is when I read a detail that’s askew. These things aren’t rocket science, but it’s hard to get everything right if you don’t live here, they are little insignificant details that Angelenos know.

As soon as I had lined up the contributors and their stories, I looked things over and realized I didn’t have a story set in the San Fernando Valley, which would have been nice, though I did have scenes in various stories set there. I would have also liked a story from East L.A. I think a story set in LA’s Persian community could have been fascinating. (Persians called L.A. “Teherangelis). I guess what I was aiming for in a general way was a broad diversity that balanced better known authors with newer talents, that took the traditional noir trope and examined it from an oblique angle, that gave voice to both the classic cops and robbers and betrayal scenarios that noir does so wonderfully as well as illuminate pockets and communities in L.A. that didn’t yet exist when Phillip Marlowe was prowling the mean streets.

I think there is a nice geographic and ethnic mix to the book that reflects the city itself, and seven of the 17 stories are by women. I didn’t plan that, or look to hit any marks in male vs. female, but I am glad that it shook out that way, as there has long been a debate about women writing noir, and I think, for instance, that Dorothy B. Hughes (who wrote the wonderful In a Lonely Place in 1949 from the first person perspective of a male serial killer) would have been right up there in the MacDonald/Cain/Chandler pantheon had she been a man.

I was also looking for stories that told me something about L.A. that I myself, as a native and a longtime reporter, didn’t know, stories that took me into another world, nested right inside the familiar one I knew so well. I was delighted when Michael Connelly didn’t write about a traditional neighborhood but picked Mullholland Drive, and when Jim Pascoe chose the L.A. River as his setting, and when Neal Pollack set his story in a gambling casino in the graceless town of Commerce, which is about as far from Hollywood as you can imagine, and yet also teeming with dreams and unrealistic hopes.

The other difficulty for me in putting together LOS ANGELES NOIR is that there are hundreds of talented writers living in Los Angeles, and I could only pick 17. I console myself with hoping that we will eventually publish LOS ANGELES NOIR II, III, IV just as Brooklyn Noir has done, and that we can eventually showcase many more of the wonderful creative writers here. One intriguing thing I learned is that even though our genre sometimes comes in for a bit of trashing from folks who consider mystery/noir/thrillers etc to be “beach reading,” the truth is that everyone seems to love a good noir tale and I found that literary authors such as Janet Fitch were delighted to have an opportunity to roll up their sleeves a bit and plunge into the swoony decadence of genre.

In what ways do you think Chandler’s Los Angeles is different from Denise Hamilton’s L.A.?

Raymond Chandler might not recognize this L.A., he’d think he was in El Salvador, or Armenia, or Vietnam. Most of the outer stretches of L.A. County were farms and fields and bare hillsides in his day. But he’d recognize the emotions — the desperation, the greed, the hunger for power and fame and the willingness to sell your soul to achieve it. Hollywood still exerts a pull that is as strong as ever, and as the divide between rich and poor grows, the opportunity for crime, mayhem and betrayal only rises.

I find the covers of the noir series very provocative and interesting. How do you go about choosing the images? In what ways do you try to find something that is representative yet not stereotypical?

DENISE: Johnny and I looked at a lot of photos, and it was like Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice talking about pornography, at least for me. I pretty much knew the cover when I saw it. It is hard to summon up one defining image of Los Angeles. Jim Pascoe (a LOS ANGELES NOIR contributor and a very visually brilliant guy) and I had a long e-mail exchange about what the quintessential image of L.A. is.

For him, that image was a sepia-toned, perhaps almost yellow image of one skinny tall palm tree, towering over a small house. Which speaks to the alienation, the loneliness, that is L.A., the sense of fate and nature conspiring against mankind, of our fruitless struggles to evade it.

I liked that and looked at a lot of palm trees, and shots along Hollywood Boulevard, and gangbangers and iconic photos of the skyline, the Hollywood sign, the Santa Monica Pier. But ultimately, when I saw the Griffith Park Observatory shot taken by Helen K. Garber, I had a very visceral reaction and said, that’s it.

It’s nighttime, the Observatory is aglow, it’s monolithic, hulking over the skyline, and yet it’s gorgeous and sleek and Art Deco-y. It speaks both to man’s thirst for beauty and symmetry, our “Ozymandias” complex to create something stupendous and lasting.

But it also speaks to the essential loneliness of the human condition, as the cover shot is devoid of people. For me and perhaps many others, the Observatory, through decades of being used as a film set, has also developed a patina of movie glamor. One thinks of James Dean and Natalie Wood, “Rebel Without a Cause.” Romance, mystery, intrigue, death, youth, beauty. But you also think of high school field trips, the acid trippy “Laserium” shows of high school.

Yes, I totally remember the Laserium, these laser shows that hurt your neck because you had to sit back to watch the visuals projected on the dome of the ceiling! All to the music of Pink Floyd. That was indeed classic.

DENISE: You have to be careful with images of Los Angeles, because some are so overused they can now verge on parody. Venice Beach, the Hollywood sign. They are etched into our consciousness. For me the Bradbury Building downtown will forever be linked to that amazing scene in “Blade Runner,” where Harrison Ford tracks down the escaped androids. So while I adore that place, I didn’t want it for LOS ANGELES NOIR. The Observatory had glamour and mystery and intrigue. And it was both from that classic retro era that we love and yet it still exists today (it just re-opened, in fact, after several years of remodeling) and bodies are still found near it from time to time. So it encapsulated both the past and the present and the ethos I was looking for.

JOHNNY: The cover of every NOIR Series book is based around a photograph. For good reason–as you can see in Denise’s answer–the first place we usually check when looking for the right photo is with the editor, for her or his ideas (or, in some cases, like BROOKLYN NOIR with his own photo).

DENISE: I love that iconic BROOKLYN NOIR photo of the sexy female leg in the stiletto heel with the little tattoo on the grate. Dang, wish I’d thought of that.

Denise, I call you the Queen of Book PR and with feature articles in the Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Weekly, excerpt in the LA Weekly, and reviews in Publishers Weekly, etc., you’ve done an amazing job in promoting LOS ANGELES NOIR. Tell us about some upcoming events.

When you have 17 authors, you can tap into 17 fanbases and do wonderful promotion. We also plan to do a group signing at the Akashic Booth (our publisher is Akashic, see www.akashicbooks.com) during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books April 28-29. Again, with 17 authors, we can feature different authors at different events and do different things. See my website, www.denisehamilton.com for specific events.

Johnny, tell us again how your started Akashic and what does the company look like today. How many employees? Do you run the company like any other traditional NYC publisher now? In what ways is Akashic different?

JOHNNY: We published our first book in 1997, back when it was more of a hobby and I was earning my living as a musician, and now we bring out close to 30 books per year. We have a full-time staff of four. We try to provide an alternative to the staid world of traditional book publishing. We try to be very author-driven and we’re also involved in community events and civic literary engagement.

DENISE: I want to add that Akashic’s motto is: Reverse Gentrification of the Literary World. I just love that.

Denise, your body of work so far is grounded in Los Angeles. Tell us about your upcoming standalone historical book. What new things did you learn about Los Angeles?

DENISE: I just finished my first standalone, which is set in 1949 Hollywood and is filled with special effects wizards, starlets, cops, news photographers (Harry Jack from my Eve Diamond series, shown here as a very young man trying to get his first photojournalist job), mobsters, rooming house matrons and other characters. To steep myself in the milieu, I read tons of memoirs, oral histories, biographies, autobiographies and histories about what Los Angeles and specifically Hollywood were like then. It was such a quaint small town. Girls used to go down to Capitol Records to watch Frank Sinatra record–he liked an audience and would invite people into the studio and buy everyone food, coffee and ice cream. One woman recalls going down to a coffee shop in Hollywood and helping Montgomery Clift learn his lines for Giant. Teenaged girls would go down to the Hollywood ranch market at 2 AM because that’s when Marlon Brando and other stars went grocery shopping. Can you imagine Tom Cruise doing his own shopping today? Or that kind of access? There is a great nostalgia among older people for the Hollywood that once existed.

I also learned that in the early 1930s a Midwest beauty queen and struggling actress named Lillian Entwhistle committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign. But she aimed wrong, fell into a bed of cactus and lingered for three days, with cactus spines piercing her organs. She was depressed because she couldn’t get a role, and was about to be evicted. The day after her death a letter arrived in her mailbox, saying she’d gotten a role for which she’d auditioned. It was a play about a woman who commits suicide. Is that story stranger than fiction or what?

During my research I also had the privilege to meet Ray Harryhousen, one of the pioneers of stop motion animation. He studied under Willis O’Brien, who invented special effects (he did King Kong). These guys worked on B movies but they were magicians, revered, and it was a secret, no one knew how they made those creatures move. The special effects geek in my novel is inspired by Ray Harryhousen, and through his eyes I tell the history of that exciting time in animation, before CGI and Lucas and Spielberg revolutionized the industry with computers.

I wanted to recreate Los Angeles in 1949, to show the Red Cars, the Chavez Ravine settlements about to get bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium, the homophobia, the corruption, but also empty open spaces, the hope, the quality of the light,that was Los Angeles just after the war. McCarthyism was on the horizon, women were getting laid off of the work force, suburbia was spreading, we were about to enter a very conservative era. But in 1949 we were still on the cusp, the aftermath of World War II still very much in people’s minds. And I wanted to show my city at that moment in time. The tone is almost blanc, instead of noir, because while it’s filled with dubious, crooked, scheming, conniving characters, it’s also suffused with light and hope and small generosities and kindnesses. And of course….murder.

Thank you, Denise and Johnny. And we hope to see you all at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books! There will be an MWA-cosponsored reception at the Mystery Bookstore on Friday, April 27, and many LOS ANGELES NOIR contributors will be in attendance. And for LATFOB newbies, you can check out my past writeups of the festival to get initiated into this mind-blowing experience.

13 thoughts on “Observing Los Angeles Noir

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Thanks, Denise, Naomi and Johnny for this truly evocative essay. I cannot wait to get my hands on this book.

    Now that I don’t live in LA full time I’m finding myself wanting to write about it.

    And THIS is the best news I’ve heard all day: “Yes, I’m thinking about a new project, a mystery standalone…” – Naomi, you’re the perfect person to write LA noir from a Japanese-American perspective – how thrilling.

    See you all at LATFOB!!

    Reply
  2. Stephen Blackmoore

    An excellent interview.

    Los Angeles Noir has done an excellent job of really capturing the city. Often in very disturbing ways.

    My hats off to all the contributors. It’s a fantastic read.

    Reply
  3. Louise Ure

    “This bejeweled and begrimed and benighted city …”

    Naomi, Denise and Johnny, you’ve done an incredible job describing and developing this book. I can’t wait to read it.

    Cheers to all three of you for a great interview.

    Reply
  4. pari

    Naomi,Thanks for bringing the inside depth to this marvelous anthology. I can’t wait to read it.

    But, then, I can’t wait to read that standalone you’ll be working on.

    Thanks to Denise and Johnny for their wonderful and comprehensive answers. This interveiew was a pleasure to read. It felt like a good conversation.

    Reply
  5. Elaine Flinn

    “piercing the veils that this place tries to shroud itself in”

    Oh, I loved that line, Denise! And you and Eve Diamond do that so very well. Great interview, Naomi!

    Reply
  6. Mike MacLean

    Thanks for a great interview. I’ve enjoyed many of the other Noir series, and now I’m really looking forward to the LA addition.

    I’d like to second Alex’s sentiments. An LA noir novel from a Japanese American’s perspective has endless possibilities. I’d pick it up in a heartbeat. You’ve got to write it Naomi.

    Reply

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