Abbott Kinney: Snapshot of Gentrification

This past weekend, I went to the 31st Annual Venice Festival on Abbott Kinney Boulevard.  For those of you who don’t know, Abbott Kinney is one of the fastest changing parts of Los Angeles, gentrifying  at such warp speed that it only seems like yesterday when you could buy crack on its litter-strewn streets.


Abbott Kinney is named after a tobacco magnate who engineered a plan to build piers during the free-wheeling flapper era–piers that lured city-bound citizens to the honky tonk pleasures of the beaches during the shimmering summers.  These waterworlds were fantastic draws, structures of mass entertainment that later burned down and became forgotten.

The surrounding area, Venice, took on a funky flavor–the stomping ground for beatniks and bums who brought with them an artistic vibe that can only flourish in the freedom of a carnival that has evolved into a slum.  A number of famous artists emerged from the Abbott Kinney scene:  Basquiat and Ruscha, to name just two. Charles and Ray Eames–the visionary architects who transformed post-war building methods–planted a studio on the boulevard at the tail end of the forties.

Musicians flocked to the area:  There is a mural of Jim Morrison on the famous Venice boardwalk.  By the time I was riding my ten speed through the Westside to the beach, Abbott Kinney was the kind of place where you could pass yourself off as just about anybody and  nobody gave “two fucks”:  Perhaps this is why punk bands like Suicidal Tendencies made it a point to play there in the eighties when it became a gangland, a crack zone, a cesspool.

Jim Morrison

To give you some sense of how forgotten this corner of the city was, all you have to do is realize that one of the few sections of Los Angeles available for blacks to live beachside was in the vicinity.  Oakwood–the area set aside for blacks through a process called “redlining”–was a district that arose out of restricted covenants, a practice that meant there were few quality services available to the residents–not schools, not utilities, not libraries.

But chew on this twist in the pretzel that is irony:  it is precisely because of the black presence (their hush-hush neglect) that a coral reef of vibrant tropical fish of all stripes and colors came to flourish:  a certain kind of counterculture bongo-drumming bohemian began to be associated with Abbott Kinney, a cool cat who wore his shades at night and listened to bebop and channeled the swagger of black rage, found himself drawn by the magnetic pull of this side of town, hypnotized by the laid back laissez-faire vibe of its “negro streets.”  Is it any wonder that Alan Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac logged time in the coffee shops of the area?

Now all that has changed:  Google has opened up a campus nearby and the really beautiful sun-kissed people have made this a place where five hundred dollar jeans are the norm.  The surrounding area has been renamed “Silicon Beach” and the corporation has set up a phallanx of security guards–guards who themselves are probably two steps away from the soup kitchen door–to shoo away the transient population who already have both feet planted firmly in the homeless shelter, the free clinic and the food pantry. GQ has conferred upon Abbott Kinney the crown of “coolest block in America” and the civic leaders wear it, like a shimmering diadem, in all the promotional literature.

GQ Anti Gentrification

The transformation is almost complete:  Glencrest Barbecue—one of the old black-owned businesses—has been replaced by an artisanal barbecue joint.  And in a sad, ironic twist of third-stage gentrification: the recent gentrifiers have become displaced (not without some protests and grumbles) to make way for even richer gentrifiers who can afford the stairway-to-heaven rents.  We could see this all around as we walked down the street.  The flagship stores sell the knick knacks of the upstart, start-up creative class:  retro-looking bicycles, succulent plants and cruelty-free footwear.


This is the backdrop of my mystery in downtown Los Angeles, too:  the back story of an area that is being revived to accommodate a large influx of Americans who want to ply their fortunes in the Big City.  And of course, along with this turn of events comes a story of crushed dreams, of brutal paradoxes–the world where even the corn-fed actor from Minneapolis can end up bipolar and homeless, raging on a corner at the injustice of a universe that has colluded against him.  It is a world where aspiring wannabe’s rent out their lofts, and their bodies, to make enough money to buy a 25 dollar martini at the rooftop of one of those schmancy hotels–the ones that boast a view of an ever-changing cubic zirconia skyline.  In short, it is a story fitting for the emergence of a serial killer—the modern day vampire, the bugaboo of progress.

I must be honest:  I was saddened to see the change in Abbott Kinney—a street I’ve biked through as a kid on my way to the beach.  There are almost no black residents at the street fair.  There are Swedish strollers everywhere, like triple decker buses on a diet of carbohydrates and anabolic steriods.  There are yuppie-hippies in their finest boho-chic duds, selling food-concoctions that are now touted as vegan and gluten-free and aryuvedic.

One of the vivid signs of this change came in a drum procession that paraded down the boulevard. “Why the fuck is there a drum circle in the middle of this fair?” muttered one of the passer-by’s. “They’re fucking up the flow of everything.”  Indeed they were, creating bottle-necks as they paused in the middle of the choked avenue, forcing pedestrians to filter through the holes at the edges of their procession.   But truth be told, it wasn’t exactly a drum circle:  It was a group of 30-odd people who were inspired by Northern Brasil, where a black slave population, manacled to the monoculture of the plantation, developed a practice of resistance in the rituals of every day life and manifested it in drumming and dancing.

I was lucky enough to spend a month in that region of Brasil once—a region famous for Capoeira, the martial art that features choreographed “foot fighting.” Capoeira appeared so much like dancing, it fooled the masters who clamped down on all forms of insurrection but could not see that the martial moves were simply a dress-rehearsal for a much-wished-for uprising where even the body–the sole possession of the downtrodden–could be transformed into a weapon.


Northern Brasil—Salvador de Bahia is the city that anchors the region–is also the zone that produced the synchronized drumming that testifies to an unbroken connection to the African percussive tradition—the same drumming that would be featured in a Michael Jackson video, whose lyrics channeled the rage of barely smoldering black anguish:

All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us

This is the chorus the pop star sings in front of black drummers in the streets of Pelourinho.  (Pelourinho, the cute diminutive name given to the historic quarter, means Little Pillory; it is where slaves were whipped as part of the spectacle of social order.)

Bahia is also the region that produced the religion of Candomblé—a religion of resistance that fused the Catholic tradition with the religion of Africa:  Candomblé focuses on the worship of African deities–Orixas.  For each African Orixa, there is a major Catholic saint that corresponds.  And in this way, the African religions were allowed to coexist (secretly preserved) without being wiped out.


The drummers wore tank tops that proclaimed  they were drumming in praise of almighty Obatalá—the African Orixa who stands above all others as the sky father:  the father of all the other Orixas, the figure that gave humans their very bodies.  And the drummers were accompanied by women dressed in all-white 19th Century clothing, complete with bustles and turbans, dancing in unison.  These would normally be the black women who served as priestesses in the cult of Candomblé, women who could channel the spirit of the Gods and perform miracles of rare device.


But it was telling to me that all the drummers, except one, were white and all the women—women who danced and swirled to the motions of ecstatic possession–were not black, but a lighter shade of pale.  I felt it said something about the way this area, this microcosm of my city, had turned.  But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Gentrification in Downtown Los Angeles: Upon Seeing Placido Domingo at the New Catholic Cathedral

It’s a rare opportunity to get to see Placido Domingo.  It is rarer still to see the great artist in a beautiful venue like the newly consecrated Catholic Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles.  It’s especially rare to see him for free.  But all three of these factors converged.  So off I went to get me some culture.


I’ve never been to this Catholic Cathedral, which to many detractors, looks less like a place of worship and more like a prison.  In fact, its tower-like façade, stretching 11 stories, with its long thin windows, bears more than a passing resemblance to the nearby jail—a jail that the critic Mike Davis immortalized in his apocalyptic treatise, City of Quartz.  This may have something to do with the concrete, which lends it an institutional appeal, even as its fabrication (its beige tinting) is supposed to suggest a whispered connection to the adobe–the mud brick–of the indigenous population.

Catholic Cathedral

The Cathedral is an intimidating structure but, inside, it is surprisingly intimate.  I took my seat among beige tapestries of saints who lined the chamber, all appearing to be walking endlessly in procession to the sanctuary.  The saints were machine-embroidered in a hyper-realistic manner to make them also look like murals that were distressed–rusticated–flaking and peeling.  And in that evocation of ruination there was also the expression of great wealth and power:  for it costs a lot to make mechanical reproduction look like a piece of handiwork; it costs even more to produce an algorithm that takes into account a pattern of decomposition that appears random.

The choir filed in, dressed in shiny black, and then the maestro himself–Placido Domingo with his silver mane of hair–arrived to a standing ovation. I looked around me at the upstanding citizens of Los Angeles in their suits and dresses and shawls and immediately realized I was under-dressed in my jean jacket with its biker patches.  I closed my eyes like a child who thinks he is invisible because he cannot see.

The moment before is my favorite part of any concert–the din of the instruments tuning up–it reminds me of Abstract Expressionist paintings from the 1950’s–all color and texture and noise.  If you close your eyes when that chaos separates into order, you can imagine seeing the ruby mouth of the soloist opening like a rosebud just for you.  Listening to the stillness of that music makes your mind contemplative, allowing it to draw associations, to entertain speculations.  I could not help but keep returning to how this building had something in common with its prison doppelganger—a building that is as much a work dedicated to God as it is a mighty civic project.

Mike Davis

I only opened my eyes after the chorus, which was by far the best part of the mass, and was shocked by the warm light.  The Cathedral’s interior is airy and bright and uplifting:  the soft chanting voices–Gloria in excelsis Deo–could be heard in every corner of the building, bouncing off the beige walls and bumping off the wood paneled ceiling—the acoustics were that good.

The program was a favorite of Placido Domingos’, a mass by the 19th composer Gioachino Rossini. Sung by soloists of the LA Opera who stepped away from the spotlight and formed its choir, the mass was accompanied by the Colburn Orchestra from the local arts high school, and anchored by four young unknown soloists—proteges–whom Placido Domingo was mentoring.

The legendary tenor did not bless us with his voice that night.  It was a solemn occasion, one dedicated to his deceased sister Maria Pepa and it would have been unseemly to draw attention to himself in the manner of an opera luminary.  “My sister was a remarkable woman who loved music as much as I do and I miss her tremendously”–this the opening remark to a paragraph tribute to his sister on the back of the program.  It is followed by pictures of her with him, in various stages of life, in black and white, arranged like the squares in a traditional mosaic.

It is fitting that the singer chose not to sing.  It was proper.  But the hipsters in the Cathedral promptly left after the first Chorus ended.  They had not done their research on the event, drawn like moths, only to the megawatt star power of Placido Domingo, the tenor.  They neither had the manners to stay once they realized their mistake, nor the appreciation of good music that transcends the electric thrill of a celebrity sighting.  They had long ago snapped the selfies that could be posted onto their Facebook accounts.

My wife, a lapsed Catholic, whispered, “This is a really weird cathedral.  Everything is assymetrical.”  She was right: the floor tilings were like those avant garde dresses by Japanese designers—studies in wabi sabi–that are cut aggressively against the bias. There is no stained glass.  You lift your eyes to the ceiling and there are just panels of thin white stone—stone that is back lit by electric lights as strong as the day sky.  The only stained glass is in the basement, a relic on display near the bathrooms.

Stained Glass

Not many people were happy about the new Cathedral, which replaced the cherished St. Vibiana—a much smaller Cathedral built in 1873 in an Italian Revival style with the kind of old-fashioned scrollwork and vaulted passages that you expect in a venerable house of worship.  St. Vibiana’s is a more appropriate setting for the repetition of that marvelous phrase that forms the third part of the mass:

Credo:  Credo in unum Deum;


Et resurrexit.

But the structure was badly damaged in the last major earthquake and the Diocese planned to demolish it.  Preservationists, however, wanted to keep this relic of the church intact because it is a symbol of history.  They’ve got a point:  St. Vibiana’s served the city of Los Angeles for over a century when the city was a provincial town–a time when Our City of the Angels was a nowhere place with a smaller population and a laughable national profile.

Saint Vibiana

But I can see the Catholic Church’s position, too—a point of view that is otherworldly, forward-thinking:  St. Vibiana has served its purpose and, after its work is done and it is deconsecrated, it is no longer a work of holiness but just another crumbling stone building.

The struggle over this architecture stands in counterpoint to the struggle that is happening in Downtown in general, which is itself struggling to remake this City of Quartz so that it can move into a future where it can take its place among what urban planners call “supercities”—cities that not only service a single country but function as the hub in a webwork of commerce that links the capitals across the globe.

Downtown must house all the people who will work in concert to build this status and so the developments that are occurring in this so-called wasteland that once belonged only to the homeless–the towers and condos and live-work lofts–are necessary as the city remakes itself into a portal to the Pacific Rim.

The homeless—they are simply collateral damage.  Like the indigenous people who once occupied humble adobes (people who find themselves hemmed in to smaller parts of a downtown that was once all their own) the homeless are slowly displaced by the web developers, designers, actors, accountants, lawyers, dentists.

Los Angeles' Skid Row contains one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the United States.

Los Angeles’ Skid Row contains one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the United States.

All of this was rumbling through my head as the soloists completed their incomprehensible Latin loveliness and my thoughts wandered.  What is an Agnus Dei? I wondered.  To this, I had only the speculations of elementary school Latin.  Placido Domingo is dedicating the concert as a tribute to his dead sister whom he loved dearly, I thought to myself in my most stern mother-voice–the voice that I unlock when I want to lock myself down.  But I kept dwelling on the profound irony of this fact:  that in this space dedicated to looking forward, here was a spectacle that was all about the act of looking backward.

As we walked out after the concert, we joined the throngs of people who milled around  the paintings of the many missions that are the legacy of Father Junipero Serra, the man who settled California, the man who only last week achieved sainthood during the Papal visit.  Serra built his missions strategically near water, a precious resource in a climate prone to drought conditions, but this meant that he placed his long network of edifices upon land that was already in use by the native people of the region, placing his cities upon their cities. Then, he enslaved them–a story that is all too easily forgotten.


And what has happened to St. Vibiana?  The Preservationists got their way.  The Church let the building stand.  There is a little plaque to commemorate its previous incarnation as a Cathedral.  And now it is a high end restaurant and nightclub that can be engaged for movie shoots.  It can also be rented out for special events.

Junot Diaz at Occidental College: An Inspiring Reading

This past week, I beat the apocalypse that is LA traffic and waited in a line for an hour, enduring a capacity crowd of almost 800 people to witness Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, speak.  It was well worth the time.  It was an inspiration.  And it made me want to go home and write and write and write—the sign of an uber-successful reading.


The reading was in my neighborhood, Highland Park, which occupies the Northeast corner of Los Angeles–an area so renowned for its gritty urban vibe that Richard Ramirez, the infamous serial killer known simply as The Night Stalker, was apprehended in this very barrio when he tried to steal a get-away car. (And by “apprehended,” I mean beat mercilessly until the police arrived).

Highland Park is also the home to one of the bastions of the white-washed ivory tower, Occidental College—a highly selective liberal arts college whose most recent claim to fame is that President Barrack Obama elected to transfer from it.


This is a long way of saying that I was surprised to see so many brown people at a reading—half coming from the community, half from the student body—who stood in line clutching their books to their chests as if they were waiting to see the Pope in his white robes among a sea of minions.

Junot Diaz appeared on stage in jeans and a dress shirt designed to be untucked.  He refused to stand behind the podium but preferred to pontificate full-frontal upon a wide range of topics from comic books to nerd culture, from feminism to postcolonial theory.  When it came time for him to read, he confessed that he forgot to bring his own books but borrowed them from the audience.

He did all this in a brilliantly funny way, speaking not so much as an authority but as a wise-cracking comedian.  And while almost all the audience came to bask in his knowledge, he was the first to say repeatedly, “Gang.  I don’t know anything.  I’m just a fucked up guy and you’re treating me like a guru.”

Diaz speaks like that, codeswitching in a vibrant display of language that makes him something of a linguistic sphinx:  he alternates between bits of Dominican-inflected Spanish and liberally sprinkles a layer of profanity throughout his speech, profanity that testifies to a rough childhood in rough neighborhoods.

And yet he doesn’t appear vulgar or flat or one-note in his “fucks” like the average guy at the bus stop with a potty mouth.  Rather, he appears surprisingly sincere and tender, as if he is whispering to you a very convoluted secret that requires the presence of profanity to make it meaningful (as became evident when a young child, accompanied by her mother, stepped up to the mike and asked if Diaz would ever write a children’s book, and the author kneeled down to get close to her height and told her that he was not a very good writer, that his one attempt at a children’s book was panned by his friends and, somehow, he let that word—“fuck”—insert itself into his speech and he clapped his hand to his mouth and his eyes became as large as saucers and everybody laughed and everybody forgave him, even the child and the mother, because he had said that “fuck” so sincerely).

Junot Diaz also sprinkles high theory into his speech, the language of Marxism and postocolonial philosophy—language that can often sound like gobbledygook and have the mouth-feel of thrice-warmed-over meat loaf.  So somewhere in his one-man comedy monologue are fancy words as crisp as two dollar bills:  hegemony, subaltern, ideology.

And yet it doesn’t come off unnatural.

To one student who asked advice on why her mother (a Dominican) didn’t claim her black identity (while the student did), Diaz gave a history lesson: he pointed out that back in the old country,  the years 1937 and 1938 were the staging ground for two major massacres that followed the rise of a maniac dictator who machete’d citizens who appeared to be black.  And that fact is something that hovers around the racial landscape for Dominicans, even if they have no awareness of this history.

“When you talk about the question of blackness to your mom, all she hears is the sound of the machete.  But I bet if you ask her the question in another way, you will get the response you want to hear.”  Then without missing a beat, he points out the elephant in the room:  that Dominicans who go off to college–prestigious colleges like Oxy–often return home with a lot of privilege; in trying to make a connection with their community, they can unwittingly be perceived to use the baseball bat of knowledge to beat up on their parents who are not so well-educated.  “But we would never think to treat our friends or our children that way. We don’t say ‘Hey Jose you don’t know what counterhegemonic means.  You’re one stupid motherfucker.’”


Junot Diaz was like a B-52, dropping knowledge bombs all night like that.  And I found myself fishing out a manila folder to write elaborate notes that were sprinting beside him like a fan-boy who is following a star marathoner during a small stretch of a long race.  “You spend your whole life surviving the fact that you survived”–this just one of the many epigrams he let loose like a rap star who’s spit out a choice line:  these word explosions, seemingly spontaneous but also highly choreographed.

I came home and couldn’t stop talking about the reading.  I couldn’t sleep–that reading was a raven perched on the branch of my mind.  I haven’t been able to stop pondering that manila folder, which is worn with my cursive graffiti.  So I’m writing this a week later, because writing stuff down, writing stuff of significance and interest, is the only way I know (the only way I have ever known) to make my racing thoughts stop.

Serial: Why Is It So Popular?

Serial is the hottest new podcast that’s working everybody up into a lather. It’s the number one podcast not only in the United States, but also Australia, and the United Kingdom. If you haven’t started listening to it, start listening to it.


Serial follows the conventions of sequential storytelling — conventions that came out of the Victorian era, when books were issued as installments. For instance, each chapter of Great Expectations arrived to the public simply as a link in an ongoing narrative — its own self-contained unit with elements of cliffhanger suspense built in. Only later were the bits collected and put together in book form (and this was simply to make money twice).

That’s how Serial is supposed to get you: The feeling of true waiting — something that is lost in our digital culture where all things are instantaneously present simultaneously — is a novel sensation. Pardon the pun.

I got to the show late, by then it had already been in its seventh episode and would soon release its eight. One of my old childhood friends, a successful screenwriter, had Facebook-ed that the seventh was the best (it is!). A rule breaker at heart, I leapt into that seventh episode just to see if it was worthwhile. I promptly got hooked, and proceeded to listen to every single episode in sequence. It was truly addictive.

There’s a reason why I did this that moves beyond entertainment: I was interested in craft. What makes this particular murder mystery so compelling that it has touched a nerve across the nation and around the English speaking world? Is it form? Is it craft? Is it technique? These were the questions on my mind as I listened. I wanted to take whatever I could purloin and see if I could make it my own.

Serial is basically a mystery with a murder of a young Korean American girl Hae Min Lee by her Pakistani American ex-boyfriend Adnan. The reporter is the voice that stands in as the detective figure — the creature of “ratiocination,” to borrow the term Edgar Alan Poe applied to his own stories of murder, mystery, intrigue… In other words, the narrator Sarah Koenig is the figure who thinks, ponders, puzzles, wonders.

And the story has many of the classic features of a mystery: It’s a whodunit that combines the pleasures of a police and courtroom procedural. The twist is that the crime supposedly has been solved and we get those events retold. We already know how it ends: Adnan, the ex-boyfriend, has been found guilty. He is talking to us from behind bars, where he has languished for well over a decade.

One of the big critiques that came out among my politically correct friends is that the story is racial — that it exploits certain tried and true racial stereotypes: Adnan is described in terms of Othello — a moor. In other words, he is a violent Muslim, someone who can be imagined as black. Then there’s all the exploitation of the model minority myth: the perfect Asian girl who is in every way an ideal daughter and student must die at the hands of the criminal darky. I won’t go into any other detail about this line of thinking, because it came out here.


I can only say that it annoyed me at the time, because it was an easy argument to make. In fact, it can be applied to just about any book dealing with racialized characters. In this sense, this line of thinking is extremely limited. It still doesn’t entirely address the popularity of the show. After all, there are tons of racist things out there that never gain traction, that never make it into the spotlight.

So I began to wonder if it was about the serialized form itself… if it was the fact of sequencing that made things interesting. That one, I threw out the window. After all, I enjoyed it even though I had started in the middle. In fact, though the show is designed to be sequential, it’s not rigidly sequential in the way that comic books move from panel to panel. You can pretty much jump into any episode and bounce around that way, and not get confused. In this sense, the pretense of form — that it is a serial — is simply a pretense. This is entirely different from the serializations that happened during the Victorian era, and certainly different from the radio dramas that are its immediate predecessors.

What I came to realize is that it is the narrator — the journalist stand-in for the detective voice — that is the true element that is addictive. And in fact, it is the way that Sarah Koenig keeps asking questions, finding dead ends, following up leads that are dry. One website dwelled on the numerous times that Sarah Koenig keeps resorting to the same language — the same stock phrases — to express her confusion.

This makes her, not Adnan, the most fully developed character of the show — the stroke of genius that keeps us compelled. Adnan is in other words, just the chump in the cage. He is a voice that arrives as simple snippets for her convenience. Sarah Koenig is the voice that curates him, that displays his interesting-ness for the world’s amusement.


I think this is the clue to unlocking the mystery: It is the befuddlement that Koenig must return to over and over again. And she is invested in this befuddlement, for if she could really resolve that befuddlement, she would not have a show at all — or at least, she would only have a fragment of a show. Even if we get to touch the holy grail — a real conclusive moment in which she figures it all out and explains all the elements of the show — it is the befuddlement that is so crucial for the story to move.

Koenig is in some senses a better detective than the classic ones — Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes — precisely because those sleuths are self-assured. We know they will prevail. In contrast, Koenig seems genuinely baffled. This is the stroke of genius: It is the elaboration of the speaker who is herself elaborating a story that really is the whole point of the show. In other words, Serial is something more ancient than a mystery novel or a Victorian serial of only a hundred odd years ago… it is a dance of the seven veils. It is a story that must be told every night in a different way to stay the hand of the executioner. It is just good storytelling.

P.D. James–Master of Detective Fiction

This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post.

P.D. James, the master of detective fiction, died recently, leaving in her wake pyrotechnic displays of masterful writing. In memory of this great technician, I’ve been reading one of her novels–Devices and Desires–which features her accomplished detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.


James wanted to be a writer from a young age, but war, marriage, children, tragedy–all the bits of messiness that is life–got in the way. Her ambition was thwarted until her early forties when she was able to cash in the few hours she stole from the grind of her duties each day before work and leverage it into a real publication.

P.D. James got her start in mystery writing because she thought it would be a stepping stone: a popular form in which it would be easier to publish–then publish better, publish further. She thought she could move on to more serious work (serious in her eyes) and you can see how this orientation meant that she valued careful, crafted language in her writing.

Her most memorable creation, the Commander Adam Dalgliesh, represents a marriage of her thwarted ambition to the empyrean heights of high brow literary writing, and her realization of this important fact that every great mystery writer must come to terms with: that the vehicle that moves any detective fiction is the detective.


Dalgliesh is not only a Commander in Scotland Yard, but also an acclaimed poet. And so his ability to see the world is suffused with beautiful descriptions. Clouds aren’t just clouds–they are something else. And a landscape is always beautifully, precisely described–with a wistful touch.

Dalgliesh also has the poet’s eye for detail–the ability to make much about somebody’s chin, face, nose. A living room–whether stodgy or common–has that richness of detail that makes for a good read. And it is in the rich descriptions, quite often descriptions of the ordinary, that the Commander is able to see, and help us see, with penetration.

If detective fiction is, at its base–a realistic form–its readers require realism for maximal enjoyment. P.D. James delivers. And there are few detective writers who achieve this level of description without becoming tedious. P.D. James’s realism is thick, filled with the kinds of meaningful details that are the delight of this form.

Beyond these facts of character, there are facts of class that make P.D. James’s greatest creation an excellent instrument of detection: Dalgliesh is well-to-do, extremely educated. And this allows him to see the world with a scope and breadth, wisdom and farsightedness that ordinary mortals just do not have at their disposal. He is not some beat detective with a baton. He drives a jaguar and takes an interest in all sorts of arcane subject matter–maters like ornithology. He is independently wealthy but is driven by the very British passion to do things properly.


I think this is the stroke of genius on P.D. James’s part: creating a character from this cloth. Dalgliesh is the dream child of the frustrated novelist, for he can make striking observations and connections that a more down-to-earth gumshoe simply cannot make. And so he is an ideal instrument for a writer who strives towards maximal effects. After all, every word Dalgliesh utters is also a word uttered by P.D. James, and every word is a missile sent roaring into the sky, exploding into a million sparks that illuminate the darkness that bounds us, that exists all around us.

National Novel Writing Month: Will you do it?

NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—is upon us and, for the first time, I’m all in. This has not always been the case. When I was teaching Creative Writing, one of my colleagues was absolutely dead set against it.


“It promotes diarrhea.” She was one of those neatly-combed people who was orderly in every way, and she listed all the very good reasons why she did not approve of it. “You write a lot. You never edit. You usually end up with an unwieldy mass of junk that you just don’t know what to do with.”

Needless to say, all my students loved it.  Students are visionary.

National Novel Writing Month, for those who don’t yet know, begins at the stroke of midnight on the first day of November and ends at the close of the month. During that period, aspiring writers produce 50,000 words—enough verbiage to believe that they have written a real, honest-to-goodness novel. That amounts to an average of 1,877 words a day.


There’s a website in which to log your word count. You create a profile (my profile name is spunkymunky, my novel is Robert’s Rules) and participate in an on-line community of writers. You can earn badges along the road toward your goal. You can track your progress with charts. Outside of the website, there are meetups simply for the purpose of getting writing done.

Like my colleague, I have always been suspicious of group activities. “You’re not a joiner,” one of my friends, who would always try to get me to join things he joined, quipped. By nature, I’m extremely skeptical. I don’t fall for television preachers. I don’t ever buy the latest must-have gadget. When Christmas comes along, I have been known to book a long vacation to a Muslim country.

But recently, I have engaged in group activities that have benefited me: I started jogging with a running club, once a week, and this kept me jogging regularly and now I have lost 20 pounds. This got me to thinking that in many ways, NaNoWriMo creates the environment of an MFA program—a peer structure and accountability group that form a community: you are running with horses across a blurred landscape, you are not a mighty stallion alone, alone, alone.


It’s so much harder to do things alone, to get off your butt. It’s easier to go back to sleep if nobody is watching. I found myself not only running consistently but, also, running further, faster. Why? Because if you run with a pack, you have to keep its pace.

So far, I’ve been doing this three days. I have two partners—the novelist, Thomas Hewlett and the poet, Nicky Schildkraut. I’m not sure if I’ll stay at the 1,877 word pace, mainly because I can’t stand diarrhea. But the NaNoWriMo website makes the point that, even if you only write a thousand words at the end of the month, that is a thousand words more than you had before.  So, I’m ready to be a joiner. It’s not too late to join with me!

Art Spiegelmann: Upon Seeing the Artist Live

I recently went to see Art Spiegelmann, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize Winning Graphic Novel Mauss. I was lucky because, right now, I am a visiting scholar at USC and could score some fantastic tickets and sit in the amazing auditorium—plush, grand, magnificent—for free. Anything that is free is good in my book!

Art Spiegelmann

Mauss is the watershed book that is not only a masterpiece in its own right but, also, launched—indeed, gave legitimacy to–a whole new genre that has become its own marketing juggernaut: the graphic novel. In this age of blogs and downloads and television brainfreeze, people just don’t invest the money in books. Sure, they will buy a cookbook. But in this time of Kindle, there’s little room for something a bit more artsy that you can hold in your hand.

Before Mauss, nobody gave much mind to things packaged as words with pictures. That kind of lowbrow stuff was relegated to the book shelves of children and, also, adults whose interest in comic books potentially marked them as menaces to society. But after Mauss, the graphic novel came into its own..,so Art Spiegelmann is a pivotal figure—the great grandpappy in a family tree composed entirely of pulp.

I had a special interest in Mauss. A few years back, I’d taught the book in my freshman seminar on the graphic novel…so this meant that I’d spent a lot of time living with it—emotionally, intellectually, psychologically. I even had Mauss dreams. And if you’ve ever spent time grading student papers with a glass of merlot, you can probably guess: I also had my fair share of Mauss nightmares.


Mauss is an incredibly edgey non-comic-booky book. If I were to put on my literary critic hat, I would describe it this way: it’s basically a beast fable—a story with animals that is supposed to teach lessons about humans. The scorpion who convinces the frog to give him a ride across the river—that creature stings the poor frog and, as they both drown, the frog cries out “why must you doom both of us by your actions”; the scorpion replies, “I am a scorpion. It is in my nature to sting.” And there unfolds a classic lesson that is less about animals and more about human nature.


But Mauss is unlike Aesop’s fables, which teach uncomplicated lessons about the human condition using whimsical animals that are unthreathening because, well, they are animals. Instead, Mauss has elements of intense realism that run in counterpoint to the whimsical beast fable. And it allows Spiegelmann to treat the stark world of the Nazi death camps with a heightened realism that in other more realistic forms—film, for instance—would become overblown. Mauss is not Schindler’s List, which verges on sappy and sentimental and manipulative.

Art Spiegelmann is now a grand personage and he spent the evening doing a narration in his raspy voice with a jazz sextet lead by another American great, Philip Johnston. Periodically, he would puff on his cigarette vaporizer and the smoke would dissipate into the air with bits of film noir shadow. He even wore a fedora, like some detective in a hardboiled world where loose dames show up in dresses with thigh-high slits up their long, long legs.

What impressed me about the performance is that Spiegelmann spent the time narrating his own debt to other artists—other writers. He was most indebted to the German Expressionists with their black and white wood cuts. He was unashamed in naming his heroes and he quite clearly pointed out that people were mistaken by saying that he had written the first graphic novel. There were others, and he quite lovingly named them all.

I searched frantically for a pen, borrowed it from a friend, but then found I had no paper. I wrote the names down on my hand, sloppily, in the dark.


photo 1

This was the amazing part of the evening—the realization that within any genre, even if you appear to be the first, you are often involved in collaborations…whether that is with the brassy liveliness of a full jazz orchestra…or the overtures of past artists and writers who have provided you the template to appear original—the first, the best, the finest.

Estate Sale: Places of Detective-Work

I’ve recently gotten into going to Estate Sales. I started this recent obsession because I’m on a new health kick, one in which I haul myself out of bed and jog early every Saturday morning. This has been going on for four months and I feel fit and trim and never-better.

What I soon realized is that, once I finished my scenic run, I emerge into this dream world of Estate Sales. Pasadena—for those of you who don’t know—is a great old city that abuts Los Angeles. It has a lot of old historic homes and a charm that makes me think of the quiet, dignified grandeur of the Midwest.


It seems like all those little old ladies from Pasadena —those little old ladies in the song of the same name–are dying.

This means that going to an Estate Sale is extremely depressing. You see the house, like a crime scene, in a state. Everything is left out, almost as if ransacked by thieves. Old depression glassware, mink coats, stained hankies—these are common items at Estate Sales, and they make the hairs on my arms stand on end.


Going to an estate sale, you also begin to learn how to sleuth—to see patterns, to look for tell-tale signs. You begin to figure out who was an alcoholic. Who had a mistress. Who liked to wear women’s clothing, despite many years of service in the Marines.

I almost didn’t go to my first estate sale because of the sadness of seeing life at a standstill. But the nice old lady who manned the cash register put her bony hand to her chest and exclaimed. “Oh my stars, no–nobody died here.” She leaned forward. “It’s not that type of estate sale.”

The house was next to a very nice gas station and perched on the edge of a tonier neighborhood—San Marino—where the great Huntington Library, with its sprawling gardens and its archives, stood. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. But the house—a modest one—was definitely a fixer-upper.


There were patches of bald on the lawn, and streaks of brown where the crabgrass had withered in the summer heat. It was obvious that the house was kept in the family for several generations. Everywhere, there were decades of junk—like the stratigraphy of rocks on a Paleolithic cliff.

Finally, I met the owner—a man in a wheel chair—who was guzzling a case of Budweiser at 9 o’clock in the morning. He had long, straggly white hair, the silvering of a grey five o’clock shadow.  A loose terry cloth bath robe fell open to expose thin, ashen legs. Around him were strewn the empties.

He thanked me for coming. Then, he regaled me about growing up in this neighborhood in Southern California when everything was nicer, simpler, and cheaper. “Back then, a twelve year old kid could walk down to the corner store and buy a beer for less than fifty cents.” He was expansive and I could tell he didn’t have many friends who talked to him. “Do you know how much I sold this shit hole for?”


He confided that his parents had left him the house and he had crippled himself with the kind of heavy drinking that leads to diabetes. “1.7 million dollars.” I picked something out quickly from the stuff set out in the living room.  As I left with my purchase, he waved to me with his cigarette. “Now I can buy a condo in Glendale, and live the rest of my life without being a burden to society.

The irish linen I picked out still had the tags on it. The nice old lady at the cash register let me have it for a song, and I wondered out loud why nobody had ever used it. “Sometimes things just end up that way,” said the lady.  But the answer was obvious: all the ordinary things in the house had been so used, they were worn down to a nub. But the nice stuff—the nice stuff—was never used: it was too nice for everyday use.

photo (4)


Halloween Exercise: Writing the Truly Scary

It’s almost Halloween—the time for ghouls and zombies, vampires and mummies. But let’s face it: those things are not really scary. In fact, the paradox of Halloween is that we are immune to zombies; ghosts do not truly frighten us; we have been weaned on the modern day horror flick, and in the process have become demanding consumers of The Truly Scary. So these creatures of the night are exactly the opposite—simply signs of glee, of socially sanctioned drinking, of the possibility of being naughty.


What is actually scary is the ordinary stuff of life that hits at your deepest, darkest phobia. Freud actually gave this a name: unheimlich—that feeling of being at home, but not at home. This term is often translated as “the uncanny,” but I like this idea of being at home and not at home better, because it catches the essence of a certain kind of fear that we all experience. The fear of the ordinary is a common part of the human experience.


So in this installment, I want to suggest an exercise that focuses on fear. This will help you develop your character (your deepest, darkest fear tells a lot about you). This will also help you develop plot (it is usually your character’s fear that will help move the story’s conflict). But the kind of fear I want you to work with is actually a little tricky.  So I’ll do this by giving you two examples of the kind of uncanny fear I am talking about—first, by using an example of one of my acquaintances; second, by making it more personal and using an example in my own life.


I just ran into an acquaintance who has a phobia of toxins—invisible pathogens that are in everything. So she steadfastly avoids all plastics. Anything printed on a laser printer—letters, receipts, handbills—she will not touch. This means that she cannot pay her bills. Because of this irrational fear, she has developed OCD, constantly washing her hands. She wishes she could pay her bills, but she fears the toxins more: they are everywhere, invisible eels that float through the air and threaten to destroy her. For her, a letter in the mail is the sign of the corruption of society and the trap it has laid for its victims. She recently got a new apartment—to get out of this world of fear—but she finds herself irrevocably stuck. There are so many toxins in this world that she cannot even begin the overwhelming task of moving into the apartment, so she has been paying, for the last year, rent for an empty box.



Today, I walked out of the gym, and suddenly realized that during the hour I was toning my body, a large festival had built up around me—a once-a-year event called The Cruz’n for Roses Hot Rod & Classic Car Show. It’s actually a pretty big event that the City of South Pasadena puts on to raise money for its float in the Tournament of Roses Parade. And it’s real old-timey with the old-timey downtown filled with impeccably finished cars, boosters, police officers, boy scouts, and folks dressed up like rockabillies and greasers. But this actually reminded me of one of my biggest panic attacks when I first started teaching Creative Writing in Iowa.


I had just walked out of a breakfast where I had felt I was getting such poor service that I was sure the waitress was a racist. In the time that I had walked into the diner, a car show had suddenly popped up in the quaint downtown. To suddenly be confronted with an old-timey event called, of all things, “Happy Days,” filled me with dread. I did the math: the nostalgia for simpler times suddenly meant that I would live in a world of profound segregation. And everybody in that town—a town that loved its oldtiminess—was secretly a racist that pined for the 1950’s, a time when colored people knew their place.


Of course, these fears—the kind I have been describing–are irrational. And as it turned out, my waitress wasn’t really a racist at all; she was just slow; and I was a newbie from the Big City where everything moves fast. Moreover, most likely people just liked old cars and were not secretly members of the KKK. But the fear that resides in the ordinary is a powerful thing. It grips you. It fills you with its toxins. It paralyzes you. It makes you feel as if you can’t hardly stand to breathe.

So here is your exercise: think of a fear that your main character has, and make it reside in the most ordinary object—a teacup, a pebble, a ring, a hair in the shower. Then, write a vignette where those fears reach out and grab the main character, refusing to be ignored, refusing to live in the margin. If you write a vignette like this, you are well on your way to getting a plot and you might just leave the exercise with a few supporting characters you never knew you needed.

Five Rules for Finding Your Community of Writers

I’m going to give some advice about building a writing community, which is one of the sure ways to build a writing practice.  But first, I will start with an anecdote that illustrates the rewards of surrounding yourself with a curio cabinet of fellow writers.  If you have no patience for anecdotes, just skip to the end and you will find a list of ways to wheedle yourself into the good graces of your peers.  Of course, if you have no patience for anecdotes, you are in all likelihood neither a reader, nor a writer.

*  *  *

So recently, I had the opportunity to see another writer—Ed Lin—who came to Los Angeles to promote his book, Ghost Month. And sure enough, he was a ham who stole the show. This was to be expected. But what was more curious was that there were a lot of other writers, too, who came to support him. And these writers formed a community in and of themselves.

Right before the reading, I met Steph Cha who writes Los Angeles noir fiction. She is the author of Follow Her Home and Beware Beware, both novels that I would kill to have written.


I also met Yumi Sakagawa—a graphic novelist who does these awesome cartoons, and who was recently nominated for some big prestigious award. She looks as quirky as her cartoons.


The two were introduced to me by the poet Nicky Schildkraut, whose poems are published by the same press that first got Ed Lin his start. And so even before the reading, I found myself at the reading, watching my fellow writers slurping down a bowl of slippery wet noodles at a ramen joint. (I totally would have joined them, but had gone on a low sodium diet).


Writers want desparately to be alone—an island unto themselves—but they also know this fact, a thorn on the stigmata of their existence: they want desperately to be with other people, to feel a connection, even if that connection arrives from desperation.

This is not what I imagined all my life about writers. I had a romantic vision of them—one composed of corrugated cardboard, flat and one-dimensional. I imagined that these rare creatures were hermit crabs—adrift in a world not unlike the subterranean depths described by Paul Auster, a world in which the writer emerges from his dark little New York apartment and realizes that he is such a misfit that he could very well be mistaken for a homeless person.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I learned this first when I started teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College and running Writers At Grinnell. Suddenly, I realized that writers don’t live in a vacuum but, rather, are incredibly social creatures. Writers At Grinnell brought many famous scribblers to campus—Adrienne Rich, Ana Castillo, John Edgar Wideman, Lan Samantha Chang—and that meant I spent my time boozing and schmoozing: before the reading came dinner; after the reading, drinks; then perhaps an impromptu pizza-making session at my house; and stories followed by toasts.

Some were desparate for an ear into which they could pour conversation. Some were criss-crossing the country on manic book tours. All were generous of spirit, ready to take you into their intellectual embrace, and show you the secrets hidden under their cloak. I always gave my students extra credit to show up. I couldn’t stand to see these writers reading to an empty room. And, yes, I was the first and last person at any reading—the guy who was ready to pay for the first round and tell them how god-damn-fucking-brilliant-they-were.

*  *  *

So here’s my advice, if you want to find a writing community that will help you jumpstart your own writing practice.

1)  Attend a reading.  Make sure it’s a reading for a moderately well-known writer who works in a genre that you will aspire to.

2) Buy a book, and get it signed.  Writers love to feel appreciated, even if they get almost none of the money that comes from the purchase of the book.  When you get to the front of the line, ask questions.  Better yet, tell them that you’d love to have them come do an event for your church, book club, community center.  They will become your new best friend.

3)  Stay Late.  Mill about.  Wait until there is a cluster of folks who seem to be of the event but, also, apart from it.  Those are the friends, lovers, colleagues who are waiting to whisk the writer off to an evening of fun and excitement.

4)  Talk to People.  Talk to the friends of the writer. Talk to the introducer.  Talk to the bookstore manager.  It goes a long way.

5)  Get on a Mailing List.   Then, go to the next event and complete the process, again.  And again.  And again.  You need to do this until you become a fixture.  You need to become a recognizable face that people will wave to.  Stick to a genre; If your genre is Science Fiction, try to make it to as many of these readings as possible!