After prowling the sweltering streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn, in her 2013 novel, Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda hops to the opposite coast for Wonder Valley, a Los Angeles portrait as tough and beautiful as desert grasses. The author talks about her accidental Wonder Valley home, New York versus California noir, the ties between writing and playing professional squash and more.
What initially attracted you to the Wonder Valley area, which is both rather remote and obscure, even to longtime Angeleans?
Well, I had intended to rent a house in Joshua Tree for the weekend which is a rite of passage it seems when you move to LA. But I guess I wasn’t exactly paying attention to the map, since the house (which was an amazing place that was entirely covered in Gaudi-style tile) was nearly 30 minutes east in Wonder Valley. I’d never been somewhere like it before. I’d been in New England wilderness, but desert wilderness was wilder and fiercer. I was immediately enthralled.
All of your characters seem somewhat damaged, and there are no clear-cut “heroes,” yet most of them wind up being sympathetic. Do you think there are legitimate white knights among us, or are we all encumbered by baggage that only becomes visible when our lives begin to unravel?
Hmmmm . . . I don’t know. I think that there are certainly people who are driven to help or bring about change more than others. But that does come at a price and often means sacrificing some other part of yourself. And sacrificing yourself for others, being a white knight as you say, definitely changes you for better, but often for worse. So I guess I do think we are all encumbered in some way. How could we not be? We are all products of our past experiences. That’s what allows us to read and interpret the world. And it’s often hard to manage these experiences. They are what inform our decisions, good or bad.
What prompted you to use the naked man as the starting point for your book? After all, these people could have initially intersected at the airport or at an AA meeting or at some sort of event that brings people from disparate backgrounds together.
I was, as always, inspired by Don DeLillo’s Pafko at the Wall (the prologue to Underworld) in which he uses the famous “Shot Heard Round the World” as a nexus around which to focus not simply the entire city and its various inhabitants but also the entire global nuclear anxiety. So I wanted to kick my story off with an event, something to which all of Los Angeles, at least for one moment, might pay attention. And it’s based on something I remember from my teenage years—a friend of friend, who, after a rather late night, ran naked across the Brooklyn Bridge with fatal consequences.
There’s a very visual, almost cinematic, element to Wonder Valley. Do you imagine joining (or hope to join) some of your writing peers such as Michael Connelly and T. Jefferson Parker on the big screen?
The fact that you call them my peers! I can retire now. Joking aside, that’s something I’d like to do, but I’m conflicted about. I’m not a screenwriter by nature. I love the strange, deep texture of a novel—the way there isn’t pressure to make things HAPPEN ALL THE TIME! I like the languid, lazy river quality. And I don’t want to lose that. I don’t like rules. However, given the right project (my own I’d say) I’d definitely give it a whirl. But I’m not one of those Hollywood-or-bust types.
You played squash professionally. Does your experience as an athlete inform your writing, or was squash just an activity you used to escape from the drudgery of sitting in front of a screen?
Other way around—I used writing to give meaning to the repetitive drudgery of training! But the two activities definitely complement each other. There’s an immediate gratification when you win a squash match, but finishing a novel is a slow burn with a huge payout. There are similarities, too. Writing and professional sports both teach you self-reliance and self-motivation. No one is going to make you write, and no one is going to make you train. And you only have yourself to blame for your own laziness.
You moved from Brooklyn nearly a decade ago, which, much like the West Adams area in which you live now, has some rough edges but is gentrifying. What do you find different about life on the West Coast, and what effect do you think being a transplant has on your insights into Los Angeles?
LA remains a mystery to me in many ways. And I like that. I feel that even driving my normal routes, I can manage to look at everything with fresh eyes. And perhaps since I came out rather recently and don’t have much to do with Hollywood or the beach, I have less of a preconception about LA. I’ve had to stake out my own neighborhoods which are not the ones most people traditionally associate with Los Angeles. My city seems to stretch farther to the east and to the south than is typical.
Visitation Street was East Coast; Wonder Valley is West Coast. What differentiates New York and California noir, and do you have a preference?
I’m not really a huge student of noir. But I think that the abundant sunshine in Los Angeles certain provides a brilliant contrast with nefarious doings. We expect darker behaviors in a place like New York. But out here, noir is stealthy and surprising. I happen to really like California noir for that reason—the contrast between place and subject matter is incredibly appealing. The sunshine is deceptive and definitely capable of making you crazy.
What are you working on next?
I’m thinking of writing another LA novel. I have to write about the place I live. I’d wanted to write a novel set in Maine where I spend time in the summers. But it’s not as immediate to me. So LA, it is. Perhaps something set close to my home in West Adams.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and spent several years commuting daily on the 110 from his home in Inglewood to his office at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank. He never saw a naked guy jogging on it.