The story behind the stories
LA’s newest literary voice comes home to Pasadena
By Joe Piasecki 08/05/2010
Los Angeles has been called a lot of things by a lot of people, but the literary world may harbor its toughest critics.
Despite or perhaps even because of its dominance in the realm of movies, music and the popular imagination, LA has long been dismissed as little more than a backwater of the written word — at best second-rate; at worst inhospitable, a destructive influence upon the story and its writer that has eaten away at Faulkner, Fitzgerald and thousands of others who’ve struggled for the slightest respect in Hollywoodland.
The contemporary financial decline of the journalism and printing industries only strengthens the poisonous cliché that written words are worth very little here.
Enter Slake, a brand new literary journal that aims to reinvigorate the Greater Los Angeles literary scene and is as intimately connected with Pasadena as James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” or Upton Sinclair’s former Sunset Avenue home.
Slake launched its first quarterly edition in July with a run of 5,000 bound copies packed with more than 200 richly designed pages of LA-centric fiction, narrative journalism, essays, photographs and illustrations assembled around the theme “Still Life.”
“There is still life in print, still life in literature in Los Angeles,” explained Laurie Ochoa, a longtime Pasadena resident and former LA Weekly editor who co-founded and co-edits the publication with former Bikini magazine editor and LA Weekly Deputy Editor Joe Donnelly.
Slake’s first edition features work by a number of local writers, including Altadena novelists Michelle Huneven and Jervey Tervalon, Pasadena-based art and culture critic John Powers, Pasadena-native Erica Zora Wrightson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Weekly food writer Jonathan Gold, who is Ochoa’s husband and contributed a short essay on the sexually suggestive qualities of fruit depicted in a still-life painting that hangs at the Norton Simon Museum.
Each will participate in an Aug. 13 reading event at Vroman’s Bookstore, which Ochoa only half-jokingly refers to as “Slake’s Pasadena branch” and more than coincidentally figures into the climax of Huneven’s short story in Slake about the ties that bind a Pasadena family.
Print bites back
Finding most potential investors as preoccupied with the World Wide Web as they were reluctant to embrace ink and paper, Slake’s founders largely self-financed their venture, though a few sponsors such as Pasadena’s Europane Bakery pitched in to help.
“I’d say, ‘Tell me the last Internet publication that meant something to you,’ and they would draw a blank. But we kept running into a brick wall — [the idea that] print’s dead. We could do it just online, but who’s going to pay attention? It’s just space out there, clutter,” said Donnelly, who sold his house to help fund the publication.
There are plans for an online presence, but Slake’s heavy paper stock and thoughtful interplay of words, images and whitespace speaks to qualities of storytelling substance, context and completeness that don’t often translate into the 24-hour digital instant information universe.
What’s missing online is “the kind of writing and editing where you really have time to get the story right,” said Ochoa, who feels print’s financial freefall is symptomatic of a loss of confidence by advertisers, not readers.
Gourmet magazine, where she worked after a stint at the LA Times and before taking the helm at LA Weekly from 2001 to 2009, boasted rising circulation numbers even as it was shuttered for lack of revenue.
“We want to make sure there is still an island where you can slow down and read something and hold it in your hands,” said Ochoa of Slake, also a verb meaning to satisfy a thirst or desire.
Contributor Jerry Stahl — who has written columns, screenplays and novels as well his memoir “Permanent Midnight” — doesn’t hold back in condemning the Internet’s impact on the writing world.
“Slake is flying in the face of the electronic cyber fetish that has eaten the world alive like an Ebola. It shows the inanity of obsession with words that only exist electronically, and the irony is that in Slake the printed word is rendered modern and avant-garde, and the Kindle online reality has been exposed as somewhat antiquated and quaint,” said Stahl. “It’s the difference between a drum machine and Elvin Jones [John Coltrane’s percussionist on ‘A Love Supreme’].”
Slake is selling well, its first 1,000 copies flying off local bookstore shelves in two weeks and sales continuing at a pace that appears to enable printing a second edition this fall.
But Donnelly and Ochoa, who pay writers but in amounts they acknowledge aren’t nearly what their contributions are worth, say the margin on Slake’s $18 retail price probably isn’t enough to sustain it for the long haul. They’re counting on increased subscriptions and some advertising — though never so much it interferes with a volume’s book-not-magazine aesthetic — to make up the difference.
“We had enough money to get us through one issue,” said Donnelly, “so we felt the best way to show the value of [Slake] was to do one.”
That can-do attitude is inspiring fellow writers.
“What’s different about them is they’re not sour,” said Powers of Ochoa and Donnelly, who were replaced at LA Weekly after new owners took control of parent company Village Voice Media. “What I admire about it is so many people in my line of work, if things go bad, just sink into despair, whereas Laurie and Joe are thinking ‘Let’s put together something new.’”
Slake contributors are enthusiastic as well about the journal’s potential for building community among the historically sprawl-disconnected writers and artists of LA, the Vroman’s gathering following others that have attracted hundreds in Los Feliz and Santa Monica.
There’s also hope that a homegrown publication focused on the city will help earn more recognition for the city’s literary scene.
“There’s always been a lot of literary life in LA, but there’s been a tendency to underplay it. People out here seem to be weirdly insecure about it, thinking LA somehow had to prove it was as good as New York,” said Powers, a contributor to Vogue and NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
For his Slake piece, Powers wrote about celebrity worship and the so-called “Bling Ring” of teenagers who used the Internet to case and rob the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and others.
The Big, Tyrannical Apple
What Powers calls insecurity, others attribute to New York’s stranglehold on the book publishing industry.
“People assume if you live in LA and you’re a novelist you aren’t going to be as embraced by the literary establishment as someone who lives in Brooklyn,” said Huneven, whose most recent novel, “Blame,” takes place in Pasadena, Altadena and La Cañada Flintridge.
Though other literary publications have existed in the area — CalArts’ Black Clock for one, Santa Monica College’s Santa Monica Review another — Slake portends an increased focus on Los Angeles writing, and “people here have as much right as anybody to see their lives depicted in literature,” said Huneven.
Just as New Yorkers, according to Donnelly, tend to filter literary images of LA into familiar tropes, Ochoa argues Southern Californians similarly pigeonhole Pasadena.
“There’s a myth that there is one kind of culture in Pasadena — people think about the Rose Parade and these guys in white suits, but at the same time it’s a place where all these bohemian artists settled,” she said.
But in these times, reputation is of secondary concern. Economic conditions are shuttering publications, eroding page counts, shrinking salaries and threatening writers’ and artists’ very livelihoods.
First and foremost, Slake is about survival.
The “Still Life” theme was “both personal to me and also more universal to life in Los Angeles and the times we’re in. I was going through a very rough time with many different things, and it seemed like what was going on with me was happening to the world, in a way. Everything seemed like it was collapsing,” said Donnelly.
“I would go for walks in Elysian Park and look out over the city — the last photographic spread from the book is the view I would see — and [think] there’s still life in this city, still life in journalism, still life in thought and community and pulling together on something.”
Readings from Slake will start at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.
There is also a 7:30 p.m. reading event tonight at Stories bookstore, 1716 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park. Call (213) 413-3733 or visit storiesla.com.
Follow Slake at facebook.com/slakemedia.