Curbside Talk - Ludlow v. Holic - Part I
By Victor David Giron
Curbside Talk is a series we’ll run periodically featuring authors / publishers / artists conversing with each other on how their urban locales influence (or not) their work. For our inaugural conversation we’re pleased to feature two young talents we’re excited about – California based author Lavinia Ludlow and Florida based author / illustrator / editor Nathan Holic.
Lavinia Ludlow is the acclaimed author of the germophobic punk-rock epic alt.punk, and the upcoming rock-band novel Single Stroke Seven (Casperian Books). Both books focus on characters embroiled in the music scene of the Bay Area, drifting through the often-unknown hidden spaces of Sacramento and San Jose. Find Lavinia here. Nathan Holic is the editor of the anthology 15 Views of Orlando, a collection of loosely linked stories about the city of Orlando, and he is the author of the monthly graphic narrative “Clutter,” a story told as a home décor catalogue. Find Nathan here.
Ludlow’s characters are scattered across Northern California. Holic’s characters live and sweat in the sauna of Central Florida. Florida/ California. CentralFla/ NorCal. East Coast/ West Coast.
This is Part I of their conversation about “setting.” Read Part II here.
Nathan: We've corresponded over email and facebook for a few years now, and I've always found it funny how often we'll preface emails with something like, "Sorry if this seems really early to be sending you an email," or "Well, I'm headed out to get a drink! Don't worry. It's not that pathetic. The sun has already set here." You're in California, and I'm in Florida, two sunny states on opposite ends of the continent. And even though we might not always want to be defined (or confined) by where we live, it's definitely something that informs the way we live and the way we write. Really, I can't imagine your stories taking place anywhere else but California. But do you even see yourself as being a "California Writer," or your characters as being uniquely "Californian"?
Lavinia: It has been quite a wild ride, hasn't it? One time in a Facebook status update, you mentioned how you were heading out to grab a beer at 12pm on a Friday (EST time) when I was just getting up (9am PST) or abusing the snooze button.
Time zones aside, I do associate myself as a true Californian. I grew up here, went to school here, and for the most part, I'm living here now. Throughout my teens and early twenties, I lived in multiple states, and over the last few years, I've traveled all over the nation, but my roots will always feel grounded in Northern California. When I pick up a pencil to write, my head always assumes that I'll write through the eyes of a Californian. It's what I know best, and I remember you along with many others have always told me to write what I know and be responsible when it comes to setting a scene in a specific location.
However, I don't "write Californian" only for this reason. In movies, books, and music, there's always such a major focus on the big cities like New York and Los Angeles. I aim to pay tribute to and highlight the local city life of smaller, less pronounced cities like Sacramento and San Jose, or the Bay Area in general, as exhibited in alt.punk and my upcoming project Single Stroke Seven.
Florida definitely sounds like an eccentric and unique part of the nation, though. I recall you mentioning something about Tampa and jean shorts, and Orlando being more about beer and beaches.
Nathan: That's really funny that you mention Tampa as being a "jean short" city. To be completely honest, I'm not sure that's true, but it sounds like something I'd say! It's got a heavy redneck population, and if there's one thing I know about rednecks, it's that they love their jean shorts and homemade tank tops. (I say this endearingly, of course. God bless the rednecks.) I also know that the University of Georgia football fans like to taunt the University of Florida fans by chanting "Gators wear jean shorts," so that's probably where I got that from...even though UF is in Gainesville and not Tampa, but whatever.
And Orlando's definitely about beer, but any beaches we have are man-made. Our most famous lakes, out at Disney World, are all the result of an unnatural amount of planning and design...when Walt Disney visited the undeveloped land, he hated the swamps and all the brown water, and had it all drained so that the developers could start their lakes from scratch.
When it comes to my own fiction, I think my mission is pretty similar to yours: highlighting the "smaller, less pronounced cities." I think it's important for fiction writers to continue tackling the major cities, Chicago and New York and Boston, and continue showing how the cities-as-characters are changing, and how the residents continue to adapt along with the changes...but it does seem like the smaller cities get left out. Maybe it's because they're not quite as universal, and publishers and producers don't think audiences will relate to Sacramento or Tulsa or Charlotte or Orlando. And maybe that's true. But I also don't like to approach my own reading or writing in terms of marketability; instead, I go for what's interesting to me, what makes me curious, and because I've seen a million and a half TV shows and movies set in New York, I'd rather read a novel—like alt.punk, for instance—that shows us what it means to live in Sacramento. I mean, someone's gotta live there, right? We all can't live in New York. So show me what it means, in our current cultural moment, to be living in Sacramento, to take those highways every day to your office, to cheer for the Sacramento Kings (and not in an ironic way), to know that you are not quite on the coast, and you're not quite in the mountains, and you're not quite San Fran or San Jose or even Oakland...you spend your life in a fairly important city that many people—outside of that area—don’t really care about. You live in a place that is decidedly non-hip. And while you live there, you are aware of all of this. It's not as if you're stupid, or dense, or you have some misguided view that Sacramento is the size of New York...no, you live there, you eat there, you drink there...maybe your family is there, and your high school, and your old friends, and your current friends...you live in Sacramento, and you are 100% percent aware that it will never be San Francisco or LA or even Portland or Seattle, and yet you continue to live there. That's the story I want to read. Not just another story of a hip twenty-something who moves to New York City, the center of it all. Hell, I know that story.
Lavinia: What are your location focal points when you set a story? Do you want to highlight the local life and venues you hold near and dear, or do you scope out places like a location scout, travel there, and then apply it to your story?
Nathan: I think that question is a little tough to answer, since it depends on the characters about which I'm writing. I've got to consider where they would be, why they would be going where they're going. I might want to write about Beefy King (my favorite sandwich joint in Orlando), but if my characters are vegans, they probably wouldn't have a reason to go there. Or...even if they love sandwiches, a visit to Beefy King might just seem awkward, like when a singer tries to insert the name of the city into a song during a concert, but it just doesn't fit.
I sort of have a formula for my fiction, and it goes like this: Create Character, then Create Situation in Which to Place Character. Sounds relatively obvious, I know, but if I approach a story with a character-first approach (maybe I want to write about a down-on-his-luck teacher?), then I can start brainstorming settings and situations where that character might be tested, or where something interesting might happen for that character. What would happen if I placed my down-on-his-luck teacher into the parking lot of the Florida Mall on the morning of Black Friday? Something cool might happen. The problem is, the places I love most don't seem to be ripe for conflict...that's probably why I love them. It's the places that seem a little "off," or that rub me the wrong way, or that seem to be the antithesis of everything I want Orlando to be...those are the places where my characters wind up most often. But in our 15 Views of Orlando collection, one of the great things was that I was able to see other authors tackle the city. So it didn't matter what I wanted to write; I got to see the good and the bad, places that I love and places that I hate and places that I've never heard of, because other authors don't have the same preferences or weird quirks that I do.
Lavinia: When you write fiction that's not set outside of your knowledge base on Florida, how do you accurately craft the characteristics and essence of a place in which you may have limited knowledge?
Nathan: Well, I don't know that I often write about places I haven't been. It generally comes across as being phony, or way too general. I actually wrote a story once that took place in Sacramento (I've been there once, but I hadn't been there when I wrote that story), and now that I think about it, it took place almost entirely within an office building. Technically, it could have been a dozen other cities. I just think there's so much to explore within Florida, so much that hasn't previously been explored or that has never been explored with real honesty that I've got no reason to venture outside and start writing about...I don't know, Saskatchewan or something.
Here’s a question, Lavinia, something I clearly don’t know: What is it that goes into crafting a good California story here in 2012? What does an author need to consider if he/she wants to really make the reader believe that we are in California? What did you have to do, as you wrote and revised alt.punk, to make the entire area come alive for your readers?
Lavinia: I think the biggest thing to bringing a location alive is not just landmarks and physical characteristics, but also what's buzzing on the lips of the locals. I ask myself, what were the major events that took place during <time period>, what were people in <this city> discussing? Were there riots, were there protests, what beer are they drinking in Nor Cal vs So Cal, what was going on in summer, winter, fall, etc. The difficult part of writing in the past is that I personally need to rely on memories or look up past events to accurately craft my stories around the designated location's current events, and if I'm writing a story in the "now," I have to keep in mind that once my project/story/flash gets to print, these events may be long forgotten or obsolete.
When I set alt.punk in Sacramento, I was living there at the time, and during the editorial process, I thought briefly about changing the location to something more appealing and well-known. However, I chose to keep that location for strategic reasons: I experienced a miserable slew of years there and throughout the editing process, I was able to craft a vivid (miserable) essence in my protagonist's narration. On the flip side, I wanted to pay tribute to the city in which my fabulous amazing ever-epic publisher is based. I remember asking Casperian Books where I needed to send the hard copy of the manuscript, and I didn't realize they were more or less right in my backyard.
But Nathan, as a die-hard Floridian, I am sure there are aspects about location and your hometown that you are OCD about getting right. When I was working through the draft of Single Stroke Seven, I knew I needed to get the essence of downtown San Jose right, so I focused on the hole-in-the-wall eateries and cafes, the local night clubs and concert halls. I also focused on how the downtown economy reacted to the recession, how certain clubs were closing, others were relocating due to rise in rent. How do you adequately integrate a location's "essence" into your writing, and are there aspects of a location that you know you must always touch on?
Nathan: This was actually something that 15 Views of Orlando helped me to understand. It's something that I've been teaching for awhile, but I don't know if I've ever articulated it in regards to "city fiction."
If you've read the interviews at the end of 15 Views of Orlando, you know that it was actually based on an assignment for my fiction classes, in which my students each had to write about a different location within the city of Orlando. The idea was that they would try to write the city with honesty, capturing that local "essence" that so many outsiders might get wrong. My hope was that they would also apply this knowledge to other fiction that they wrote; for instance, if they set a story in Chicago, they'd try to really learn about Chicago, because they'd have a better understanding of what it meant to write about a place where so many people live and work and breathe. When a student in my class attempted to write about a place in Orlando without ever having been there, other students would call them out. "That's not what the store looks like!" or "Nobody calls it that!" or "That street doesn't exist!" In a way, my assignment was about humiliation...writers need to be true to the real locations they write about, because those real locations mean something to the real people who live there.
That was what I was hoping to teach, anyway. But what I learned from the assignment, and from the book that we published with Burrow Press, is that good city fiction is really a study in "generalizations" vs. "specifics." Again, that might sound obvious, but you can't write a good city story or novel by trying to capture the entire city of Orlando, or San Jose, or Chicago, all at once. You don't just write "about" San Jose. As you said, you focus on individual and specific locations. In Orlando, I might focus on a single townhouse in the Pleasantville-like community of Avalon Park, or on a used-car lot on the dumpy street of Orange Blossom Trail, or on Lake Eola, or on Wall Street Plaza. I think that's the best way to capture a location's essence. Get as specific as possible. Zoom in on one place, and keep zooming. Show me the cracks in the sidewalk, the oil stains in the driveway. Show me the oak trees whose branches haven't been cut in ten years. Show me the accumulating flyers stuck in the door handle of a foreclosed-upon house in the East Orlando subdivision of Anderson Cay.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Orlando, though. So you tell me, Lavinia. How would you define the city of San Jose or Sacramento (take your pick) to outsiders.
Lavinia: To define a city in a few sentences is subjective. The definition depends not merely on what parts of the city people inhabit, but also their identified subculture or group.
San Jose to a young yuppie who works and lives downtown will be vastly different than what I have to say about San Jose. I grew up in the bullet-rattled East Side and went to a high school most are surprised I could get out from alive (much less graduate). But it’s home to me, my best friends still reside there and never plan to leave, so although we don’t have that “pride” and “identity” and even “passion” many have when it comes to cities like New York and Los Angeles, we know it through our eyes as having eccentric hipster day and nightlife, a location where there’s a Japantown in one corner, artsy boutiques and cafes on the other, the financial district and Silicon Valley on one side, and our run-down eateries and public parks on the other.
The cool thing about the “indie lit scene” is that we really get a sense of where each indie writer is from and how they participate in the local culture. I know I can always count on some of my favorite writers to introduce me to their worlds, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, the college life in Central Florida, the underbelly of San Francisco, or the suburbs of Illinois.
Read part II of Nathan and Lavinia's conversation here.
Lavinia Ludlow is the author of the celebrated punk-rock novel, alt.punk, and the upcoming Single Stroke Seven. Both titles are available from Casperian Books. Connect with Lavinia and read more of her work at http://ludlowlavinia.wordpress.com. Nathan Holic is the editor of the anthology series, 15 Views of Orlando, available here at the Burrow Press web site; all proceeds from sales directly benefit the Central Florida literacy organization Page 15. He is also the author of the ongoing graphic narrative "Clutter," available online at Smalldoggies Magazine. Read more of his work at http://nathanholic.com.