The novelist Jervey Tervalon likes to share this interesting fun fact about his life: He was born in the same year as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince.
Tervalon, 55, is a professional teller and gatherer of stories and also a busy literary networker. He grew up in Los Angeles, where celebrity culture can feel like a huge planet whose gravity is constantly sucking him in. The collision between the stars of movie, television and music industries, and the lives of ordinary Angelenos is the subject of his new novel, "Monster's Chef" (Amistad: 224 pp., $24.99).
"Living in Los Angeles, you always hear celebrity stories," Tervalon says in a Pasadena cafe not far from his Altadena home. He then recounts a few of the many behind-the-scenes tales he's heard about the late Michael Jackson. Like a lot of Angelenos, he's both fascinated and repulsed by celebrity culture.
"When I was growing up in L.A., I lived four blocks from the place where Marvin Gaye was killed," Tervalon says, remembering the 1984 shooting death of the soul singer. As a teenager, Tervalon encountered the football player and actor Jim Brown at a house party and cringed when his then girlfriend approached the mercurial Brown. "I was terrified he'd break my neck."
The protagonist in "Monster's Chef," Tervalon's sixth book, has similarly ambivalent feelings about celebrity culture. Gibson is a personal chef for a secretive hip-hop artist, the fictional "Monster." He can't help but be a voyeur to all the craziness surrounding the famous man while also being deeply fearful of him. And yet, like Tervalon, Gibson finds himself pulled in by the artist's charisma.
"With a man like Monster it's hard not to become obsessed with every little detail of him, and adding up those details was an unending job," Gibson says in the book. "Around him, I was an anthropologist, and he was a race of one and the subject of my life's work."
The character's obsessions echo Tervalon's own writing career. As a novelist, Tervalon has had great success as a kind of literary anthropologist and observer of life in Louisiana (where he was born) and Southern California (where he now lives).
Tervalon loves to write — and suffers with the sense that the book world doesn't see writers "of color" like him for who they truly are. As he tells it, Tervalon has been engaged in a 20-year battle to be taken seriously as a writer who also happens to be African American and who most often writes about black people, from young, angst-ridden witnesses of L.A. violence to New Orleans matriarchs.
From 1990 to 1992, he attended the prestigious master's program in creative writing at UC Irvine, not long after Michael Chabon did and a few years before Danzy Senna. He published his first novel, "Understand This," in 1994. The story of young Francois, a resident of South Los Angeles, "Understand This" was a reflection of the city as it was then, a metropolis riven by inequality.
Indeed, Los Angeles erupted in rioting as Tervalon was laboring to complete his book. The cast of characters in "Understand This" included college students and wannabe gangsters. "He's daring," a Times reviewer wrote of Tervalon's debut. "And 'Understand This' explores more difficult landscape — geographic and interior — than many of its angrier and grittier brethren."
But Tervalon says he was frustrated that many critics didn't see the universality of his characters and their predicaments. He was branded an "urban writer," he says. "People kept calling it 'gritty,' and that bothered me. I thought I was writing 'War and Peace.'"
He's respected in local circles as a literary activist and teacher. Tervalon teaches at UC Santa Barbara, though, as he quips, "there isn't a university in Southern California where I haven't worked." In 2012, he co-created the now-annual Litfest Pasadena with Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and Pasadena Star-News writer Larry Wilson, inviting a wide range of local writers to participate.
"If there were more writers like Jervey in Southern California, there'd be more literary culture here," Wilson said. "Jervey envisions a place where everyone would actively talk books — meaning mostly talk writers — all day and all night long, in cafes and bars, in classrooms and offices."
Getting young people to talk about writing is the motivation behind another of Tervalon's projects, the website Literature for Life, which describes itself as an "online literary journal, salon and resource" for teachers who want to "spark a love of reading and writing" among students.
The idea is to create a forum, featuring the work of both established writers and students, that will allow students to see their lives reflected in the journal's pages. As a result, they will begin to think of themselves as literary creators.
Wilson said Tervalon started the project "because he loves the writing dodge and can't think of anything more fun than being a writer and thus getting to be around other writers. To get to be a writer is to get to be cool."
Tervalon, recently divorced and remarried, and the father of two, knows that the everyday life of the writer isn't an easy one. Though it has gotten a bit easier.
"It seems like the world is more welcoming to writers of color," he says.
This year, the last days of a California spring found Tervalon putting the finishing touches on his next book. Among other things, he was digging up the last of the many recipes to be found in the pages of "Monster's Chef," a noirish novel that sees the cook Gibson drawn into a web of sex, crime and violence. One of those recipes was for "collard, mustard and turnip greens."
"We call it 'gumbo z'herbs,'" Tervalon says. "We eat a lot of greens in New Orleans." Like being a writer, eating greens, he warns, can be "kind of addicting."