Living and Writing Los Angeles

William Deverell and Brighde Mullins discuss living in and writing about Los Angeles. (Oliver Gettell / April 21, 2013)

Why write in and about Los Angeles? Brighde Mullins offered one pithy answer while moderating a panel on that subject at the Festival of Books on Sunday. Quoting Carson McCullers, Mullins said, "If you're going to write, you better have someplace to be from."

Mullins  then spent the next hour delving deeper into just what living and writing Los Angeles means, with input from William Deverell, Dana Johnson, Laura Pulido and Richard Rayner.

Deverell, a historian and the author of "Whitewashed Adobe," said, "One of the attractive and really seductive things about studying Los Angeles and trying to figure it out is the historical velocity with which it developed. It just explodes on the American scene in the latter half of the 19th century, and then roars into the Great Depression, and then roars again around the second World War and continues to do so."

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He added, "One of the caricatured myths about Los Angeles is it doesn't have a history. That's nonsense. Any human place has a history, and the documentary record here really is thick and deep. It's just that great chunks of it rest in people's garages, attics and closets.… Every single day more things come out and then weave the human tapestry of the place."

Johnson, the author of "Elsewhere, California," said she was inspired to write her novel, which has autobiographical elements, because she didn't see her own experiences of growing up in Los Angeles reflected in literature.

"I really started thinking about what kind of stories I wanted to write and what I felt was important," she said. "I just felt as though there were never stories that were talking about the sort of post-civil-rights African American experience in California."

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With "Elsewhere," she said, "that was my project — to talk about Los Angeles, California and the suburbs in ways that I didn't see represented in literature."

For Pulido, a professor of American studies and ethnicity and the author of "A People's Guide to Los Angeles," her relationship to the city has deep roots.

"Why L.A.? The simple reason is because I'm from here," she said. "For me it just became a matter of an accident of birth — but of course, it's not really an accident that I was born in L.A. Us Mexicans have been here a very long time."

Pulido added that writing about Los Angeles is "very much about my family's history and about growing up here." It's also about "realizing there's so, so much history and geography that people dismiss, they don't know, they don't understand, and I was very committed to bringing that to a larger audience."

For Rayner, the author of "A Bright and Guilty Place," Los Angeles is an adopted home. (Rayner is British but has lived here for 20 years.)

"The story of my relationship with L.A. is the story of my writing life, which I'm still trying to understand," he said.

As a journalist working in Los Angeles for many years, Rayner became well acquainted with the city, including its dark side. Reporting on such events as the riots and the Rampart scandal, Rayner said, "I got to know and see the city in very, very different ways and to see corners of it that we don't necessarily push our noses up against."

After all these years, he's still trying to figure it out.

"I realize that the moment when I actually understand L.A. in all its multiplicity will indeed be the day I die," Rayner said. "But I will go on trying so to do until that day."