Lonely Latitudes : Even After She Finished Writing, Kate Braverman Was Alone With Her Novel

Times Staff Writer

Kate Braverman, poet, mother, neo-mythic persona and author of a new novel, "Palm Latitudes," is sitting on the snack bar deck of the Miramar Hotel in Montecito, Calif., on a cool, foggy afternoon drinking coffee from a foam cup and accepting homage from writing students who have just heard her read at the annual writers' conference.

"What's your sun sign?" asks one student, telling Braverman she is collecting the sun signs of famous writers.

"I'm an Aquarius with Virgo rising and my moon in Taurus," says Braverman. "Not that it's done me any good."

As a poet and novelist, she means. Although she finished her second novel four years ago, she has only just gotten it published.

House of '10,000 Books'

"It shouldn't have to be this tough," she later explains, chain-smoking and sitting in front of the fireplace in her mother's four-level hillside Beverly Hills home filled with art, sculpture and, according to her mother, "10,000 books."

"It just seems like what I've gone through between 1984 and now really seems sort of inordinate. It wasn't like this was the first thing I've ever done. It wasn't like no one had ever heard of me," Braverman says.

After all, she asks, isn't she the "the most famous female poet in Los Angeles? And I have been for years."

Braverman wrote "Palm Latitudes" during one 18-month stretch in 1982-83, working so feverishly, she says, she only slept every second night. When it was finished, she had 800 pages of what she considered tightly crafted, magical, evocative, hallucinatory prose.

"The book," says Braverman, "is about women's lives. And in a larger sense about sensibilities."

The three main characters are Francisca Ramos, a magical voluptuous prostitute with an icy, fearsome contempt for men ("I was coming off a brutal, disappointing relationship," says Braverman. "When I re-read the section I'm just amazed at her anger."); Gloria Hernandez, a silent, dutiful wife and mother who is nevertheless quite murderously mad and in a fit of jealous rage kills the Anglo woman next door; and Braverman's favorite character, Marta Ortega, a 74-year-old woman with prophetic powers who reads voluminously, grows exotic orchids and raises two wild, eclectic and demanding daughters. The final scene takes place in Echo Park, where they all live, during an apocalyptic summer heat wave where fires rage in the hills and ash falls from the skies on Ortega's wilting flowers.

"The book," says Braverman, "is really about the last hours of Marta Ortega's life before the world collapses before her eyes."

When "Palm Latitudes" was finished, Braverman needed a rest. She gave copies of the manuscript to her agent and 30 of her friends and went off with her daughter, Gabrielle, "to live in the jungles of Maui for a year."

At this point, she wasn't worried about selling the book. Three years before, her first novel, "Lithium for Medea," had gotten good, even superb, reviews. ("Braverman is gifted, even prodigiously so," said one major paper.)

Besides, she says, her agent seemed so confident--"Six figures. No problem."

She returned to total rejection. Not just her agent, who told her: "I'm doing this for your own good. I can't move the book. You'd be better off with someone else," but other agents and a dozen publishers. "I had," she says, "double-digit rejection everywhere."

In addition, she says, "People who I thought of as friends and colleagues were utterly unsupportive. . . . They weren't supportive of my struggle as a single mother. They weren't supportive of me emotionally. They weren't supportive of what the apparent career failure was doing to decompose my personality."

Not surprising, say some of Braverman's current and former friends. Although she is a gifted poet "with a touch of genius," at times she can be more than a little hard to take with a personality that ranges from deeply insightful to melodramatic to touchingly vulnerable.

This includes her life style: For years she owned no regular street clothes; now she wears eye shadow, high heels, net stockings and an amethyst ring the size of a duck stamp. "Striking any kind of balance," she says ruefully, "has (always) eluded me completely."

Braverman's demanding style seemed to work best with other forceful personalities. "I liked her guts," says fellow poet Wanda Coleman, who read at the Venice Poetry Workshop with her in the early '70s. "Her bitchiness and braggadocio didn't turn me off. She wasn't afraid of me. She approached me as a peer. I liked her style."

A Complex Personality

Los Angeles author and Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd ("Are You Running With Me, Jesus?" and 21 other books) sees Braverman as complex and fascinating personality.

Her problem, he says, is that "she was born in the wrong century. She should have been a Druid priestess. She's an utterly restless person, easily bored and she doesn't suffer fools gladly. . . . She can be one of the most selfish people on earth and she's totally unaware of it. . . . She used to be a very tough, no-nonsense, brilliant, scary kind of person and she isn't anymore. . . . I see a very vulnerable side to her. She could be smashed like a vase."

Braverman readily admits that she hasn't been an easy person to get along with.

"There was," she says, "a period of my life when I did not behave in a reasonable manner. Things that would be difficulties for a reasonable person were perceived by me as overwhelming instances of outrage and . . . tragedy." Nor was any of this helped, she says, by her tendency to merge her own personality with the wild, dangerous and daring persona she created in her poetry.

It's 9 p.m. on a Friday night in Beverly Hills and Kate Braverman is so nervous about the New York Times' review of her book in the Saturday edition that she's totally "rational," she says.

Her mother, radio reviewer and publicist and advertising person, Millicent Braverman, on the other hand, is thrilled. "It's like the opening of a Broadway play," she says, "where they stay up all night and wait for the reviews."

"This is it," she says, her eyes glistening. "The New York Times!"

Later Braverman is explaining why she always wore special black garb for her poetry readings when her mother, overhearing the conversation from the balcony, interrupts to amplify a certain point.

"Let me say something," she says, coming down the stairs. "Seven years ago I did a writers' program at UCLA and Kate spoke there."

"Is this going to be an interesting story?" asks Braverman.

"It is interesting."

"OK."

"It has a punch line," says her mother. "She was on this program and she spoke and I remember Katy said something: 'The pain you suffer is enormous. If you can be anything else but a writer, be it. You (better) want to spend 10 years like I did in a bathrobe because that is what it takes.' "

Best Years in a Bathrobe

"I'd forgotten that," says Kate Braverman. "I spent the best years of my life in a bathrobe. I didn't even own street clothes for the longest time." "She just started to buy street clothes recently," says Millicent Braverman.

"Let's not say that," says Kate.

"Yeah, let's not say that," says Millicent.

"That sounds just too offensive," says Kate.

Adds Millicent: "She told the audience, 'If you can be anything else but a writer be it. Or spend 10 years in a bathrobe because that's what it takes.' Remember that?"

"Well," says Kate, "it seemed to be what it took for me."

There was never any doubt that Braverman was destined to be a writer. Although born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a contractor. Braverman was the kind of kid who carried a notebook everywhere she went and stayed up all night. At 15, she attended her first writing workshop at UCLA. Later she moved to Haight Ashbury but only stayed one day once she discovered that "no one there read anything."

At 16, she moved to Berkeley, enrolled herself in high school (she told the principal her 21-year-old roommate was her cousin and legal guardian) and went on to UC Berkeley where, to get "a unified concept of how the universe works," she studied genetics, brain chemistry, primate social behavior and psychology. "And when I finished, I said, 'Yes, I understand. Now I can write.' "

In subsequent years, she became a reviewer, taught poetry and wrote three books of poetry and her first novel.

In the late '70s, when crime and violence drove her out of her home in Culver City, she rented a friendly little two-bedroom frame house on a hilltop in Echo Park. Dodger Stadium was off to her left and downtown L.A. was spread out below. Except for a gay couple across the way, she was the only non-Latin on the street.

"It was exciting," she says. "It was like moving to a new city. It became even more exciting when I realized I had moved to a new country."

Typewriter and Garden

She would get up every morning, make coffee and drink it at the typewriter. In the evening she would work on her garden--lettuce, tomatoes, gladioluses, carnations, irises and "banks of geraniums."

In time she came to know her neighbors. "I talked to them in Spanish. I got to know their adventures from all these little provinces in Guatemala and Salvador." And for Braverman it was a revelation.

"These are people who are impoverished, who are away from their homes. and families. These are people who are frightened . . . depressed . . . in the midst of trauma. And . . . when the heat would come up and people would be outside and in the streets . . . there was this pervasive sense of misery."

Braverman hadn't intended to write about the barrio when she moved to Echo Park. She was simply writing a long poem. Then when her poem hit 40 pages, it occurred to her--"You actually might be working on a novel."

By this point it was clear to Braverman that the quintessential Los Angeles book "should not be about Anglos." Los Angeles, she says, does not have American architecture, American vegetation. Even the streets, she says, are named after "Spanish saints and psychotics."

Even more importantly, she says, a book about Los Angeles had to have a particularly Latin feel. "I wanted to feminize the language," she says. "I wanted to use English in a way that I thought was a more tropical way of using it."

The only question was, did the writing work?

While she was on Maui, the responses from her friends came filtering back.

"I'm on Page 214," she said one friend wrote, "and . . . there is absolutely no reason to continue reading."

Another person circled Braverman's postscript dedication to her daughter and said it was "the only good line in the book."

From Wanda Coleman, Braverman got a long-distance call. "She said, 'You've got to withdraw this from publication. It is going to ruin your reputation. It's an unmitigated disaster.' "

It was an unmitigated disaster, Coleman says. "I told her, 'Why don't you write out of your own ethnic perspective?' There was a phrase--'La Puta de la Luna.' The glorification of the whore. I told her, 'Boy, Chicano chicks ain't . . . going to care for this.' "

It didn't get any better for Braverman when she got back to Los Angeles. A reading was arranged at a local university. Three people from the humanities department showed up. Halfway through the reading, one guy got up and walked out. "When I finish reading," says Braverman, "one of the (remaining two) guys looks at me and says, 'You can't be serious.'

"And I said, 'I am serious,'

"And he said, 'This has got to be some kind of joke.'

Braverman was shellshocked.

In the fall of 1985, Braverman enrolled in a master's program for literature at Sonoma State, a little school in the wine country 50 miles north of San Francisco. "After being laughed out of town on 'Palm Latitudes,' " says Braverman, "it was nice to land somewhere. . . . It was like I'd come in from combat."

Meanwhile, the rejections continued. Editors sent back the manuscript with a form letter: "This doesn't meet our current editorial needs."

Braverman was devastated. "That's what they do," she says, "for people who can't write."

At Sonoma State, she got her first hint that the novel wasn't a dreadful embarrassing disaster when she gave the manuscript to the writer in residence and the Milton Scholar. The first, says Braverman, called it "a tour de force" and the second said parts of it were as good as "anything in the English language."

Honored to Publish Novel

In the meantime, a friend of a friend had forwarded the manuscript to Simon and Schuster's Linden Press. When they hadn't responded after nearly a year, Braverman wrote and ask them to send the manuscript back. Instead they wrote to say they'd be pleased and honored to publish it.

Braverman was still so hurt by all the "contempt and rejection" she'd received, she said, that she didn't tell a "single person for six weeks."

This months, after four years, Braverman's book was finally published.

She was prepared for anything, she says, but the initial reviews looked surprisingly good. "I have them memorized. 'Dazzling . . . breathtaking . . . not characters but archetypes . . . the book is a poetic tour de force.' "

The New York Times, after a quibble on what it called the book's "angry feminist cliches," called it "a genuine achievement" and " a work of hallucinatory, poetic power."

Although a lot of people remember her, says Braverman, "as the unreasonable flamboyant poet buring the candle at both ends publicly . . . that persona has become extinct, obsolete . . . the species that I am has evolved into an entirely different other."

She's more private now. "It has recently occurred to me that I have always inhabited certain wide-open spaces alone," she says.

Braverman and her daughter, now 6, are staying temporarily with her mother, while Braverman tries to figure out just where to go next. After years of intense and dramatic living, she says, she has finally learned at age 39 the value of quiet and simplicity.

She meditates every day, walks 5 miles every morning and evening. "I read a lot. I listen to music. I thrash around in my consciousness. I love being a mother. I am more interested now in simplicity."

She's on a strict 800-calorie-a-day diet. She has totally stopped drinking by concentrating on one day at a time. She continues to smoke cigarettes. "I'm the only person in the socioeconomic group I purport to belong to who still smokes."

For the future, she says, she'd like to be a poet or novelist in residence at some university. Or else find a nice little rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica.

"Someone gets to live there," she says. "Why not me?"

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