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He takes in strays. Adores his parents. Still finds his wife fascinating. Mark Salzman--acclaimed writer and certified hipster--finds it’s . . . : Cool to Be Kind

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Writer and cellist Mark Salzman leans forward in his chair to make his confession: “I really like my parents,” he admits. “Even when I was a teenager I adored them.”

If that’s not enough, while relaxing in his Glendale home Salzman owns up to the fact that he finds his wife fascinating, was friendly to his high school teachers and has, on occasion, taken in stray animals.

Is this what’s become of L.A. cool?

Apparently so. Buzz magazine recently named Salzman (as well as his wife, filmmaker Jessica Yu) as one of the 100 coolest people in L.A.--not only because he’s written four well-received books, was photographed by Herb Ritt for a Gap ad, appeared in a Dewar’s Scotch profile and last year played at Lincoln Center with Yo-Yo Ma, but also because “the slyly hilarious Salzman remains genuinely surprised by his well-deserved acclaim.”

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His colleagues, however, are not in the least surprised about Salzman’s success.

“Mark is a great person and that decency is wonderfully evident in his writing,” says Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele. “His books are beautifully straightforward and although this may not sound like a compliment, it really is: Mark’s writing is easy to read.”

Dr. Ethan Canin, a physician and Bay Area fiction writer who met Salzman at a Sun Valley writers conference a couple of years ago, agrees:

“He’s a rare bird--his love of music, this fascination he has with all the oddities of life. Mark’s writing has a real intelligence and breadth to it.”

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All this fanfare and still Salzman has trouble buying a six-pack of beer. “Even though I’m 37, I still get carded,” he laments. “But--and here’s the one time being briefly famous came in handy--the month the Dewar’s profile came out I was standing in the checkout line at Vons and the clerk says, ‘Let me see your ID.’ I show him my driver’s license and he’s looking very doubtful, thinking, I’m sure, that it’s fake. He calls over the store manager and they’re both poring over my driver’s license so I pull a Time magazine off the shelf, show them the Dewar’s ad on the back and say, ‘Look, Time says I’m old enough to drink.’ ”

“It was a fun moment,” he says, laughing.

In fact, Salzman’s writing is filled with these kind of moments. His first book, “Iron & Silk” (Random House, 1987), chronicled his two years in China teaching English and studying martial arts.

“ ‘Iron & Silk’ happened kind of by accident,” Salzman says. “I had just gotten back from China. I was very excited about martial arts and was teaching it where I lived in New Haven, but it wasn’t turning out the way I wanted. As you might expect, when you’re teaching something like martial arts it’s very difficult to find people who are in it for the same reasons you are. I like martial arts as an art form, period.

“The end result was that I had one student,” he says. “Things were not working out. So this friend and I--who were always getting together to moan about how women didn’t appreciate good guys--decided to have a Christmas party. A kind of literary salon. And my friend asked me to write up one of the stories I was always telling about my stay in China to read at the party.

“Well, nobody came. My friend felt so bad that he sent my story to one of his friends who had just landed a job working for a publisher,” he says. “She kept asking for more stories and I thought she was just seeing if I had enough episodes to fill up a book. But one day she called and said, ‘I think the book’s ready.’ ”

In addition to being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and receiving several other literary honors, “Iron & Silk” was made into a film written by and starring Salzman. “No one saw it,” he says with a grin, “but Siskel and Ebert raved. They gave it two thumbs up. It was my one hour of film glory but I learned I’m not suited for screenwriting. It’s too complicated. There are too many things you have to count on to get things done.”

After “Iron & Silk” came “The Laughing Sutra” (Random House, 1992) and, in 1994, “The Soloist” (Random House), a novel about two cello prodigies of different generations. This book also received a Pulitzer nomination and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction.

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“ ‘The Soloist’ started with a conversation I overheard between two women,” Salzman says. “One woman said she’d just heard a radio program about Zen Buddhism that said Zen masters were people who had achieved a psychological perspective of comprehending traditional notions of right and wrong as relative and that by doing so were relieved of the burden of always being right.

“The other woman said, ‘Well, that sounds great, but then how do you tell the difference between the Zen master and the sociopath?’ The beauty of her question is how do you articulate that difference since religious experience is, by its very nature, incommunicable? A trial, of course, would be one place where it would be imperative to try and articulate the difference. And that’s how the book started.”

*

The oldest child in a middle-class household, Salzman grew up in Ridgefield, Conn., the son of a piano teacher mother and a social worker father. While his work effervesces with a contagious good humor about his life and the world around him, it’s also clear that his writing is a struggle--he readily admits that the act is pure agony for him--to find meaning and hope in a difficult world.

Part of this struggle focuses on his loving but sometimes thorny relationship with his father. In his coming-of-age memoir, “Lost in Place” (Random House, 1995), Salzman admits his interest in Chinese culture started out as a way to impress his dad.

One telling moment between the young Salzman and his father takes place as the two watch a comet pass overhead:

When I asked my dad what would happen to dust from the tail after it got blown out of the solar system, he said, “Well, gravity might catch it and pull it into a huge cloud of other kinds of dust and then it would become a new star or planet. Or it might drift out in space forever.”

“How can it drift forever?”

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He paused before answering. “Nobody knows, really. But you’ll have a better idea once you get a job.”

Salzman reaches down to pet a white, long-tailed cat that has wandered by to find out why the day’s routine has changed. Salzman and Yu’s home--one of those California tract houses so familiar we all could find the bathroom without asking--is comfortable, unpretentious and surprisingly bereft of Asian bric-a-brac. But there are animals: Cats, saltwater fish and--until last month when a raccoon snuck in through the cat door--five finches. (“I saw the bird cage on the floor and five beaks,” he says. “Just as I’m telling my wife about the birds, I look over and see her favorite fish go belly up. It’s been a hard month for animals around here.”)

The couple met while both were studying at Yale--she an English major, he studying Chinese. “We were introduced by a mutual friend who thought we might like each other because I studied martial arts and Jessica was a world-class fencer,” he says. “As it turns out, we didn’t hit it off for that reason but we shared every other interest--especially a sense of humor--so it worked out.”

After college, the two married and moved to San Francisco, where Yu had grown up. Her filmmaking career soon brought them to Los Angeles.

Yu’s award-winning work includes “Breathing Lessons,” two short comedies (“Sour Death Balls” and “The Conductor”), a documentary (“Men of Reenaction”) and, most recently, a dramatic short called “Better Late.”

“I still feel she’s the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” Salzman says. “She’s my target audience.”

*

Like “The Soloist’s” main character, Salzman had dreams of being a professional cellist--to the extent that he had applied to college as a music major. A week before he was to begin college, he decided to treat himself to a performance by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“I’d never seen him play before,” Salzman says. “And within five minutes, I was completely destroyed. The funny thing was that it wasn’t his skill--although I immediately realized that even in three lifetimes I could never play as well as him. It was the look on his face when he played. I realized that for him, every single phrase was precious, there was nothing he would rather be doing. I’d never had that feeling and at that moment I realized what the gulf was. So I put the cello away, went to school, majored in Chinese and didn’t touch the instrument again for about 12 years.”

Salzman says that writing “The Soloist” was a way to come to terms with the loss of his dream of being a professional musician. Gradually, he began playing again--this time, just for fun--and now he divides his day between practicing the cello, practicing martial arts and working on a new novel he plans to complete by Thanksgiving.

He says, however, that his music and writing both represent a single passion: to make order out of a chaotic world.

“A few months back I was over at a friend’s house and he asked me to look in on his 3-year-old daughter. ‘Ask her to show you her Halloween candy and then tell me what you think. We’re a little worried.’ When I asked her about it, she spread the candy out on the floor and immediately started arranging it by size and color. The parents are wondering whether her intense interest in order seems odd, but all I want to do is get down on the floor with her and help sort out the candy corns from the Snickers bars.

“It’s the same with both music and writing,” he adds. “Human experience is so chaotic that it’s difficult to see a pattern in your life, but if you can compress time you can impose order.”

In his memoir, “Lost in Place,” Salzman amiably recounts a series of flamboyant obsessions--with kung fu, cello, dope smoking and Chinese literature--that failed to bring him lasting happiness.

“People asked how I, a guy in my late 30s, could write a memoir,” Salzman says. “But the truth is that writers need stories to tell and this was a story. I don’t blame some people wondering if this book was an act of arrogance, but what I write about is hardly aggrandizing--I’m telling stories of myself when I’m 14 and wearing this bald wig in the basement so I’ll look more like a Chinese monk. My mom would be giving a piano lesson and I’d walk through the room to go to the bathroom wearing robes and a bald wig with my long hair sticking out. This is hardly glorifying.”

Maybe not, but he still gets a particular kind of fan mail.

“Especially with ‘Lost in Place,’ the voice is so easy to grasp that people feel they know Mark because the writing is so clear-cut and charming and familiar,” says Los Angeles writer Sandra Tsing Loh. “People either feel like they want to move in with him or exchange recipes or introduce him to their son or daughter. It really is a lovable kind of mail.”

But being at once a talented writer, musician and martial artist does not necessarily garner respect.

“It’s still so hard to say, ‘I’m a writer’ with a straight face,” he admits. “For instance, a few months after ‘Iron & Silk’ came out, I was asked last-minute to come help out a Chinese martial arts troupe that was giving a performance at the Asia Society in New York. Late in the afternoon, I discovered they needed a program to describe what they were doing so I took some notes from the athletes and then went upstairs to type it up.

As I’m typing, this woman--one of those grand dames of the New York Asia Society--looks over my shoulder and says, ‘Mr. Salzman, what is that you’re doing?’ I told her I was typing out a program for the performance, to which she said, ‘Well, we have writers to do that here.’ ”

When Salzman told her that he was, in fact, a writer, the woman replied, “We’re all writers, Mr. Salzman.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Mark Salzman

Age: 37.

Background: Born and raised in Ridgefield, Conn.; moved to California eight years ago, now lives in Glendale.

Family: Married for eight years to filmmaker Jessica Yu; no children but many pets.

Passions: Martial arts, cello, writing and all things Chinese.

On high school: “I was considered an oddball because my passion was Chinese culture and I tended to get very over-excited about things. I mean, I was so excited about kung fu that I’d try walking to school barefoot every day.”

On that Gap ad: "[Photographer] Herb Ritt was in town shooting for Gap and he saw my picture for a martial arts performance I was doing. One of his people called and said, ‘Can you be here right now?’ Sounded like fun, so I went. When it came time to shoot, Ritt didn’t like the clothes I was wearing so he made an assistant--a woman--take off her clothes and I wore those instead.”

On Hollywood entertaining: Yu and Salzman hosted a bad-review party where guests were instructed to bring--and read--their worst review. Fortunately, therapy was also provided: After reading, guests took turns whacking a film-critic pin~ata. “It was very telling how each person hit the pin~ata.”


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