All they ask is that you don't think pink

Times Staff Writer

As first-time novelists, Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack did not have the clout to influence the cover design of their creation, "Literacy and Longing in L.A." Kaufman dreaded a pink book jacket. Mack decided if the cover's background was pink, purple or even Tiffany blue, she would let the publisher know that she and her writing partner were not happy. Not. Happy.

Because, as anyone who has trolled the hardcover-fiction section of a bookstore in the last 10 years knows, chick lit usually comes swathed in dust jackets the color of bubble gum. Kaufman and Mack didn't want their book lumped into that giddy girl ghetto, consigned to the genre of smart, funny, self-deprecating female narrators who chronicle the predictable romantic agonies and career disasters that pit the road to happily ever after.

The theme of most chick lit has been that a good man is hard to find. A good woman is hard to be is the subtext of "Literacy and Longing in L.A.," the tale of Dora, a 35-year-old Westside woman at a turning point in what might be seen as a charmed life. She's a little like a Prius -- certifiably chic and knowing, by upper-middle-class standards, but her heart's in the right place. Dora can scarf up designer duds and quote contemporary poetry with equal authority. If she's not a chick-lit heroine -- she was named, pointedly, for Eudora Welty -- she would fit right into a genre-in-the-making that occupies a zone somewhere between commercial and highbrow fiction (see "The Jane Austen Book Club: A Novel" by Karen Joy Fowler and Sara Nelson's memoir, "So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading").

So there was joy in Brentwood when the jacket art arrived, featuring a photograph of a full-lipped beauty leaning on a stack of weighty tomes. Great ghost of Jane Austen, there was no pink in sight. The writing team hadn't been so elated since they received offers from four publishers five days after submitting their manuscript to an agent.

With the exception of occasional whimpers about how tough it can be to get attention for a debut novel, the pair's joy has not abated. They were thrilled when their book landed on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, where it has remained for four weeks, ecstatic when a favorable review in the New York Times described it as "appealingly offbeat." There was cause for more celebration when People magazine listed "Literacy and Longing in L.A." in their survey of summer books as a "page-turner" and not in the chick-lit section. Perhaps most rewarding, readers have embraced the novel, identifying with Dora and her addiction to fiction.

On a Thursday morning in late June, 25 women perched on chairs set up amid the stacks at Dutton's Beverly Hills Books. Like book groups throughout the country, they gather regularly to discuss a particular novel, but having authors like Mack and Kaufman present was a rare event. Stylish, poised and obviously acquainted with the grooming secrets that make certain L.A. women look more glamorous than their Midwestern sisters, the duo charmed their fans. They explained that although a salesman at Book Soup is convinced the character of Fred was based on him, Dora's sexually talented, emotionally limited love interest was really a composite of men they've known. It was Ian McEwan's "Atonement," they declared, that inspired many elements of Dora's story.

And while the scope of the pair's literary ambition might be surprising, most of the group at Dutton's got the reference, and they enjoyed being given such a clue. They're the sort of people who carry three novels onto a plane, the better to avoid their personal version of hell -- being caught with nothing to read if a flight is delayed. Jennifer Watling, dressed in Lily Pulitzer pinks and greens, stood and expressed what many thought while reading the novel.

"I feel like I'm Dora," she said. "When I first moved to L.A., I lived at Dutton's in Brentwood."

Although bingeing on books isn't as nakedly self-destructive as an alcoholic's bender, the more Dora uses reading to escape from life, the less life she has. "If there's one thing we hear from readers, it's that a lot of people share Dora's trait," Kaufman said. "They use books as a coping mechanism."

Back story

THE common assumption that first novels include large amounts of autobiography is somewhat insulting to a fiction writer. By working together, Kaufman and Mack avoided, or confused, that issue; they couldn't both be Dora.

Mack is a former entertainment attorney who worked for Lorimar Pictures and Republic Studios before becoming a producer of theatrical and television movies, she has been married for 25 years to Russell Goldsmith, chairman and chief executive of City National Bank, with whom she has three children. "My life is boring," she said.

That's unlikely, but Kaufman has certainly experienced more drama, enough to warrant an escape into books. She had a starter marriage while in her teens, worked for Women's Wear Daily in Rome and Milan, then moved to L.A., where she was an L.A. Times reporter for 10 years, writing under her maiden name, Seder. At 30, she married a successful celebrity photographer. They had one son and divorced after four years. She had another son with her third husband, Donald Kaufman. When he died in a plane crash 15 years ago, she was left with her children, two stepchildren, a failing business that eventually went bankrupt and a home in Malibu.

"There was a fire, a flood, a landslide," she said. "It was one thing after another. I just wanted to read."

Kaufman coasted through that period of her life, afflicted with what she called writer's cramp. Mack saw her friend's malady as writer's block. Determined to push her beyond it, she suggested a number of movie ideas for Kaufman to write.

"Nothing sparked her," Mack said, until "we both liked the idea of doing something about a woman who reads incessantly, because we both have that affliction." The subject didn't feel right for a screenplay, and "because I was unfamiliar with the publishing world," Mack said, "I thought writing a novel would be easier. It's not."

At first, Mack wrote mostly dialogue and Kaufman contributed descriptions. A single voice emerged quickly, and now the authors, who frequently finish each other's sentences, say they can't determine who wrote what. They were both familiar with the L.A. landmarks that figure in the story -- Fred works at a bookstore that's a dead ringer for Dutton's in Brentwood, Dora lives at a building perched above the coast that's much like 101 Ocean Avenue, where well-heeled serial monogamists go to lick their wounds and search for their next mates.

The collaborators sat at one desk every day from 10 to 4, talking out and writing down Dora's story or reading aloud passages already written. In the evening, each would reread and often rewrite the day's pages. Late-night phone calls were routine.

"What we wrote today sucks," Kaufman would say. " We have to do it all over. Can you come over early?"

Writing the novel consumed a year. Mack's experience promoting TV movies and the advice of seasoned authors convinced them they'd have to get involved in marketing. They hired veteran book publicist Kim Dower and paid their own way to Seattle and San Francisco to do publicity and visit bookstores. Sitting in the cozy living room of the Santa Monica home Kaufman shares with her fourth husband, they told stories, once painful and now humorous, about the book signing attended by three people and a dog, being interviewed on an all-night country-western radio show and the stamina required to buck the attitude of disinterested bookstore managers.

Reading may have gotten Kaufman through some tough times, but pounding the pavement to promote "Literacy and Longing in L.A." was a crucial next step. As much as the authors sympathize with the way Dora retreats into books -- "Our novel is really about the power of literature and how reading can help you," Mack said -- they acknowledge that reading is not a solution for anyone who abandons real life.

Yes, fiction offers answers to life's big questions. Armed with those, Kaufman said, as if she were scolding Dora, "Get a life. Face your problems. Talk to your mother. Figure out what she did to screw you up. Start over and stop whining. Get out of your bathtub and do something."

Although Dora thinks "there's a fine line between interesting literary discussions and pompous bull," don't get her started on the wisdom and solace the great books have given her. Forget self-help guides. From "Wuthering Heights" a reader learns that choosing social status over passion is ruinous. "The Cider House Rules" finds nobility in flawed heroes and teaches that some rules are meant to be broken.

Reading "is not purely an escape," Dora concludes near the end of her story. "It's more of a search for some kind of meaning in this world. Now when I read, I think I might open to any page and find the truth."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World