That was her then

Special to The Times

RACHEL CLINE did not look like a woman enjoying a second lease on life at the Old Town Bar in Union Square in New York one recent cold evening. Nestled into one of the wooden booths that line the saloon, she sipped at her pint of beer, looking weary from a day at the office. This week, Random House will publish her second novel, "My Liar," but on this particular winter's night, Cline was returning from her Midtown temp job.

"I've spent my whole life trying to pay the rent," she said plainly. "And tomorrow I'm back to Midtown for more copying and pasting content from one content management system to the other. At the rate of $25 an hour." She took another sip of beer and sat back on her bench. Compact and tidy, with short red hair and a multicolored scarf around her neck, she looked alarmingly young for someone in her early 50s.

Her first novel, "What to Keep," published in 2004, was a fresh new voice describing a young woman at three pivotal points in her life -- at the ages of 12, 27 and 37; the Los Angeles Times called it "tangibly real," while Entertainment Weekly described the debut as "sparkling."

Building on that success, Cline has returned to tell the story of the Los Angeles that she knew in the '90s as a budding screenwriter. When she started to talk about her process of writing, and especially about Los Angeles, she began to smile more easily.

"My Liar" centers on two women in their 30s: Annabeth Jensen is an insecure film editor in between jobs who meets glamorous director Laura Katz at a party. The two form a friendship that becomes a partnership when Laura hires Annabeth as an editor on her new independent feature, "Trouble Doll." At the heart of the narrative is an act of betrayal. A third character, David, is Annabeth's doomed boyfriend, a librarian turned late-night DJ at KCRW. The fourth character would be Los Angeles in 1994.

"My Liar" succeeds on many levels, including as an amusing time capsule, with references to fax machines, car cassette decks and once-hot actresses such as Elisabeth Shue and Nancy Travis. One of the compelling details in the narrative concerns Kurt Cobain's music, medical travails and ultimate suicide that year.

But Cline picks up on what was most interesting to her. "There were two impetuses for the book," she announced, taking another impossibly small sip of beer. "One was doing justice to the Los Angeles I had known and fallen in love with. The other was wanting to explore that weird behavior women get into in the workplace -- that discomfort and overt competition and hierarchy."

Cline did not set out to be a novelist. She started out in film production in New York in her 20s, working in various capacities on such films as David Mamet's "House of Games" and as a post-production coordinator on "Places in the Heart." She moved to Los Angeles at 33 "to become a screenwriter," she admitted ruefully.

"I moved to Los Angeles at the end of a relationship," she said. "I knew a lot of people from working in the business, and I had an entree from having written an episode of 'thirtysomething' in 1987. An agent called me up and said, 'You should really move to L.A.' " She skipped a perfectly timed beat. "Cut to seven years of nothing."

Both in person and on the page, Cline has a marvelous ability to convey unfortunate details without bitterness. She clarified that she was not technically a screenwriter -- she wrote several scripts and taught screenwriting for seven years, but the screenplays remain unproduced. The highlight of her time in L.A. was being a writer on "Knots Landing."

"The best thing that ever happened to me was getting that job on 'Knots Landing.' I would look at my paycheck and laugh," she said, still laughing. "And then," she shrugged, "we all got fired in one fell swoop. And I couldn't get arrested after that. Really!

"We all have a delusion of what L.A. is based on from watching 'Entertainment Tonight.' " In one of the funniest sections of the book, Annabeth is invited to attend the Academy Awards and finds the experience disheartening, to say the least. Like many telling details, Cline herself attended the award show in the early '90s. "I went to the Oscars with a woman I went to high school with -- she had directed a documentary called 'A Little Vicious,' and I had written some of the narration. Anyway, just like in the book, I was in the nose-bleed section, sitting with 55 editors' grandmothers."

But the question remained: How did a woman nearing 40 re-create herself from failed screenwriter to successful, if financially struggling, novelist?

"What happened was," she said, "being a TV writer sort of derailed me. Then my father got sick and I came back to New York to see him, and within a month I realized New York was my home."

She moved back to New York in 1999. "I was turning 40 and I had not made any mark in the world that I was happy with, and I said to myself, 'Nobody is going to pay you to follow your dreams, and if you want to write prose, write prose.' And so my first novel was a commitment to myself."

Having finished her first novel, she promptly put it under her bed, until Nina Collins, who had just set up a new literary agency, sent her a letter.

"I got a letter from her in the mail responding to some article I had written, and she asked what else I had, and I said, 'Well, I have a box under my bed. It might be a novel!' " Cline laughed, then exclaimed: "She totally changed my life! If it hadn't been for Nina, I would still be Annabeth!"

Collins returned the compliment. "I'm equally lucky," she said in a phone interview. "It's so rare to find literary fiction that you love -- her work is so succinct and never snarky. There's no arguing with talent."

Collins sold Cline's first novel to Daniel Menaker at Random House, who immediately responded to the fledgling author. "She surprises me every time I talk to her," Menaker said recently. "She has a real edge to her, and I admire that more than anything."

The response to "What to Keep," Cline said, "was surreal. It was like those 'Knots Landing' paychecks. It was insanely fun. I wrote that book according to my own life, not to please anyone else."

Still, at the idea that her work life unfolded quite perfectly after she gave herself the credit of trying to write a book, Cline demurred.

"You're making me cry!" she said. "It's a lovely idea, but I was raised by cynical atheists. I do think I'm doing my right work now. I was not meant to be a screenwriter, clearly. This work is deeply satisfying, but monetarily it is problematic."

But there is some consolation in being appreciated. "Ultimately, unless you're incredibly unlucky," Menaker said, "justice is served one way or the other. Talent surfaces. If you have some talent or originality, and the determination to see it through, you're going to get your work in front of someone. It's going to happen. And she's just got it."

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