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Talking with Karolina Waclawiak about making L.A. a character

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

I met Karolina Waclawiak last month at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where we were both on a panel about the literature of Los Angeles. Her first novel, “How to Get Into the Twin Palms” (Two Dollar Radio: 192 pp., $16 paper) takes place in West Hollywood and revolves around a twentysomething woman named Anya, who wants to pass as Russian as a way of sidestepping her Polish roots. Waclawiak, who now lives in Brooklyn and is deputy editor of The Believer, spent 10 years in that neighborhood, which gives her novel a vivid air of authenticity. Recently, she and I corresponded, via email, about the book.

“How to Get Into the Twin Palms” unfolds in the Russian community of West Hollywood. How did the book evolve?

I lived right behind the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. It was a really interesting neighborhood because it used to be heavily Russian, but when I got there, in 1998, it was slowly changing hands and becoming hip. The small groceries that mimicked the ones you could find in Eastern Europe were suddenly turning into high-priced sneaker shops. I thought a lot about how much culture one can hold onto and what gets lost in the name of progress. Some immigrants clutch the culture of their home country, while others walk away from it as a matter of survival. I saw instances of both. It was important to me to make Los Angeles a character and so I worked hard to figure out how to capture one of the last neighborhoods that still felt like a secret. I wanted to write about the immigrant experience and the feeling of having to straddle two worlds, but I didn’t want to write a traditional “coming to America” story. So, instead, I had my narrator, Anya, a Polish immigrant, try to pass as Russian.

Did you share Anya’s fascination with the Russian mobsters in the neighborhood?

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I’ve been fascinated by Russian mobsters for a long time and I have several encyclopedias of Russian prison tattoos. To me, it’s another group based on cultural exclusivity that most people are shut out of. There is a codified set of rules, the most important of which is the necessity to be Russian. There was a club (it seemed to be a Russian mob hangout) near my house that is no longer in existence and I wanted to get inside, but really, only because I knew I could never get in. I thought the club could be a good stand-in for the elusive goal of trying to capture someone else’s culture.

You’re from Connecticut. How did you end up in Los Angeles? Why did you leave?

I came to Los Angeles to go to the USC screenwriting program. It’s funny because in school they tell you that you’re the best, that it’s the best film school in the world and that everyone is going to want you when you leave. So I was waiting with my thesis script in hand on the day of graduation, saying, “Okay, where are the agents? Where are the studios?” Of course, that didn’t happen. I remember when one of my scripts was under consideration at Paramount and I thought I had made it. But it meant nothing. I had a manager and it went nowhere, and then more meetings with more managers and one told me most writers make it when they’re 32 or 33. I said, ”Oh, not me, I’m not going to wait that long. I’m going to make it at 23.” I wish I could go back and shake myself.

After about eight years, I ended up as an assistant to one of the producers of “The Simpsons,” Richard Sakai. I would stand in the writer’s room after everyone had gone home and say, “One day I’m going to say I’m a writer and it won’t be a lie.” After so much rejection, though, I had stopped showing my work to anyone, and eventually stopped writing altogether. I was turning into a husk of a person. I applied to the Columbia MFA program during the writer’s strike and got in. It was a difficult decision because I didn’t want to leave “The Simpsons,” but I hadn’t written a word in over two years. I left so I could write.

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You’re deeply drawn to the literature of Los Angeles: James M. Cain, John Fante, Raymond Chandler. What are the books that pulled you in?

I found Charles Bukowski’s “Factotum” in a dollar bin in Santa Monica shortly after I moved to Los Angeles and I thought it was a sign. Living there, I couldn’t understand the place and suddenly, here was an author who was trying to make sense of it, too. I started reading every Bukowski book I could find and that was my entrance into Los Angeles literature. Then I moved on to Fante and read all his books. I love Fante because he captures the immigrant experience and the Los Angeles experience simultaneously. I also love noir, so I started reading Cain and Chandler and found my way to James Ellroy. They were all writing about the Los Angeles I wanted to live in. The pulsing, desperate Los Angeles I knew was hidden somewhere beneath the sun.

You and I share a great affection for “Mildred Pierce,” which is, in many ways, the great Southern California novel. It’s got everything: class, social aspiration, social approbation, naked ambition and a vivid voice and character.

I think “Mildred Pierce” encapsulates the American dream and that itch to climb out of the life that you’ve been dealt. Here is Mildred, trapped in so many ways, and we spend the novel watching her wriggle and assert herself as a woman. It’s almost as if Cain is standing above a diorama of Mildred’s life and dropping bombs here and there just to see what happens. I also feel like Cain presented a world — shame of where you come from, the idea of reinvention, people feeding off one another in a parasitic way — that is intrinsically tied to the landscape that surrounds the characters. The swirling cul-de-sacs and new-home landscapes really trap you. Throughout the book you keep asking, “How will Mildred escape herself?” And the dialogue is incredible! I tend to write a lot of dialogue, so Cain’s book was a marvel to me. Here, you could visualize people verbally sparring and it really breathed life into the pages. I definitely think “Mildred Piece” influences my work, possibly more so the next book, even though it’s not set in Los Angeles.

Where does it take place?

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It’s set in a beach enclave in Connecticut. The community struggles to insulate itself from the outside world and remain pristine under the growing threat of outsiders. It’s a very different place from Los Angeles because it’s nearly devoid of culture. Although the members of the community are afraid of being harmed by the world outside the gates, it’s they who are doing the most damage to each other. The book is about what you have control over and what you can’t possibly change. I have two narrators; one is an aging trophy wife who develops a relationship with her would-be attacker. The other is her stepson, who has come home to wrestle with the fact that the life he’s been afforded is not something he will ever be able to earn himself. Now that I think about it, my female narrator is also struggling with her past and trying to find ways to suppress it, unsuccessfully. I would say that seems to be a through-line in my writing.

That through-line certainly emerges in “How to Get Into the Twin Palms,” particularly in Anya’s efforts to come to terms with herself.

I kind of feel like Los Angeles is the last place where one can be charmed into thinking the American dream is still real. People move there every day to “make it” and reinvent themselves. I thought it was an interesting place to set a novel about trying to become someone else in a way that was not linked with Hollywood. The book deals with a Los Angeles that is completely detached from glamour. There is a moment when Anya is walking up Sunset Boulevard and staring at the Chateau Marmont and the billboards that line the street. She may as well be on Mars because it is so foreign to her, and yet she only lives a few blocks away. That is L.A. to me — pockets of wealth bracing themselves inelegantly against immigrant neighborhoods or less-prosperous areas. It’s also the perfect setting for a book about displacement and detachment because the city is almost like a vast orphanage. It seems as though everyone is searching for something, who to be most especially.

This quality of detachment allows the book to get at something bigger: It is about immigrant status, social order, being out of place.

I was born in Poland and came to America when I was 2. I had feelings of detachment because growing up as an immigrant in America, you are forced to straddle two worlds. While trying to make it in America and learn the customs, the language, you also try to retain elements of the country you came from. So I felt fractured. My parents embraced America and being American, and our Polish culture slipped away. We don’t really speak Polish at home nor do we cook a lot of Polish food. We do go back from time to time, but we’re not connected to any kind of Polish community. It’s markedly different from other Polish homes where it’s like being in a culture bubble. Growing up, I was jealous of that, and yet, I also didn’t want people to know I was an immigrant. Anya wrestles with this in the novel — how much of where you come from makes up who you are, and can you ever escape it? More important, why do you even want to shake it off?

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How important is place -- real or imagined -- in your writing? It seems to motivate “How to Get Into the Twin Palms” in many ways.

A sense of place is one of the most important elements of anything I’m writing. I think a sense of place defines you as a human. Are you comfortable in your own skin? If not, why? Do you want to escape where you are? Or do you want to burrow deeper? Place immediately sets up tension, and I think all good writing needs that challenge. Watching characters try to navigate their place in the world is endlessly fascinating to me.

Part of what defines Los Angeles as a place in the novel is an awareness of natural forces — in this case, fire.

Oh yes, for me, you can’t separate Los Angeles from its natural disasters. It’s kind of remarkable, because along with earthquakes, you have the fires. But then, because of fires, you have mudslides! In Los Angeles, although the weather is amazing 90% of the year, you feel like you’re on low alert for constant potential catastrophes. During the time I lived in Los Angeles, there were fires in Malibu, Angeles Crest, Griffith Park, east of the city near Claremont and in Orange County. The city often seemed literally surrounded by fire. Yet, we all still wanted to live there! It was almost as if the Earth was trying to shake itself free of Los Angeles. I wanted to incorporate that idea into the book — the strange feeling of not being welcome, not even by the land itself.

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