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Tom Lutz fights for L.A. publishing, this time as a novelist

Tom Lutz in Thai Town
Tom Lutz, whose debut novel is “Born Slippy,” on Hollywood Boulevard in Thai Town.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

As founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tom Lutz has championed new authors for years. He has also advocated for Los Angeles to challenge New York as the capital of the book publishing industry.

So as he read excerpts of his new book “Born Slippy” at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan’s East Village on a drizzly night in mid-January, the worlds of the lively and self-deprecating editor came together in an act of bicoastal karma.

This time, the new novelist he was promoting was himself. “Born Slippy,” which traces the unlikely friendship between two men — one basically moral, the other much less so — is Lutz’s debut novel after years of producing history, literary criticism, travel essays, screenplays and television pilots.

“I’ve been a novelist in my own mind my entire life,” says Lutz, 66. “I just procrastinated — about 50 years.”

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As traffic flowed along Broadway outside, he received a hug and “Mazel tov” from one of several friends in attendance — New Yorkers who chuckled at his book’s mentions of a ramen place on L.A.’s Sawtelle Boulevard and a seedy motel along Olympic.

Lutz was an established critic in Iowa City when, in 1995, his wife, New York theater critic Laurie Winer, took a job at the Los Angeles Times. It was, as expected, an adjustment — and an edifying one.

“I had a typical image of L.A. as La La Land — TV, movies and nothing else,” says Lutz. But he became impressed with “the incredible literacy of Hollywood.”

“It’s not an accident that Reese Witherspoon has a series on Goodreads,” he says. “She isn’t the exception. She’s the rule.” Screenwriters tend to be book writers and vice versa, he says. “Most people I know who are screenwriters are big readers. Most who are executives are always looking for intellectual property — books that are adaptable. They’re always reading.”

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Born in New Jersey, with degrees from the University of Massachusetts and Stanford, Lutz has fancied himself an aspiring novelist since his late teens. He hitchhiked and hopped freight trains, worked construction and other odd jobs, kept notebooks but never sat down to write — thinking he’d be a Jack Kerouac until he realized there had already been a Jack Kerouac.

Tom Lutz inside the Sanamluang Cafe, a favorite hangout.
Lutz inside the Sanamluang Cafe, a favorite hangout.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

He started his academic life as a literary critic and cultural historian. His first book, “American Nervousness, 1903,” told the life stories of a dozen novelists, including Henry James and Edith Wharton.

“I was always interested in the novel-writing process,” he said, “interested in how they talked about how their characters surprised them as they took form.”

After 10 years in L.A., Lutz took a position at UC Riverside, where he’s a professor in the creative writing department. That position freed him up to write what he wanted.

Notwithstanding his ambitions in fiction, he published only nonfiction — eclectic popular histories like “Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears” and “Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America,” for which he won the 2008 American Book Award.

“Still in the back of my mind, the novel was always the goal,” he says.

He tooled it for a decade or so, shifting the voice and chronology. But in the meantime, he launched the Los Angeles Review of Books as a nonprofit intended to fill the void as large newspapers, including this one, pulled back on book coverage. Now attracting roughly 7 million page views a year (12 million including its blog and channels) and coming out in print quarterly, it is supported by donations. Forty percent of its readers are overseas, in more than 150 countries.

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Lutz has watched the local publishing industry grow from Pasadena’s Red Hen Press and a couple of other small houses to more than 20 publishers today. That blossoming paralleled other local scenes in fields dominated by New York, including classical music and the visual arts.

“We want to be part of that, to help that process along,” he says. “We want to change the pipeline into the industry as a whole.”

That involves pushing past its heavily white orientation to include a broader cast of writers, editors, reviewers and topics. Since 2017, the review has presented a publishing workshop designed to diversify the business, recruit aspiring publishers, and offer the resources it would take to achieve his dream of bumping aside New York as publishing kingpin.

The review also partnered last summer with Hauser & Wirth Publishers to sponsor LitLit, a book fair showcasing independent publishers, booksellers and cultural creators from Los Angeles and the rest of the West Coast. Lutz envisions it as an annual event.

Although the audience at the Strand might not support the overthrow of New York publishing, it warmed to passages from “Born Slippy,” laughing over the mismatched duo of Frank, a self-taught carpenter (as was Lutz), and Dmitry, his inadvertent apprentice.

As the narrative jumps from the woods of Connecticut to a noodle house in L.A.’s Koreatown and a sex club in Taipei over nearly two decades, the teacher-student relationship broadens to encompass literature, philosophy and morality, but it grows strained as Dmitry’s wealth balloons suspiciously fast. Though rife with timely themes — toxic masculinity and global capitalism — it’s also an entertaining romp and a darkly comic mystery.

Author Chris Kraus has praised “Born Slippy” as an “always engaging 21st century noir,” and James Ellroy blurbs: “Lutz has the seven deadly sins nailed and rethought for our 2020 world.”

After a couple of readings in California, Lutz is looking ahead to a sabbatical next academic year from both UCR and the review. He’s headed to Papua New Guinea for his next adventure. And he has started two more novels.

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“I never wanted to be rich and famous,” he says of his fledgling career as a novelist. “I just want to write another one. I got a taste of the fun of fiction.”

Born Slippy

Tom Lutz

Repeater Books: 310 pages, $18.95

Fawthrop is a multiplatform editor at The Times and a former book reviewer for the Seattle Times.


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