Writing home: Brando Skyhorse
Bookshelves real and virtual are stocked with volumes about Los Angeles and Southern California written by people who parachute into a Westside guest house for a few weeks, hit the hot spots and high spots, then write with voice-of-God authority for audiences who wouldn’t know the Grapevine from grape juice.
But there is authentic writing to be found about Los Angeles. Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” won this year’s PEN/Hemingway Award for highlighting that neighborhood on the literary map of Los Angeles. Echo Park is where Skyhorse was born and grew up, a place he left first for college and then for the New York publishing world.
His first book is about a turbulent neighborhood; his next will be a memoir of his turbulent life, something that’s pretty clear from its working title, “Things My Fathers Taught Me.” That’s “fathers” plural: several stepfathers and one mostly missing-in-action biological father -- a fleeting cast of men and of course formidable Echo Park women, including the mother and grandmother who anchored his L.A. life.
What’s a nice Echo Park boy like you doing in Jersey City?
I moved out here in 1997 because I was in a relationship with someone [who] moved back here to get into publishing. About a month after I left, my mother died unexpectedly -- she was 50 years old. And a year and a half later, my grandmother died all of a sudden, so that connection I had with Los Angeles was just gone. I felt almost like I got marooned here.
When you refer to New York, you say “out here.” So is L.A. still your compass?
Absolutely. I still find myself referring to myself as an Angeleno. It sounds absurd given that I’ve lived in Jersey City for about 13, 14 years, but given my family’s long connection, L.A.'s my home. I almost feel like I’m on this tourist visa!
And you’re back in California a lot more these days.
I just discovered my biological father last year, living in Whittier. He has a family of his own, and I’m trying to get to know them. He took off when I was 3 or 4 years old. Someone suggested I should see if I could find [him]. I thought, well, this could take years, it could involve private detectives, something could have happened to him. I thought, there is no way this is going to happen in a reasonable time. So I went on Google, couldn’t find anything, of course, and then I typed in “whitepages.com” and there he was. Literally it took all of five minutes.
My mother loved to tell stories; every time I’d ask about him, the story would change. All of her stories were incredibly dramatic, but at the end of the day the truth was always very simple, and I should have realized that.
I can’t speak for him; we really haven’t had too many in-depth conversations [yet] about how he feels about this. I know he has regrets. I know it’s complicated because I have a last name that isn’t his. I wasn’t raised as his son, so it doesn’t seem practical for me to carry his name. I think he’s aware that I write and he’s happy about that. I think he’d be happier if I were married and [he] had some grandkids.
About your name. People surely say, “Come on, your real name is Joe Smith, right?”
Do you know how much easier my life would have been if it had been Joe Smith? Do you know how many years I’ve wished it was Joe Smith?
When the first book came out, there were book reviewers who told me privately, “Man, your name sounds like Elvis Costello.” My biological father confirmed that my name was Brando from the beginning. I don’t know if my mother liked it because she admired Marlon Brando’s stance on Native American politics. She was very much a firebrand, very much into American Indian politics in the early ‘70s. She was Mexican American; her stepfather was Filipino.
After my father left, my mother started corresponding with a man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. He was incarcerated in Illinois for armed robbery, and somehow during their letter writing Paul agreed to adopt me as his child, so I became Brando Skyhorse Johnson. When she showed me photographs of him, I looked more like him than I do my biological father.
My mother never did anything officially. There was never an official adoption. My mom was sort of her own judge and notary public; she did these things on her own. I basically met him when I was 5 and I have memories of that; then he came out to live with us when I was maybe in junior high, and either just before or right after he came out, I realized that I was not Native American, that both my mother and my father were Mexican American.
Did you do what your mother thought of as Native American activities?
I did. My mother took me to a sweat lodge when I was 5 or 6. I smoked a peace pipe when I was 5 years old; she smoked it, then she started giggling uncontrollably and passed out. I think the best way I can describe it is that I was raised as a piecemeal Native American. It was based on her sort of fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a Native American. I think she was attracted by the radicalism of Native Americans asserting themselves.
She made up in enthusiasm what she lacked in knowledge?
Absolutely. My grandmother [his mother’s mother] was a practicing Catholic, spoke fluent Spanish; my mother [refused] to let me learn Spanish, [so there is] this whole life, this whole identity that was basically removed from my life. My grandmother would try to teach me Spanish words, and then my mother would say, I don’t want to hear you using that language -- this hostile reaction to it. Even though I’m free to learn Spanish now, I have this weird block whenever I sit down and try to learn more.
Perhaps she thought she was giving you something better, something more important?
I think that’s correct. Even given the hodgepodge upbringing that I had with five stepfathers and everything, I feel fortunate because it exposed me to the experiences and opportunities that would never have been possible if my life had gone the way that it should have, my mother and father being married, et cetera.
Does anyone say, well, you’re not a real Mexican American then?
People could say I’m not a real Mexican; they could say I’m not a real Indian, but I haven’t heard it. My book deals with Mexican Americans and Echo Park. As a work of fiction, it represents my upbringing and my understanding of the community and the neighborhood. It’s not like I can lighten my skin and pass for Anglo. For a Mexican to be raised in this piecemeal Native American way but also to be Mexican -- I consider that unique, and something I’m proud of, as opposed to something I have to defend.
You went to Stanford and to the UC Irvine writing program. How did you get the writing bug?
You can trace it back all the way to my grandmother’s insistence that I read and understand the value of books. My grandmother would take me to the Central Library -- before the  fire. I had a book checked out when it burned and I never returned it and I felt guilty, and it wasn’t even a book I enjoyed. I was doing a school report; it was a book about OPEC.
She would take me there every Saturday, and I’d check out two or three books. My grandmother was trying to get me into nonfiction as opposed to fiction. She was into anything about murder; she loved murder mysteries [like] Agatha Christie but [also] nonfiction, like a book about Fatty Arbuckle. And my mother was into books about serial killers. I tell you, John Waters would have loved the childhood I had. I knew more about Ted Bundy at 12 than I knew about Santa Claus.
My grandmother also took me to bookstores. It’s not like we were made of money, but it was a priority for her. She wanted me to understand that books not only could be borrowed from a library but that they cost money, and I could have my own library and take care of these books.
My mother was working on her own memoir. Toward the end of her life, she would write poems. If my mother had her druthers, she would have preferred that half [my] book be her writing. One thing I really wish I had gotten to tell her: All these fantastic details that she used to surround her life, she never needed that. She was fascinating and intense and incredible on her own, and she didn’t need to wrap herself in all these lies and extraneous details. She didn’t need to make it more fantastic than it already was.
You worked in New York publishing for a long time. What does L.A. look like from the vantage point of a city that seems to operate on stereotypes and misconceptions about us?
A number of people who read fiction about Los Angeles believe there’s this one facet of Los Angeles identity that [gets] written about -- Hollywood, the machinations of getting a script made and all that. That’s all fine, but that’s a story we’ve seen a hundred times already.
My goal from the beginning was to write about the L.A. experience I had, and had not seen in print. There’re a number of reasons people who are writers in L.A. are understandably skeptical about New York publishing; there’s this belief that [the industry] doesn’t know or care about what life in L.A. is really like.
And that books about Los Angeles are regional but books about New York City are national and international.
You’re right, that’s the impression. I’m not entirely sure why that is. When I worked in publishing and we talked about books from Los Angeles or California, there was this belief -- and I have nothing other than anecdotal evidence -- that books set in Southern California wouldn’t find an audience outside Southern California. And New York must be the center of the universe.
Tell that to Raymond Chandler.
Tell that to a lot of writers. I certainly was amazed my book was picked up, given that it’s about an obscure neighborhood no one in New York had ever heard of. I felt very honored when the book came out, [at] the feedback I got from people in L.A. who had read the book and were not necessarily residents of Echo Park. They were people from all over the city who felt, yeah, this is an accurate depiction of what Los Angeles looks like, feels like, breathes like.
When I started doing promotion for the book, someone at a [Los Angeles] bookstore told me one of their book clerks didn’t want to read my book because, oh, I was a New York editor who dared to write about her neighborhood, which was Echo Park. And if I remember correctly, she had moved to the neighborhood five or six years before.
I thought, that’s fascinating -- my grandmother remembered the Red Cars on Sunset Boulevard, [and] my Echo Park “credentials” would be questioned by somebody who’s like a newbie!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.