In an early draft of the novel I’m about to publish, I had one of my main characters meet a man in an office above Wilshire Boulevard. As he taps his loafer beneath the table, she stares over his shoulder at the Hollywood sign, squinting at the letters. I thought this was a nice touch. But both my agent and editor, who are from Los Angeles, were quick to point out that one would absolutely not be able to see the Hollywood sign from such a location. Immediately I deleted it from my heroine’s eye line.
Sniffing out erroneous or contradictory details is a crucial part of the editing process. If a character expresses disdain for clear alcohol on Page 40, we’d better not catch him ordering a vodka soda on Page 250. Usually I find the hunt enjoyable. But in writing about Los Angeles in particular, I was anxious not to screw up. I kept imagining sneaker-clad show runners, earnestly smiling producers, black-jeaned music managers and impossibly blond waiter/actor/surfers kvetching that I’d gotten their city all wrong.
Angelenos are prone to prickliness when it comes to strangers judging their long-stereotyped, often-misunderstood home (see directly above), especially if that stranger is a writer from New York.
Of course, New Yorkers can be just as prickly. “One belongs to New York instantly,” Thomas Wolfe once wrote. “One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
All due respect to Mr. Wolfe, but that’s patently false. A touching sentiment about how a city can live in the heart of an individual, sure, but it takes at least 10 minutes to get your first Metro Card and at least 30 to realize that cupcakes are super over.
Part of what makes cities like New York and Los Angeles so wonderful is the pride their denizens derive from laying claim to them. But the flip side of that pride is territoriality. Or, to put it more succinctly: I can talk smack about my momma, but you can’t talk smack about my momma.
Our culture’s insistence on authentic local color is simultaneously logical and a bit backward. If I wrote a science-fiction novel that took place on one of Saturn’s outer rings, a reader would only require emotional plausibility (the water runs backward and green on Sparkletron because I say it runs backward and green). But one misplaced Hollywood sign can really breach a reader’s trust.
Writing about a foreign city is risky business. It is possible to do well, however. Donna Tartt has never lived in Las Vegas. Claire Messud has never called New York City home. This year, Jack Livings’ short-story collection, “The Dog,” based in contemporary China, won a PEN award for debut fiction. He spent a month there in the early 1990s and has credited the Internet for keeping him up to speed on Chinese current events.
Speaking of the Internet, it’s no literary snob: E.L. James wrote “Fifty Shades of Grey” before she ever set stiletto in Seattle or Portland, Ore., guided only by Google Maps and a healthy libido.
Regardless of genre, all of these authors have had to contend with armchair immersion. Now so have I. I found that too few specifics made the narrative feel murky or stock. L.A. = sunshine + traffic. But too many and it started to read like a bad pilot, full of expositional dialogue. Talk to me, Brian, I’m your best friend and I live near the promenade in Santa Monica, where I can smell the sea and have drinks at Shutters.
Whether I ultimately succeeded in depicting Los Angeles remains to be seen. But I’m glad I set much of my novel outside of New York. Writing about a place that’s not your own stretches the imagination in a way that aligns with why novels exist in the first place. It drives author and reader alike deeper into another world.
Besides, home can be as blinding as it is comfortable. The writer’s job is to observe, and nothing effortlessly opens your eyes quite like leaving the house. You can separate your own life from your characters’ lives in a way that makes them more compelling. The trick is not to have them come off like tourists just because that’s exactly what you are.
I have taken many trips to Los Angeles over the last decade or so, varying in duration, stakes and parking fines, and have amassed impressions of backyard parties and downtown warehouses, of tree fruits scattered in driveways and Modernist houses perched on hills.
But I did not write about Los Angeles so that I could pass a quiz on valet parking and avocados. What I really wanted was to have characters who lived in a world of such rich emotional contradictions and physical extremes. I wanted fame shoved in their faces the way wealth is shoved in ours (in New York the preposterously rich and the paycheck-to-paycheck are still neighbors). I wanted them to have that incongruous feeling of being depressed in the sunshine and to be exposed to the veiled professional competition that’s more naked where I’m from. I wanted to capture a place where I have felt enthralled, alienated, appalled, loved, confused and totally at home in the course of a single day. A place where I have cried in public.
In the end, perhaps that’s all the license required to set a story in a foreign city. If you have wept in one of its parking lots, you know enough.
Sloane Crosley’s debut novel, “The Clasp,” will be published Oct. 6.