Recent Work By Victoria Patterson

Paula Priamos’s The Shyster’s Daughter is a beautifully written, charged, addictive “detective-noir” memoir—utterly absorbing and packed with sharp details, evoking a Southern California rarely seen on the page, replete with strip bars and casinos.

Priamos investigates the mysterious death of her high-profile defense lawyer father, describing the shady deals and characters that led to his disbarment.  She also gives a vivid portrait of her Greek American family caught up in the scandal-obsessed, drug-addicted culture of California in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

 

With a circulation of over two million, Gustavo Arellano’s nationally syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!” uses satire, humor, and history to expose ignorance and stereotypes, educate, and piss people off all at once.  Arellano is a longtime staff writer for the OC Weekly (now managing editor), and he’s been the subject of press coverage in the L.A. Times, Houston Chronicle, Reuters, Mexico City’s El Universal, The Today Show, Hannity and Colmes, Nightline, The New York Times, Good Morning America, Utne, and The Colbert Report.  His new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, is scheduled for April 2012.

Through “¡Ask a Mexican!” and his subsequent book of the same title (and soon to be a play), I learned many things, including what a Dirty Sanchez means and how many Mexican swear words originate from the simple word mother. My idealization of César Chávez was busted open. Of Newport Beach, where I went through junior high and high school, and where my family became members of the Balboa Bay Club, Arellano writes, “The Balboa Bay Club represents all that’s reprehensible with the Old Orange County.”


James Brown’s memoir The Los Angeles Diaries is one of those books that writers hear other writers discussing with reverence, and that’s how I discovered it in 2004. This River, out now, serves as a postscript to The Los Angeles Diaries, and it equals its precursor in both skill and vision.

James Brown’s prose is tight and spare, which contrasts starkly with the chaos of his life, including the suicides of both his siblings, and his own battles with alcoholism and drug addiction.

Each chapter from The Los Angeles Diaries and This River is a stand-alone piece. The layering of chapters—and now of books—delivers a staggering panoramic perspective.

Of This River, Tim O’Brien writes, “A beautifully crafted and intensely moving book. Without artifice or pretension—without false moves of any sort—James Brown goes after the biggest literary game: death, love, children, degeneration, hopelessness, hope.”

Jim and I met when we discovered that our books had the same release date of March 1st. I was already a fan of The Los Angeles Diaries and had emailed him long before to tell him. We soon decided to team up and do readings together, as well as simply support each other through the publication process. In this spirit, he agreed to answer my questions.

 

 

 

 

In The Los Angeles Diaries, after a scene with your father, you write:

I’ve mined the territory before, if not this particular moment then something like it, and I’ve done it so often that I find myself confusing what actually happened with how I imagine it. In trying to sort between autobiography and fiction, or invention, and then trying to put the pieces together so that they make some kind of sense, I’ve come to think that the truth as it occurs isn’t of much use to me other than, say, as a catalyst for a story.

As a writer, I’m curious about this passage. I’d just like you to comment further. Why memoir over fiction? Or not. You’ve written fiction as well. How do you distinguish the two, etc?

 

Memory is fallible. It is also non-sequential. I can’t recall the past precisely as it may have occurred, especially whenever it is I’m writing about took place many years earlier. But I can recall more than its essence, and what I’m after when I write memoir is an emotional truth that, I hope, transcends the straight, literal experience. Memoir is not journalism anymore than it is fiction. At the same time there are lines you simply don’t cross in memoir that you would or might in fiction. You must tell your story, to the best of your abilities, as honestly as you can in memoir. It’s presumed you’re telling the truth in this genre, and you owe it to your reader to uphold that presumption, or promise. To blatantly do otherwise is to lie, and that’s the art of fiction, not memoir.

 

We’ve discussed a little about subject matter—whether you choose what to write, or whether it chooses you. I’m wondering if you could speak on this topic?

 

I believe the material chooses the writer, if the writer allows it. You write about what you care most about, what you know most about, what you think most about, the memories that haunt, your obsessions, your shortcomings, your successes and failures, and how all these experiences and feelings have shaped how you see yourself and others, particularly those you love most in this crazy world.

 

You come from a working class background. You and your brother and sister chose to pursue careers in art. Can you speak about this?

 

I’m not sure. I think my brother set the pace when he chose acting. His passion was contagious, though our mother started him on this path when he was just a kid. My brother, like my father and sister, were also big readers, and I think I originally began writing to please my brother, since I looked up to him so much, and soon enough it became a passion, which is a good thing, because as a teenager I’d also developed a strong interest in crime, the easy money, the rush that comes from robbing and stealing, as well as drug and alcohol habits.

 

Do you envision a third memoir? Or is that impossible to know?

 

I do envision one more memoir, but I can’t, and won’t, return to the dark places of my first two. This third one I want to be about getting and staying sober. I want to show another side, a better one built around this wonderful gift I’ve been given in sobriety, a second shot at life.

 

Did you have a structure in mind for your memoirs or did the pieces collect and build into a cohesive whole?

 

I had a structure in mind, but it wasn’t sequential. I wanted to write about only those events in life that affected me most, the memories I couldn’t shake, that I’d lived with for years. I felt if I didn’t write The Los Angeles Diaries, if I didn’t just come out and tell the truth about the things that haunted and troubled me, of the ugly person I could be and had become in large part because of my addictions, that I could never move forward. The book has a beginning, middle and end, just not in that order.

 

Your prose is, like O’Brien points out, without artifice or pretension. I’m curious about what writers you admire—and which writers influence your work.

 

Actually I’m a big fan of Tim O’Brien, and his work, particularly The Things They Carry, has had a strong influence on me. I also admire Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Hemingway.

 

You have quite a history with the publishing industry. Can you give an overview of your experiences and comment on the industry?

 

The industry has been good to me, though I could always complain that my career could and should be better. But what’s the point of whining? “Less successful” writers would call me ungrateful. “More successful” ones would think I’m jealous. The point is, it’s the process of writing that defines success, not publication. You know when you’re doing good work, and when you’re on a roll, a streak, there’s your real pleasure. And it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

Jim and I will be reading at Skylight in Los Angeles on March 16th at 7:30 p.m. and at Vroman’s in Pasadena on March 24th at 7:00 p.m.


Hair

By Victoria Patterson

Essay

 


 

It’s gratifying to publish without gatekeepers, and, because of this freedom, there’s a goldmine of scrappy, unique, and creative posts on TNB.

I enjoy reading the comments sometimes as much or more than the posts.Commenting is a skill, one that I haven’t developed.

TNB thrives on the intelligent, lively, supportive, and witty personalities of its core contributors.

On my TNB year anniversary, I list 20 aspirations and thoughts about my writing (sort of like a New Year’s resolutions list), with the hope that you offer some of yours:

The last time I participated in a cyber-discussion on TNB in the comments section, I expressed my gratitude that authors, unlike actors or singers, don’t rely on appearances, and thus don’t have the same pressures—particularly those of needing plastic surgery to further their careers, specifically boob jobs. Besides, I offered, most writers aren’t that good looking.

 

 

A commenter disagreed, suggesting that plastic surgery might possibly help sell books. An author should do everything in his or her means to promote, including looking his or her best, whether through surgical enhancement or other means. Besides, boob jobs and plastic surgery are akin to braces and tattoos and teeth whitening and hair dye. A personal choice. Not a political one.

It got me thinking: If I got a breast lift, would I sell more books? If I lost ten pounds, would I be a better writer?

 

Recently I was on a panel titled “Getting Published” at the UCLA Writers’ Faire. My fellow panelist talked quite extensively about having a “platform.” A blog, Twitter, Facebook. A presence. These, she seemed to suggest, were more important than the writing itself. At the very least, without a platform, the writing, no matter how great, would remain unpublished.

It got me thinking: Do I need a blog, Twitter, and Facebook to be a better writer?

In other words, if I became more of a narcissist, and if my vanity increased, would my writing improve?

Nah.

I’ll probably gain ten pounds, let myself go, and stay off Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

 

This email was written to Justin Benton in December 2009 in response to his essay “How to Disappear Completely.”

 

Dear Justin,

Again, thanks for your essay.  I’d been toying with the idea of deactivating my account, and your essay was the tipping point.  Since deactivating, I’ve gone through all sorts of emotions and experienced various things.  I figured I’d give myself permission to email you.

FB is not healthy for people like me.  I joined for the wrong reason–purely self-promotional.  To sell my book.  And I went at it aggressively.  (I had something like 620 friends at the time of my deactivation.)  The more desperate I felt about my book sales and thus my prospects for selling my novel, the more actively I campaigned for friends.  Then I felt bad because people were posting about their lives–genuine, heartfelt–and all I posted were articles I’d written and good reviews, etc.  So I tried to throw in a few pithy and/or heartfelt posts now and then, or comment on other people’s posts–to disguise my blatant self-promotion.  And I just found myself thinking way too much about what to post or what to comment–instead of what story I might write.

I found that FB was a black hole of massive time suckage.  The voyeuristic writer could spend hours poking around on FB.  I knew too much about people–all of this useless information rattling around.  And some of it was very personal information–but I knew it in an impersonal and artificial way: a fellow writer’s mother committed suicide; the “friends” who went into labor and gave birth; mothers in distress with toddlers and newborns, lonely and seeking empathetic listeners, or complaining about the monotonous parenting drill; a “friend’s” relationship drama, which kept me guessing as to his latest love triangles; a “friend’s” struggle to stay off booze; another “friend’s” attempt to appear sexy and hip, posting sad, provocative photos of herself.

FB enhanced my misanthropic tendencies.  The “friend” getting her MFA at a well known college, trying to sound wise and hip and cool, posting photos of fat people at Wal Mart, all to further enhance her hip persona. The “friend” who referred to her children as “kidlets” in every one of her super upbeat and therefore tremendously sad postings.  “They’re people,” I wanted to tell her.  “Don’t demean them with that awful term that’s meant to be cute, but in the end reveals your own desperation.”  It seemed as if everyone was shouting, “Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m important!  I’m somebody!”  And it just got so noisy.  And it made me sad.  And then I was doing it as well.

The only temptation to go back on FB has come when I’ve received good news about my book.  I want to post it, in a gloat post, so that others can comment, and slap my back. But when I think about the glut of other writers self-promoting on FB, I realize that it probably doesn’t help that much with book sales.  In fact, with some of the more well-known writers I’ve friended on FB, by reading their daily postings and twitterings, I’ve found myself less likely to want to read their work.  I won’t name any names–but there’s something off-putting about needing constant attention, and the mystery of a writer is killed.

I did have two people contact me in a where are you email, why’d you quit FB because I enjoyed reading links to your articles, etc., and I directed them to you essay and my comments as an explanation–but so far, that’s it.

With two young children and a busy schedule, I have minimal time to read and write–and quitting FB has been liberating, allowing me to refocus.  I’m relieved.  I feel tugs of FB withdrawal, but I remind myself that just because I don’t post about my book receiving an accolade, doesn’t mean it doesn’t count or didn’t happen.  The tree did fall in the forest, and I don’t have to direct every one’s attention to it.

I hope I have the capacity to stay off FB.

Thanks.

Best,

Victoria Patterson

 

 

 

 






When I was twelve, my mother and my newly acquired stepfather moved our post-divorce family to Newport Beach, California, along with my black Labrador retriever, Skipper.  Skipper did not like Newport Beach.  Although he was living in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Southern California, his new back yard was limited to a small cement patio; coming from his former living quarters, with a back yard replete with grass and flora and swimming pool, he was apathetic to the trade-off of status and an ocean-view.  Despite his growing depression, he never lost his inflamed sexual appetite.  Even the leg of a patio chair served his purposes.

Skipper was not the only one having trouble adjusting to paradise.






Soon after our move, I took Skipper for a walk, and he chose a choice piece of lawn in front of a mansion that overlooked the ocean.  He did his sniffing thing, becoming more agitated and excited at one particular section.

His hind legs scrunched and he plopped his rear close to the grass, in position.  His legs trembled and he pushed out a green-tinted (what had he been eating?) poop, and then another, and then one more: three logs, a defecation code, pointing to the sea.  Amazingly, they were the same size, as if he’d measured them with a ruler.

Since our move, I’d made a bad habit of not bringing the obligatory plastic baggie for excrement disposal during our walks.  Along with my general adolescent indolence, it was a misguided rebellion, using my dog’s waste product as a temporary graffiti marker in the perfectly groomed, staggeringly beautiful surroundings.

Just as we were making our get away, a hand grabbed my elbow and pulled me back.

“Pick it up,” a man ordered.  He was middle-aged and balding, with glasses.

I explained that I didn’t have a baggie.

“Use your hand,” he said, shoving me, so that I had to crouch on the grass.  He continued to grip my arm, leaned over.  “Push it in the gutter.”

I begged the man to allow me to go home and get a baggie.

He wore Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, but he looked uncomfortable, as if he belonged in a business suit.  His feet were pale and his legs were hairy.

“Do it,” he said.

Humiliated, I rolled the three sticky segments with my fingers, one at a time, across the sidewalk and another patch of grass, until they dropped into the gutter.  I did it as fast as I could and I had to scoot on my knees as I moved.  The man continued to grip my arm, moving with me.

“There’s more,” he said.

I felt the tears on my face.  He was referring to the glistening byproduct left on the individual blades of grass, wanting, I understood, for me to use my fingers to pinch and slide the residue off.

Instead, I stood, and he pushed me.  Skipper and I ran.  The palm trees, mansions, and grass blurred together.  I was crying loudly.

Dogs weren’t allowed at Big Corona Beach but we went anyway.  I left my shoes in the sand, and I unhooked Skipper’s leash, so that he could swim toward a group of seagulls lolling on the current.  There were blotchy marks on my arm where the man’s fingers had gripped me.  The waves crashed around me, and I lowered my hands, so that the foam washed my fingers.

I vowed never to tell anyone, and to get my revenge.

I was going to do the old tried and true light a paper bag full of dog poop and ring the doorbell and run trick, appreciating the idea of the man stomping out the fire and getting Skipper’s dung all over his nice Italian leather shoes.

As it turned out, I was too afraid.  What if I wasn’t fast enough?  The man had really scared me. 
I settled on cracking a couple of eggs in his mailbox.

I wish I could report that Skipper and I carved out a fulfilling existence in our new surroundings, but the truth is that we never adjusted.  And one afternoon, I came home from high school to discover that my mother had sent Skipper packing.  For the best, she said, informing me only that his new home was on a farm somewhere, and that he had enough room to run and run and run to his heart’s content.  And it was that image of Skipper that consoled me, imagining him chasing all kinds of fowl and farm animal; playing an endless game of fetch; attempting coitus with varieties of things, both animate and inanimate; and, when in repose, resting in a patch of shade, and panting slightly—tongue quivering at the side of his mouth, eyes squinted—in complete pleasure.

As for me, I continued to rebel against Newport Beach, mostly in ways nonproductive.  And twenty-three years since the day I came home to find Skipper gone, I still carry a photograph of him in my wallet.