June 28, 2016
A little over a year ago, an article headlined Los Angeles and Its Booming Creative Class Lures New Yorkers was published in the New York Times style section. Seemingly written solely to troll LA residents, the piece name-dropped “in-season Zambian coffee,” the downtown Ace Hotel, and Moby’s house here as evidence that LA was finally suitable for New York tastes. “Los Angeles is widely acknowledged to have become strikingly more cosmopolitan in recent years,” the author noted, going on to list brioche tarts and barrel-aged rye cocktails as proof that Southern California was a region on the rise.
The bemused furor that arose on social media died down, but not before journalist, podcaster, and famed caftan enthusiast Ann Friedman wrote a parody for the LA Times. In her take, Friedman expresses shock and delight at the idea that Angelenos are “reversing the American directive to go west…finding that New York is more than a capitalist prison that runs on the fumes of the finance industry and nostalgia for CBGB.” “In fact,” she writes, “it now offers many of the lifestyle amenities that their hometown has boasted for decades.” (Friedman’s listed amenities include green juice, raw meals and “an In-N-Out Burger replacement called Shake Shack.”)
The piece took on a life of its own online, tapping into a deep well of frustration at New York condescension shared by west coast journalists, writers and artists alike. Now New York is Livable—Who Knew? has been collected alongside work by Meghan Daum, Carina Chocano, Jay Caspian Kang, and Matthew Specktor in The California Prose Directory: New Writing From the Golden State, Outpost19’s yearly anthology of exceptional writing about California.
To mark the launch of the CPD 2016, I spoke with Friedman about her favorite California authors, media’s New York-centric mindset, and the best part about being a writer who doesn’t live in Brooklyn.
Sarah LaBrie: You’re a freelance journalist with bylines in publications like The New Republic, Columbia Journalism Review, New York Magazine and the New York Times. Are the editors you work with surprised you live here?
Ann Friedman: People are always surprised I live in LA, but they can be forgiven for that because I write a column for New York magazine. Plus, my cell phone is a San Francisco number—I lived there ten years ago at this point, and I just haven’t updated the area code. I kind of feel like I’m everywhere and nowhere. My Twitter bio says Los Angeles, but in terms of the actual writing I do, you would have to be paying pretty close attention to figure out geographically where I am. I would argue that being kind of calm and not super neurotic about how what I write is being perceived in New York, is a good tell that I’m not in New York.
SL: Your piece making fun of the New York/LA divide resonated with a huge number of readers out here. Why do you think that was?
AF: I’m from the Midwest and I live in California, and I do think there’s a sort of New York-centricity to a certain amount of journalism. I find it frustrating from within the industry, and I think readers can find it frustrating as well…It can be annoying to read coverage of other places, like Los Angeles, or major cities in the Midwest that I love, where the writer expresses shock that there are interesting things going on there too. The piece was mostly just trying to expose that, and to point that New York is never described with that exotic “other” quality, even though in the scope of America, it’s kind of a weird place! That was mostly my point—not to hate on it, but to say, “What if we described New York the same way it describes other places?”
SL: Are there specific writers based out here who have influenced your own work?
AF: I think some of the best women writers for the New Yorker over the past couple of decades have been L.A. based. Dana Goodyear is here and so is Susan Orlean. Not that all of their work is about California, but I certainly admire it. And then there are other writers who I think of as being rooted in the West more generally, like Gretel Ehrlich and Claire Vaye Watkins, people whose work is really situated in places that feel a bit closer to California.
SL: I like that you’re naming people we don’t necessarily think of when we think of journalists. Claire Vaye Watkins writes essays, but is mostly known for her fiction.
AF: My experience of the LA literary scene, in as much as there is one, is that there’s a really good mix of fiction and non-fiction writers and screenwriters and poets. It’s all this jumble. Which is not to say that fiction and non-fiction writers don’t hang out together in other cities, but that here, I get a lot of inspiration from, and have really good conversations with, friends who are fiction writers. It can be refreshing to talk about the craft of writing with people who are not also journalists or essayist.
SL: Right. I feel like because there are fewer of us, if you care about writing or books or literature at all, you’ll eventually get to know a lot of other people who do. That might not always be the case in other cities.
AF: I’ve thought about this a lot. There seems to be less of an attitude of scarcity here. My perception is that there is genuine support among the writers who live here, and we’re genuinely excited when someone gets a book published or comes out with a big article. That feels very California to me, more so than anything I could say about prose or style. It’s more a way of being with other writers that feels unique. We don’t live in the center of the media industry. We live near the center of a different industry. We’re all kind of on the fringe, in a good way.
SL: What are some of your favorite books about California?
AF: I just finished Jade Chang’s forthcoming novel [The Wangs vs. The World] which has a strong California component. She is a personal friend so I’m compromised, but I liked it a lot. It’s about a Chinese-American family that loses a bunch of wealth in the 2008 crash and has to give up their Bel-Air home and it’s so great – it’s like a rich immigrant story that turns a lot of immigrant narratives on their heads. I also feel like there’s not enough writing about the ’08 crash and recession.
Heather Havrilesky has a collection of her columns out. She’s another New York Magazine writer who stealth lives in L.A., though I guess that doesn’t really answer your question about writing about California. Hm. I really liked Miranda July’s novel that came out last year, [The First Bad Man]. She’s not usually listed in groups of California writers, but she definitely is one at this point. I also loved Maggie Nelson’s book, The Argonauts, like every other woman in her thirties who read it. Michelle Tea just moved here, speaking of memoir-style writing. Margaret Wappler has a new novel coming out which I haven’t read yet, but she’s a local writer who I love.
SL: You brought up a few authors who are well known on the national stage but not thought of as “California writers” even though they live here, like Miranda July. We’ve also seen a bunch of publications arise in recent years that are based here but that have spheres of influence that extend far beyond the state.
AF: That’s true. I love California Sunday and its sister project Pop-Up Magazine. I think really good work happens here for that same far-from-the-center-of-the-publishing-world reason. People feel more free to experiment here, and there might be more cross-pollination. I love the essayistic stuff in the LA Review of Books, which is just as intellectually heavy, but not as stilted or expected as say the New York Review of Books. Maybe that’s a metaphor as well.
SL: What would you say is the hardest thing about living and working out here?
AF: I’ve adjusted to it, but the time difference was tricky at first. Mornings are my most productive writing time, but it’s also the peak time of day when I could be corresponding with editors on the east coast. It’s not always convenient to be three hours behind the people who edit my work. I don’t love that. Also, you know, historic drought. That’s not great.
SL: Do you have a quintessential LA story? That might be sort of a weird question, but so many of us do. LA is that sort of city—I feel like it lends itself to myth-making.
AF: Last night I went to a laser light show in Van Nuys with a friend of mine. It was at the original Laserium, which was set up sometime in the mid-twentieth century. It’s essentially just a warehouse where they have a guy whose title is “Laserist”, and who manipulates lasers in time with Dark Side of the Moon or a Beatles album. You sit there for 45 minutes and watch it.
The place doesn’t look like anything from the outside. I was expecting a movie theater, but it’s just a room with a bunch of tailgating chairs set up in it. The fact that it’s been going on for so long, the fact that it’s this retro entertainment trend that has just kind of plodded along here, the fact that it’s actually kind of an art form—they’re not just pressing play on a machine, there’s actually a guy there manipulating lasers—everything about that experience was like L.A., so weird, but also wonderful.
They only have one more week left at that location. Someone bought their warehouse, so they have to move their tailgate chairs and their smoke machine to a different venue which is TBD. There’s one weekend left if you want to go! I recommend it. It pairs really well with that other great thing about living in LA, medical marijuana.