LA takes a lot of crap. But we don’t really care what our critics say, do we? From Ice-T to Joan Didion to the bacon-wrapped hot dog, we don’t need to compare ourselves to anyone. What’s more, we’re perpetually on the upswing. You can always find something or someone that is new-to-you and quintessentially LA.
Dana Johnson is in-store Tuesday with her new collection of short fiction In the Not Quite Dark. She is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award and was twice nom’d for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Here’s a short intro…
Eric Larkin – You’re from Los Angeles. Can you describe your relationship with the city or how it’s changed for better or worse over the years?
Dana Johnson – I love this city. My parents are from the south (Tennessee) and my husband, too (Alabama). I’m in the south often and I’ve lived in the Midwest, in Indiana. I’ve been all over the world, and LA is the only city that’s in my blood and heart. And I guess I don’t think about change for better or for worse most of the time (though I do miss a lot of things that have changed, like Barragan’s gone from Echo Park) because change is inevitable and change always includes the good and the bad.
EL – Class-consciousness is a recurring theme in your work, and several of the stories from In the Not Quite Dark take place in DTLA. Did you choose downtown as a setting because it presents such class contrasts, or is it just a place you wanted to write about for its own sake? (I guess what I’m asking is what attracted you to downtown LA?)
DJ – I’ve lived downtown for ten years, since January 2006. In the same apartment. And I’m a writer, so downtown was a natural subject matter, especially since I’ve seen it change so much in the last decade. But as gentrified and increasingly wealthy the neighborhood seems to be getting (Hello, Whole Check! I mean Whole Foods), what the city seems to be able to get done in terms of poverty and the homeless population is woefully lacking. It’s impossible to walk down the street on any given day and not think of class or gentrification or poverty.
EL – The last story from In the Not Quite Dark is about Biddy Mason. Her memorial park – which I think sits on the land she owned – is about 2 blocks north of the store. For readers who don’t know, who is Biddy Mason and why is she important?
DJ – Biddy Mason was a slave who was a wedding gift to her master, Robert Smith. She walked all the way from Mississippi and eventually won her freedom in California, where slavery was illegal. She eventually amassed a fortune, became one of the first African-American property owners here in downtown. She was also a midwife. With her fortune, she became a philanthropist, feed the poor, built the first African Methodist Church in LA. In her time, she gave a lot to Los Angeles and I was interested in how someone, who for much of her life couldn’t even have been said to own herself, ended up doing so much with her freedom.
EL – You teach at USC and you are a productive writer. That’s on top of all the other normal life things – family, friends, practical tasks, of course – READING, etc.. I know that’s pretty standard for writers these days, but I’m always amazed by it. These are not jobs that you can just mail in. Can you talk a little about how you manage those demands?
DJ – Sometimes I don’t! That’s just being real. Not all writers have this problem, but it’s harder for me to write when I’m teaching. It’s harder, but I (barely) get it done. Still, I love all holidays and summertime, when I get to write without thinking of my duties as faculty.
EL – What are you reading lately?
DJ – Just finished reading American Girls by Alison Umminger, an amazing YA book set in LA, about a young girl trying to figure out her crazy life while researching Charles Manson for a film project. I just read, too, Underground Airlines by Ben Winters and am listening to The Sellout by Paul Beatty on Audible.com. I walk hours everyday and I listen to a lot of books and podcasts.
EL – We’ve done a few sports posts on the blog, and they are usually DOA. I’m guessing our readers are not into sports. I don’t care. You wrote about baseball in Elsewhere, California, and you’re a Dodger fan: how do you feel about the trade for Josh Reddick and Rich Hill?
DJ – Please don’t revoke my Dodger card! I’m still and will always be a Dodger fan—it’s how I was indoctrinated by my dad—but I don’t get worked up over trades anymore. Back in the day, you would have guys on a team for along time. I grew up with the longest running infield—Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey—and they were on the team for nine seasons or something like that. Now, you become a fan of a player and they’re gone the next year. So I don’t get attached to players like I used too. But if Kershaw gets traded, I’m going to be pissed.
There’s your heart-of-LA: fast-paced lifestyle, Dodgers, Biddy Mason and she can name-drop Barragan’s.
We’ll see you Tuesday at 730