November 1 we get this whole gang + Lev Tsimring and David Ulin in-store to chat about their massive story & photo book DTLA 37 – which is all about, yes, our sometimes-hard-to-love but nevertheless belovéd downtown Los Angeles. Here is Mackenzie Kiera’s convo, with a little preview and some shop talk.
Mackenzie Kiera: So, who are you? How long have you lived in LA?
Yennie Cheung: I’m a native. Aside from moving briefly for undergrad and grad school, I’ve lived here all my life.
Kathryn McGee: I moved to LA in 2008, the summer after finishing my master’s degree in urban planning at UC Irvine. I rented a month-to-month studio apartment in a 1920s bungalow court on Sweetzer Avenue. I was so excited about having my own apartment that I didn’t even realize the unit didn’t have a kitchen sink until I moved in. Crock potting and other kitchen endeavors were difficult.
MK: Not to mention washing dishes! So, how did you both meet and decide this was something you wanted to do?
YC: This is a more complicated question than it sounds. Kathryn and I met through the MFA program. I first heard about this DTLA 37 book through the book’s editor, Julia Watson. She initially recruited me and Cynthia Romanowski. I’ve known Julia since undergrad, but as you know, they’re both UCR alums, too, which makes this a pretty UCR-heavy book.
From the moment Kathryn heard about the project, she had ideas for me since she knows a lot about the buildings there. When Cynthia left the project, I knew that I had to ask Kathryn to work with me in her place because basically she’d already been working with me.
I think it worked out well because Cynthia and I essentially came from the same background as journalist from SoCal, so we both thought a lot about current events and personal histories first. Kathryn’s perspective was different since she brought in a bigger perspective of chronological history and focus on structures.
KM: I’m not sure I have much to add here! I of course knew that Yennie was working on the project, had even been hanging out with her and Cynthia one afternoon when they’d been brainstorming. It always seemed like a neat concept for a book, so when the opportunity became available to work on the project, I was immediately excited to get involved.
MK: Absolutely! So, tell me, how long did the process take?
YC: I signed up for this three years ago. Kathryn joined six months later. Cynthia had already written one story and most of another. Think I’d written a couple, too? Most of our stories were written within a year after Kathryn joined. The rest of this time has been focused on printing issues.
KM: Agreed. Much of the intense work of setting up interviews and site visits, writing, and editing was done in about a year (for me). In many ways, the most intense work has been all the team coordination to figure out how the book would be laid out, printed, marketed, etcetera. We have two authors, two photographers, an editor, a publisher, and an agent, and are constantly emailing and such to make sure we’re on the right track.
MK: That sounds like a lot of work, indeed. Now, the first thing that strikes me with this book, is the layout. How beautiful everything is. Can you tell me about your photographers, how that process went?
YC: Tim and my brother used to work together, so we have been friends for years. He’s been wandering the streets of LA since he moved here, taking photos, so I knew he’d already have an idea of what to cover. In many cases, Kathryn and I came up with ideas of what we wanted to write about, and Tim came with us to check everything out. Sometimes, he would go back and shoot more photos because, after having some time to think about what he’d learned, he’d come up with better ideas for photos.
Lev, however, was the first person recruited because he knew our publisher, who loves Lev’s photos. En Ville has even put out a book of Lev’s photography. It became clear right away that Tim and Lev’s styles and points of view are very different, so when it came time to lay out the book, it was hard sometimes figuring out what needed to go where, and Tim actually shot photos up until deadline to make sure the photos flowed properly.
KM: In general we used Tim’s photos to illustrate most of the 37 stories, working closely with him to make sure he was available to come to site visits and interviews. In that way, it was very much a collaborative process. Lev has some exceptional photos that provide beautiful overall views and give a broad sense of the character of the city.MK: How did you decide on these exact pieces of the city to write about?
YC: I think the main goal we had was to show people the human side of LA. We definitely knew we had to include the usual Downtown locations like the Disney Concert Hall, but we wanted to make sure we presented them with a little twist. For the Concert Hall, for example, I wanted to focus less on the architecture and more on how the people of LA use the space.
Some of the stories basically fell into our laps, such as the one about Big Larry (story #3). Tim and I were looking at some of the photos he had taken years ago, and one that stood out was that of an older man wearing a suit and hat in front of the store on Los Angeles Street, where he worked. He didn’t speak much English, but he’d let Tim take some photos of him. I was intrigued by this guy and wanted to know his story, so we went to find him. Unfortunately, the store was gone by the time we got down there, but a few doors down we found Big Larry dressed to the nines, reading the paper from a stool outside the men’s clothing store where he worked. Big Larry told us about the man in the photo, and we realized that Big Larry himself had an amazing life story working on that same block since he was a teenager in the sixties, through the Riots and now gentrification.
KM: Yes. We made an attempt to root each story in a specific location, while also having it be about a specific person. The key was to capture the “human temperature” of DTLA. The “37” series is about capturing the human temperature of different neighborhoods around the world. Thirty-seven is the human body temperature in Celsius.
In terms of choosing specific pieces, we had team meetings in which we brainstormed a wide range of topics we were interested in. I wanted to make sure we addressed the issue of homelessness in downtown; touched on aspects of the neighborhood’s architectural history and the ongoing redevelopment; and also had some stories that were just fun, showcasing the area’s quirky and interesting art scene. There could only be 37 stories, so that number was always a limitation.
We made an effort to feature a variety of locations in downtown, as well as a diverse array of people and topics. We were somewhat limited by the need to do interviews and site visits when both the writer and photographer were available. In that way, there was a ton of ongoing coordination. We were also limited by lack of budget, and tended toward covering topics/events that were either low cost or free. Luckily, there is a ton you can do downtown without spending much money. Paying for parking and food is always what gets you!
MK: Any inspirations? Any books you loved that helped you with the writing?
YC: Cynthia definitely took inspiration from John Fante’s books, and I was glad she wrote about Fante for one of our stories. I thought a lot about Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside whenever I walked through the Historic Core and thought about all of the places Charlie Chaplin had lived. Every time I went by the Hollywood Athletic Club, I’d look up, as if I’d see Chaplin climbing out a window like in the book. I guess you can say Sunnyside influenced me to look for quirkiness and charm. And beyond books, I definitely felt inspired by some of the KCET articles and shows I’d seen early on, especially the ones with Nathan Masters.
MK: What about you, Kat?
KM: I love books that describe the atmosphere of Los Angeles in a “voicey” way. Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Fante’s Ask The Dust come immediately to mind. I really appreciate how they are able to convey the feel of a neighborhood or part of a city during a specific time period. That’s what we were trying to do—give a sense of what DTLA is like right now. Moody, LA-based crime novels also come to mind. Like Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and Stephen Jay Schwartz’s Boulevard. There are tons of non-fiction books about urban and architectural history that have inevitably shaped my thinking over the years as well: Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams; Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies; David Gebhard and Harriette Von Breton’s Los Angeles in The Thirties: 1931-1941; and more recently Glen Creason’s book, Los Angeles in Maps. All great references!
MK: Who helped? Who would you like to thank?
YC: I got a lot of suggestions from people in Downtown. One of the most helpful was a woman named Andrea Damian, who lives and works in the area. I met her outside of an event at the Globe Theater, and she told me about things like the YMCA stair climb and connected me with a friend of hers who helped me with information about the swifts.
KM: We had help with almost every story and so many fascinating interviews! It’s hard to single out just one person. I really enjoyed our interview with Carl Baldwin, owner of the Velveteria, Chinatown’s velvet paintings museum. Our tour of the Downtown Women’s Center was extremely informative and I’m very grateful to have had the up-close experience of seeing what goes into providing social services and permanent housing to women who are homeless. I also really enjoyed talking to my friends, Jamie Lee Barnard and Topher Rhys-Lawrence, about their musical production of Green Day’s American Idiot. It was fun to dive deep into not only what the American Idiot story means and how they interpreted it, but also learn about everything that goes into putting on a musical in a warehouse space. (It’s a lot of work.) Finally, I’d say our tours of Clifton’s Cafeteria and the Hotel Alexandria were also standouts, as those locations are both such fascinating historic spaces. While Clifton’s had just been rehabilitated with some new features added, Hotel Alexandria had work underway during our visit. These were fun examples of new “life” being breathed into old buildings in DTLA. MK: Yennie? Kat? What was your individual writing process like? Did you write everything together or send it back and forth?
YC: We wrote our pieces separately, but we did a lot of research together and bounced ideas off each other. Sometimes we’d interview people together and point out potential numbers for stories to each other (like the number of velvet Elvis paintings). I probably asked a lot of questions she didn’t need for her stories.
KM: Agreed. We did a handful of the interviews together, which helped us to discuss an approach to writing the stories. The format is restrictive in that the word count per story is very limited, so there has to be a clear, tight concept for each story. Our editor, Julia Watson, did a lot to help shape the pieces as well. Yennie and I were both aiming to write in a similar house style and using a similar voice, so Julia was able to help edit our work in a way to make that happen.
MK: Did your careers and interests play a part in writing and configuring this book?
KM: I work as an architectural historian, so my interest in the history of the built environment often played into the pieces I wrote. It was sometimes hard for me to get away from my tendency to want to write about the architecture, as opposed to the people! I think bringing in historical perspective helped add depth to certain pieces. My favorite story in the book is probably the piece about Hotel Alexandria, where I was able to describe the historic building and its ongoing rehabilitation, and speculate about Valentino’s ghost.
YC: I used to be a music journalist and ran a book review website. In my experience, the best interviews are the ones when the subject and I just sit back and nerd out on craft or other things we love, so it was a pleasure to throw out any pre-written questions I had and let people gush about their passions.
I think my interests are less obvious, but you can see more of my personal experience with LA in it. I grew up going to Chinatown a lot as a kid, but it’s no longer where Chinese people in LA congregate, so I loved being able to write about the area’s reinvention through non-Chinese places like the restaurant Chego and the coffee shop Endorffeine, which we featured in the book. It’s easy to nerd out with the subject when we share a mutual love for this city.
MK: Good to know. Alright, if you’re not writing or working you are….
KM: Reading! Also, when I’m unwinding, I like to sit in my apartment and think about ways I could rearrange the furniture, decide it’s too much work to rearrange the furniture, pour a glass of wine, eat cheese, and watch a random horror movie Netflix has suggested I might enjoy.
MK: This is what I ask everyone. It’s time to be exposed. Tell me please the famous classic novel you have not read, know you should (We’re talking Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Great Gatsby) those guys.
YC: I’m going to confess I’ve never read Frankenstein. It’s definitely not for a lack of desire. I was supposed to read it maybe twenty years ago, but it’s still languishing on my bookshelf, waiting to be read. It just somehow always gets usurped in my book-reading queue by other things.
KM: I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey.
MK: Like the chronologically first three Star Wars movies, I like to pretend Fifty Shades doesn’t exist. Okay, weird writing habit?
YC: Probably the weirdest thing is how long it takes me to write a story from start to completion. With fiction, I often write a draft and sit on it for ages—months, even years—before deciding it’s ready to send out. Part of it is perfectionism, part of it is deciding I need time to give me enough perspective to see how to make it good. But these stories in this book? Churned them out pretty quickly. I think that’s the journalist in me, knowing how to tell someone else’s story and get it out into the world. I think the difference is that with real people, the beauty is in the fact that they are real—that these moments can’t be made up. Fiction needs to be more complicated but also more rational. Nonfiction, we’re more willing to believe what seems farfetched because we’re told it’s true.
KM: When I’m working on a new story idea, I try to explain it aloud to myself. Sometimes I record the thought process in one of those voice memo apps on my iPhone. This often results in a meandering nine-minute recording that I’ll never listen to again, and would be embarrassing to have someone else discover (I cannot ever lose my iPhone), but sometimes this process really helps me get all the way to an ending. I think it simulates the experience of telling a story to someone else, which seems to drag a story ending out of me when one might not have otherwise existed. Even when I don’t have time to sit down and actually write the story, I feel some satisfaction in knowing it is complete and on my phone!
MK: Well, you guys have been amazing and I wish you the best of luck. Thank you so much for this interview and tell me, where can we find you? What else do you guys write?
KM: I write horror stories and have previously published stories in Gamut Magazine and anthologies including Horror Library Vol. 6, Cemetery Riots, and Winter Horror Days. My website includes more information at www.kathrynemcgee.com.
YC: I write a lot of short things: short stories, nonfiction, flash. You can find me… man, I don’t even know. Online, there’s Twitter. I need to get a website together. I guess you can find my work online at Angels Flight * Literary West, Word Riot, and decomP magazinE. You can also find my work in Best Small Fictions 2015.
This concludes our interview with Kathryn McGee and Yennie Cheung. Their book DTLA 37 hits the shelves Read on for a bit from their photographer, the illustrious Tim Ronca.
TR: I guess you could say my process for this book was a bit of a mixed bag. The images were obviously motivated to a large degree by the subjects of the stories Yennie, Kathryn, and Cynthia wrote. In fact, I would often accompany them when they went to research a specific place or interview a specific person.
Occasionally, this would lead to a photo op right then and there, but frequently I would let what I saw or heard marinate and return at a later time when the light was more dramatic or flattering for the subject or I had a better grasp on what I wanted to convey. While some stories required a more straightforward photojournalistic approach, I wanted to balance those photos with images that felt slightly more conceptual.
Since I grew up in New York and fell in love with old movies at a pretty young age (especially film noir), I had sort of a romanticized Hollywood notion on what the city of Los Angeles was like – Bogart-type loners in fedoras wandering neon lit streets, etc. Reading Chandler, Ellroy, Bukowski, and Fante once I moved here only exacerbated this notion for me and so I would walk the streets of the Historic Core looking for signs of that Los Angeles, which does still exist to a degree and which certainly influenced a number of images that ended up in the book. For example, one of the more conceptual photos was taken for the DTLA Writers story (which focuses on the Bunker Hill neighborhood Fante wrote about in Ask the Dust that has changed so drastically over the years and the types of people who inhabited it) and shows a young man seated at a nondescript bar (in Downtown LA) presumably drowning his sorrows at the bottom of a whiskey glass in the style of a Fante or Bukowski protagonist.
However, that notion of Los Angeles is really just a small facet of the city and its history. One of the biggest reasons I love spending time in Downtown LA is its incredible diversity and I really appreciated that the subjects Yennie and Kathryn chose to write about for this book were not necessarily obvious choices and really highlighted that diversity at a human level. And while Lev and I did include images of some of the more iconic places and spaces in LA, these stories also allowed us to examine the city through the lens of a man who worked for decades at a clothing shop on Los Angeles St., a head brewer in DTLA’s Arts District, and a police officer who walks the beat in Skid Row. Meeting these folks and hearing their stories was definitely a highlight in the process for me.
DTLA/37 is a vibrant book perfect for every house. The 37 essays written by Cheung, McGee and Romanowski are better than a flight to LA and leave you feeling breathless and full of wonder for this Southern California city. Pick up a copy and get lost in DTLA November 1st.