The State of Californian Literature: An Interview With Lisa Locascio


How does one channel a state into words on a page? That’s a question implicitly posed by the works collected in the new anthology Golden State, edited by Lisa Locascio. Across the stories and essays collected within this volume, a host of talented writers explore narratives personal and historical, showcasing the abundant ways in which one can explore the state of California through prose. I talked with Locascio about the process of editing the book, her work as a writer and editor, and more.

Golden State is the latest iteration of a series that began with the title California Prose Directory. What led to the change? And did that have any impact on how you selected works for it?

Full disclosure: I was not part of the decision to change the title! Our publisher, Outpost19’s Jon Roemer made the call, which he explains as “a way to refresh and re-launch the series.” I know that the title California Prose Directory was coined by the editor of the first edition, Charles McLeod, who selected my story “What Is Disneyland” for inclusion in 2013. I was drawn to submit to the anthology by the title, certainly–it was unusual and reminded me of The Encyclopedia Project, which I admire. But of course I’m enamored of the idea of a Golden State, too; it really captures the mystique California has always had for me, as a daughter of Illinois who found herself way out West. I can’t say that the title change impacted my selection process. It was definitely a big shift to break with the three previous sterling volumes (edited by McLeod, J. Ryan Stradal, and Sarah LaBrie), but I was glad to have the opportunity to make the anthology into something completely new. “Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new object that belongs to no one, ” Barthes writes in “Jeunes Chercheurs.” That’s my artistic battle cry. By virtue of belonging to “no one,” it was my hope that this anthology would offer something for everyone, author and reader alike.

In editing this anthology, what were some of the things that you looked for in terms of determining whether a piece of literature was appropriately Californian?

I had a very loose notion of what “Californian” meant in terms of the book. Some of the pieces are about the idea of California, its promise, contradictions, and drawbacks, like William Hillyard’s “Wonder Valley,” Rebecca Baumann’s “Craftsman Kid,” Michael Jaime-Becerra’s “Speakeasy Tacos,” and Patty Somlo’s “Journey Back Home.” But most of the pieces have a subtler relationship to the book’s theme. For several, California is an unremarked-upon setting. The backdrop. And I wanted that, too–pieces in which we know we are reading about California, that the place is the subject too, simply by being present in the work–as in Lyndsey Ellis’s “Opening Raynah,” Susanna Kwan’s “Winter of Departures,” Jasper Henderson’s “An Emerging Writer” and Andrea Lambert’s “The View Like An Ashtray.” Some pieces I simply had to include because they highlighted a very specific, invisible-to-others California, such as Elizabeth Hall’s “Crying With The Cosmic Cowboy,” Henri Bensussen’s “Mystery of the Narcissistic Impulse,” Kate Folk’s “Lost Horse Mine,” and Vincent Poturica’s “Dad’s House.”

One of the pitfalls of regionalism is a tendency to foreground a sense of place that is too often definitive. I recently saw a great show at the Art Institute of Chicago, Making Memories: Quilts As Souvenirs. All of the quilts on display were commemorative, and a great deal of the curatorial commentary unpacked the problematics of creating picturesque representations of place. One quilt is Mildred Jacobs Chappell’s The Settling of the West (1932), a white woman’s sentimental fantasy of the colonial history she knew from popular culture, smiling indigenous people and merry cowboys in twain, that sort of thing. Another mythologizes Florida as a landscape populated by white college graduates and black banjo players. When creating a document of a region, we have to keep certain questions at the forefront of our thoughts: who is centralized in this narrative? Who is at the margins? I wanted to create a document in which many simultaneous Californias overlapped, a book that offered a kaleidoscopic view of a place that we all have ideas about. An experiential tour, if you will.

What are some of the touchstones for you of California books, stories, or essays?

The first novel that comes to mind is one that I discovered right when I moved to Los Angeles, in 2009, Judith Freeman’s The Chinchilla Farm. Few books have been as influential on me as this one. The novel is the story of Verna Flake, a thirty-seven-year-old Mormon apostate who leaves her unhappy marriage in Utah and drives to L.A. basically on a whim, with the idea that she will stay with a friend she hasn’t seen in years. It’s a remarkable story of discovery and transformation, and a great road novel to boot. Many of the scenes of L.A. in that book became so intimate to me that they determined certain experiences I had of the city in the seven years I lived there–a trip to a Malibu beach to go swimming, and also Verna’s observations of the people she sees in MacArthur Park (itself the namesake of the Richard Harris song which, while I discovered it via The Simpsons many years before I moved to California, is inimitably of the city to me now when I use it in my teaching). If you haven’t read The Chinchilla Farm, seek it out; it’s a delight. Reading Didion in those years was also so delightful and rich, as well as Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence, although I got my heart broken a lot trying to eat at restaurants he writes about in that book which have long since disappeared.

The dream of Southern California is, for me, irremovable from the work of my hero David Lynch; Mulholland Dr. was why I wanted to live in L.A. in the first place. I wanted the weirdness, the grime, the strange. Also: Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I read while living in the neighborhood where it is set, Los Feliz, and just beginning to work with Aimee during my PhD. That book is such a marvel of understated intensity and tone. This year I’ve enjoyed discovering Eve Babitz’s work, which made me yearn for L.A. from the East Coast.

Moving northward, just this summer I finally read Denis Johnson’s Already Dead, his California Gothic, which is set in the town of Gualala, in Mendocino County. I happened to be living in Gualala while I was reading it, in the wake of the news that Johnson had passed away there last May, which shocked me; I knew about the novel, but I didn’t know he maintained a residence there. The book is so enormously of its place, so apt a portrait of the southern stretch of the Mendocino Coast, it felt almost hallucinatory to read. Johnson calls these tiny towns in northern California “places a person could disappear into. They felt like little naps you might never wake up from–you might throw a tire and hike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly on the rest of your life, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church.” That’s pretty on the nose in terms of what I’ve experienced.

Golden State includes fiction and nonfiction, and doesn’t necessarily state into which category each piece falls. What led you to this approach, rather than keeping the two in their own sections?

This isn’t exactly what you’re asking, but one break I made with previous editions was leaving the information about where pieces previously appeared out of the table of contents. I didn’t want readers to privilege pieces above others on the basis of first home, particularly as some appear for the first time in the anthology. As for the fiction/nonfiction divide; well, I’m a genre skeptic. My work as a writer and teacher has pretty much dissolved my belief in any real distinction between the two. I mean, of course nonfiction is premised in the ideal of verisimilitude and fiction gives us the freedom of total invention. But so much nonfiction writing is always fictionalized because memory itself creates fictions; it’s how it thrives and constructs narratives of experience. And so much fiction is derived from lived reality–we’ve seen this slow collision in the trend of novels from life and fictionalized memoirs, one of which was one of my favorite books this year, Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches (another great California text!). So I wanted to trouble that boundary in my own small impish way.

In your introduction, you talk about no longer living in California. Did you find that geographic distance made it easier or harder to consider the literature of a place?

Oh boy. Well, it’s still pretty gutting to me–how very much I miss California. I moved from Los Angeles to Connecticut at the end of July last year, and I’ve been back to L.A. twice since. Both times have been intense; there’s a feeling, returning to a place you lived for a long time, that you can slip back into the life you once had there, but of course you can’t. Many major things about who I am has changed since I left California, and so in returning I find myself observing the ghosts of my previous selves, sometimes walking in their shadows, but always with this itchy awareness of having changed, of being altered by life. I’ve also been lucky to spend a great deal of time in Northern California in the past year and a half, but that’s different, much more of a discovery and exploratory experience. So, in both cases, to give you a very roundabout answer to your question–yes, I definitely found the distance made the nature of California more evident to me. So many of my interpersonal skills revealed themselves as very Cali once I got out to central Connecticut. A cashier would ask me how I was and I’d give some esoteric answer, maybe reference a few favored crystals, and I’d look up to see a pinched and terrified New England glare: don’t you dare make me be intimate with you! I’m joking. Kind of.

Reading the submissions for the book threw me back into Californias I had known, and introduced me, thrillingly, to several new Golden States. it was a huge privilege to go on a tour courtesy all of the writers who sent work to be considered for the book.

Your editorial work also includes work with Joyland and 7×7. How similar (or different) was this to those experiences?

The scale of the project was much larger than anything I’ve done before. With Joyland, it’s one story at a time. With 7×7, I’m facilitating and monitoring collaborations between writers and artists–both situations have challenges, and it’s particularly easy to get bogged down in submissions, but it’s not like putting together a book. I had over 300 incredibly strong submissions–as a writer submitting work, I always see editors say that and think, “yeah right,” but in this case it was really true. Just super difficult decisions. And then, I have to confess, I messed up in a big way. I accepted far more work than the book could accommodate. I was, shall we say, overoptimistic. I just wanted to publish so many pieces. So then I ended up having to cut several, which was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do as an editor. Many of the writers were my friends–I tried to be ethical by, basically, eliminating most of the authors with whom I had personal relationships, which, let me tell you, is just a wonderful way to exacerbate feelings of social anxiety one might suffer upon moving across the country. But then, even after the friendship massacre, I still had to eliminate even more writers, people of whom I had no previous experience. I’m very proud of the book as it came to be, but I feel terrible about messing it up in that way, disappointing many people after giving them the good news of acceptance. It still makes me cringe to think about. But failure is a generative and too-often invisible part of the creative process, and this one taught me much. I’m including this part of the story in this interview in the hopes that other people in my position will recognize that it’s normal to screw up. The hard part is asking for forgiveness and cleaning up your own mess. Undoubtedly my error made me a better editor.

Your first novel is due out next year, and also has a title that alludes to a geographic space. What appeals to you about the overlap of spaces and literature?

I hate to tell you–my book, once known as Jutland Gothic, is now called Open Me. So, while I suppose we could still apply your descriptor, the allusion has become much more diffuse. The question is quite apt, however, title notwithstanding. I’m obsessed with the interaction between self and space. I’ve always been this enormously sentimental, rooted person–I used to burst into admiring tears when they ran a montage of glamour shots of Chicago before Bulls games on TV, back in the glory days–and yet I’ve had a fairly peripatetic life, living in three major cities in the US by the time I was 30, and now splitting my time between central Connecticut, rural Northern California, and visits to my family in the Midwest. So place is, for me, imbricated with all of the intense feelings that form an identity. Regional identification is how I’ve understood myself throughout my life. City pride aside, I never thought I was particularly Midwestern until I went to college in New York and everyone I met at orientation remarked on my thick Chicago accent. This preoccupation naturally bleeds into my work. My first, unpublished book was set in a fictionalized version of my hometown; another echo of that place is where the protagonist of Open Me grows up. California is meaningful to me because it was the place that taught me that it was possible to be happy as an adult–weirdly, I really thought all adulthood was shot through with some delicate, ineluctable sadness until the day I got off the plane in L.A. But I always understood that my Cali was only one of an infinite number of possibilities, and I wanted to show that, in this book.


Photo: Patrick Gookin

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.