On Writing Careers: The Legacy of Joan Didion

“She makes it look so effortless,” said contributing essayist Monica Corcoran Harel during the February 2020 publication party at Chevalier’s Books for Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light. Harel was speaking of Didion’s writing and of her style. Didion’s choices about clothing and accessories big and small (bright yellow muscle cars and dark sunglasses) are celebrated, as is her ability to frame herself within her surroundings, especially while posing for photographs. The word “icon” came up more than a few times during the event that featured a rich conversation about the new anthology of Los Angeles writers examining her legacy.

Monica Corcoran Harel at Chevaliers Books

At the event, anthology editor Steffie Nelson presided at the podium introducing the contributors, four of who were female, a testament to the ground Didion broke while writing for The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and The Saturday Evening Post during the 1960s. Her career skyrocketed from there.

Steffie Nelson at Chevalier’s Books

I listening to the discussion among contributors from the second row, feeling embarrassed and discomforted by the white wine seeping into the crotch of my pants. In trying to get a selfie showing the standing room only crowd, I’d spilled a very modest pour into my lap. It felt like a gallon. The selfie came out slightly blurry; a combination of genuine excitement and disappointed exasperation appears in my expression. Effortless? Definitely not.

Cody Sisco and Jay Fennelly at Chevalier’s Books

That is the point, however, to much of Didion’s writing. Her work may look effortless, but periods of writing droughts and doubts accompanied her productivity and success. As evidenced by the scope of contributors to Slouching Towards Los Angeles, Didion inspired generations of writers to pursue careers in journalism and creative writing; she never promised it would be easy. Her writing attests to the very opposite.

Among other topics, Didion’s essays explore both the siren song that attracts many writers to New York, the inevitable souring when New York no longer entrances, and the refuge that LA provides. Contributors Ann Friedman and Christine Lennon each trace their journeys following this well-trodden path, both ending up, as Didion did, in Los Angeles. Friedman writes, “New York was someone else’s story that I halfheartedly inhabited because I was painfully aware that I hadn’t yet written my own.” When asked during the event if any of Didion’s lines stuck in her head, she said, “Of course,” and echoed the classic line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Lennon described her journey driving cross-country, and said the inspiration for her essay came from a photograph of the writer-icon that hangs “in her powder room.”

All this talk of Didion’s migration reminded me of my own fraught, brief relationship with New York. Like Didion, I was born and raised in Northern California and moved to New York as an ambitious young adult. But I was not yet committed to what I perceived as a financially nonviable writing career, and I knew internships at literary magazines couldn’t cover my expenses. While my stint lasted only a single year, that one New York winter provided vast portions of discontent and misery for this California native. Whereas Didion regretted staying at the party too long, perhaps I arrived too late.

Upon my graceless return home to the San Francisco suburbs, I began to climb out of a slump of depression, failure, and self-doubt. I should have read more Didion in that moment instead of returning to my formative narrative refuges of science fiction and fantasy, which I re-read between moments of staring at the cracks in the ceiling of my old room in my parents’ house, wondering how to reboot my life.

Some things I learned from that period of recovery: a good diet, physical exercise, and a benign climate can do wonders for lifting one’s mood. So can fully embracing the literary impulse as I learned while taking creative writing classes at San Francisco State University. What is it about the act of writing that we find comforting?

In Heather John Fogarty’s essay, “On Keeping a Cookbook,” she investigates Didion’s notes about food prepared and served to a bevy of guests in her Malibu, Hollywood, and Brentwood homes. Fogarty ascribes the habit of note taking to a desire “to create a sense of order and connection to time and place… There is safety to be found in nostalgia, even if that safety is imagined and memory parts ways with the reality of the moment.” My own experience with note taking suggests that its potency lies in helping making sense of chaos at the time of writing, rather than to fuel nostalgia sometime in the future.

Heather John Fogarty at Chevalier’s Books

During the period of my recuperation, I threw away all my high school journals, a decision I knew would be consequential. The journals were full of painful memories, vividly rendered and perhaps not distant enough in time to be safe, yet they also captured details I can never recover. I suspected one day I might want to read my notes but decided instead that I needed to move forward, to create the life I wanted to live without being trapped by the records I kept. Not everything worth remembering fits well within the confines of a page or a photograph.

The question of how we reconcile our past now that we’re grown was raised explicitly by the lone male contributor present, Joe Donnelly, in his exploration of his evolving feelings toward two versions of The White Album: Didion’s essay collection and the Beatle’s album.  During the event Donnelly sat apart, or more accurately, stood mostly to one side and apart. A small detail that alone signifies little. But—if I’m able to analyze the situation with a fraction of Didion’s meticulous insight—throughout the evening he commanded more than his share of attention.

It never occurred to me in the moment to stand up and point to my wine-dampened crotch, grab some attention, and connect myself to the proceedings. If only I had the gumption to not care what anyone thought about me, my writing, or the spectacle-of-me, I might be writing memoir. I could fill a book with dozens of stories covering decades of adventures, but I’ve never wanted to create a spectacle of myself. But there was Didion, lurking in the frame, or just outside of it, as she spun stories about California and Los Angeles that were much bigger than they first appeared.

Reading Didion now, in light of how she impacted other writers as talented as those featured in Slouching Towards Los Angeles, puts me in a mind to expand the trajectory of my writing career and to excavate some of the stories buried in my memory. Studying the approach of the contributors to this anthology has opened some doors of possibility as surely as psychedelics open the doors of perception. I’m grateful to Nelson for exploring the byways and deep reservoirs of inspiration that Joan Didion has bestowed on us. I’m looking towards the horizon and imagining what might be coming our way to be born.

BookSwell Intersections Episode 13
New Year’s Reading Resolutions, an Interview with Carla Sameth, Events to Kick Off 2020

Happy New Year to all of our listeners! This week, we’re here to help you get a jump start on your 2020 TBR list, with recommendations from our panel.  Managing Editor Cody Sisco, along with Co-Hosts Rachelle Yousuf and Irene Yoon recap their year in reading and discuss what they’d like to see in the literary landscape next year.

Cody sits down with local LA author Carla Sameth to talk about her recent release, One Day on the Gold Line. They delve into religion, addiction, and the writing process, as well as their shared appreciation for the LA writing scene.

If your New Year’s Resolution is to attend more literary events, Shannon Eagen has you covered with events for the whole family in early January.

About Carla Sameth

Writer. Teacher. Mother. As a writer, Carla hopes to help readers feel less alone and more resilient. As a teacher, she strives to help others tell their stories and hone their craft while experimenting with new forms. The journey of motherhood informs much of her writing.

Carla’s memoir, One Day on the Gold Linewas published July 2019 by Black Rose.

Through meditations on race, culture, and family, One Day on the Gold Line tells the story of a lesbian Jewish single mother raising a black son in Los Angeles. A memoir-in-essays, it examines life’s surprising changes that come through choice or circumstance, often seemingly out of nowhere, and sometimes darkly humorous—even as the situations are dire.

While escaping from a burning boat, Carla realizes that if she died, her one regret would be not having children. She overcomes miscarriages to finally give birth to a son. Motherhood’s usual struggles are then complicated by identity, community, and the challenges of creating a blended family. The overarching theme of these loosely woven reflective tales is the storyteller’s dream of the “perfect” family, the pursuit of which hurls her from one crisis to the next, ultimately meeting its greatest challenge in the form of her teenage son’s struggle with drug addiction. 

Learn more: https://carlasameth.com/books/

Listen Now:

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Books Mentioned:

One Day on the Gold Line by Carla Sameth

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

The Power of Nunchi by Euny Hong

Events Mentioned:

2019 BookSwell Gift Guide for the Holidays

We polled our favorite authors and literary community organizers for their reading recommendations this holiday season. They responded with titles across a range of genres. There is something for everyone in the list below.

Lynelle George says…

I’m midway through “Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout and have “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson on deck.

Listen to BookSwell Intersections podcast episode #4 featuring an interview with Lynell George.

Tori Eldridge recommends…

“Rage” by Jonathan Maberry, a Joe Ledger action thriller that kicks off his new International series

“Land of Shadows,” by Rachel Howzell Hall, the first book in the Detective Elouise Norton series

Listen to BookSwell Intersections episode #11 featuring an interview with Tori Eldridge.

Carla Sameth had this to say…

Loved:

On her to-read pile…

“Black Wings” by Sehba Sarwar “which had temporarily disappeared and magically reappeared this week on my bookshelf.” Tis the season for book magic!

Rachelle Yousuf says…

“I’m a huge fan of anything by local author Attica Locke. She’s a superstar already but always deserves a shout out.”

BookSwell Intersections Episode 12
Lambda LitFest 2019 Spotlight: Intentional Intersectionality Debrief

The BookSwell Crew has been hard at work producing our Intentional Intersectionality reading and discussion as a part of the 2019 Lambda LitFest.

This week, we’re doing a debrief and recap on the somewhat stressful but deeply rewarding process of putting together a live literary event.

We’ve also included excerpts from the talented artists that Managing Editor Cody Sisco, Intersections Co-Host Rachelle Yousuf and BookSwell Advisor Sakae Manning gathered together at the Armory Arts Complex. Enjoy the poetry and prose of these vital voices.

Finally, Shannon Eagen rounds out the episode with recommendations for literary events in the next two weeks, including a star studded event you should buy your ticket for ASAP!

Listen Now:

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Events Mentioned:

Writers Featured:

B.A. Williams 

B.A. Williams is a queer writer and performer from East Long Beach, CA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is currently working on a novel-length manuscript and poetry collection. When she isn’t writing or performing she is developing a platform which seeks to uplift communities of color, redefine “otherness,” and distribute intersectionality with various modes of art. B.A. co-curates and hosts un::fade::able – the requiem of Sandra Bland and is the content manager for lovedby.her, a digital storytelling platform that showcases and celebrates Black queer love. Her poetry and prose focus on all things “other” with a heavy emphasis on Blackness, womanhood, and queerness. Her work is featured in Rigorous Magazine, Every-Other Broadsides, The Rumpus and The New York Times Parenting

Evan Kleekamp 

Evan Kleekamp lives in Los Angeles, where they founded NOR Research Studio. With Kim Calder, they directed Les Figues Press from September October until July 2019. Their writing has been featured in X-TRA Online, Open Space (SFMOMA), the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fence, and Tripwire: A Journal of Poetics. Evan has performed, lectured, and given talks at CalArts, Otis College, the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, the Poetic Research Bureau, and Columbia College Chicago. They are the author of two chapbooks, 13 THESES ON STATE-SPONSORED BLACK DEATH IN AMERICA (Kastle Editions, 2016) and Once Upon a Time I Was Michael Thomas Taren (Ghost City Press, 2017). Evan is currently editing an artist monograph and writing a novel. 

Reuben Hayslett 

Reuben “Tihi” Hayslett is a queer activist, writer, and storyteller and current resident of Long Beach, CA. His first fiction short-story collection Dark Corners debuted in 2019 through Running Wild press. Dark Corners received a star rating by Kirkus and was recently included in the swag bag for George Lopez’s Celebrity Golf Tournament. Tihi currently works at Demand Progress, leading online campaigns against the overreach of government surveillance, and is a Lead Training Associate with the Oakland-based Center for Story-Based Strategy. Before relocating from Brooklyn to Southern California, Tihi produced Rustik Storytellers, a monthly oral storytelling live show in 2013. In 2016 he co-produced PRACTICE, a safe-space live storytelling show designed to encourage new-comers to take up the oral storytelling tradition. As a fluent speaker of Dothraki, one of the languages created for HBO’s Game of Thrones, Tihi recently worked on the upcoming Netflix series Daybreak as a Dothraki Language Consultant. 

Roxana Preciado 

Roxana Preciado is an indie author and artist recognized for her work as a poet and activist. Born in Jalisco, Mexico, she migrated to the US at four-years-old and has been writing poetry since the age of twelve. She has released three books of poetry with the most recent being Hood Educated. In this work, Preciado explores evolution and healing, connecting the disparate parts of her past self into a unified whole. 

Preciado uses poetry and her story to support community engagement and activism around DACA and, as a survivor, to raise awareness about violence against women. She often speaks to Latinx and LGBTQ+ youth to help them find their own voice and tell their stories. Preciado is completing her graduate degree while continuing advocacy work for her various communities. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California with her wife and son.

BookSwell Intersections Episode 11
Tori Eldridge brings a martial arts spin to contemporary LA Noir, the ever-appealing world of YA, and a spotlight on Lambda LitFest LA 2019

As temperatures are dropping and kids are going back to school, BookSwell Intersections co-hosts Cody, Dan, and Rachelle journeyed to the Central Library to take advantage of the wonderful facilities in the Octavia Lab. They catch up on recent literary events, the books they’ve been gravitating towards lately, and the exciting event that Cody and Rachelle have been hard at work planning, alongside Sakae Manning. They also discuss the legacy of Toni Morrison, and the silver lining of resurgent interest in the works of recently departed authors.

After that, Cody chats with Tori Eldridge as she prepares for her first published novel, The Ninja Daughter. She examines how her heritage and cultural legacy informed her contemporary LA Noir, and the circuitous route she took to becoming a novelist after being an actress, dancer, and fifth-degree black belt in To Shin Do Ninjutsu.

Finally, Shannon gives a rundown of some of the events we’re most excited about in the upcoming 3rd Annual Lambda LitFest.

Listen Now:


Link to BookSwell Intersections Podcast on Spotify


Event Spotlight: Lambda LitFest

Books Mentioned:

Black Card by Chris L. Terry

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

The Obama Inheritance by Gary Phillips

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Half Magic by Edward Eager

Fence by C.S. Pacat

Bloom by Kevin Panetta

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

BookSwell Intersections Episode 10
Sehba Sarwar discusses her writing, activism and performance art, quick takes from LITLIT in DTLA and August events for authors and creators

Summer is winding down in LA, but BookSwell has been keeping busy with a full literary calendar, and we have a jam-packed episode for you.  First up, BookSwell was on the scene at the Inaugural Little Literary Fair, or LITLIT. Managing Editor Cody Sisco was joined by co-host Rachelle Yousuf for this “pop-up book fair” at Hauser and Wirth in DTLA, where they chat about what they’ve been reading lately. Cody also conducted a series of flash interviews with Rachel Wills, Candysse Miller, and Katelyn Keating at LITLIT, that are short, sweet and packed with information. Rachel Wills recently launched her online Queer Femme Literary Magazine, Gayettes. Follow them on Instagram @gayettesmag for updates, and of course, niche queer memes. Candysse Miller gives us the rundown on Interlude Press, an award-winning boutique press with a focus on LGBTQ fiction, but a firm belief that “a good book is a good book.” Interlude has an amazing slate of upcoming new releases that you won’t want to miss. Finally, Cody gets to chat with Katelyn Keating, BookSwell Contributor and Book Event Organizer extraordinaire, who was critical to bringing the first ever Little Literary Fair to life.

After that, Cody sits down for a longer conversation with author, activist and artist Sehba Sarwar. Sehba’s novel, Black Wings was finally released in the US earlier this year, after originally being published in Pakistan in 2004. Keep up with all of Sehba’s readings, art performances and publications on her website, or by checking our very own Events Navigator.

Rounding out the episode, Shannon Eagen discusses some upcoming literary events that will be particularly appealing to writers and creators of their own content.

Listen Now:


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Events Mentioned:

Books Mentioned:

Black Wings by Sehba Sarwar

Pride Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev

The Patternist Series by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

How to Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters

The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic by F.T. Lukens

Monster of the Week by F.T. Lukens

Shine of the Ever by Claire Rudy Foster

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

 

 

 

 

BookSwell Intersections Episode 09
My Lit Box’s Sanura Williams on putting new writers in front of her customers, our co-hosts debate what makes a good reading, and hyperlocal LA events in July

We are at the height of Summer Reading Season, and this episode is jam-packed with book recommendations from our co-hosts Cody Sisco, Sarah LaBrie, Rachelle Yousuf, and Dan Lopez. They chat what they love and what they hate in bookish events, how the setting of a story can be a character of its own, and revelations (or lack thereof) in celebrity memoirs. They’re joined by Sanura Williams, from My Lit Box, who is dedicated to promoting the work of authors of color through her literary subscription box. My LitBox would be a perfect gift for the indecisive book lover in your life–Sanura picks hot new releases and mails them straight to your door (along with some other literary goodies!). Finally, if you’ve been out of town on a summer vacation, why not hit up some literary events that celebrate LA while you’re home? Shannon Eagen has event recommendations for the next two weeks of July that are all about Los Angeles locals.

Listen Now:

Also Available Here:

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Events Mentioned:

 

Books Mentioned:

Mind of My Mind by Octavia E. Butler

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Lot by Bryan Washington

Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime by Alex Espinoza

Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Corazón by Yesika Salgado

Jello Girls by Allie Rowbottom

**Netflix Recommendation!**

“When They See Us” dir. by Ava DuVernay

BookSwell Intersections Episode 08
Poet, author, and editor Shonda Buchanan shares her story with Cody Sisco, Dan Lopez’s current favs in LGBTQ YA, and events for bookworms seeking the “Anti-Beach Read”

Summer has finally arrived in sunny Los Angeles, and we hope you all had a wonderful Pride Weekend! Dan Lopez and Cody Sisco are here to dig deep into Michelle Obama’s runaway hit, Becoming, and Dan recommends books that fill his very particular current obsessions — LGBTQ YA and Sci-Fi! After that, enjoy Cody’s conversation with Shonda Buchanan that covers the history of World Stage Press, Leimert Park, and Shonda’s own imprint at Tsehai Books — Harriet Tubman Press. You won’t want to miss Buchanan detail her moving journey of self-discovery and owning her identity, and the cherry on top of this interview is a truly phenomenal reading of one of her poems. You can find out more about Shonda on her website, and while you’re exploring, be sure to check out World Stage Press and Eso Won Books. And finally, are you looking for events that don’t feature the typical glossy beach reads of the summer season? Shannon Eagen has you covered with some June book signings (and a book club!) celebrating slightly less mainstream genres. Enjoy!

Listen Now:

Also Available Here:

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Events Mentioned:

 

Books Mentioned:

American Lion by Jon Meacham

Becoming by Michelle Obama

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell Moore

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach\

The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara

BookSwell Intersections Episode 07
Poet, activist and survivor Roxana Preciado shares her story with Cody Sisco, how news fatigue affects your reading life, and events for a book lover celebrating Pride Month

June is just around the corner, and even though it’s been cold and gloomy in LA, it’s officially time for Summer Reading! Jump start your summer TBR with some wonderful recommendations from Cody Sisco, Sarah LaBrie and Irene Yoon. They also touch on trends in literary events attendance, and how reading to stay current on the news can cut in on the time you spend reading for pleasure. After that, Cody sits down with Roxana Preciado, to talk about her writing process and her incredible triumphs in the face of adversity. Roxana published her first book, Not a Fairytale in 2015, and has already released two more books of poetry, Not a Writer, and Hood Educated. She talks about finding her own community within the world of LA indie writers, and how she hopes to be a beacon for young, queer immigrants. Finally, June is Pride Month, and Shannon Eagen has selected some great events focused on LGBTQ authors for you to attend in the next two weeks.

Listen Now:

Also Available Here:

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Events Mentioned:

 

Books Mentioned:

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Hood Educated by Roxana Preciado

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

All Ships Follow Me by Mieke Eerkens

Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

BookSwell Intersections Episode 06
Cody Sisco in conversation with Julayne Lee, Dan Lopez recommends LGBTQ plays, and Shannon Eagen previews LitFest Pasadena

The first two weeks of May have been a flurry of literary excitement, but the BookSwell Intersections team feels like we’re STILL recovering from the LA Times Festival of Books… Listen to Managing Editor Cody Sisco and Co-Host Dan Lopez debrief on that festival, as well as Dan’s new job in publishing, and some theatrical literature featuring with LGBTQ characters that he’s recently revisited. The meat of this episode is a fantastic interview with author, poet, activist and inter-country adoptee Julayne Lee. Her recent memoir in poems, Not Your White Savior, deals with her journey from a South Korean orphanage to a Midwestern Christian family, and the myriad issues transracial adoptees face. Learn more about Julayne, her upcoming work, and the workshops she facilitates for writers of color at her website.  We finish our episode with an extended rundown of upcoming events from Shannon Eagen, including some specific panel recommendations for the LitFest Pasadena.

Listen Now:

Also Available Here:

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Events Mentioned:

 

Books Mentioned:

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Made in LA Anthology


The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez


Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley

Not My White Savior by Julayne Lee


Guesthouse for Ganesha by Judith Teitelman


Rules for Visiting by Jessica Frances Kane

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer