“A searing honesty and a bit of audacity.” That’s how USC historian William F. Deverell described the authors who came together for “Writing California,” the panel Deverell moderated Saturday for the LA Times Festival of Books – namely Matthew Specktor, Ken Layne and Greg Sarris. But it could just as well apply to what the state—with its complex history, culture, and geography, its (shattered) dreams, its (scorched) redwoods, and its (ravaged) indigenous populations—has given writers .
Deverell asked the panelists how the various California traditions figured into their books. What they emerged with was the essence of all writing – stories.
For “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” a study of successes and failures among Hollywood authors and myth-makers, Specktor began with more than 20 Californians whose stories fascinated him, with the intention of writing on each of them. “But that wore off,” he said, so the individuals who feature in his book “became a means of investigating a set of questions that were both relevant to me at the time of writing but also hopefully relevant to the American idea.. I think Hollywood is such an amazing place where something that we really need – which is art – is created, and something with which we are all struggling with – which is capitalism – prevails and in this tension there is something that seems infinite.
Layne described the characters whose presence he felt while writing “Desert Oracle,” an idiosyncratic essay guide to the American West with forays into the occult. Chief among these inspirations was environmentalist author Edward Abbey, whose work he first encountered when he was 17. Layne had been struggling to figure out what to do with himself, and here’s a solution.
“I just thought Abbey had a hell of a job,” Layne said. He laughed at his youthful notion, based on Abbey’s example, that as a writer “you don’t really work. You drive, hike. You talk to people and you learn stories. There’s a moral component, and if you get a moral component into something you love doing…you look forward to doing your job.
Sarris, a famous Native novelist, has drawn on other Californian veins for his recent memoir, “Becoming Story: A Journey Among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors.” It was not the written culture that influenced him, but the stories of his people and his territory.
“More than anything else, it’s my tribal elders and the trees and the land itself,” he said. “I cannot understand myself as an Aboriginal separated from the land. Our wives have made amazing baskets at home, and I think anything that goes into a basket is as old as the stars.
Sarris challenged the idea that narratives are primarily found in urban cores, with natural places set aside for inspirational retreats. “Environmentalists go to the redwoods or the desert for peace,” he said. “When I go to the redwoods, there’s so much fuss it’s worse than being on Wilshire Boulevard.”
Sarris admits to being intrigued by the attention celebrities get when nature matters so much more. He told the story behind one of the essays in his book, “If Oprah Were an Oak Tree.” Attempting to take a break from an exhausting day, he turned on the television and saw an episode of “Oprah.” “I was looking at the oak, and right now we’re dealing with ‘sudden oak death’, and that’s been a staple for us and they’re dying. I thought if Oprah was an oak tree, movie stars would be drawn to them, and all the publicity would educate people about the tree and take care of it.
Both Layne and Specktor recalled ancient Californians whose stories brought to light the peculiarities of the state. Specktor said he was haunted by “Five Easy Pieces” screenwriter Carole Eastman. He sees echoes of Eastman’s life in his mother’s. “I’m interested in how the film industry might reduce a person’s creative output” – but perhaps even more so how those who have been so reduced could form a satisfying identity around their limited lives .
For Layne, it was George Van Tassel, originally a quality control engineer for reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. Van Tassel became a magnet around which a community of counterculture celebrities and UFO enthusiasts gathered. “Eventually he built a magical building” – the famous domed Integratron in Landers., Calif. – “so that people could live forever.”
In the style of California stories, it didn’t quite work out that way, Layne said: “In a perfect circle of the way we do things, you can now go into the Integratron and pay to have a sound bath, but you can’t live forever.