by Ryan Vaillancourt
Photos by Gary Leonard
The nearly 3-year-old bookstore stocks all the bestsellers, the classics, the hot titles of the month — these days, it’s anything Julia Child related — and the usual tomes from the Los Angeles literary pantheon of Chandler, Bukowski, Didion, etc.
Then there’s the locals section, where a collection of relationship-focused short stories is mixed with a youth-oriented, ecological adventure book, some self-published poetry books and a series of contemporary mysteries written for American Anglophiles.
“It’s nice to feature people who are from the neighborhood,” said Metropolis owner Julie Swayze. “We’ve had authors from England and Australia who included us on their tour, but I think it’s nice that someone can walk from upstairs to a book signing.”
Swayze has also made a habit of inviting published local authors to hold book launches, readings and signings at the store. Next up is Hannah Dennison, who on Thursday, Dec. 10, will read from and sign Exposé, the third installment in her Vicky Hill Mystery Series.
Lending shelf space to local authors is not entirely altruistic: They sell well, too, Swayze said.
“If it’s a local author people are sort of drawn to that,” she said. “I can sell them very well just saying that they’re local.”
Los Angeles Downtown News caught up with five Downtown authors whose works are in stock at Metropolis to talk about their craft and writing Downtown.
Hannah Dennison: Dennison, a native of England, didn’t set out to be an author. She came to Los Angeles as an aspiring screenwriter, then tired of the pursuit and took what was supposed to be a temporary gig as an assistant to a corporate CEO. It ended up being more permanent, as Dennison has now worked in a Downtown officer tower for 10 years. But in the early morning hours, Dennison, 51, writes installments of the Vicky Hill Mystery Series, about a young newspaper reporter outside London (Dennison used to write obituaries for a small English paper) who dreams of being an investigative reporter.
“It’s basically a cross between Bridget Jones and Agatha Christie with a splash of Nancy Drew; it’s in a small town, and murders take place,” said Dennison, whose Dec. 10 reading begins at 7 p.m. and coincides with the Downtown Art Walk. The stories also explore eccentric English traditions like hedge-laying (competitions for farmers trimming hedges), or in Exposé, snail racing.
“Oddly enough it seems to appeal more to American readers who are Anglophiles,” Dennison said. “They find English tea and English traditions sort of nice. England seems to want the stabbing and incest and hardcore stuff. My stuff is more like cozy mystery. It’s supposed to make you feel good; you curl up at the fire with a box of chocolates and a cat.”
Dana Johnson: Los Angeles native Johnson has lived all over the county, and in Downtown for about four years. She remembers strolling up Main Street three years ago and seeing paper in the windows of the future Metropolis space, wondering what new retailer was investing in the area.
Today, the paper is long down and the window instead features her collection of short stories, Break Any Woman Down. The first-person accounts won the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction.
“I was experimenting with voice at the time so there’s all different kinds of people,” said Johnson. “One story, for example, is a white punk Irish musician guy, one character is a black female stripper, and one’s an older black woman in the south.”
Johnson, 42, who is a professor of English and creative writing at USC, has also co-written two “chick lit” works under a pseudonym. Metropolis stocks those books, Eye To Eye and Flyover State.
Though her work isn’t necessarily set Downtown, Johnson said she takes plenty of inspiration from living in the area.
“For any artist of any kind, Downtown is a fascinating place to be living and working because there’s just always something to see and something to hear and something to smell,” she said. “There’s something about Downtown that’s really confrontational, in a good way.”
Richard McDowell: McDowell and his circle of Downtown poets didn’t need a publisher to get their work out. They formed Brass Tacks Press, hooked up with a Santa Monica printing company, and published their prose themselves. McDowell is behind a series of “chapbooks,” or self-published, pocket-sized books, containing poetry by himself and other L.A. writers.
McDowell’s self-illustrated 30 Days on Spring is his stylized reflections on life along the Historic Core street before gentrification.
“On any given day on a walk from Fifth down Spring, you can buy next to anything, cigarettes at bootleg prices two-fifty a pack, Marlboro, Marlboro Lights, Newports, pickup a lighter, pack of chewing gum, mango’s [sic] bus tokens, corn-on-the-cob, plastic animals or planets, and if your [sic] so inclined a man or woman to fulfill you sexual desires,” he writes in the book.
McDowell wrote 30 Days on Spring while living, under the radar, in an abandoned Historic Core building. The 44-year-old now resides in a Wall Street loft in the Toy District and is looking to compile work from Downtown poets to publish as a collection.
Diana Leszczynski: Leszczynski, an 8-year resident of Downtown, is a former film industry worker who later found her voice as a professional writer. Her Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose is an ecological adventure for children. Its young protagonist shares a secret ability with her mother to communicate with plants.
The book bounces from Oregon to France to Sri Lanka, a fact that Leszczynski admits is somewhat ironic, since she wrote it while living in the San Fernando Building in the Historic Core. The closest she comes to an ecological adventure is having an indoor garden, she said.
Leszczynski, 44, did not have long-seeded dreams to write fiction for children.
“It’s one of those things where something just comes to you, where your brain is ricocheting around in a million different places and this seemed like the most logical way to tell this story,” she said. “And also one of my favorite books when I was growing up was Alice In Wonderland, essentially the story of a girl going into a different world, which is what [Fern Verdant] is.”
Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose, which was named a Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book of the Year in 2008 and was a Green Earth Book honoree this year, encourages young readers to protect the environment, but it’s not “heavy messaged,” she said.
Local sales have been strong too.
“I have a wide circle of friends down here, and people knew me when I was going through the anguish and torture of writing my first draft, so I think people were genuinely supportive having seen that and then seeing me have the good fortune to get published,” Leszczynski said.
Daniel Olivas: For almost 20 years, Daniel Olivas has spent his weekdays working for the state Attorney General in the Ronald Reagan State Building at Third and Spring streets. The neighborhood was already familiar to him from childhood bus trips with his grandmother to Grand Central Market.
The 50-year-old deputy attorney general, a second generation Angeleno, was an English major in college and has published five works of fiction, including the short story collection Anywhere But L.A. He’ll sign copies of and read from the collection next April.
“It’s a collection of short stories where essentially the characters are either trying to escape L.A. or they have completely left L.A.,” Olivas said. “I found that over the years I started accumulating stories that seemed to want to pull out of the city.”
Still, Olivas’ characters maintain a close connection to the City of Angels, and often Downtown, he said.
“I get distressed with outsider views of Los Angeles,” Olivas said. “There are so many stereotypes out there, including that the classic L.A. novel has to be about Malibu and movie stars, forgetting about the people who have no connection to Hollywood or the movie industry, people who go to work every single day. Those people, I try to address.”
Metropolis Books is at 440 S. Main St., (213) 612-0174 or metropolisbooksla.com.
by Jon Lorenz
I read that you initially started Penny-Ante with a focus on poetry and you said at the time that you "saw it as something that was completely dead," could you elaborate on that?
Poetry has never died and I find is hilarious that the first time I’m misquoted is by one of my own editors! (Laughs). I think when I said that I was referring to my own surroundings and friends, who don’t really find contemporary “big name” poetry as something they connect with… But with that said, there will always be poets, and people interested in poetry. Byron Coley’s been doing it with the Ecstatic Yod’s poetry journals, or Brass Tacks Press out of Topanga… There are people carrying the torch from one generation to the next and with that, it’s not completely dead, and thank goodness....
Foxy Digitalis website
Loto Ball, Sean Bonniwell (The Music Machine), Caleb Braaten (Sacred Bones Records), Billy Bragg, Heather Brown, Mark C (Live Skull, Int'l Shades), Robert Campbell (poet), Pablo Capra (poet), Victory Cayro (Bald Eagles), Mathew Cerletty (artist), George Chen (KIT, 7 Year Rabbit Cycle, Chen Santa Maria), Sharon Cheslow (Chalk Circle), Billy Childish, Circle, Helios Creed (Chrome), Nathan Danilowicz, Joe DeNardo (Growing), Jason Diamond (writer), Arrington de Dionyso (Old Time Relijun), John Dwyer (Thee Oh Sees), Phil Elverum (Microphones, Mt Eerie), Jill Emery (Hole, Mazzy Star), Jad Fair (Half Japanese), fey, Mick Farren (writer, The Deviants), Larry Fondation (writer), Jessica Lee Garrison (writer), Evan George (writer), Aaron Giesel (photographer), Wynne Greenwood (Tracy+The Plastics), Liz Haley (artist), Robert Hansen Jr. (artist), Maya Hayuk (artist), Casey Henry (writer), Julian Hoeber (artist), Christopher Ilth (artist, Daily Void), Gregory Jacobsen (artist), Mason Jones (writer), Dawn Kasper (artist), Dana Kline (poet), Chris Knox (Tall Dwarfs, The Enemy, Toy Love, The Nothing), Bettina Koster (Malaria!), Dirk Knibbe (artist), Terence Koh (artist), David Jacob Kramer (Family/Hope Gallery), Hanna Liden (artist), Matt Maust (artist, Cold War Kids), Ian MacKaye (Dischord Records, Fugazi, Minor Threat, The Evens), Stephen McCarty (Dead Meadow), Roger Miller (Mission of Burma), Irene Moon, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Naked on the Vague, Ashley Nelson (writer), Martin Newell (poet, Cleaners from Venus), Lora Norton (Chuck Dukowski Sextet), Jed Ochmanek (artist), Honey Owens (Valet), owleyes, George Parsons (Dream Magazine), Alia Penner (artist), Martin Phillipps (The Chills), Pocahaunted, Andrew Pogany (writer/poet), Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices), Cassie Ramone (Vivian Girls), Robedoor, Rob Roberge (Urinals), Steven Salardino (writer), Silver Apples, Danny Simon (artist), Anna Spanos (writer), Spires That in the Sunset Rise, Jessie Stead (artist), Sumi Ink Club (aka Lucky Dragons), Ann Summa (photographer), Jason Burke Sutter (writer), Drew Tewksbury (writer), Toylit (poet), Lia Trinka-Browner (writer), Brian Turner (WFMU), Michael Andrew Turner (Warmer Milks), TV Ghost, Matt Valentine (MV/EE, Tower Recordings), Steve Vanoni (artist), John Whitson (Holy Mountain), Bett Williams (writer), Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Partyline)
Flyers for the "street date" party:
Curated by Kendrah Morgan and David Rainey
[The poems of Ern Malley] next appear in California in 2004 in volume seven of the little magazine from Brass Tacks Press, Life as a Poet (Plate 20)....
With at least 20 versions in all -- not only in Australia but in London, Paris, Lyons, Kyoto, New York, and Los Angeles -- this "black swan," this "darkening ecliptic," is indeed still trespassing on many "alien waters."
by Dennis J. Carlile
"Tool's Snake Pit"
by Tool, Art by Toylit
Brass Tacks Press, 2007
71 pp., chapbook
Tool is the nom-de-plume of "a mysterious guy" who lived near the beach in a Lower Topanga neighborhood called the "Snake Pit." He did a lot of drugs and was an expert craftsman of drug-smuggling equipment in the heyday of pot, LSD, and cocaine trafficking. In an eloquent, casually conversational tone, Tool spins out the story of his life as a "free spirit" and builder of secret hiding places.
"Ever since I was a kid, I'd been making secret hiding places, but my first professional job was working for Martian, the manager of a famous rock band…. [He] really pushed the limits of my abilities. He also recommended me, and I actually went into business with him making fake aerosol cans…. I also did carry-on stuff. Like we made a wheelchair with a fake giant battery that ran the motor. It could hold about three pounds, and it really worked for a few minutes. All my secret panels have to work."
In the late '70s, Tool found himself at a now-gone PCH nightclub called The Sunspot, where a friend told him, "Hey, I got a room for rent." And so he came to the Snake Pit, a collection of bungalows, shacks, cabins, and cabañas in Lower Topanga. It is at this point, a mere seven pages into this incredibly jam-packed book, that the cast of odd characters begins to expand at a dizzying rate. Surf punks, wayward high school girls, motel deadbeats, eccentric artists, drug dealers, beach trollers, the Mafia, and the Topanga Sniper are but a few of the many memorable types encountered here – as well as being the titles of several of the chapters. The word "chapter" is perhaps misleading though, for each section is like a tightly compressed short story with a plotline only marginally connected to the preceding and following sections.
Each vignette portrays a weird, or dangerous, or bleakly hilarious aspect of life in the Snake Pit.
"These guys were doing so much angel dust that it was really scary," Tool says at one point of the people with whom he was living. "And there was this PCP guy who was living naked on the roof below me. He didn't live in a room. The guy would eat only fruits and vegetables and be naked. And he wouldn't remove any of the peels, so it was like this bizarre debris of dried orange peels, and watermelon skins, and him naked doing PCP on the roof…. This was when I had a girlfriend and her kid living with me, and Horseman [a recent arrival] would be down there firing shotguns off and shooting heroin, right below us, in the middle of the night."
The book is also outrageously illustrated by Lower Topanga artist Toylit. His vigorously effective, black-and-white drawings perfectly capture the psychedelic shimmer of those days.
Between romantic moonlit horseback rides on the beach and sabotaging movie crews shooting nearby, Tool has run-ins with police and building inspectors.
"The cops were in full camouflage SWAT gear, and they brought the building inspector in like he needed armed protection," Tool laughs.
And there was also the Halloween when Tool, dressed as the Cheshire Cat from "Alice in Wonderland" (complete with tree), outran the cops… only to watch from a safe distance as his less-fortunate friend, got-up as the White Rabbit, is handcuffed.
"They arrest him, but he can't take off the rabbit costume. He has no clothes underneath, only underwear. So he spent the night in the Malibu jail like that. And the whole time they were busting him, I'm in my Cheshire Cat costume on the hill, going, 'Meow! Meow!'"
The final portion of this little volume tells of how Tool entered a one-man float for the Topanga Days Parade. He made a whale out of latex, wire, and canvas – which he constructed around his bicycle – and rode it dressed as Neptune. He arrives late, but when the crowd sees him, they stop leaving and sit to watch him pedal past.
"I guess they've tried to stop this, but the big thing in the Topanga Days Parade is that they throw water at you. Either they're throwing water balloons or shooting you with water. Well, you're in this heavy [expletive] whale, and the tires are slipping and sliding on oil-covered asphalt. I mean, the worst thing they could do was to throw water at me.
"And it's so funny because it seems like every time I do a parade, I'm usually at the end with the fire department, which is good because they all think I'm going to die of a heart attack…. But the Topanga Days Parade was the first parade where I myself really thought that I might have a heart attack. Honest to God! It's all uphill for all those miles…. I was just panting."
But he keeps pedaling, and at the end, the parade committee gives him a special trophy.
"I tried to tie the trophy to the hood of the whale, but I didn't do a good job, and it fell off, and a car ran over it, and smashed it into three or four pieces. But I still kept the pieces for years after that."
Of all the crazy tales, perhaps the most wacky story is how he built a secret room inside a 53-foot moving-van for the express purpose of transporting pounds of marijuana. This is an epic episode in his career, comparable in his mind to the building of the Trojan Horse.
"This is a [expletive] great challenge…. Half the fun of secret panels is the challenge. You're challenging the best. Your challenging cops and customs people that have all the [expletive] money in the world, and all the time in the world, and all the machines in the world to [expletive] check you out…. And I am so proud of the fact that I have been able to beat the best again and again."
In just 71 pages, a whole panorama of the subculture of the '70s is rolled out before the attentive reader. Bar fights, acid trips, hot tub sex, Quaalude orgies, and scrapes with gangsters, bikers, and the Law tumble one after another in a free-for-all picaresque monologue. It will make you laugh. It will make your hair stand on end. It is a rich feast of man's follies and jollies, and the lawlessness of living on the edge.
This is an authentic peek into a past Topanga that will never come again: a funhouse ride of a book full of dark humor and surreality. And we have to accept the truth of it all because, frankly, it is far too strange to be fiction.
"Tool's Snake Pit" is a companion volume to a previously published book called "The Snake Pit" by Baretta, which shares the same setting. Tool appears as a minor character there, but it is an entirely different tale of wild women, surfers, artists… and, yes, sex, drugs, and rock and roll in Lower Topanga. Both books are $5 and for sale at Topanga Eco Mail, and on the Brass Tacks Press website: www.lifeasapoet.com.
Article and Photo by Pablo Capra
Topanga filmmaker Anastasia Fite will be showing three short documentaries she recently completed about Topanga Canyon at Froggy's on February 26.
King of the Creek Rats (2007) follows Boobie, the self-proclaimed "King of the Creek Rats," and his family on a trek into Topanga Creek as they discuss the thriving homeless community living there from the 1960s to present. In the heyday, Boobie claims to have lived in a "luxury" home powered by batteries from car wrecks, and that 200 naked people congregated at his swimming hole every weekend.
Topanga's Attic (by Anastasia Fite and Tom Mitchell, 2008) was commissioned by the Topanga Historical Society. It is a celebration of Topanga Canyon through the ages, featuring prominent faces like Herta Ware, Gerry Haigh, Ellen Geer, Blackie, and Kedric Wolfe; institutions like The Theatricum Botanicum, Topanga Elementary School, Wildworks, and Topanga Days; and archival footage from Topanga's rich musical history, including Little Feat and Canned Heat.
Last Bastion (2009) is a look at the tight-knit former Lower Topanga community, one of the last outposts of the classic Topanga Bohemian hippie lifestyle until State Parks evicted the residents and demolished the area in 2006-2007. Artist James Mathers says, "I hung out with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Internationally, I did the Venice Biennale and the Basel Art Festival. As far as art scenes go, this was second to none."
Fite's three 25-minute films fit naturally together as a whole, and she hopes to complete a full-length documentary about Topanga Canyon one day.
She currently works as the Manager of the Santa Monica Screening Room, where she holds a free monthly event on the third Wednesday of every month called "Meet the Filmmakers / Works-in-Progress." For monthly updates, join the Santa Monica Screening Room Facebook group.
Fite also rents out the 28-seat mini-theater for as low as $150 (or $100 without A/V equipment). For rental information, call (310) 393-8306, or visit the website at www.smscreening.com. The Santa Monica Screening Room is located at 1526 14th Street, Suite #102, between Colorado and Broadway.
Fite's three short Topanga documentaries will play at Froggy's on February 26, at 7:30 p.m. Come early to see her co-filmmaker Tom Mitchell's band, the Self-Righteous Brothers, at 6:30 p.m. Froggy's is located at 1105 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Phone: (310) 455-1728. Admission is free.
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