LA DOWNTOWN NEWS 12-7-09

"The Write Stuff"

by Ryan Vaillancourt
Photos by Gary Leonard

Downtown’s Growing Collection of Published Authors Finds a Home at Metropolis Books

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Most urban bookstores have a local writers section, though “local” can cover a vague, regional set of boundaries. That’s not the case at Metropolis Books: At the small, independent bookstore in the Old Bank District, local means, quite specifically, Downtown Los Angeles.

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.


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