LAist excerpts an interview about the beauty and other qualities of Los Angeles with author and New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, a Valley boy from Van Nuys who spoke with Jim Ruland in The God Particle. Here's a sample of the conversation, about Weschler's start:
TGP: Where did you go to high school?
LW: Birmingham High. I’ll tell you a story you might enjoy. Tina Brown came to me at one point while she was editing the New Yorker. She said, “Ren, we’re doing a California issue, and I know you come from California, so you have to be part of this issue. We’ve already got an exclusive interview with David Geffen.” I said, “No, you’re kidding! How did you do that? Tina, you are amazing!” (We had a very interesting relationship.) She says, “You have to come up with an LA story, a California story.” “Okay,” I say, “Here’s my story. I arrived at my high school – Birmingham High – in September of ’66 and graduated in June ’69. The graduating class of June ’66 – just before I arrived – the student body Vice President was Michael Ovitz.” And she said, “No!” and I said, “Yes! The head cheerleader was Sally Field.” And she said, “No!” and I said, “Yes! The head yell-leader [male cheerleader] was Michael Milliken.” And she said, “No!” and I said, “Yes! I want to do a piece on the one truly successful person in that class. I want to do a piece on the student body President. She was very excited, she said, “Who, who, who?” I said “Bruce Cantz.” And she said, “Who?” I said, “He’s a hippie farmer. He has a little goat farm on a hill in Santa Cruz. A little vineyard. He has never had to look at himself in embarrassment a single day in his life.” She said, “Get out of here!” So I came from a high school that had this funny pedigree.
TGP: How did you make the leap from the LA Weekly to the New Yorker?
LW: What happened was I came back to LA and ended up living in Santa Monica. I worked at UCLA in the Oral History program from ’74-’76, and the reason I got involved in that is because they had done an oral history of my grandmother, the widow of my grandfather, Ernst Toch, who was a composer. It was an 850-page oral history, and they figured I would be able to capture her accent. So I edited that. She had died right after she finished it. After that I stayed on specialized in two areas: émigré history – the days when Schoenberg and Brecht and Stravinsky were living in LA – and the LA art scene. I didn’t particularly know anything about the LA art scene at the outset, but we had gotten a grant to do an oral history of the LA art scene, and there were a lot of interviews being done and I was the principle editor. So I was mainly editing and interviewing, and on the side, I was writing articles. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a freelance writer or what I was doing, but I was writing things and the general thing that I found was that it was incredibly difficult to crack national magazines if you were a freelancer in LA. This is before faxes. Everything was by mail. Telephone calls were expensive. Editors were then, as they are now, generally assholes. In fairness to them, they’re incredibly overworked and they’re getting hundreds of manuscripts, but the flip side is they’re getting paid and you aren’t. I went through a lot of work to do a piece for a national magazine, which was a profile of Mel Brooks when he was making High Anxiety.
TGP: Who was the piece for?
LW: Village Voice, which in those days was much more of a national magazine than it is today. But it was just so hard that I decided instead to pitch my stuff to the independent papers in LA, and it was literally the time – I think it was ’77, ’78, ’79 – when both the LA Weekly and the LA Reader were simultaneously starting. I was in a pretty good situation because I think I was the only writer who was allowed to write for both of them. I wasn’t a staff person on either one, and they were both willing to take my stuff. You didn’t get paid much, but at least you built up a portfolio, and you talk to your editors, and the stuff ran at the length that you wrote it. I must have written over a period of two or three years, 20 or 30 pieces. In those days, they were magazines that you picked up at liquor stores. Bales of them were delivered to liquor stores. It’s funny, some of those early LA Reader pieces of mine are incredibly valuable. If you go online and try to find the LA Reader with my cover stories, you’ll find they’re worth a fortune. Not because of me. The circulation direction of the LA Reader, which is to say: the guy who owned the Toyota pick-up truck, fancied himself a cartoonist. In exchange for his grunt work as a delivery guy, they let him have this cartoon. And he could not draw. It was the most poorly drawn cartoon ever, but it was really funny.
TGP: Who was it?
LW: It was Matt Groening. So the early numbers of Life in Hell. Are in the back of issues of the LA Reader that happen to have my cover stories on the front.
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