You’ve already binge-watched the Tiger King, Unorthodox, and all three seasons of Ozark. You’ve joined countless Instagram dance parties and Zoom hangs with friends. So, if you’re looking for some summer reading as an analog retreat from what’s become your almost entirely digital life during the safer-at-home order, Slouching Towards Los Angeles, a series of essays, compiled by author Steffie Nelson might be your next escape. Nelson reached out to 25 local authors—including myself, full disclosure—to write essays that respond to, or interact with, the works of non-fiction writer and icon Joan Didion. Whether or not you’re well-versed in Didion, the result is essentially a 200-page love letter to Los Angeles. It’s filled with moving stories of struggles and revelry, success and failures, with L.A.—its sweeping landscapes, legendary landmarks, and classic archetypes—as the backdrop.
I sat down with Nelson to talk about the inspiration behind the book, the cult of Joan Didion, and upcoming events tied to the publication post pandemic.
The first iteration of this book was a live literary event, which I was glad to be a part of. Can you tell us how that came about?
Slouching Towards Los Angeles originated in 2015 as part of an art project curated by the non-profit arts organization LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) and the artist Zoe Crosher, who is a good friend of mine. Called the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, it involved different visual artists exploring the idea of territorial expansion through billboard interventions across the 10 Freeway. The project was wrapping up in Santa Monica with a series of events, and I thought about Joan Didion’s influence on writers who have felt the westward pull—myself included—and proposed an evening of L.A. writers responding to their favorite Didion works. Laura Hyatt and Shamim Momim of LAND were immediately enthusiastic about the idea, and we started planning from there. I came up with the title in the first conversation I had with them—at a gallery dinner, if I remember correctly—and it stuck.
How did you choose the participating writers?
The selection process was very organic. I reached out to local writers I knew and admired, asking if they had something to say about Joan Didion and the idea of the West. A few Didion fanatics contacted me when they heard about the project, and I think I sent one blind email, to Ann Friedman, who had written a Didion-inspired essay for New York magazine about leaving the city for Los Angeles, but it was really a group born of my own community—you included. I made it clear in my pitch that this was in collaboration with a non-profit arts organization, i.e. there was no budget, but that I intended to honor the work by publishing the essays in some kind of a book. And as you know, our event was at an incredible early modernist home in Brentwood, where the writers read their pieces by the pool and a rainbow appeared in the sky for no reason, so I think everyone was glad to be part of it.
That event was in the summer of 2015, and the book, Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light, was published in February 2020. What did it take to bring this project to fruition?
There were a number of starts and stops. I thought the book would be a collaboration with LAND, but the organization underwent several restructurings and it no longer made sense. Over the next few years I met with various local publishers, including Rare Bird, who did eventually publish the book, but nothing aligned at that time. Then, in a moment of supreme serendipity last spring, my friend Gregory Parkinson, a textile designer with amazing taste, gave me a first edition copy of Play It as It Lays, which he had Marie Kondo’d from his book collection. This gorgeous book sparked total joy for me, and I reached out to Rare Bird on a whim, to see if things might have changed. To my surprise, Rare Bird’s publisher Tyson Cornell replied, “let’s do it”—with the caveat that I had to submit a final manuscript in three months. I already had the pieces written for the original event, most of which only needed light editing, but I did commission and edit fifteen new essays in a very short period. My brain was reeling, but it was an incredibly exciting time.
It was first come, first serve, so to speak, with regards to Didion’s works. Was there a piece of hers that was the most requested? And if so, why do you think that was the case?
Remarkably, even with the loose theme of Los Angeles and the West, there was very little overlap in the works contributors wanted to respond to—which I think speaks to Didion’s broad influence and to how prolific she was. Of course, there were a few recurring motifs and bits of Didion iconography—the L.A. freeways, her Corvette Stingray, her packing list which famously included bourbon, her sunglasses, the phrase “goodbye to all that”—which pop up throughout the collection, but these things were brought up because they are iconic, and then deconstructed in relation to the author’s own experience or observations. Everyone really found a unique and personal lens to examine her work and impact through—from those who wrote about places identified with or written about by Didion, including San Francisco, Malibu, Sacramento, Brentwood, Hollywood, and the Hoover Dam, to those who zeroed in on a particular aspect of her persona or lifestyle, including her fashion sense and her recipe collection. Some of the writers respond to a single essay, others reference multiple works while exploring topics such as depression, feminism, motherhood, self-actualization, “L.A. cool,” and the spectacle of American politics. And then there are a few wild cards like an essay that compares Didion’s The White Album to the Beatles album, and a funny rumination on fame that is more about Jeff Goldblum than Joan Didion.
I remember you had a photo of Didion on your fridge at your old Echo Park guesthouse. Didion was outside her Franklin Avenue home, in front of her Corvette, smoking a cigarette…clearly she made an impact on you. Can you tell us when you first encountered her work? And how it impacted you then?
In my essay I write about how I found a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem on a bookshelf at my mother’s house. I pulled it out because I recognized the title from Yeats, who I had studied in college as a creative writing major. I had never heard of Joan Didion, there was no author photo, and I was just immediately pulled into the precision and rhythm of her language. The first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” resonated deeply. It felt like a puzzle piece that fit next to films like Sunset Boulevard and Blade Runner—favorites of mine which shaped my own “Golden Dream” and helped inspire my eventual move to Los Angeles. It’s interesting, because none of these narratives end well, but they all have characters driven by grand ambitions-turned-delusions, who are willing to risk everything—even death—for the Dream. That sort of passion was irresistible to me, and I explore this in my essay. Of course, when I did eventually see photographs of Joan Didion, particularly those Julian Wasser shots with the Corvette, they seemed like the Golden Dream come to life—and in many ways, they were.
What’s Didion’s place in the canon of American writers?
She is certainly one of California’s most important writers and probably the best reporter-slash-prose-stylist who ever lived. She wrote about California’s people, places, and history in ways that forever shaped how they are seen and remembered. Because of Didion, we know that Los Angeles’s most indelible image of itself is of a city on fire, and we believe that the 1960s ended the day of the Manson murders, because she told us these things were true. She rose to fame as a “New Journalist” in the late ‘60s—which is no small feat in a category that included flamboyant figures like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. The first-person style of that genre enabled readers to get to know her more intimately than other female journalists. Yet unlike her male peers, Didion acknowledges ambiguity and uncertainty. She invites you into her investigative process—and freely admits that she might not come up with any answers. She often used phrases like, “I want to tell you…” or “This is a story…,” which have these hypnotic qualities that draw the reader right beside her. And what I really love about Joan Didion is that she fundamentally loved Los Angeles, and you can feel that in all her writing about the city, no matter what her subject was.
Slouching Towards Los Angeles is focused on L.A. and the West, so a lot of her later work isn’t relevant to this conversation, but I will say that I don’t think anybody was prepared for what happened when Didion turned her laser beam powers of observation onto her own grief process. And in fact both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights return to the life she and her family had made in Los Angeles and left in 1988, which must have felt like a Paradise Lost, in a way.
What has been the reaction to Slouching Towards Los Angeles so far?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I hoped it would be, but of course it’s rewarding all the same. When I turned in the manuscript, I felt pretty certain that every essay was uniquely brilliant, and that the collection had a really engaging and satisfying arc, but sometimes, as an editor, your emotional investment and hours of labor can bias you toward the finished product. It’s been gratifying to have these things affirmed by readers who have experienced the book as a whole. And apparently it’s offered comfort to people during this crazy quarantine moment. I’ve gotten messages from readers saying that the book saved them, kept them company on a dark day, or just provided an escape, and those have been the most meaningful comments to receive, by far.
You hosted several launch events at bookstores around the city before COVID-19 changed our world. Is there anything on the horizon—virtual readings or future events?
I feel very lucky that I was able to celebrate this book with so many contributors and friends before we went into lockdown. Our Skylight Books reading on March 6 was the last time many of us were in a crowded public space, and I remember hugging people and saying, “are we allowed to do this?” And then things changed very quickly. All the scheduled readings and events after that were postponed indefinitely, including one that was supposed to take place in Mexico City, and an event with LAND that was meant to bring the project full circle. Most significantly to the Los Angeles literary community, the L.A. Times Festival of Books has been rescheduled for October. Of course, we don’t know what that will look like. As far as the virtual outlets that have been such a saving grace during isolation, I’m starting to feel inspired to explore those avenues as we move into the next phase of the pandemic. There is a wonderful community of writers, readers, and Didion fans out there, and many conversations still to be had.