|Richard Lange at the Musso & Frank Grill|
6667 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles (Hollywood) 323-467-7788
Los Angeles plays a significant part in the works of L.A. author Richard Lange. Whether the City of Angels acts as the backdrop for his collection of hard-boiled short stories in 2007's Dead Boys, his 2009 debut novel This Wicked World or his latest book, Angel Baby, released this week, it looms large, and there's no denying that Lange knows his city. Through his tales, he exposes a seedy underbelly that most Angelenos might not even be aware of.
"I definitely have had a street-level experience in L.A. because I didn't have a car until I was older. I took public transportation everywhere, and I still would rather walk or be out and about than be in a car. I'm always exploring places," he admits. "Part of Angel Baby takes place in Compton so I drove around there for two days. There's a cemetery mentioned in the book, and I found that exact cemetery. I found the house that the people in the book live in – it's this street-level research that I think adds to the realness."
It's this gritty, true-to-life portrait of the city that makes his work so captivating and unique. He's even coined a term for his type of writing style.
"My L.A. is just one of many versions. It's as made up as anything else, it's what to exaggerate or focus on that paints that picture. It's as unreal as Middle Earth or Narnia," he laughs. "People call me a crime writer, but I say I'm a grime writer. It's this view of L.A. that other people might not have at all. They just might see it as the West Side or the very hip Silver Lake area. That's just my vision of L.A., what I see when I go out."
If you've stood in MacArthur Park surrounded by an evangelist reciting scripture through a megaphone, eaten in a pupuseria with plastic floral tablecloths covering its tables or spent a day at a weathered miniature golf/arcade fun zone in the suburbs, you will recognize Lange's Los Angeles. One place that has played a big part in his L.A. life is the "oldest restaurant in Hollywood," the Musso & Frank Grill.
"It's a little expensive, so it's a special occasion place. I remember when we used to come here when I was poorer, we would drink beer instead of martinis because it was cheaper, and we never got to eat here. Because of that, it's always had this sheen: 'If I make it, I'm going to eat at Musso's every night,'" he chuckles. "Now that I can afford to eat here on special occasions, it's like a sign of success."
When we meet for our interview, we take a seat at Musso & Frank's mahogany bar. Lange orders a martini and schools me in the concept of a sidecar.
"They're famous for their martinis, and the benefit is this little sidecar. It's almost like you're getting two for one," he tells, before revealing his usual food order. "I get the Ribeye Steak with the Romaine Salad and Blue Cheese dressing. You can't beat the steaks and chops here because there's something about an old grill. After years and years, it takes on a flavor that just makes the meat taste different."
Lange was born Oakland, and his family moved all over California – from Stockton in the San Joaquin Valley to Lamont in Kern County – before settling in Morro Bay during his high school years. Throughout this time, Lange devoured comic books and science-fiction novels like most children and even tried his hand at writing some of his own stories. Then one year, everything changed.
"It was 1976. Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run had just come out, Taxi Driver came out and I read On the Road. I can trace everything I do back to one of those three things in some way," he shares. "That was the epiphany. I stopped reading science-fiction and comic books. I realized that you could tell stories about the real world that were as compelling as the stories I had been reading about outer space. That was the huge artistic turning point."
His interest in film and writing led to a move to Los Angeles at age 17 to attend USC's film school in pursuit of a screenwriting career. Beside reading the assigned college course books, he began exploring other authors and genres.
"Bukowski isn't taught in college, but stuff like that becomes your underground literature that you hold over your snobby professors. You've always got your beat writers – I love Jack Kerouac – John Fante and Bukowski as the second level stuff," he says. "You can't be an L.A. writer without talking about Bukowski. When I first read him, it was a revelation that you could write about this level of society (bars and drunks) with this poetic sensibility. Later I realized that he's not that great of a writer, I actually prefer his poetry to any of his prose. Still, he's a huge influence for opening my eyes to what I could write about. He's a master of great one-liners and this sadness that he overlaid over L.A. Once you read him you're always going to see L.A. through his eyes."
This mixture of immersing himself in literature for his school work and the lower-brow novels eventually formed the basis for Lange's own writing.
"I've got a mix of high and low, and that's what is key to what I'm trying to do with my writing. In TV they talk about an elevated crime book or elevated horror story, and what that means is using these genre elements but adding an extra level of finesse to it. What's 'The Walking Dead'? It's an elevated zombie story. It tries to be a little more, and that's what I'm trying to do with my fiction," he says. "I'm trying to write these gritty page turners, that you can elevate through language, point of view and character development.
While at USC, Lange took fiction writing classes from writer T.C. Boyle and realized that writing was his main passion. During those four years, he not only came to know himself but learned a lot about Los Angeles.
"While going to school, I worked at 32nd Street Market across from the campus 32 hours a week for four years, starting as a box boy and moving up to night manager. That was another great education for me, coming from a sheltered small town. I was tossed right into the middle of this city. I learned as much working there as I did at 'SC about how the city works and how things go. It was during the rise of the Crips and the Bloods, so I got to see that from a street level view because some of our guys that worked there were involved in that. We had Mexican gang members and Central American refugees working there. It was an interesting mix of people. I soaked up all their stories, looking to steal as much as I could to be able to write about things that I haven't experienced."
After college, Lange lived in Europe teaching Berlitz in Barcelona, but eventually returned to Los Angeles and found a job as a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications. Within a year he became the Managing Editor at RIP heavy metal magazine before moving on to the Radio & Records trade paper.
"By that time I started to get serious about writing fiction. I had a whole schedule worked out where I would go home after my job and work two hours a night on writing short stories. I sent them out to magazines, got them back rejected, reworked them and sent them out again. It was eight years of this without getting published, and everybody I knew who was a writer quit being a writer and moved on to something else. But by then, it had became part of my routine, and I'm a creature of habit. It kept me out of the bars," he recalls with a laugh. "I was 32 or 33 when I got my first story published in a little literary magazine in Louisiana. I still say that was the greatest day in my writing career because, finally, someone that didn't know me had pulled the story out of the slush pile and put it in this magazine."
For the next 10 years he continued writing short stories and sending them to publications, and then an agent called him and asked if he had enough stories for a collection.
"He said, 'I can't just sell a book of short stories, you have to have a novel or at least the beginning of a novel, so I can get you a two-book deal because publishers won't want short stories.' I took another year and a half and wrote the first third of a novel. He went out and shopped it, and it turned out that a lot of publishers wanted the short stories but nobody wanted this third of a novel," Lange remembers. "In the beginning Dead Boys was just going to be a paperback of short stories, then it started a bidding war."
Lange chose to go with a two-book deal offered by Little, Brown and Company, who asked him if he had any other ideas for the novel.
"I just came up with the idea for This Wicked World on the fly, pitching it on the phone. Within a short time, all of a sudden I had a two-book deal and hadn't even written the outline of the novel. The novel took two years to write, and it was an interesting experience because I wanted to write a novel, but didn't think I could. I knew I was good at writing short stories, but a novel is a completely different thing. I had to sit down and teach myself over the course of two years how to write a novel. My short stories don't have plots. They're just a series of incidents that end up being an emotional journey for the reader. I knew I needed a structure for this first novel, and I knew the crime structure: Someone dies in the beginning then you find out over the course of time what happened to them. That's an easy, classic structure that I could just lay on top of this world that I want to write about. That's basically why that book took the form that it did, because I needed a skeleton."
Although Lange is primarily a fan of classic literature (right now he's reading Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year) by Russian novelists and English writers like Thomas Hardy, he's always had a sensibility for the crime world.
"In crime fiction, Elmore Leonard is always my number one influence because, in my mind, he is always writing literature. Graham Greene, as much as the literary world wants to claim him, he was also a great crime writer. He wrote about the demimonde, this shady world. Along with Charles Willeford, these were the crime writers I liked. These guys wrote offbeat books set in a crime world. Those were the crime novels that I read when I was learning about crime," he offers. "The world that I'm writing in, you can be really blunt because you're dealing with characters that people don't expect to be politically correct. You can get away with a lot more direct commentary on racism, social issues, interpersonal relationships. That's what crime fiction has always been good for and another thing that attracted me to it. If people read between the lines they see that I'm making a comment on immigration or racism. That's all in there for the people who want to dig, but on a surface level, I still want to entertain."
With Angel Baby, Lange has definitely delivered an entertaining yet intellectual tale that CNN.com calls "thrilling and cinematic."
"When it came time to write the book, I still wasn't super comfortable with plot, so I needed something simple. The simplest thing I could think of was a chase. Once again I just laid this on top of this world I wanted to write about and create characters that would fit into it," he says "The first character I created was Malone. I had read an article in the L.A. Times about a guy who was actually just like Malone, a white American who would smuggle immigrants across the border in his car back when they wouldn't stop a white guy driving across the border 90 percent of the time. Luz and her quest to get her daughter came out of things that I had read. I read the newspaper every day, the L.A. Times, cover to cover. There's so much good stuff in there that if you stretch it out and start creating characters, you'll never be at a shortage for material. Then I needed someone to chase Luz, so I came up with him [El Apache/Jerónimo], and I try to make all of my characters – even the bad guys – not black and white. You're going to feel something for the bad guys and understand why they do what they do."
|Bartender Manny at Musso & Frank|
"Let me know if you recognize this guy here," Manny says as he shows us a photo on a digital camera. "It's Gore Vidal."
Lange replies, "I remember reading when he died that he came in here all the time. I've been coming to Musso's for 20 years, and these guys like Manny have seen it all."
Manny proudly confirms this, saying that one waiter, Louie, has been there since 1957. Then he shows off his photo album with pictures of him posing with celebrities like Keith Richards, Johnny Depp and Drew Barrymore. Having lived in Los Angeles for the past 30 years, Lange has some pretty impressive stories of his own, such as his experiences during the 1992 L.A. Riots.
"I lived in Silver Lake, half a mile from Vermont. We have a picture up on the wall at home of Vermont burning. I worked at Flynt in Beverly Hills then, and they shut down. The verdict came, they beat up Reginald Denny on a Wednesday night, so we all went to work on Thursday. The rioting was confined to South Central. About noon they came over the loudspeaker and said, 'Everybody go home. The riots are coming to Beverly Hills.' So we got in the car, stopped for beer, chips and supplies for the siege and drove back. It was really scary," he recalls. "We got home fine, and for the next two days the city was on curfew. We could look right down on Vermont as the riot came from South Central. You could see the Ralphs on 3rd and Vermont on fire. I had a friend whose dad owned a gas station on the corner of Beverly and Western, right in the heart of Koreatown. He had a pass so we could drive around after curfew on the completely empty streets of L.A. Across the street from the station was a mini mall, and you could see guys on top with their guns. Nobody I knew got hurt and my house didn't get wrecked, so it was easy for me to enjoy it as a spectator and as a writer."
Although Lange isn't one to take notes of his experiences, he's able to retain many of them in his memory.
"I can't remember what I ate for dinner last week, but I can remember what I saw 20 years ago at the corner of Alvarado and 7th. It will just come back to me completely, the physical sensation of it," he says. "It's a gift as a writer to have that."
However, relaying those sense memories into apt descriptions in his novels takes a lot of work.
"This Wicked World starts in MacArthur Park and Hollywood, and I've lived in both those places. Then it moves out to Twentynine Palms, Wonder Valley where I've spent a lot of time. The big thing is coming up with ways to describe it that are fresh. When you know a place, it's almost harder because you can get lazy. You have to force yourself to see it in different ways so you can come up with interesting descriptions," he begins. "In Angel Baby, it's a chase between Tijuana and Compton. I spent a lot of time in Tijuana growing up. I know how it looks, smells, feels, but when it comes to naming neighborhoods and the layout of the city, that's when I use the Internet for research. Part of the story takes place in a prison called La Mesa, which is a real penitentiary that is right in the middle of Tijuana. There was a big riot there in 2008, which I talk about in the book, because the prison was horribly overcrowded. It ended very badly, the police stormed in and killed a bunch of the prisoners. The people who had relatives in there were climbing on the roofs of the houses around the prison trying to look in and yell to see if they made it. For a writer, you just figure out a way to translate that info fiction."
Whether he's recounting situations he's only read about in newspapers or experienced himself, like witnessing a gang shooting while eating at a pizzeria, Pizza Buona, in Echo Park, Lange is a great storyteller, which his why his novels are so fun to read. As he enjoys his Musso & Frank martini, he tells me more stories about life in Los Angeles and some of his favorite haunts.
"I practically live at ArcLight. Next to the iPhone, reserving your seat in a movie theater is the greatest development in the world. I go there so much that I know what seat I like in every theater. Near there is a bar called the Well, which used to be a bar called the People Tree with a mural on the wall of a big tree with smiling heads hanging off it. I guess it was supposed to be cheerful but it was kind of creepy. They still have a super cheap Happy Hour. For $7 you can get a shot of well bourbon and a can of PBR. I like Little Dom's as a place to get a drink, and they have decent food. I love a Tommy Burger and El Coyote," he admits. "The things I appreciate about L.A. are all the old things. I grew up in suburbs and lived in new houses. What I loved about L.A. when I came was that there were old buildings. I've always lived in old buildings where the windows don't quite close. I've always loved Downtown: The Pantry, Philippe's and old places in Chinatown."
As he continues his list with favorite drinking holes near his neighborhood of Echo Park, he begins to reminisce about all the establishments that those bars used to be.
"I go to El Prado, and I went there when it was a bar that had a jukebox that would blast Bando music so loud that you couldn't hear yourself think. I once went in and there were two drunk guys having a slow motion fight in the doorway, fighting so slowly that you could just push them out of the way and go into the bar. Now it's dark and cool, they only play vinyl and serve Belgian beers. A new place opened, the Black Cat, in a famous old gay bar where L.A.'s Stonewall took place. They went in and gutted it, and it looks old but it's not. That makes me sad when they do that," he says. "There's no appreciation. That's why I go to the old places. I would be very sad if they tried to change this place [Musso & Frank] into something else. You can just smell the bar [bending his head down to take a sniff]. This is years and years of elbow grease and spilled vodka. It's got a patina to it that you don't find in new places."
"When I first came to Silver Lake, it was all cholos and gays because gays are the pioneers who go into the bad neighborhoods 20 years earlier and settle them. All the bars that everyone goes to now were all gay bars," he continues. "Before it was hip, Little Joy was a Mexican lesbian bar, then it got taken over by the hipsters. The first group that came in were cool. They just left it the way it was, like somebody's garage, but then a few years later they totally redid it, and it looks like every other bar around. Good Luck Bar was Circle Inn, a tranny bar. 4100 Bar was a huge two-story gay palace. Little Temple used to be a cowboy bar called the Bunkhouse. There was a place on Hyperion, a little tiny bar called Cuffs, a notorious leather gay bar. Right after it turned hip, we were there drinking and these three guys came in all oiled up, no shirts on and leather harnesses and looked around in confusion at all these beardos with their Belgian beers. My drinking buddy and I were straight guys, but we would go there because they were the only bars in the neighborhood, but one by one they turned straight. I'm lucky to have seen the layers, the history of the neighborhood unfolding before my eyes as a writer."
Although Lange has lived in New York and Barcelona and spent a year and a half in Bordeaux, France as a Writer in Residence last year, he wouldn't live anywhere else besides Los Angeles.
"I really couldn't. I like to live somewhere where I know everything, every little niche and corner. I know nothing about West L.A., the Valley, East L.A. and South Central I know only up to 50th Street, but what I know, I know very well," he confesses. "Compared to a lot of places, L.A. is a new model of a city. It doesn't have the roots of New York, Chicago, Paris or Madrid. That makes it very interesting. What I've always liked since I first moved here is you get so many people coming here to work in the movie business, immigrants who want to open a restaurant – it's a land of possibilities. Things can happen here that can't happen anywhere else in the U.S., so it draws a certain type of person. There's this hopefulness that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. Also the expanse of it: The way L.A. is set up you could have five identities here, and no one would ever know. You could have your Venice identity, West Hollywood identity, Silver Lake identity. You could be five different people, and I love that. I grew up in small towns where everybody knows everybody's business. Here nobody knows, and nobody cares. Not that I'm going around faking I'm other people, but the idea of being able to infiltrate all these little worlds without your history dragging along behind you is intriguing."
Lange was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009 which allowed him to take time to write some short stories before working on Angel Baby. As soon as he finished the novel, he went back to complete enough short stories for another book. He is in the early stages of a third novel, but only shares that it begins in Reno and revolves around a con man. He also has a Hollywood agent, so a film or television job might be on the horizon for him in the future as well. Basically, Lange is open to anything that might come his way, but no matter what, writing will always be a constant in his life.
"I know guys who say, 'I have the beginnings of a novel in me, how do I get an agent?' Just sit down and write three novels and throw them away. It's not just about your first book or this one story you wrote. You have to keep doing it over and over again. A lot of writers want to have written something, but they don't want to write it because that's the really boring hard part where you sit in a room all alone and feel like an idiot. You have to write a lot of crap to get to the good stuff," he says. "There's no retiring when you're a writer, you just keep going. I'll always be doing it, as long as I have stories to tell."
Angel Baby is currently available. Richard Lange reads and signs copies of Angel Baby at Skylight Books (Los Feliz) May 17, Book Soup (West Hollywood) May 30 and Stories (Echo Park) June 7. For more information, visit richlange.com.