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Lonely Latitudes : Even After She Finished Writing, Kate Braverman Was Alone With Her Novel

June 29, 1988|PAUL CIOTTI | Times Staff Writer

Kate Braverman, poet, mother, neo-mythic persona and author of a new novel, "Palm Latitudes," is sitting on the snack bar deck of the Miramar Hotel in Montecito, Calif., on a cool, foggy afternoon drinking coffee from a foam cup and accepting homage from writing students who have just heard her read at the annual writers' conference.

"What's your sun sign?" asks one student, telling Braverman she is collecting the sun signs of famous writers.

"I'm an Aquarius with Virgo rising and my moon in Taurus," says Braverman. "Not that it's done me any good."

As a poet and novelist, she means. Although she finished her second novel four years ago, she has only just gotten it published.

House of '10,000 Books'

"It shouldn't have to be this tough," she later explains, chain-smoking and sitting in front of the fireplace in her mother's four-level hillside Beverly Hills home filled with art, sculpture and, according to her mother, "10,000 books."

"It just seems like what I've gone through between 1984 and now really seems sort of inordinate. It wasn't like this was the first thing I've ever done. It wasn't like no one had ever heard of me," Braverman says.

After all, she asks, isn't she the "the most famous female poet in Los Angeles? And I have been for years."

Braverman wrote "Palm Latitudes" during one 18-month stretch in 1982-83, working so feverishly, she says, she only slept every second night. When it was finished, she had 800 pages of what she considered tightly crafted, magical, evocative, hallucinatory prose.

"The book," says Braverman, "is about women's lives. And in a larger sense about sensibilities."

The three main characters are Francisca Ramos, a magical voluptuous prostitute with an icy, fearsome contempt for men ("I was coming off a brutal, disappointing relationship," says Braverman. "When I re-read the section I'm just amazed at her anger."); Gloria Hernandez, a silent, dutiful wife and mother who is nevertheless quite murderously mad and in a fit of jealous rage kills the Anglo woman next door; and Braverman's favorite character, Marta Ortega, a 74-year-old woman with prophetic powers who reads voluminously, grows exotic orchids and raises two wild, eclectic and demanding daughters. The final scene takes place in Echo Park, where they all live, during an apocalyptic summer heat wave where fires rage in the hills and ash falls from the skies on Ortega's wilting flowers.

"The book," says Braverman, "is really about the last hours of Marta Ortega's life before the world collapses before her eyes."

When "Palm Latitudes" was finished, Braverman needed a rest. She gave copies of the manuscript to her agent and 30 of her friends and went off with her daughter, Gabrielle, "to live in the jungles of Maui for a year."

At this point, she wasn't worried about selling the book. Three years before, her first novel, "Lithium for Medea," had gotten good, even superb, reviews. ("Braverman is gifted, even prodigiously so," said one major paper.)

Besides, she says, her agent seemed so confident--"Six figures. No problem."

She returned to total rejection. Not just her agent, who told her: "I'm doing this for your own good. I can't move the book. You'd be better off with someone else," but other agents and a dozen publishers. "I had," she says, "double-digit rejection everywhere."

In addition, she says, "People who I thought of as friends and colleagues were utterly unsupportive. . . . They weren't supportive of my struggle as a single mother. They weren't supportive of me emotionally. They weren't supportive of what the apparent career failure was doing to decompose my personality."

Not surprising, say some of Braverman's current and former friends. Although she is a gifted poet "with a touch of genius," at times she can be more than a little hard to take with a personality that ranges from deeply insightful to melodramatic to touchingly vulnerable.

This includes her life style: For years she owned no regular street clothes; now she wears eye shadow, high heels, net stockings and an amethyst ring the size of a duck stamp. "Striking any kind of balance," she says ruefully, "has (always) eluded me completely."

Braverman's demanding style seemed to work best with other forceful personalities. "I liked her guts," says fellow poet Wanda Coleman, who read at the Venice Poetry Workshop with her in the early '70s. "Her bitchiness and braggadocio didn't turn me off. She wasn't afraid of me. She approached me as a peer. I liked her style."

A Complex Personality

Los Angeles author and Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd ("Are You Running With Me, Jesus?" and 21 other books) sees Braverman as complex and fascinating personality.

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