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Writing home: Brando Skyhorse

Patt Morrison Asks

Brando Skyhorse on his debut novel, "The Madonnas of Echo Park," which won this year's PEN/Hemingway Award for highlighting that neighborhood on the literary map of Los Angeles.

June 04, 2011|Patt Morrison

Bookshelves real and virtual are stocked with volumes about Los Angeles and Southern California written by people who parachute into a Westside guest house for a few weeks, hit the hot spots and high spots, then write with voice-of-God authority for audiences who wouldn't know the Grapevine from grape juice.

But there is authentic writing to be found about Los Angeles. Brando Skyhorse's debut novel, "The Madonnas of Echo Park," won this year's PEN/Hemingway Award for highlighting that neighborhood on the literary map of Los Angeles. Echo Park is where Skyhorse was born and grew up, a place he left first for college and then for the New York publishing world.

His first book is about a turbulent neighborhood; his next will be a memoir of his turbulent life, something that's pretty clear from its working title, "Things My Fathers Taught Me." That's "fathers" plural: several stepfathers and one mostly missing-in-action biological father -- a fleeting cast of men and of course formidable Echo Park women, including the mother and grandmother who anchored his L.A. life.

What's a nice Echo Park boy like you doing in Jersey City?

I moved out here in 1997 because I was in a relationship with someone [who] moved back here to get into publishing. About a month after I left, my mother died unexpectedly -- she was 50 years old. And a year and a half later, my grandmother died all of a sudden, so that connection I had with Los Angeles was just gone. I felt almost like I got marooned here.

When you refer to New York, you say "out here." So is L.A. still your compass?

Absolutely. I still find myself referring to myself as an Angeleno. It sounds absurd given that I've lived in Jersey City for about 13, 14 years, but given my family's long connection, L.A.'s my home. I almost feel like I'm on this tourist visa!

And you're back in California a lot more these days.

I just discovered my biological father last year, living in Whittier. He has a family of his own, and I'm trying to get to know them. He took off when I was 3 or 4 years old. Someone suggested I should see if I could find [him]. I thought, well, this could take years, it could involve private detectives, something could have happened to him. I thought, there is no way this is going to happen in a reasonable time. So I went on Google, couldn't find anything, of course, and then I typed in "whitepages.com" and there he was. Literally it took all of five minutes.

My mother loved to tell stories; every time I'd ask about him, the story would change. All of her stories were incredibly dramatic, but at the end of the day the truth was always very simple, and I should have realized that.

I can't speak for him; we really haven't had too many in-depth conversations [yet] about how he feels about this. I know he has regrets. I know it's complicated because I have a last name that isn't his. I wasn't raised as his son, so it doesn't seem practical for me to carry his name. I think he's aware that I write and he's happy about that. I think he'd be happier if I were married and [he] had some grandkids.

About your name. People surely say, "Come on, your real name is Joe Smith, right?"

Do you know how much easier my life would have been if it had been Joe Smith? Do you know how many years I've wished it was Joe Smith?

When the first book came out, there were book reviewers who told me privately, "Man, your name sounds like Elvis Costello." My biological father confirmed that my name was Brando from the beginning. I don't know if my mother liked it because she admired Marlon Brando's stance on Native American politics. She was very much a firebrand, very much into American Indian politics in the early '70s. She was Mexican American; her stepfather was Filipino.

After my father left, my mother started corresponding with a man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. He was incarcerated in Illinois for armed robbery, and somehow during their letter writing Paul agreed to adopt me as his child, so I became Brando Skyhorse Johnson. When she showed me photographs of him, I looked more like him than I do my biological father.

My mother never did anything officially. There was never an official adoption. My mom was sort of her own judge and notary public; she did these things on her own. I basically met him when I was 5 and I have memories of that; then he came out to live with us when I was maybe in junior high, and either just before or right after he came out, I realized that I was not Native American, that both my mother and my father were Mexican American.

Did you do what your mother thought of as Native American activities?

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