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Patt Morrison Asks

Writing home: Brando Skyhorse

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

I did. My mother took me to a sweat lodge when I was 5 or 6. I smoked a peace pipe when I was 5 years old; she smoked it, then she started giggling uncontrollably and passed out. I think the best way I can describe it is that I was raised as a piecemeal Native American. It was based on her sort of fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a Native American. I think she was attracted by the radicalism of Native Americans asserting themselves.

She made up in enthusiasm what she lacked in knowledge?

Absolutely. My grandmother [his mother's mother] was a practicing Catholic, spoke fluent Spanish; my mother [refused] to let me learn Spanish, [so there is] this whole life, this whole identity that was basically removed from my life. My grandmother would try to teach me Spanish words, and then my mother would say, I don't want to hear you using that language -- this hostile reaction to it. Even though I'm free to learn Spanish now, I have this weird block whenever I sit down and try to learn more.

Perhaps she thought she was giving you something better, something more important?

I think that's correct. Even given the hodgepodge upbringing that I had with five stepfathers and everything, I feel fortunate because it exposed me to the experiences and opportunities that would never have been possible if my life had gone the way that it should have, my mother and father being married, et cetera.

Does anyone say, well, you're not a real Mexican American then?

People could say I'm not a real Mexican; they could say I'm not a real Indian, but I haven't heard it. My book deals with Mexican Americans and Echo Park. As a work of fiction, it represents my upbringing and my understanding of the community and the neighborhood. It's not like I can lighten my skin and pass for Anglo. For a Mexican to be raised in this piecemeal Native American way but also to be Mexican -- I consider that unique, and something I'm proud of, as opposed to something I have to defend.

You went to Stanford and to the UC Irvine writing program. How did you get the writing bug?

You can trace it back all the way to my grandmother's insistence that I read and understand the value of books. My grandmother would take me to the Central Library -- before the [1986] fire. I had a book checked out when it burned and I never returned it and I felt guilty, and it wasn't even a book I enjoyed. I was doing a school report; it was a book about OPEC.

She would take me there every Saturday, and I'd check out two or three books. My grandmother was trying to get me into nonfiction as opposed to fiction. She was into anything about murder; she loved murder mysteries [like] Agatha Christie but [also] nonfiction, like a book about Fatty Arbuckle. And my mother was into books about serial killers. I tell you, John Waters would have loved the childhood I had. I knew more about Ted Bundy at 12 than I knew about Santa Claus.

My grandmother also took me to bookstores. It's not like we were made of money, but it was a priority for her. She wanted me to understand that books not only could be borrowed from a library but that they cost money, and I could have my own library and take care of these books.

My mother was working on her own memoir. Toward the end of her life, she would write poems. If my mother had her druthers, she would have preferred that half [my] book be her writing. One thing I really wish I had gotten to tell her: All these fantastic details that she used to surround her life, she never needed that. She was fascinating and intense and incredible on her own, and she didn't need to wrap herself in all these lies and extraneous details. She didn't need to make it more fantastic than it already was.

You worked in New York publishing for a long time. What does L.A. look like from the vantage point of a city that seems to operate on stereotypes and misconceptions about us?

A number of people who read fiction about Los Angeles believe there's this one facet of Los Angeles identity that [gets] written about -- Hollywood, the machinations of getting a script made and all that. That's all fine, but that's a story we've seen a hundred times already.

My goal from the beginning was to write about the L.A. experience I had, and had not seen in print. There're a number of reasons people who are writers in L.A. are understandably skeptical about New York publishing; there's this belief that [the industry] doesn't know or care about what life in L.A. is really like.

And that books about Los Angeles are regional but books about New York City are national and international.

You're right, that's the impression. I'm not entirely sure why that is. When I worked in publishing and we talked about books from Los Angeles or California, there was this belief -- and I have nothing other than anecdotal evidence -- that books set in Southern California wouldn't find an audience outside Southern California. And New York must be the center of the universe.

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