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Talking with Karolina Waclawiak about making L.A. a character

October 05, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Karolina Waclawiak, author of "How to Get Into the Twin Palms," says of Los Angeles: "It's also the perfect setting for a book about displacement and detachment because the city is almost like a vast orphanage."
Karolina Waclawiak, author of "How to Get Into the Twin Palms,"…

I met Karolina Waclawiak last month at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where we were both on a panel about the literature of Los Angeles. Her first novel, “How to Get Into the Twin Palms” (Two Dollar Radio: 192 pp., $16 paper) takes place in West Hollywood and revolves around a twentysomething woman named Anya, who wants to pass as Russian as a way of sidestepping her Polish roots. Waclawiak, who now lives in Brooklyn and is deputy editor of The Believer, spent 10 years in that neighborhood, which gives her novel a vivid air of authenticity. Recently, she and I corresponded, via email, about the book.

"How to Get Into the Twin Palms" unfolds in the Russian community of West Hollywood. How did the book evolve?

I lived right behind the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. It was a really interesting neighborhood because it used to be heavily Russian, but when I got there, in 1998, it was slowly changing hands and becoming hip. The small groceries that mimicked the ones you could find in Eastern Europe were suddenly turning into high-priced sneaker shops. I thought a lot about how much culture one can hold onto and what gets lost in the name of progress. Some immigrants clutch the culture of their home country, while others walk away from it as a matter of survival. I saw instances of both. It was important to me to make Los Angeles a character and so I worked hard to figure out how to capture one of the last neighborhoods that still felt like a secret. I wanted to write about the immigrant experience and the feeling of having to straddle two worlds, but I didn’t want to write a traditional “coming to America” story. So, instead, I had my narrator, Anya, a Polish immigrant, try to pass as Russian.

Did you share Anya's fascination with the Russian mobsters in the neighborhood?

I’ve been fascinated by Russian mobsters for a long time and I have several encyclopedias of Russian prison tattoos. To me, it’s another group based on cultural exclusivity that most people are shut out of. There is a codified set of rules, the most important of which is the necessity to be Russian. There was a club (it seemed to be a Russian mob hangout) near my house that is no longer in existence and I wanted to get inside, but really, only because I knew I could never get in. I thought the club could be a good stand-in for the elusive goal of trying to capture someone else's culture.

You're from Connecticut. How did you end up in Los Angeles? Why did you leave?

I came to Los Angeles to go to the USC screenwriting program. It’s funny because in school they tell you that you’re the best, that it’s the best film school in the world and that everyone is going to want you when you leave. So I was waiting with my thesis script in hand on the day of graduation, saying, “Okay, where are the agents? Where are the studios?” Of course, that didn’t happen. I remember when one of my scripts was under consideration at Paramount and I thought I had made it. But it meant nothing. I had a manager and it went nowhere, and then more meetings with more managers and one told me most writers make it when they’re 32 or 33. I said, ”Oh, not me, I’m not going to wait that long. I’m going to make it at 23.” I wish I could go back and shake myself.

After about eight years, I ended up as an assistant to one of the producers of “The Simpsons,” Richard Sakai. I would stand in the writer’s room after everyone had gone home and say, “One day I'm going to say I'm a writer and it won't be a lie.” After so much rejection, though, I had stopped showing my work to anyone, and eventually stopped writing altogether. I was turning into a husk of a person. I applied to the Columbia MFA program during the writer's strike and got in. It was a difficult decision because I didn’t want to leave “The Simpsons,” but I hadn’t written a word in over two years. I left so I could write.

You’re deeply drawn to the literature of Los Angeles: James M. Cain, John Fante, Raymond Chandler. What are the books that pulled you in?

I found Charles Bukowski's “Factotum” in a dollar bin in Santa Monica shortly after I moved to Los Angeles and I thought it was a sign. Living there, I couldn't understand the place and suddenly, here was an author who was trying to make sense of it, too. I started reading every Bukowski book I could find and that was my entrance into Los Angeles literature. Then I moved on to Fante and read all his books. I love Fante because he captures the immigrant experience and the Los Angeles experience simultaneously. I also love noir, so I started reading Cain and Chandler and found my way to James Ellroy. They were all writing about the Los Angeles I wanted to live in. The pulsing, desperate Los Angeles I knew was hidden somewhere beneath the sun.

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