Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Four of his books have been published in France. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar. His fifth U.S. book, Martyrs and Holymen, will appear in France in September 2018. His sixth book, Time Is the Longest Distance was released in December 2017. We recently discussed writing, L.A., and his new novel.
Joseph Daniel Haske: In your interview with Daniel Mendoza, you mention a significant influence of the visual arts on your writing. Having read most of your fiction, I certainly do see that visual connection and I’m reminded of Pound’s statement:
“An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time…
It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.”
How do you address such visual correlations, stylistically speaking? Is your approach to fiction influenced by modern, post-modern, or contemporary poetry? Are genre distinctions irrelevant in contemporary literature?
Larry Fondation: I was a studio art major in college, though I am not a visual artist. But I go to museums and galleries (and listen to live music) as principal ways to engage my imagination. I did do the cover for Time Is the Longest Distance, but mostly as an “art brut” kind of thing, as though the main character was the artist.
So I am highly influenced by the visual arts. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about capturing life at “the decisive moment.” The idea is to evoke a broader, more complete story at a given moment in time. Of course, this leaves much to — in this case — the viewer’s imagination. (In my work I leave a lot of fore story and backstory up to the reader.)
I mentioned this in a talk I once gave — if you look at Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” (1885), you see poor people eating a frugal meal. You can infer a whole story just looking at that one image. Van Gogh even talked about how the painting smelled “not like paint, but of bacon, smoke and potato steam.” You can ponder the barkeep’s entire life while looking at Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1881). Even abstract painting goes for a sort of broad evocation of something that happens all at once. Though it’s not possible in the same way, of course, I think it would be great to be able to achieve that sort of suggestion and simultaneity in writing. I am not saying I can do that, but I am striving to try. The “formal” project of my writing is an attempt at compression.
In the 1970s, the Whitney Museum did an exhibition called “William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920 to 1940.” I am a huge fan of Williams’ writing. I got the catalogue to that exhibit. The book is full of quotes from Williams’ imagist poems, art by Charles Sheeler, Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, and of course, Charles Demuth, whose painting “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” is dedicated to Williams and based on his poem “The Great Figure.”
I love that kind of interaction and interplay! As you know, three of my six books have been collaborations with London-based artist, Kate Ruth.
Anyway, in the Williams catalogue, they quote an interview he did with “The Little Review” in 1929. He was asked “”What do you consider your strongest characteristic?” He answered: “My sight.” Though I wear thick glasses, I can relate!
Lately I have been reading lots of poetry, mostly contemporary work, by relatively young poets: Denez Smith; Robin Coste Lewis; Dylan Krieger; Layli Long Soldier; Tyehimba Jess — but also some early & late Ashbery; Anne Carson; Wallace Stevens; The Iliad, especially the 2015 Peter Green translation – I’m a bit all over the board. (And I’ve been reading quite a bit of East European fiction…)
Regarding genre, I just wrote an ABR piece about the subject: basically, you’re right – I’m against it — among other reasons, because the label “literary fiction” largely serves to give undeserved distinction to fiction about rich people. But we can expand on that at another time if you’d like.
JDH: From a formal and stylistic perspective, a reader might also note similarities between your fiction and that of writers such as Barthelme, Sukenick, and other post-modernists. However, your work diverges significantly from the post-modern aesthetic. What traits have you adopted from such writers and how would you describe your own literary path in a post-post-modern world?
LF: In my prose, I am trying for the flow of action, of events. I don’t think most of us – especially in this “Information Age” – live our lives in a smooth and continuous narrative arc. Particularly not the poor – people without power who must react to the actions of others, rather than have the opportunity to initiate. So my style has emerged from how I see and hear and experience city and street life, as it were. The influences you cite are definitely there – Barthelme and Sukenick in particular, perhaps Brautigan — but also Dos Passos, Selby, Genet, Mary Robison (especially books like “One DOA, One on the Way”), Pierre Guyotat, Iceberg Slim, Samuel Beckett (especially the “closed space” novels) …I think we need a kind of “street Beckett” to reflect life as it is lived now…So, yes, I think I’m essentially in the “post-post” vein, whatever that means to any of us, but I’ll say I’m an experimental realist. Eric Williamson calls it, “post-realist.”
JDH: When I think of contemporary L.A. fiction, two of the first names that come to mind for me are you and Brett Easton Ellis. Despite the fact that his work tends to focus on wealth, excess and yours on the City’s downtrodden, do you feel any sort of literary kinship with him or other writers who tell stories about the L.A. elite?
LF: Yes, both ends of the spectrum can experience a kind of doom. Both extreme wealth and extreme poverty can produce a hopelessness — different in type, perhaps, but maybe not so much so. Ellis’ characters are so bored. And hanging out on an inner city street corner is boring, too. So therefore violence and drugs. Life can seem meaningless and the days and nights endless. At some point there is no point in going on. “II can’t go on; I’ll go on.” But obviously and of course, I would rather not be starving or living in a cardboard box.
I also really love Didion’s Play It as It Lays, Isherwood’s LA fiction, and some of the Hollywood stuff such as Bruce Wagner ‘s work. Extremes often seem to converge.
So, I do feel some of that kinship you describe…
JDH: Tell us more about your latest book, Time is the Longest Distance
LF: Well, it’s my first book with only one main narrator, as opposed to the “chorus” novels and collections I’ve written before. Lawrence is the lead character and that name choice is on purpose. But of course the book is not autobiographical, but rather, at one level, a musing on what would happen if a guy like me was homeless…
The following is from the synopsis of the novel:
“Lawrence is homeless. Unlike the vast majority of the homeless population, however, Lawrence had been a graduate student before living on the streets. He had not been a scholar of any special talent or renown, but rather an awkward, bookish man who studied literature. He has a notion about a connection between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nathanael West, and he had wanted to write a dissertation about it. Then he had an unspecified nervous breakdown, and found himself on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
The story takes place during the course of 2005-2006, prior to the global economic collapse that began in 2008. Of course, Skid Row had been “collapsed” for a very long time. But during the early part of the decade, civic leaders and developers saw an opportunity to extend downtown LA’s revitalization to the areas around Skid Row, which had become a burgeoning art district. Proponents saw Operation Clean Sweep as a way to reduce crime on Skid Row; opponents saw it as a way to clear out the homeless for good….”
So, the book obviously also has a “politics,” as most of my work does. The gentrification of Los Angeles, the sweeping out of the poor and replacement by the rich, is more than a backdrop. It’s an essential part of the story.
A little over a year ago, The Towner (magazine) published a nonfiction piece of mine called “Homeless Capital,” about LA and Skid Row, etc. I concluded by saying, “ Displacement (and consequently “placelessness”) is the 21st Century crisis, with parallels all over the world.
Among other aspects of my book, I hope, Time is the Longest Distance doubles down on that thesis.
JDH: Thanks, Larry. Great to talk again!