We had the good fortune of connecting with Diane Lefer and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Diane, how do you think about risk?
From the time I was a little kid being read to, I loved books and wanted someday to write some. But I grew up in a cautious family and so I assumed I would go to college and prepare for a career or profession that would provide me with a stable middle-class life. I’d write in my spare time and if I became a great success, only then would I leave my job in order to write fulltime. Then I took the risk: I dropped out of college and forgot about economic security. As long as I could keep a roof over my head with freelance and part-time work, I would devote myself to writing.
Back then, I didn’t understand that the vast majority of published authors never earn a living from their books. Even if I’d known, I would have gone ahead anyway. I was never able to write fulltime. I did once burst into tears when the laundromat raised the price on the machines and I didn’t know where I’d find the additional quarter. So some might say I gambled and lost but I never regretted the choice that gave me so many opportunities and experiences I would have missed if I’d spent my life behind a desk. When I was without that roof over my head, I took advantage of the situation. Without rent to pay, I used what money I had to travel. I wanted to immerse myself in different cultures so I would never take my own perspective as the only way to see life.
Looking back, I guess I took chances. Just one example: the time I went to visit a new friend, a rural schoolteacher, who’d been assigned to a village controlled by a murderous gang. The bus driver tried to stop me from getting off the bus, telling me it wasn’t safe. But I went to find my friend and if that was risky, it didn’t occur to me to think of our happy reunion in those terms. I still consider myself a cautious person. Though I may have walked in and out of danger, the only gamble I’ll admit to is risking my livelihood, not my life.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Making ends meet was a challenge but I learned to get around the limitations. Living out my Jane Goodall fantasy of life with the wild chimpanzees in Africa wasn’t ever going to happen so I joined the research team of animal behavior observers at the LA Zoo. (When a drill baboon was attracted to me instead of to females of his own species, he inspired that first story in Santa Monica Review and also served as a character in my novel, Confessions of a Carnivore.) The biggest challenge has been my eyesight.
My main part-time job switched to more and more work online at the same time I was finishing a novel and the long hours spent staring at the computer screen ended up damaging the focusing muscles of my eyes. I was left unable to read, write, or drive. It took 8 months of rest and special glasses till I could face the world again. That’s when Hector Aristizábal got in touch. Hector, charismatic theater artist and psychologist, had fled Colombia to save his life after he was detained and tortured by the US-supported military. He was shaken when the photos emerged from Abu Ghraib and asked for my help in creating a play about his experience. Nightwind went on to tour the US and the world, raising public awareness and outrage.
I made changes in my life with daily eye exercises and a limit to hours at the screen (an extra challenge these days with Covid-era remote work and Zoom). Instead of writing political journalism, I did social justice on my feet, assisting migrants in Tijuana, registering eligible voters in the LA County jails, working with survivors served by the Program for Torture Victims. Instead of writing my own original plays, I joined Hector in helping nonprofessionals in communities here and abroad tell and perform their own stories. I developed arts-based workshops aimed at enhancing literacy and critical thinking. These projects sometimes come with pay! My eyesight changed the way I write fiction. I used to immerse myself for up to ten hours at a stretch in the world of my characters.
These days I write in fragments, often longhand. That’s how I wrote my latest novel, due out in September. Out of Place looks at a research institute in the Mojave Desert that comes under suspicion in the aftermath of 9/11. I stitched together all the small pieces set in LA and Kern Counties and the Pacific Northwest as well as Mexico, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Turkey, hoping to make a coherent narrative out of them. The ongoing challenge of my life has been the three-way split: writing, social justice, making ends meet. It’s taken years, but I’ve been able to braid my three strands together.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
The best part of planning this itinerary is knowing that if friends are traveling to LA to visit, it means we’re no longer controlled by the virus. But only a week? I’ve lived here more than 20 years and am still discovering new places to love.
1. Joshua Tree National Park! I’ll take any excuse to head out there, and the long drive will give us lots of time to chat and catch up. Before entering the park, I’ll drive us north of the highway to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum – the remains of the daring and eccentric assemblages left behind and exposed to the elements since the artist’s death in 2004. One of the first exhibits I saw when I moved to LA in 1997 was Purifoy’s work at CAAM (California African American Museum) and learned how he was a founder of the Watts Towers Art Center and had begun creating sculpture from charred remnants found in the streets after the riots there. In the park, I like to walk for hours, but if my guest is not an ambitious hiker, I’ll take us to the Hidden Valley 1-mile loop trail, a sort of Best-of-Joshua-Tree compilation.
2. I’m putting the Adamson House and Gardens on my itinerary because I’ve never been there. I’ve kind of kept it in reserve thinking one of these days I’d host a visitor interested in Spanish Moorish architecture and décor and the Malibu setting. After the tour, we’ll drive up PCH, enjoy a picnic lunch at Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market & Patio Café, and continue up to Zuma Beach. I love that area because before hitting the beach, you can walk inland, through a beautiful residential neighborhood with lush vegetation and magnificent trees, to the trails at Zuma Canyon. But if my friend isn’t interested in historic homes and another hike, we’ll spend our beach day instead in Santa Monica and Venice, on the pier, a Caribbean lunch at Cha Cha Chicken, and then on to the Venice Canals – one of my favorite places for a stroll. We’ll stay in Venice if we’re lucky and there’s a reading at Beyond Baroque or an exhibit at SPARC or a performance at the Electric Lodge or Pacific Resident Theater. Yes, theater, of course. I can’t predict what will be onstage when my friend visits, but we’ll check listings for live theater and music anywhere in town.
3. More gardens — my favorite: the Huntington Gardens in San Marino. I’m not, however, fond of the food available there. We’ll head for lunch to Chang’s Garden in Arcadia. If we’re not too tired, we’ll head back through Old Pasadena and visit the Norton Simon Museum, though I really want to save museums in case we have a rainy day. MOCA, the Broad, The Underground Museum. LACMA (if it’s reopened) and the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures next door make more sense in good weather for the outdoor sculpture and the exhibits in the Tar Pits – and because across the street on Wilshire there’s an unexpected find: a section of the fallen Berlin Wall.
4. A walking tour of downtown. This will also give me a chance to show off LA’s mass transit. We’ll take the Red Line to Art Deco Union Station, then cross over to Olvera Street. We’ll walk through the Mexican mercado but our real purpose is to see América Tropical, the mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros which was considered so controversial back in the ‘30’s, it was whitewashed over to make it disappear. It’s been restored, though colors are muted, and we’ll go up to the viewing platform and also learn about the politics of the era. Stepping down into another doorway on the other side of the street, we’ll enter the Avila Adobe, built in 1818, for a glimpse of 19th-century Mexican life before the US conquest. Lunch: That’s a hard choice. We’re near Chinatown, but that’s not where we’re going. I have a hard time passing up the French dip lamb sandwich at Philippe’s, an LA landmark, carving up food for more than 100 years. It’s paper plates, ceiling fans, and sawdust all the way. But I also have a hard time passing up Homegirl Café, the restaurant operated by young women getting themselves out of the gang life. After lunch, we go south and cut through Grand Park to the Music Center and the dazzling architecture of Disney Hall. We’ll go through California Plaza, down the stairs and across the street to Grand Central Market where I’ll hope gentrification has slowed down enough to preserve the old vitality. We go out the other side to Broadway to the film noir ambiance of the Bradbury Building and then to the adjacent park honoring the life of Biddy Mason, born into slavery in 1818. After winning her freedom, she arrived in LA, worked as a nurse and midwife, invested in LA real estate and became one of the city’s wealthiest residents. She gave much of her fortune to charity. We’ll make a stop at the cavernous Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring before catching the bus home.
5. So we didn’t go to Chinatown. That’s because I want to show off the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. The first time I walked into the courtyard, I was so unprepared for the sight, it took my breath away. We’ll enjoy the Buddhist vegetarian buffet. In the evening, well, you can’t visit LA without eating Korean food. My two favorite restaurants in Koreatown have closed, but there are still plenty of choices for barbecue. I’d take a gluttonous friend to Bulgogi Hut, try everything, all you can eat. And if you prefer to have food cooked for you instead of cooking it yourself at the table, Hodori has a special place in my heart for serving delicious food all night long. It’s also conveniently located near the new Zion Market, a great Korean supermarket, where we’ll stop for grocery shopping.
6. I love visiting the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro where injured and sick seals and sealions are cared for until they can return to the ocean. Then it’s just a short drive to Ocean Trails Reserve in Rancho Palos Verdes. The downhill path, bordered with wildflowers is an easy walk to the rocky, dramatic coastline. Returning uphill is more of a workout! The preserve adjoins the golf club of “the former guy”. To get permission to build on the site, #45 had to agree the public could use the clubhouse restrooms— though every time I’ve taken friends for a picnic and hike at Ocean Trails, they’ve been afraid to. On the way home, we’ll get off the 110 for a visit to the Watts Towers.
7. If my friend times it right and is here for a Saturday near the end of the month, we’ll make it to a session of Rev. James Lawson’s ongoing workshops in the theory and practice of Gandhian nonviolence – a chance to hear some of the same tactics, strategy, and philosophy Rev. Lawson taught Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and many others. My friend might pick up some ideas for use in social movements back home. At the very least, it’s a rare opportunity and privilege to hear from one of America’s towering figures in the struggle for equal rights and justice.
Finally, of course my best friend is welcome to my couch instead of paying for a hotel or Airbnb, but to really kick back and relax, I’ll impose on good friends – the deck of Jennie and Jim’s cliffside house; Al’s indoor-outdoor home in horse country – where we can count on good food, good drink, and good conversation. You’ve been forewarned: We’re coming! And when it’s time to go? I don’t expect the airlines to feed anyone these days, so before dropping my friend off at LAX, we’ll make a stop nearby at the Taj India Palace. With any luck we’ll be in time for the lunch buffet.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
You’re so right. We don’t get anywhere alone. I could go on for pages about the people who’ve encouraged me and those I’ve learned from, not to mention the innocent bystanders who inadvertently provided material for my fiction and stage plays. But today, I just want to say thank you to Andrew Tonkovich. When I relocated to Southern California – first to Long Beach, then to LA – in ’97, I’d given up on writing fiction. I had files full of unpublished stories and novels and the crazy, discouraging thing was it’s not even like they were being rejected. I’d wait a year, two years or more for a response from editors and agents. Sometimes I’d get an apology for taking so long. Most of the time I got no response at all. It seemed pointless. But I am a writer and I have to write. I fell in with LA’s theater community and started writing plays. It’s not like working in theater was a hardship. I made friends and loved doing collaborative instead of solitary work, but in writing a play, you don’t get to use language in quite the same way as in fiction. I missed it.
One day, another writer suggested I send my work to Andrew Tonkovich, editor of Santa Monica Review. He promptly accepted the first story I sent him and has continued to include my work almost every year in the journal’s pages. I almost wish he wouldn’t because Andrew is, himself, an author of quite wonderful and provocative books, including the novella, The Dairy of Anne Frank (yes, that’s Dairy, not Diary, he has a wicked mind) and the story collection, Keeping Tahoe Blue. Instead of focusing on his own creative work, he devotes way too much of his time and energy to publishing and boosting other writers –when he’s not teaching, union organizing and promoting the cultural life of Orange County. So I thank him. Since the day Andrew first gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going, I’ve published two story collections and three novels while the latest, Out of Place, is due out in September. Here’s to Andrew Tonkovich. Honor him by reading him!