Friday, March 23, 2012

Chuck Rosenthal: Surfing the Elusive City

LIKE MANY writers who’ve come to Los Angeles, Chuck Rosenthal was drawn to L.A. because of its elusive quality - but not the typical “elusiveness” of L.A. that comes to mind. Beyond the never ending traffic, the intrigue of celebrity, the variety of neighborhoods, “L.A. has so many facets,” says Rosenthal. “It’s neither male nor female, it’s metrosexual.” And the exploration of that complex place in between has long been an element in Rosenthal's work.

Rosenthal, the author of seven books and a memoir, and a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, has been a force in both the literary scene and has inspired and influenced students with courses he’s taught which deal directly with the city. Before the university nixed his RoadWrite class because of the higher budget it required, he took students all over Los Angeles and even up to Big Sur for a course inspired by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” mentality.

The "metrosexual city" of Los Angeles, so dubbed by Rosenthal because of its eccentricities and materialistic nature, has been his playground ever since he moved here as a young writer in 1986. A native Pennsylvanian, he had high hopes that moving to sunny Los Angeles would fulfill his dreams of learning how to surf and riding his motorcycle every day. He inched his way from the East coast toward California with writing employment at several universities before he wound up in L.A., and aside from steady employment at the same university as his wife, he has remained ever since because he actually enjoys it. What he doesn’t like is the superficiality that L.A. has been branded with. Oh, and the city’s endless need for driving.

But Rosenthal has been able to find inspiration in its superficiality - in fact, L.A.’s superficial nature is a key element in his upcoming book, "West of Eden," that will be released in October. The book is a mixture of fictional stories and snippets from his own life, touching on everything from the entertainment industry to teaching at LMU to his daughter’s kooky decision to change her name to Jesus. “It’s funny,” Rosenthal said in his characteristically matter of fact tone. “I’m funny.”

He came up with the concept for "West of Eden" by pulling stories from his "Last Book of Everything," which was about 900 pages of work that he added to whenever he felt inspired. A few years ago, after he’d written a story chronicling his humorous battle to pawn off a live chicken to his celebrity neighbors - including Sting and Robert Downey Jr. - his wife told him “you love funny stories about L.A., you ought to write a book about it.” With that thought, he realized that there were about 7 or 8 stories woven throughout his Last Book of Everything to draw from.

Because of the interesting way the book came to be, some of its stories are from 10 years ago, but could also be made tomorrow. “If an animal died in 2004, it doesn’t matter if I say it died in 2012,” he said. “Those things don’t matter at all.” As the book is centered around his funny experiences living in Los Angeles, it makes sense that time is irrelevant - he will continue to have these experiences long after the book’s publication.

“You can do anything you want in L.A.,” Rosenthal said. “You just have to drive to do it.” One perk L.A. has on the literary front that other cities do not is the influence of the entertainment world. Although most writers in L.A. are screenwriters, the people Rosenthal hangs out with are some of the few that are not interested in writing for the movies. In fact, when HBO approached him about writing the screenplay for his memoir "Never Let Me Go," which deals with his six-year sexual abuse from a grade school coach, he told them to have someone else write it.

“It’s not like I’m not good at it,” he explained. “I just wasn’t interested.” Truth be told, a screenplay Rosenthal wrote several years ago was nominated for the Sundance Film Festival. But screenwriting is not where his heart lies, and as a result, he does not feel influenced by Hollywood like he believes many of the writers in L.A. do. He also believes there is a pressure on L.A. writers from the big rig publishers in New York to conform to the expectations of the noir, mystery and Hollywood genres that often sell.

But don’t expect Rosenthal to conform any time soon. Even though the majority of the literary world is centered around New York City, Rosenthal is happy to be in Los Angeles. For one of his current projects he is taking lines from old sci-fi poems, mixing them up in a hat, and making poetry out of them. “I like to mix genres,” he said. With this defiance against what typically “sells,” Rosenthal displays his capability to live in a city like Los Angeles while still holding on to his own voice.

He spent his early years in L.A.'s Venice Beach where he did surf every day, but these days he and his wife reside of Topanga, where he has replaced daily surfing with riding his beloved horse, Nikki. There are aspects about city life - like being able to “pick up wine, a baguette and fish for dinner; bring it anywhere and call it a meal” - that he knows he is lacking by living in an L.A. surburb, but the pros of Los Angeles outweigh the cons. The city entertains him, and his work has been successful.

Rosenthal thinks maybe he will stay in L.A. forever, depending on whether he can afford to live in Topanga or to get a loft downtown once he retires. He wouldn’t  mind remaining here, although if L.A. were a person, he probably would not like to be its friend. L.A. is “superficial - self consciously invested of the presentation of itself. Always on display. A fashion model,” he said. Maybe its because of the amusement he gets as a writer out of observing people, but within that superficial fashion model likes a city Rosenthal calls home.

-- Jordan Younger
(image via lmu library's webpage)

1 comment:

  1. This is such a great profile, I really enjoyed reading it! Not only was the subject interesting, but the story really embodies L.A. I love the part about not wanting to be L.A.'s friend and the end of the story. Usually I like when quotes end a story, but this ending works even better.