By Lindsey Wojcik
When Hassel Velasco launched his essay series "To Live And Write in L.A." on Writer’s Bone earlier this year, he was inspired because he thought, “documenting the craziness of [the] city and its inhabitants might make for a good read.” Turns out, Velasco wasn’t the only writer that thought scribing about life Los Angeles would captivate an audience.
Author and screenwriter David Kukoff—a lifelong Angeleno—had a similar thought after completing his first novel Children of the Canyon, a story about a boy growing up during the Laurel Canyon counterculture in the 1970s. A brainstorming session with Kukoff’s publisher birthed the idea for a collection of essays that examine life in Los Angeles during the ’70s, a formative decade in the city’s history.
Los Angeles in the 1970s, edited by Kukoff and out in stores Nov. 15, offers an insider’s glimpse into a time when Hollywood was being revolutionized, the music business was booming, and authors like Joan Didion wrote novels about the realities of living in the land of eternal sunshine. The collection of 29 essays features pieces from literary figures in Los Angeles, including Dana Johnson, Deanne Stillman, and Lynell George, to poets, including Luis Rodriguez, Susan Hayden, and Jim Natal. Journalists, award-winning film and television luminaries, academics, art scenesters, musicians, and other Los Angeles insiders also contributed to the anthology.
Kukoff recently talked to me about what life was like growing up in La La Land, what he aimed to achieve with the collection, and how he rallied a diverse group of writers to contribute to Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?
David Kukoff: It’s often said with writing that “you don’t choose it, it chooses you.” I remember being young and compulsively writing stories. Somehow, the endings would come to me before I was finished, and I’d set up the narrative pieces along the way so they’d pay off in the end. Somehow, the process of writing and everything about it just always felt right to me.
LW: You've worked in film, television, and have published a novel. How is your writing process different for each medium?
DK: At this point, not much. When I wrote Children of the Canyon, I used a lot of television structure to help me. I envisioned the book as a limited series, and each of the chapters as episodes, which was immensely helpful. I do believe that every writer should learn some of the principles of film and television writing, as it’s immensely helpful where economy and structure are concerned.
LW: What was the drive behind creating the Los Angeles in the 1970s anthology? What were you looking for with it?
DK: My publisher, Tyson Cornell, and I were discussing a companion piece for Children of the Canyon, and he told me that their anthologies tended to do well. We were talking about the time period in which Children took place—namely the singer/songwriter haven of Laurel Canyon of the ’70s—and I mentioned that, to the best of my knowledge, no one had done a collection of essays about this time period in the city’s history.
I think what I was looking to do was explore the last period in the city’s history when it still felt like the Wild West. When Los Angeles still felt like a wide-open frontier, before it became as world-class a metropolis as it is today, which most Angelenos trace back to the Olympics. And I think the essays in this collection reflect that.
LW: What was your experience in Los Angeles like during the 1970s?
DK: I was actually pretty young; I turned 14 years old in 1980. My experience wasn’t all that different from the experiences a lot of my peers had elsewhere: I rode my bike around, we took the bus to the beach, we went to the movies or friends’ homes, and generally made our own adventures throughout the city. The thing was, that kind of freedom simply doesn’t seem to be experienced by kids that young in Los Angeles today. And that’s a shame.
LW: How do you think the decade shaped Los Angeles into what it is today?
DK: One of the things I loved exploring in Children of the Canyon was the idea that the 1970s were something of a “bridge” decade, in which the country went from the “We’re all in this together” ethos of the ’60s to the “I’m getting mine” of the Reagan ’80s. Somewhere in that time span, something palpably changed. And Los Angeles seemed to be very much at the forefront of all that, supplying everything from counterculture icons to even the key politician: Ronald Reagan.
LW: The anthology features writers with expansive backgrounds including musicians, journalists, and television writers and producers. How did you assemble the group of writers for Los Angeles in the 1970s?
DK: I was fortunate enough to be friends with a lot of great writers, and I started putting the word out. Fortunately, Los Angeles, in addition to being chock-full of amazing writers, is also home to one of the most inclusive literary communities on earth. Once word got around, I started hearing from people who had wonderful stories to tell. There were a few subjects I solicited that I felt were a must, but by and large, I’m fond of saying that this collection came together as though it were almost guided by a divine hand.
And that divine hand gave us a fantastic, diverse array of stories. I like to say that this collection, even the pieces that aren’t from a firsthand perspective, truly feel lived-in rather than merely observed or reported-on.
LW: What were you surprised to learn as you wrote and edited the anthology?
DK: How much you truly function the same way a producer does for a movie: generating the project, putting together the creative pieces, wrangling and working with the talent at every turn, overseeing the finishing touches, and then hitting the promotional trail.
LW: How was the process of putting this anthology different from writing your first novel Children of the Canyon?
DK: The latter was solitary, the former was far more collaborative. Even my contribution to this collection involved collecting over a dozen interviews and culling them into an oral history.
LW: What's next for you?
DK: I’m two-thirds of the way done with another novel. I have a script that was optioned by Film Nation and is being packaged right now, plus a couple of television pitches.
LW: What's your advice for up-and-coming screenwriters and authors?
DK: More than just writing what you know, write what you love. Write what you yourself would want to see, or read.