ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Festival of Books: Real-life crises these novelists would never write about
April 13, 2014|By Margaret Gray
A Sunday morning Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel brought together four bestselling female novelists to discuss “Fiction: Choices and Consequences,” a topic that (perhaps unsurprisingly, given its general applicability) is relevant to all of their work.
Warmly and humorously moderated by Leslie Schwartz, herself a novelist (“Angels Crest”), writers Lacy Crawford, Lian Dolan, Jane Green and Gigi Levangie began by summarizing their most recent books, all of which feature female protagonists and treat life crises that, to judge from the audience’s rapt absorption, nods and tearful bursts of laughter, are far from inaccessible.
Crawford’s debut novel, “Early Decision,” was inspired by the parents she encountered in her 15-year career as a college admissions advisor. “When people say, ‘God, they were nasty,’ I think, ‘You don’t know the half of it,’ ” she said, adding that her goal in writing the satire was to free parents and students from the pressure of that increasingly traumatic process that has become “crazy time.”
“USC is almost impossible to get into,” she said, alluding to the host campus of the Festival of Books. “I can’t believe I’m here.”
Dolan’s latest book, “Elizabeth the First Wife,” is about a Shakespeare professor who is tempted into a lucrative project with her ex-husband by the hope of a remodeled kitchen, which she described as “a motivator for most women in America.”
Levangie’s latest book, also a satire, stars a tutor and her seven charges, each of whom represents one of the seven deadly sins. Schwartz interjected that as exercises she often assigns creative-writing students to write about the seven deadly sins, the 10 Commandments — or even the seven dwarfs. Levangie, who quickly emerged as the class clown of this extremely witty group, rejoined, “I’ve dated six of them.”
Green’s synopsis of her 15th novel, “Tempting Fate,” which, as Schwartz announced to wild applause, is currently No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list, held the crowd particularly spellbound. The story stars a happily married 43-year-old woman, Gaby, who does not consider herself the type of woman who would ever have an affair — until she becomes addicted to an email exchange with a handsome stranger.
“Women in their 40s can become very vulnerable to attention,” Green said in her soothing British accent, as many heads bobbed with grateful recognition. She confessed that she herself has felt “suddenly invisible” now that she has reached her 40s, and she has watched women around her breaking up their own marriages in pursuit of something that will make them “feel alive again.”
“I’ve been getting a lot of confessions from people at these events,” she added invitingly. “There’s a cone of silence around anything you tell me.”
The authors shared their sources of inspiration: the news, their own lives, the lives of friends and eavesdropping — a practice Schwartz glowingly endorsed, while adding that the trick is not to look directly at the people you are listening to. Dolan said the revelation that helped her get through her novel, which she said was rather highbrow in earlier drafts, was to “aim low.”
Schwartz asked each writer to reflect on her own choices and consequences as a writer, wife and mother. All four agreed that they loved their jobs. “Being a writer is a great job for a mother who cares about her children … and her children’s coaches,” joked Levangie. (Or maybe it wasn’t a joke: She had earlier said that she undertakes much of her research at her children’s sports contests: “Football dads are the hottest. Baseball dads, not so hot. Lacrosse?” She lifted one eyebrow and nodded almost imperceptibly.)
And Levangie summed up the consequences of writing her book “The Starter Wife” with these words: “Gained a miniseries, lost a husband.”
The conversation took a slightly mystical turn when Green asked if Levangie thought that by writing about a divorce, she might make it happen in her own life.
“There are some things I won’t write about because I’m afraid I might manifest them,” Green said. “I won’t write about losing a husband.”
“I won’t write about losing a child,” Levangie agreed.
All five writers nodded.
Copyright 2015 Los Angeles Times
This article is available online here.
October 07, 2009
GUEST INTERVIEW: LESLIE SCHWARTZ
INTERVIEW BY DANIEL A. OLIVAS
Leslie Schwartz’s first novel, Jumping the Green (Simon & Schuster 1999), won the James Jones Literary Society Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, Angels Crest (Doubleday 2004), was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, translated into nine languages, and optioned for film. In 2004, she was named Kalliope Magazine’s Woman Writer of the Year.
Schwartz teaches creative writing at Juvenile Hall, in under-served middle and high school communities, and at Homeboy Industries, an employment referral center and economic development program for at-risk and gang-involved youth. Schwartz is editor-in-chief of The Homeboy Review, a new literary journal published by Homeboy Industries. The first issue of the review, which is Schwartz’s brainchild, was published this spring. Schwartz kindly agreed to chat with me about her involvement with Homeboy Industries and its literary journal.
LESLIE SCHWARTZ: In early 2006, when I was president of PEN USA, we received a grant from the California Council for the Humanities to do an oral histories project at Homeboy Industries. I was hired through the auspices of the grant to teach a ten-week creative writing class while my colleague, Celeste Freemon, taught a journalism class. The homeboys and homegirls who were part of the program interviewed each other on their life stories, and the poetry that came out of my class, as well as some of these “oral histories,” were collected in a small anthology. After the class culminated, I asked Fr. Greg Boyle [founder of Homeboy Industries] if I could stay on as a volunteer to continue teaching creative writing to the clients of Homeboy Industries. I have been there ever since.
DO: Why did you think that a literary journal would be a good fit for Homeboy Industries?
LS: At the culmination of the Oral Histories program, the homeboys and homegirls were given a chance to perform their poetry out loud at a public reading. Most of the poets from the class could not stop crying as they read their work. Later in the evening, one of the homies, now a good friend of mine named Agustin Lizama, stood up to read his poem. The problem was he had to hold a mic and the poetry anthology but he’s missing an arm from a driveby shooting that occurred when he was twelve. For a few moments, he struggled and juggled the book and the mic and then very quietly and graciously, another poet named Hector Verdugo got up and held the magazine open so Agustin could hold the mic and read his poem. On the streets, these guys might well have been rivals, but here under the community of peace engendered by poetry, they were friends and partners. At the end of the evening, Agustin said that poetry gave him back his soul. It was at that moment that the idea came to me that Homeboy Industries should begin publishing literature.
DO: Does your work on The Homeboy Review relate to how you view your Judaism?
LS: You know my sense of my Judaism comes from my dad who had this really otherworldy sense of justice and fairness. He could get along with anybody regardless of their ideology, their creed or color. And he taught me that through compassion and understanding it is possible to mend the wounds of prejudice and injustice. And not in some phony liberal way, but in a deep God-centered way that transcends politics. To me the idea of justice is a very Jewish, Talmudic idea and I do believe that all of my creative endeavors, whether they be my own writing or the creation of this journal (or raising my children) is deeply embedded in this God-centered ideal of justice.
DO: What did you learn from putting together this first issue?
LS: I learned first of all, patience, patience, patience. Because of the particular clientele at Homeboy Industries (many of our employees really need second, third, tenth chances), I lost one of my staff to a probation violation arrest. This happened right in the middle of the rush and deadline and it was pretty challenging. So I’ve learned to have some back up staffers for sure. But I also learned that we are going to make mistakes. On some level you have to trust in that mysterious thing that happens above and beyond your own earthly efforts.
DO: Has your work with Homeboy Industries influenced or otherwise affected your own writing?
LS: You know, I’m just never going to write about gangs and violence and stuff that I have no business writing about. I am a white girl from the suburbs and my frame of reference just doesn’t include that and I am very testy about co-opting other people’s experiences. However, and this is a big however, I would say that working at Homeboy Industries has completely changed me as writer, in so far as it has opened my heart. Being around people who have had to be, in some ways, fearless all their lives, but who also have learned to reveal their vulnerabilities has been a life-changing experience for me. It has taught me to become more comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with writing and more equipped to approach it without fear. I can tell you not many people get to say this and really mean it.
To purchase a copy of The Homeboy Review, visit www.homeboy-industries.org
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books and editor of Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press/Arizona State University, 2008). His new collection of short stories, Anywhere But L.A. will be published this fall. Olivas’s first full-length novel, The Book of Want, will be published in 2011 by the University of Arizona Press. He shares blogging duties on the Chicano/Latino lit blog, La Bloga. By day, Olivas is an attorney with the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles.
This article is available online here.
‘The Homies’ Get Poetic
Erika A. McCarden • L.A. Watts Times • News Feature • July 8, 2009
Youngsters get to know themselves and their potential — and remember a fallen colleague.
It took her a while to embrace poetry and participate in a creative writing program at the L.A.-based Homeboy Industries, which aims to help at-risk and former gang-involved youth become positive members of society through job placement, training and education.
“I never wanted to take the class, and I would get mad at Leslie,” Ayala said of Leslie Schwartz, who spearheaded the program. “We always got into it and I wouldn’t write anything. I kept telling her, ‘I’m not a poet,’ but she kept pushing and pushing. Now I write poems and enjoy writing, and it helps me focus when I’m mad about something.”
On June 11, Ayala, a former drug dealer, and her colleagues presented literary works from the first annual Homeboy Review — a collection of essays and poetry written and published by ex-gang members in Homeboy Industries’ writing class.
“I never thought I could ever write, but we have it in us,” Ayala said. “We’re so programmed to think we’re not going to be anything, and now it’s crazy to see our names in a book and it makes me want more. It’s amazing to have something to show my grandparents.”
Founded by Father Gregory Boyle in 1988, Homeboy Industries has grown to provide training and work experience for rival gang members with an enterprise comprised of Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy Maintenance, Homeboy and Homegirl Merchandise, Homegirl Café and the newest, Homeboy Press, which publishes The Homeboy Review.
The new publication is written in three subdivisions: The First Section, which features literary works from established poets and writers including poet Luis Rodriguez, author Kerry Madden, and Naomi Shihab Nye; Art and Justice, which analyzes the relationship between art and community; and 130 West Bruno Street, which highlights poetry written by “The Homies” from Schwartz’s class.
The debut of The Homeboy Review kicked off with readings by select students, as well as Rodriguez, Madden and Boyle.
Also featured was a dedication to fellow “Homie” Trayvon Jeffers, who was scheduled to read his work that evening, but was shot and killed a week before. His mother sat in the front row as his friends read her son’s work, along with special poems written in his honor.
“Before the class I never transformed my thoughts to paper. I found that I have so much in me,” Robert Juarez said. “I learned that writing is a form of therapy. It let me search deep within and broke down all these layers. I learned that I can write my own destiny and that I don’t have to be stuck.”
Juarez has been working at Homeboy Industries for almost two years and worked his way up from an assistant to case manager. He is now responsible for managing and assisting recent parolees with transitioning into society. Juarez says he has become passionate about poetry, and finds himself always writing in his spare time.
“It’s been instrumental in changing my life, and it’s pumped me up,” he said. “To see our work in print means a lot to me. I really like writing and plan to continue it.”
For Fabian Montes, writing became a personal refuge from his former ties with gang affiliation.
“The [Homeboy] Press opens people up to our voices. It teaches us how to deal with our pain and anger better, and it’s a form of therapy for us to turn to rather than drugs,” Montes said. “Poetry was an outlet for me and saved my life. The Review will let people on the outside know that there are some really good poets here, with very deep things to say.”
Montes has been working at Homeboy Industries for seven years, attended East Los Angeles College, and is now a Release Case Manager and helps youth from juvenile camps transition into Homeboy Industries.
“The writing is a very important part of their life and transformation out of gangs,” Schwartz said of her students.
To learn more about Homeboy Industries or The Homeboy Review, visit www.homeboy-industries.org, or call (323) 526-1254.
Photos by Damien Smith
This article is available online here.
‘Now the giant awakes’
An L.A. gang member and a boy drawn to the streets find refuge in writing. Their words enthrall — and unsettle — the teacher-novelist.
October 10, 2007 | Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer
Hector Verdugo had no faith in this woman standing before him, promising she could change his life with words. He was 32, a gang member and ex-convict, and he had seen do-gooders like her before. They always left. Life never got better.
Luis Alfredo Jacinto, known as Freddy, had doubts, too. He was only 10 and toying with joining a tagging crew — the first step toward gang life. The woman wanted him to write sentences beginning with “I am. . . ” Freddy wrote: “I am bad because of the influence around me.” “I am thinking about changing my life.” But he added: “I am always going to be my homies crime partner.”
The woman was Leslie Schwartz, 44, a published novelist. She taught a class of 12, put together by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang program.
Boyle figured this composition class, launched with help from the nonprofit writing organization PEN USA, might keep young people out of trouble. Schwartz encouraged her students to write about what they knew. Over nine months, the narratives constructed by Hector and Freddy — both in class and in their personal lives — would consume her.
Hector Verdugo grew up in East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project. His father died of a heroin overdose a week before he was born. His mother, also an addict, read him Bible stories, then disappeared for days. He and his twin brother bounced between their mother and foster care.
Hector was 14 when he joined a gang. Not long after, he was sent to juvenile hall for stealing a car. At 16, dealers offered Hector $3,000 to sell drugs — and over time he did well, spending his earnings on low-rider cars, motorcycles and trips to Hawaii. At 18, he was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to prison for two years.
By 24, he had decided to give up the criminal life. Slowly, he sold everything to pay rent, support his three children from a former girlfriend and bail friends and family members out of jail.
He started a hauling company. When it failed, he took jobs shoveling dirt and breaking concrete. Last fall, he applied for financial aid and enrolled full time at East Los Angeles College. But there was one thing he needed for school that he could not afford: a computer.
“You gotta go to Father G,” a friend told him. He had known Father Gregory Boyle since his days in juvenile hall, when the Jesuit priest offered Catholic services to the inmates. Over the years, Hector dropped by to say hello. After some reluctance, he asked the priest for help. Boyle gave him the computer — and a job paying $8 an hour.
A few weeks later, Hector agreed to enroll in the writing class.
Freddy Jacinto was a little guy who walked with a swagger. He lived down the street from Homeboy Industries, and Boyle paid his tuition at nearby St. Mary’s Catholic School — as long as he kept his grades up. He talked of becoming a lawyer.
But he was an angry handful. His mother, Sandra Jacinto, 28, was raising Freddy and his 9-year-old half-brother alone.
Freddy was 4 when a man he thought was his father visited. Freddy got ready to leave on a ride with the man when his mother stopped him. “You’re not his kid,” she said. Freddy then watched his brother ride off instead.
Every two weeks, Freddy’s brother left with the man. Freddy’s mother told him that she was his father, too. “I love you for both. Just do good.”
Freddy’s mother worked the late shift at a cookie factory, arriving home at 2:30 a.m. One night she returned and Freddy was missing. He had been tagging. When she picked him up at the police station, an officer told her: “Your son is going to be here in jail soon, or he’s going to die.”
She took Freddy home and threw out all of his baggy clothes, because the police said they made him look like a gangster. Freddy threatened: “I’m gonna go to the gang. I’m gonna go!”
Hector listened, unconvinced.
Inside a makeshift classroom at Homeboy Industries in Boyle Heights, Leslie Schwartz said that she was a recovering alcoholic, seven years sober.
She started drinking when she was 11. “I felt like I had a whole world of hurt inside of me when I was growing up.” When the hurt got the best of her, she said, she lied and drank and used drugs and hurt the people she loved. It was writing, she said, that saved her. Writing might save them too.
“There are people all over the world in prison because of the things they’ve said and the things they’ve written. Poetry has put people in prison. Why is that? Because words are way more powerful than a gun or a bomb or a knife will ever be.”
Schwartz told Hector and the others to write a word or sentence on a note card. She collected them and read one: “Ignorant minds.” Write about it for five minutes, she said. “Go.”
Hector wrote three sentences: “They say we only use a small percentage of our minds. I want to use my whole mind. If God provided me with this brain and I only use a portion of it, then why am I short-changing Him of my brilliance?”
At the next class, Schwartz handed Hector’s writing back with comments: “Why don’t you try to make more of it — put it in a poem. Let’s see you push harder, deeper! I love your writing.”
Hector did not believe she loved it. He knew he was not saying much. He did not think he could write like authors who had moved him: Luis Rodriguez, whose “Always Running” he had read in juvenile hall, or Malcolm X, whose autobiography he had read in prison.
But Schwartz’s notes kept coming back with urgency. “You have SO much to say, but maybe it’s bottled up. Let me help.”
In another speed-writing exercise a week later, Schwartz pulled out another card. “Angels.” Write, she told them. Don’t think. Hector wrote:
“Where are the Angels? Do they exist? We see them in pictures, hear about them in stories, but not yet have I seen one.”
He finished and looked around. The others were still writing. So he riffed about a friend: “I knew this girl named Angel she was a devil a look from her would make dust from a pebble This broad was a rebel not your average but on a different level. . . Angel I miss you baby, doing life for a murder you had to commit. you’d kill another I know it aint sh–.”
When Schwartz returned his paper, she had written: “Hector Verdugo, my poet of poets. I think you found your voice here and want you to put it in poetic form. This poem is righteous for its power, its language and rhythm and because it scares the sh– out of me.”
Maybe Schwartz was not coddling him, Hector thought. Images and stories rushed through his mind. All at once, he wanted to pour his life onto a page.
Wait, he thought. Schwartz praised everyone in the class. He was just an ex-con from Ramona Gardens, and he’d been disappointed before.
When Hector was 15, a film crew shot “American Me” in his neighborhood, a story about gang life. Hector and his brother got to be extras. It was a world of glamour and money. He felt like he was part of something bigger than his neighborhood. Then the filming ended. The crew left.
“I felt like somebody lit a fire in me,” Hector said. “And then, poof, it disappeared.” Could writing relight the fire?
Freddy stuttered when he read aloud in class. “I know that everyone makes mistakes. And right now I feel like this is the time to mess up. . . . I feel pain because my dad left me. All my life I’ve been without a dad.”
The class applauded. “Woo, woo!” “Nice job!”
“Thank you,” Schwartz said, “for teaching everybody in this room that it’s OK to say those things.”
That night, Schwartz read the rest of what Freddy had written.
“I can’t talk 2 Fr. G because I don’t want him 2 know. I’m trying to keep it in the Low Pro[file] because like U said I don’t want to [hurt] my mom this is the only place I can express myself… fell like when I’m bad I get respect…right now I’m looking 4 that [angel] but I can’t seem to find him.”
It was January. As the weeks passed, Freddy got into trouble outside of class. But inside he eagerly read his work, leaving out passages intended for Schwartz to read later. One night she read the rest of a Freddy essay. It scared her.
“I feel good with what I’m doing even though I know it’s wrong I feel like in [a tagging crew] I have my real family. I don’t know why but the violence is the true me I feel the street is my home I no longer care about anything around me. My homies are my true brothers. I am a structure that is used to destroy my anymies.” It was clear that Freddy had joined a tagging crew, known for writing and painting graffiti. Some crews also were known for fighting — even killing — rivals.
Schwartz wrote to Freddy: “I am going to tell you straight up — you’re wrong. Your mom loves you. You are being brainwashed by the homies. Don’t forget your grades. You want to be a lawyer. You can’t do any of that if you’re dead or locked up 25 to life. You know I’m right about this.”
Schwartz had told her writers that if they wanted to keep part of their writing private, they should mark it with a “P.” Freddy hadn’t marked his latest work. Schwartz decided she had to do something.
Spring approached. Hector sought out Schwartz and looked her in the eye.
“I want to tell you something,” he said. “I want to be a writer.”
A week later, Schwartz handed out a printed interview with Luis Rodriguez, the novelist Hector admired. In it, Rodriguez talked about blind rage. “The word today: ‘anger,’ ” Schwartz said.
After seven minutes, Hector took a breath and read his piece, “Warning Sign.”
“It’s time my people come out of mourning. Mourning from barrio warfare, police brutality, sh–y schools. You used drugs, media and psychology as your oppression tools. But like the cucaracha we’ve become immune to your poison. We are still multiplying, filling your cities, states, country. Shaking off the foggy haze you left us in for so long. That was so wrong. But now the giant awakes.”
Schwartz had tears in her eyes. “What happened to you overnight?” she asked. “Oh, my God.”
Hector told her later that he wanted her passion for words. Words, he realized, really did have power. He wanted to be a part of that.
And he wanted something else.
A few days later, Boyle took Hector and two other Homeboy employees to a fundraiser in Santa Barbara. At dinner the conversation turned to Boyle’s health. Four years ago, he’d been diagnosed with cancer.
That week, television reporter Ed Bradley had died from the same cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Most patients live six years. “I am going on a very long sabbatical,” Boyle said. “Eventually.”
Perhaps, Boyle said, “the three of you.”
They got back in the car. As Boyle drove, Hector asked, “Can I read a poem to you?” He read “Warning Sign.” When he finished, one of the other Homeboys said, “Damn, dog, that’s deep.”
Hector went to sleep with big dreams. He would study Father G’s life. He would steer his studies toward sociology and writing. He would find a way to continue Boyle’s work.
In the spring, he became the fiction editor of the Homeboy Press, founded by Schwartz. The journal is set to launch by 2008, and will publish writing by other former gang members and teenagers. Hector is helping raise $70,000 for the project.
Freddy felt betrayed. Schwartz had gone to Boyle, so now the priest knew Freddy had joined the tagging crew. “She said she wouldn’t tell nobody what we write, and she told someone,” he said. “It’s my life. My business.”
Days later, Schwartz saw Freddy at Homeboy Industries. She called his name. She walked toward him. He darted the other away. Finally, she cornered him.
Yes, she had shown Boyle work Freddy hadn’t marked as private. “I care about you so much,” she said, “and I just want you to be healthy and safe and alive.”
Freddy stared at the ground.
He turned his back and, without a word, walked away.
Schwartz brought him “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Inside, she wrote a note telling Freddy she wanted him to come back and write. She ended it with, “I love you, kid.”
One afternoon a few weeks later, when Schwartz arrived at Homeboy, the first person she saw was Freddy. For a moment, his eyes brightened. Then he put on a tough face again.
A few days later, Freddy showed up in class. Schwartz didn’t know it yet, but he had gotten out of his crew. With a smile, she welcomed him back and handed him a pen.
Over the next few months, he dropped by class occasionally. Then, he stopped.
This article is available online here.
Marinating in Ghetto Air: Writing and Transformation at Homeboy Industries
July 23, 2008
A conversation between Leslie Schwartz, Father Gregory Boyle, Hector Verdugo and Agustin Lizama.
Recorded live in Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium as part of the award-winning ALOUD at Central Library speaker series presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.