Exclusive Interview: L.A. Man Writer Joe Donnelly

And now for something completely nepotistic. I first met Joe Donnelly when he came to work at Raygun Publishing, the Santa Monica-based magazine company where I worked in the mid- to late-’90s. In the years since, Joe has worked at the L.A. Weekly and co-edited the literary magazine Slake, among other things, while I sat on my couch, playing video games. Which is why he now has a collection of his journalist efforts, L.A. Man: Profiles From A Big City And A Small World (paperback, Kindle), while I have a little website where I do email interviews with people I used to work with.

Joe Donnelly L.A. Man We Dropped A Bomb On You Slake

To start, what is L.A. Man? What’s in it?

So, is this when I start pretending we haven’t known each other for twenty-two years?

Yes, please.

Okay, Paul, is it? Most literally, it’s a collection of profiles I’ve done over the years. In-depth, immersive profile writing of prominent or relevant people used to be a staple of magazines and even newspapers. Not so much, it seems, in the age of social media, though the form still exists and is done well in places. It’s not quite a best-hits collection of work I’ve done in this vein, but one that I hope offers a compelling look at this place and those moments as reflected through the people I wrote about and how I wrote about them.

How did you decide which of your stories you’d include in L.A. Man?

They all had some direct connection to Los Angeles, either by subject, subtext, or by place of publication. For example, I didn’t consider pieces that I wrote for The Washington Post, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, or this little newspaper in Vail I worked at for a few years, though I would probably have pulled pieces from all of those places and more if I were doing a more wide-open greatest hits type of thing. But that wasn’t the idea. The idea was, as I said, to make this feel like the work of an L.A. man…and also a layman, which was supposed to be a sort of sly joke contained in the title that didn’t quite translate. And by layman, I mean that in this sort of immersive journalism, we find ourselves surfing with professional surfers, road tripping with auteurs, chopping it up with Lou Reed, etc., and we try to keep up.

Were there any pieces that you considered including but didn’t because something about the subject had changed so much that the story seemed irrelevant now?

There were many profiles I really liked but didn’t have enough L.A. text of subtext of just didn’t seem to hold up over time for some reason. I’m thinking of a piece on Beck for the L.A. Weekly that I thought really captured a moment, but maybe the moment doesn’t still resonate the way I think the other moments captured in these pieces do. Another is on this interesting guy, James Goldstein, who owns the Lautner-designed house that appears in The Big Lebowski, and is known for sitting courtside at Lakers’ games wearing crazy, like, snakeskin suits. Actually, now that I’m saying that, maybe I should have included that piece. A Paul Westerberg piece that was near and dear to my heart didn’t make the cut. History hasn’t treated my circa 2000 “serious take” on Jenny McCarthy very well, I’d say, whereas, the Carmen Electra piece, warts and all, seems a little more representative. I liked a recent piece on Aaron Paul a lot, but left it out because, well, you gotta make some choice, you know?

When you decided to assemble L.A. Man, did you look at any similar collections to see what to do and what not to do?

No, I didn’t. I mean, David Remnick’s The Devil Problem comes to mind, but I haven’t read that in a very long time. Had I read it running up to this, I probably would have chucked the project. In fact, I tried to chuck the project, because, like most writers, I’m convinced I’m an absolute fraud and suck and haven’t done anything worthwhile no matter what evidence mounts to the contrary. In fact, I was very close to chucking this at one point, but a fantastic writer who I have immense respect for encouraged me to go forward after reading an early galley.

Do you want to say who this mystery person is?

Luke Davies, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, poet, and novelist.

Now, are the versions of the stories in L.A. Man the unedited ones that you turned in to the L.A.Weekly, Bikini, and whatnot, or is the edited versions that they published?

These are pretty much as published, with a few revisions I’ve made here and there. For better or worse, I wanted it to be pretty true to how it was published at the time, sort of an artifact, even though some of it makes me cringe.

I did make two somewhat significant changes. I cut the first section of the Dogtown piece because I felt like it just slowed the read down too much, but wanted to keep the piece in the mix.

I also cut the first section of the Olivia Wilde piece. I didn’t want to include that piece, but others lobbied for it. The first section of that was, I think, too contrived and poorly written and edited; it distracted/detracted too much from what mattered in that piece. That’s really the only substantive change I can think of.

Given that some of stories in L.A. Man are about people who’ve undergone big life changes — Lou Reed, for instance, passed away a few years ago — did you include any kind of notes on these stories?

I included a note with each piece to provide some context to the stories, subjective and objective. That was one of the fun parts of doing this.

Joe Donnelly L.A. Man We Dropped A Bomb On You Slake

Now, along with L.A. Man, you also co-edited another compilation called We Dropped A Bomb On You: The Best Of Slake I-IV. For those unfamiliar with it, what was Slake and thus We Dropped A Bomb On You?

Slake was the journal I stared along with Laurie Ochoa. Laurie was the editor of the L.A. Weekly who hired me in 2002 to be the deputy editor. I loved working with her and at the Weekly. We had kind of an unprecedented run with the Weekly, a dynamic mix of talent, new voices, new ideas, etc., and then forces conspired to, well, drive a stake through the heart of a lot of what I hope is the spirit a collection such as L.A. Man recalls.

But Slake was kind of a beautiful pirate ship. We were bucking the system at a time when everything seemed to want to kill the spirit of taking chances and of being big, bold, and beautiful in publishing and narrative. We said, basically, “fuck you” and put out a highly designed, deeply edited literary journal of fiction, essay, long-form journalism, art, photography, and poetry that knocked the socks off the dry, institutional world or literary journals. We won many awards, made the bestseller’s list repeatedly, and unabashedly raised the flag of Los Angeles and its creative and intellectual capital.

We Dropped A Bomb On You was Rarebird Books’ generous gesture to preserve that moment for posterity’s sake, which they seem to be doing again with L.A. Man, god bless them. Not much money in it for them, I would hazard.

How did you decide what from Slake you’d include in We Dropped A Bomb On You?

It was nearly impossible. Slake was so good. We submitted a very long suggestion list and Rarebird did what they could to accommodate, but, of course, not everything I or Laurie wanted got in.

And do you have any pieces in We Dropped A Bomb On You or did you save them for L.A. Man?

Slake was about L.A. and its community of talented writers and artists, not about me. I had a few pieces scattered about Slake‘s four issues, but I was mostly a publisher and editor. “Pirate Of Penance” was one of my pieces for the first issue of Slake and it was included in both We Dropped A Bomb On You and L.A. Man because it’s that epic and some movie or TV producer should really get their ass in gear and make something of it. Maybe third time is a charm.

Joe Donnelly L.A. Man We Dropped A Bomb On You Slake

Finally, if someone enjoys L.A. Man, what other journalist’s anthology would you suggest they read and why, and if someone enjoys We Dropped A Bomb On You, what similar literary survey would you suggest they read and why?

There are probably both too many and too few to mention, which seems like a contradiction, but isn’t really. L.A. is underrepresented in these sorts of ways because New York owns the means of production. Slake was a modest effort to take them back. I hope someone with deeper pockets than I and as good of a sensibility and as deep connections to the community as Laurie and I had will step into the void. The digital era has reduced production costs immensely — and commensurate pay for writers — but there are some good local literary sites, such as Angels Flight and the new and exciting Riot Material.

Collections of journalists work are very hard to come by these days because of the industry imperatives. I’m both exceptionally lucky to be working with a publisher that isn’t beholden to many of those imperatives and has the willingness to do something like this, and also humble in the face of that. There are collections out there that are deserving of our attention. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power comes immediately to mind. My ambitions are more modest. I hope L.A.Man will find a comfortable place in the pantheon of bathroom reads and it is sure as hell a lot easier to replace than your smartphone.



Joe will be doing a reading from L.A. Man at Chevalier’s Books (126 N. Larchmont Blvd, Los Angeles 90004; 323-465-1334) on April 26, 2018 at 7:30PM 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *