Jonathan Leaf is a playwright, journalist, and author of a novel, City of Angles, which will be published on March 7. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the book and about his and other novelists’ depictions of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry.
I found this book hard to put down from the moment in chapter two when Vincenza discovers the body in her car’s trunk and follows through with her audition anyway. But without giving too much else away, can you set up the story for those who haven’t read it?
Yes, an aspiring movie starlet finds a dead body in her car’s trunk. She knows she didn’t put it there. But will anyone believe her? Her day job is in a marijuana dispensary. She’s never been to college. She’s had obvious plastic surgery, including a breast augmentation. She’s exactly the kind of person men want to sleep with but no one trusts or respects. She knows this about herself. How can she persuade anyone of her innocence—to say nothing of figuring out how the corpse got there?
The novel gives us a glimpse into several subcultures—from screenwriting and the entertainment industry more broadly to L.A.’s strange cults. How much of it is drawn from personal experience?
A fair amount. I have spent time out there pursuing writing gigs. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that I hadn’t read any recent novels that got the experiences of people on the periphery of the movie business quite right. In particular, few people really understand what actors go through from day to day. I also heard so many great insider stories about the business—more than I could possibly use. I don’t want to be sued. Let’s just say that not all the wild things that happen in the book reflect my imaginative powers.
Los Angeles is more than just a setting in the book—it is almost a character in its own right. From Evelyn Waugh to Elmore Leonard, legions of authors have tried to depict the city. Were there any writers in particular who inspired you?
The Loved One might be my favorite Waugh novel. But the two that do the best job, I think, of capturing Hollywood in a ruthlessly honest way are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Pat Hobby Stories and Nathanael West’s The Day of The Locust. As readers probably know, they were written in the 1930s. I can’t claim this book is as good as those. But my aspiration was to tell a really good, juicy story that entertained and that had that same authenticity in portraying Los Angeles and the entertainment business as they are now.
What are you reading?
I just finished Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers. Anyone who loves the theater should read it. It’s very amusing. I’ve also been reading Philip Howard’s new book Not Accountable. It’s a devastating critique of public-employee unions.
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