Interview With Award-Winning Novelist, Journalist, And L.A. Perfume Goddess Denise Hamilton

Denise Hamilton is one of my favorite people and writers. I love what she had to say about Los Angeles, writing fiction, journalism and life in general when I interviewed her, below. Read and enjoy! Then check out her books!

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FLB: We both grew up in Los Angeles. In what specific ways does this city inspire you? If you could live anywhere else, where would it be?

DH Ah, Los Angeles is my muse, my femme fatale. She inspires everything. She's like the bad boyfriend that you keep trying to leave, and when you walk out she woos you back each time with her natural beauty, her design and art and architecture, her robust and varied tribes, her energy, her promise to make the traffic go away and the air better, her glimpses at how we might all get along. Besides the mountains, the beaches and the beautiful old architecture and history and neighborhoods, what inspires me is the mix of cultures and all the secret places in LA - the hidden alcoves and waterfalls, the Native American hot springs in the middle of the city, the night-time outdoor plays and music, the tidepools and coves that only reveal themselves at low tide, the  canyon roads that say 'dead end' but aren't. I love the ethnic neighborhoods, the tiny storefront eateries, the places off the beaten path. And the secret histories, of Hollywood and the Native Americans and Ranchos and old Pueblos and people who only arrived 5 minutes ago. I have lived many other places but have this fantasy of spending a year writing and eating in Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean coast. They are 5 tiny villages perched high on a cliff, accessible only by rail. Melancholic off season and lovely.

FLB: You’re a journalist as well as a novelist. How does your journalism inform your fiction? What was the most inspiring story you ever reported on? What was the scariest? Are almost all your novels based on real life incidents?

DH:In my Eve Diamond series, my journalistic background totally informed the 5 books because my character was an LA Times reporter who moved through gritty, glamorous LA, interacting with cops and criminals and DAs and coroners and regular people and solving crimes. Since I"ve done stand-alone novels, the journalistic background has mainly helped in being disciplined, meeting deadlines, writing fast and fluidly and getting a first draft done before going back to revise. It's also helped with detail, anecdotes, dialogue, and local color. Your ear is always out and cocked, listening, taking note. My most memorable story, which inspired my first novel, The Jasmine Trade, was about Asian-American teens living by themselves in big mansions in LA while their parents stayed back in China or Hong Kong. Lots of opportunity for trouble with sex, gangs, crime, mayhem, as you can imagine. The scariest stories are always the ones that you don't realize are scary until you're in the middle of them. One time I had to hike down a concrete embankment to the LA River to interview guys at a homeless encampment. There was a freeway next to us with thousands of cars whizzing past but it was out of sight. It drowned out all the noise. One guy wanted me to go inside his tent to look at his drawings. I told him to bring them out onto the embankment. They were of these busty, scantily clad girls swimming on the ocean surface with a giant malevolent shark lurking in the depths, about to attack her. What would Freud say? Well, I was glad I had a photographer with me. Another time in the Ukraine, I was trying to interview some beautiful young prostitutes about how economic hardship had led them to this and their pimps chased us into the ladies' room because they didn't want me talking to them. One time flying Aeroflot over Odessa, I could see sparks of fire coming off the back of the plane as we crossed the Black Sea. I never did figure out what that was. Another time I was interviewing some gang members in the OC and I had to wait at a Vietnamese mall for them to pick me up so we could drive around for an interview. They told me what car they'd be driving so when it pulled up, I got in. I'd never met them before. The guy behind the wheel was pretty paranoid and twitchy. He wouldn't let me use his name. One time I went with the FBI and INS on a brothel raid in the San Gabriel Valley. They all had guns and bulletproof vests so I crouched behind the car while they broke down the door. Inside they found sad teens who had been trafficked into the US from throughout Asia.
I usually weave real life and fiction into my novels. The first ones were maybe 50% real life inspired by stories I'd covered as a reporter.
FLB: Your latest novel, Damage Control, has been called "a great mystery, and, much more rarely, a superb psychological thriller"  by none other than James Ellroy. How do you balance the mystery plot with the psychological character development in your books?

DH:  A mystery is like a double helix and you have to keep both strands moving forward: the plot and the character development.  Some of the character development is infill, I do it in the second draft after I write the first draft and have the plot roughed out. But I also spend a lot of time thinking about my cast of characters, and of all their secrets, motives, backstories and hidden relationships, so that by the time I start to write, I've got a good feel for them. However, with Damage Control, even though I had the plot, I really wrestled with what the relationship between the two girls was. I knew that it would form the emotional crux of the novel, and would enrich the novel. Because we've all had intense relationships like that, the BFF who suddenly isn't. And when you''re a teenaged girl, that is so devastating, it can be worse than breaking up with a guy, way worse, because you shared every aspect of your lives together and confide everything to each other, so it's like a piece of your heart suddenly got wrenched out. So when I finally figured out what Maggie and Anabelle meant to each other when they grew up: friends, rivals, enemies, etc., then I knew I had unlocked the beating pulsing heart of my book. 

FLB: Damage Control has been categorized as “surf noir” among other things. One of my favorite surf noir books is Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn, a book I know you also love.  Can you define surf noir for our readers? As an LA native, did you grow up around surf culture?

DH:Yes, I adore Kem Nunn. There is no one like him, for dark psychological fiction. Dogs of Winter is awesome too. Surf noir is just the dark side of beach culture. It's a look behind the palm tree, sugar sand, hard bodies, big wave, endless summer of SoCal myth and Beachboys melodies. Because while it's so beautiful and appealing, if you look behind the superficial, there is also sexism, predatory behavior of older guys toward starry-eyed younger girls, drugs, alcohol, skin cancer, the hedonism and cult of the body that leads to anomie. So I wanted to explore all of that. And yes, having grown up in LA and spent my weekends and summers at the beach and attended Loyola Marymount University almost on the beach, it's still a place of inspiration and peace to me. It's where I go to rejuvenate. And yet I see both sides, and how the seduction can lead you down an abyss. I need the city of LA to percolate my creativity, and the beach to return to the elemental sand, salt, seaweed, surf. It's like blood, really, the same salty taste. And serves the same purpose for me.
FLB:Another thing about Damage Control is the focus on the female friendship. I know first hand that you fiercely support your female friends . Can you talk about this? How can we all do more of this?

DH:I have a lot of strong female friends. I'm in a writer's group that's all women (by chance more than by design). I think ALL writers should support each other more and I'm lucky to be in the mystery/crime writers community, where writers are all generous and kind and supportive. That said, I do find my writing coming back time and again to the psychological complexities of female friendships, especially among teens as they try to navigate their way into adulthood in a culture that both sexualizes and objectifies and condescends to them, then blames them for not standing up for themselves and  measuring up to some unrealistic standard. I think that reaching out to other women and telling them what you like about them, their work, their ideas, is a great start. I know that you are also fiercely supportive of your women friends and writers and I think that people sense this and respond to it. I have two kids and am always busy writing, so I don't have a lot of time, but even if I can't get to an author signing, I try to email the person and tell them how much I enjoyed their book. I try to do it in small ways.  

FLB: I once asked you if you know “who done it” before you start writing and your answer surprised and delighted me. Can you talk about how you use red herrings and decide on a “big bad” antagonist? 

DH: I often don't know who done it and even if I do know, I don't know WHY they dunnit, which is even more important, as you have to lay a foundation in the writing that creates motive and feasibility to commit the crime. Often the answer to that question comes in the writing, as the characters sit up and rub their eyes and interact with each other and become very 3D in my head and I figure out why and how they could have done it. But as a crime writer, I have to have all the balls in the air like a juggler, because everyone is a suspect, and everyone should have some believable motive for being the killer. So I lay that out and lead the reader down blind alleys and make them think they've guessed who the killer is, while the real killer is stealthily going about his business, unobserved. It's like a magician with misdirection. Look here, at this fluttering silk handkerchief, and not at what my left hand is doing. My informal polling of friends suggests that about half of crime writers outline their books and the other half don't. And some outline and then change their minds and go off in different directions halfway through. And I'm here to tell you that's OK, and there is no one formula. Because in the back of your head, you know how to navigate your way through the writing to the end of the book, and you just have to trust in that belief and in yourself, and you will get there. It will take time and cursing and despair and the dark night of the soul, etc but if you keep going with stupid pig-headed blind determination, you will unlock the door and step through and write The End. So all you readers who are writers, keep going until you finish the draft, do NOT go back and start rewriting or else you'll never finish.
FLB: What was the inspiration for your wonderful story for Jessa Marie Mendez and my upcoming anthology Rough Magick?

DH: I run with my dog a lot in the hills of Griffith Park, and it can be wonderful and also spooky, because you're way off down some trail in a canyon and it's getting dark, and you realize you are all alone and bad guys can hike into the canyons too. So that paranoia is always a bit with me, as I'm a total city girl. And then a couple of years ago, I started seeing signs for some kind of Halloween Festival that takes place near the Old Zoo, and it had hay rides and ghouls and big-top tents and mazes and carnies hammering away to get it ready. I never went because like the main character, I dislike getting spooked, but the thought did occur to me that it was right up against the wilderness of the Santa Monica mountains and what if it was half-manufactured but half-real. When you run for an hour, you have a lot of time to think, and I love that. Your body is occupied putting one foot in front of the other, so your brain can drift into odd shadowy crevices. And the park would be a perfect setting for such a thing. Plus I had a son who ran track for four years and I'd drive him and his friends to Griffith Park Park to work out. Lastly, I always felt like an alien in high school, so I could definitely write from the perspective of an outsider. And of course there is the relationship between the two girls. I am forever exploring that. Inside, I always felt like super bookworm geek in HS and even college, so I was always shocked to realize that some of my friends were popular or glamorous, as that wasn't what I was about. So I was always trying to figure out that calculus and how it worked. It's a lifelong project, I guess.
FLB: How do you approach writing a short story differently from writing a novel?

DH: I don't approach it any differently. I just sit down with an idea and start to write. But some ideas just come to a logical end within 8 or 10 or 20 pages and others are bigger and roomier, and have a larger set of characters, and you realize you can climb inside and spend a year exploring their world and the plot and all the subplots and relationships among characters. So you do. And those are the novels. 

FLB: You and I taught two writing workshops together and I noticed that you could just riff and riff on plot ideas for students. You also helped me with my plot for The Elementals and Beyond the Pale Motel. Is that ability with plot just how your mind works or have you developed this gift by just reading and writing so much? How can we learn to do this ourselves? Is it just a matter of asking “what if?” 

DH: I have always had a very vivid imagination and for me it comes naturally. I see stories as branching out in almost infinite directions, with many smaller branches and twigs and leaves and flowers, so it's a matter of traveling down those paths like sap and exploring. I do write and read a lot, but I'm not sure if it's chicken or egg. Even when I was a reporter, I always came up with tons of story ideas. I think it's because everything is interesting to me, and I want to find out and ask a million questions and learn how it works. Perhaps if you keep asking 'what if' that helps. Or ask yourself, what if they don't do A, but they do B. What if they take a much less desirable or logical step? As a fiction writer, you WANT your characters to do what's uncomfortable, embarrassing, dangerous, unseemly, squirmy, devastasting, slutty etc. Conflict is good.
FLB: You gave our students some nice prompts. Do you use prompts for your own writing? Can you give us one here or do we need to wait for class? By the way, want to teach another class with me?

DH:  Totally! Let's teach another class. I don't use prompts for my own writing, I just use the ideas that percolate that I want to develop into novels or stories. I have so many of them. But here's a prompt. You're a thrift store fiend. So one day you go to a thrift store and spend about 20 minutes looking around. you finally end up buying a Patricia Highsmith book. You're a big fan of the Ripley books, so you are happy to find this one, which is a book of her short stories. It's a Friday evening and you've had a long work week. So you bring it home, (you live alone) have dinner, have two glasses of wine, and climb into bed to read it. You're about 20 pages in when something falls out of the book onto your chest. It's a receipt. Huh, it's a receipt from a take-out place that you frequent. It's from last year and has a weird rust colored stain. Gross! You're about to throw it away when something catches your eye: your own name. You look more closely. Yup, there is your first name under: customer. Also a charge card number. Now you're creeped out. And a little buzzed. Not a great combination. You get out of bed, go get your purse, and check the credit card number on the receipt against yours. It's the same number. This is your receipt. But you've never owned this book. Who put it there? How did they get it? How did they know you would buy that book? Why did they do it? What happens next? Is there writing on the back when you turn the receipt over?

FLB: Thank you!  We were both chosen as Writers in Residence at Pasadena City College (thanks for recommending me!) . What did you lecture on when you were there? What’s the best advice you have for aspiring writers?

DH: I told them my story about being a lifelong writer and reader and how I took the looong path to become a novelist. I also talked about LA as a fount of inspiration for me, and its history of noir. The best advice: writing is like a muscle so write every day, even for only 20 minutes. Do NOT wait for inspiration to strike. It will strike 3 pages in, trust me on this. And do not go back and rewrite until you have a finished first draft. Force yourself to push through and finish it. Keep asking yourself, what happens next? Ask yourself in the shower, falling asleep, cooking dinner, walking your dog, feeding your cat. Play that mental chess until you have an answer. And if it doesn't come, sit down and go to where you left off and think about what is the next logical thing that would happen. Write that scene. Or take a left turn and write the illogical scene. But move forward.

FLB: You’re considered by many to be the perfume goddess of L.A. You write a column called Uncommon Scents (brilliant name!) for the LA Times and you’re always giving away samples and hooking up your friends with perfume connections. How did you become obsessed with perfume and  what does it mean to you? How is it important to your fiction?

DH: My mother was Russian and French (two perfume loving cultures) so I grew up playing with the beautiful glass bottles on my mother's shelf in the bathroom. All that faceted crystal, gorgeous labels, glass stoppers, the fabulous French names of Guerlain, Chanel, Caron, Dior. I grew up in the Valley and when I was bored I'd take my mom's perfumes down and play with them. I was probably the most sophisticated smelling little girl in North Hollywood. One time I slathered on Rochas Femme bath oil, not realizing you were supposed to dilute ONE DROP in a bathtub full of water. Oh man, that stuff is potent, animalic, spicy, fantastic stuff. But at age 9, not age appropriate. I smelled like Colette in a bordello.I totally believe in the 5 senses school of writing. Show us what your scene looks, tastes, feels, sounds and smells like. So smell is important too. It can warn us of danger: something's burning; acrid sweat of fear; rotten food and it can be used sensually/intimately when we smell others up close. What does your lover's skin smell like, or a baby's head? Or your grandmother's old dresses? Put that in!
FLB: What are you working on now? What are some of your latest Los Angeles finds?

DH: I'm working on a YA novel and an urban fantasy novel set in LA. Some of my latest LA finds? A first edition of Raymond Chandler's 1942 novel The High Window at a thrift store for $2.95; trail running in Franklin Canyon off Coldwater Canyon, one of my 'secret' places; reading "Please Kill Me, the Uncensored Oral History of Punk," and since we are talking about female bonding and women writers, some women singers: Savages and First Aid Kit, the latter of which features in my short story.

FLB: Denise, you're the best! Thank you.