Some writers grow up sitting in cold, clammy bedrooms, telling stories to stuffed animals and writing in spiral-bound notebooks by flashlight. But while these burgeoning wordsmiths sat idly by, open minds, closed mouths, Latifah Salom was off living life boldly—combatting childhood meekness through theatre, which landed her at The Los Angeles High School of the Arts and later, Emerson College.
Coming from a family of artists both musical and visual, and a product of art herself, it’s hardly surprising that Salom’s professional aspirations match her artistic bent. But one would have hardly guessed that she’d end up in the literary world, much less a published novelist. This transition seemed to come as a surprise to even Salom herself, who identified as a performer for most of her formative years.
And yet, her debut novel, The Cake House, is out this month; a gritty and soulful look at Shakespearean family dynamics set to the background of Canyon Country, Los Angeles in the 1990s. The book is inspired by Hamlet, so you’d better believe there’s a ghost hovering around the fringes as well. And yet, however many cues the novel takes from the woebegone Danish Prince, Salom is careful to tread the line between re-telling and re-imagining, elaborating that she was inspired by “the bones” of the play rather than courting a point-by-point reiteration.
For instance, our Hamlet in question is a fourteen year old Latin-esque Angeleno named Rosaura, who navigates the beginning of high school and a blossoming attraction to her step-brother, along with the “regular Hamlet problems” of her father’s potential murder and her mother’s hasty re-marriage.
So, how does one make the transition from theatre to straight literature? For Salom, like Hamlet himself, it was all about the words. She says once she “interacted with words through plays,” she was captured by the idea of writing as a companion to stage work; a way to get inside each character’s head. Take that, combine it with a voracious propensity for reading, add a tremendously dull post-grad New York City temp job, stir in a second bachelor’s degree in writing from Hunter College and an MFA from USC, and bake until a novel is hot and ready for publishing.
Salom finished the first draft of this novel in 2008, and its publication this year is a testament to both her perseverance and the difficultly for a new author to be published in the modern lit scene. But some stories are meant to be told, and The Cake House, with its mash-up of old school drama and neo-noir California cool appears to be one of them. Because, in addition to tackling the Shakespearean theme of familial betrayal, Salom’s take on the story isn’t short on entertainment value, thanks to unorthodox details from naked bicycle rides and garish home decorating to a mystery riddled koi pond (with only vague mentioning of a girl drowning herself therein).
So, when delving into this book, it’s important to keep modernity in mind. This is not Queen Elizabeth’s Hamlet, but rather a dark and splashy exercise in infusing old ideas with new color. And strangely, coming from an author who proclaims love for Thomas Hardy and flowery prose, Latifah Salom seems a thoroughly contemporary writer. The Cake House is a portrayal of a modern girl searching for her identity in this world, our world, with all its grit and glamour. This couples strikingly with an urbanity that cannot be faked. Perhaps this is because Salom draws inspiration from her own narratives, including her mixed heritage and her journey through cities from Los Angeles to New York and back, which matches the distinctly modern and American pace set by her prose.
And so, far from the back country, idyllic landscape in which many writers hone their crafts, on a perfect writer’s day, Latifah Salom would prefer to stretch out in the shade of a palm tree at a Los Angeles cafe, plugging away at a laptop a new piece of work. Although, she maintains that ideally, a writer should write for only two to three hours at a time, so a whole day might be pushing it.
Regardless, Salom is a city girl through and through, and her protagonist Rosaura, along with The Cake House cast of characters, have surely benefitted from her author’s metropolitan locus of inspiration. So much so that in reading it, one feels that they can reach out and touch the soul of the story, almost like a young girl reaching out to touch her father’s ghost.
Nicole was born and raised in a sunny suburb in Orange County, California, and recently graduated from New York University where she studied theatre, film, counter-culture and all things writing. She’s in the process of returning to the West Coast to pursue her dream of writing for film and television. Nicole has also written for Outrageous Fortune Magazine, is a member of the Dramatist Guild, and spent last year as an Artist in Residence at the NYU Bronfman Center