Angelenos—pay attention. We have a new muse. She comes in the form of the wise-eyed, corkscrew-curled Wendy C. Ortiz, author of last year’s hypnotizing debut memoir, “Excavation,” and most recently, the enigmatic “Hollywood Notebook” (available now). Ortiz’s writing, from her poetry to her lyric nonfiction, is intimate, like a whisper, but erupts on the page in such a way that you couldn’t put the paperback down if you wanted to (I personally finished “Excavation” in the span of a single, brooding Sunday). Because native Angeleno Ortiz is able to capture the exterior world in a deeply interior way—a perspective I imagine is afforded only partially by her astoundingly fabulous collection of glasses.
On second thought, maybe all of us—characters in the exterior world of Ortiz’s Los Angeles—are really her muse.
Want to find out? Keep reading below to learn more about this spellbinding writer-to-watch—from her writerly inspirations to how long it takes her to finish a draft to her favorite place to grab a whiskey on the rocks in LA.
It seems like your books are coming out in relatively quick succession: “Excavation,” “Hollywood Notebook,” and the book based on your Modern Love essay. I’m curious about your writing process with these. Is it fairly consistent from book to book?
Each book has had its own process. Excavation took a good fourteen years, with spaces in between when I couldn’t even approach it. Hollywood Notebook began as a blog in the early 00’s, but I didn’t sit down and edit it until late 2012. The book based on the Modern Love essay is still a concept but one that I’m due to start writing in the next week (yes, really). The one commonality, though, is time. I’m one of the slowest writers I know. It takes me years to process events before I can write about them, or at least write about them in a way that I will feel good and right about. Even with my fiction, it takes years for me to nail down a short story or a novella (both of which I have my hands in at the moment, as well).
You write so much and so beautifully about your relationships in love and your relationship with Los Angeles (two of my favorite topics!). How did these topics take shape in you as a writer?
Thank you! Those are my favorite topics, too. I feel so intertwined with Los Angeles, the parts I’ve grown up in, grown away from, grown toward. Los Angeles is its own character in everything I’ve ever written about it. And, of course, relationships—not sure they take shape in me as a writer as much as I take shape in them. I have very few deep, close relationships, and I prefer it that way—the fewer I have the deeper I seem to be able to get, which is just how I’m built. They’ll always be the backbone of what I write, even when fictionalized.
“I’m one of the slowest writers I know. It takes me years to process events before I can write about them.”
What writers influenced you growing up? What writers influence you now?
Growing up: Stephen King. Lois Duncan. Judy Blume.
Now: Joan Didion. Wanda Coleman. Lidia Yuknavitch. Lynda Barry. Cynthia Cruz. Louise Mathias. Sean H. Doyle. A few others who are intoxicating me in the right way which will no doubt turn into an influence but I’m not ready to name.
You’ve described “Excavation” as being a dark story, but readers have had such a wide range of reactions to it. How have other people’s interpretations of your story felt to you? It seems like that would be so surreal.
I’ve described it as a dark story when explaining the rejections it received in its first turn with big publishers, which was a constant refrain. People send me emails pretty regularly telling me how the book landed with them, often with interpretations that are connected to their own experiences with power differentials or the question of boundaries. I’m comfortable with all of it, maybe because of my therapist background in which I feel pretty solid that people’s interpretations are theirs, and nothing I need to take personally. At the same time, I’ve read a few of the interpretations (in places like Amazon or Goodreads reviews) where people clearly began reading the book with a certain idea of what it would be like, how it would end, and those interpretations are the ones I should not even be reading. It’s pretty easy to see who “gets it” and who does not. And there are plenty of reasons someone might not get it, which I’m okay with.
How did you hook up with your publishers, Future Tense and Writ Large Press? What are the advantages of working with smaller presses? Would you ever go bigger?
I approached Writ Large Press with Hollywood Notebook back in late 2012. They’re a Los Angeles small press with integrity I admired, and I knew I wanted that book with an L.A. press. They were the only press I sent HN to, and I was thrilled when Chiwan Choi said yes.
I’d known of Future Tense Books for a number of years, and Kevin Sampsell’s name was familiar to me (we even appeared in the same poetry journal once, back in the early 00’s), so when he commented “Spectacular essay” on a piece I wrote, “Mix Tape,” at The Nervous Breakdown, I was particularly pleased it got his attention. Then he contacted me to ask if I had anything full-length for him to look at, and here we are.
What’s the best little nugget of advice someone has ever given you about writing?
“Know where it comes from in you. Understand its position.”
These were words not specifically about writing but serve as a device for me when I write that helps me center, especially when I feel like I’m going to unravel. These sentences work with much in my life.
A few fun, LA-specific questions…
a) Favorite place to write in LA: a tie for two places: 1) on the beach. 2) the desks on the second floor of the West Hollywood Library.
b) Favorite LA book store: Skylight Bookstore. (I can’t seem to keep it to one, so I’ll also say Small World Books in Venice).
c) Favorite cocktail/where can we drink it: I’m not one for cocktails, but I do l love a whiskey on the rocks at Mandrake any day of the week.
“Know where it comes from in you. Understand its position.”
What are you doing later today after answering these questions?
I’m going to look at this weird, unwieldy manuscript-in-progress that hasn’t been mentioned until now in this interview and I’m going to see some psychotherapy clients.
Photos courtesy of Wendy C. Ortiz
Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Hollywood Notebook(Writ Large Press, 2015). Wendy wrote the year-long, monthly column “On the Trail of Mary Jane” about medical marijuana dispensary culture in Southern California for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Hazlitt, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus and Brain, Childmagazine, among many other places. She co-founded the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series, which she has curated and hosted since 2004. Wendy is a parent and registered marriage and family therapist intern in Los Angeles. Visit wendyortiz.com.