An hour with the author of "A Year in Van Nuys"

So what if Sandra Tsing Loh isn't growing her own basil in a rustic farmhouse in Provence? Success is just as sweet in a "swamp-cooled" bungalow outside L.A.

Published June 14, 2001 9:51PM (EDT)

Wherever you go, there you are -- especially in Los Angeles, where your neighborhood reveals more about you than most people might feel comfortable sharing with strangers.

In "A Year in Van Nuys," author, performer and public radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh chronicles the year before her 36th birthday in a city where even admitting to having a 36th birthday is considered needlessly reckless. It's one thing to spend that birthday "growing one's own basil and remodeling a falling-down (but exquisite, charming) rustic farmhouse in Provence." It's another to spend it lying in bed reading Peter Mayle novels in a "swamp-cooled" bungalow in Van Nuys, minutes away from Hollywood but years away from "hip, young" freshness, "feeling a certain disconnect between it, my home, and me, the person."

L.A. is a place where the shiny patch of inner real estate between pre-famous and post-famous is so small and slippery that most people find themselves not only on the wrong side of it but also of youth, the 405 freeway, Fairfax Avenue and the red-hot center of the action that must, surely, be raging somewhere. Midlife crises come early in Los Angeles, so at 36, Loh emerges from the "cracked, dead shell" of her youth and realizes, to her relief, that everyone, even Madonna, has an "inner Van Nuys."

Tormented by ecstatic Gap ads, eye bags the size of beanbags and the hyperbolic successes of far too many acquaintances, Loh spends her year planting little to no basil and instead fending off the suggestions of the editors of a failing women's Web site, the haunting specter of her unfinished, never-to-be-finished novel about the Congo and the upbeat desperation of network executives, who seem convinced the sitcom based on her life should star anyone but her. From her disastrous and unwarranted appearance on CNN to the nebulous, maddening process of TV comedy "development" (a confusing swirl of tense parties; forced, hysterical jollity and vague conversations about ever more irrelevant, absurd topics), Loh describes her year in Van Nuys -- of which there have been many and will be many more -- in hilarious, cheerful detail.

The first thing that struck me about your book was how familiar it seemed. I lived in L.A. for two years, so many people I knew who were new there went through similar experiences. Yet you've lived there your whole life. Does everybody in Los Angeles feel disoriented and out of place?

Yes! I think that's a universal thing about Los Angeles. Everybody feels like they're on the outside looking in, even people who've lived here 20 years.

For people who don't know it well, what is the difference between living in L.A. and living in the valley?

It's like they say, the San Fernando Valley is to Los Angeles what New Jersey is to Manhattan. I think every city has parts that are so uncool that if you say them at a party people break out laughing -- and that would be, of course, the San Fernando Valley and Van Nuys. So I call it the wrong side of every hill, the great cosmic B-list, etc. It's totally suburban and charmless; it's where people end up living just because they couldn't afford to move someplace slightly better.

And then there's also the whole symbolic idea attached to the valley, even though parts of it don't look that different, or aren't necessarily worse to live in, than parts of Hollywood.

Yes. I think that's a media thing. The book is partly about the mass media vs. the rest of us. In Los Angeles, the media tends to be very "West Side"; it's very Brentwood, Westwood, Sunset Boulevard. It's focused on what's going on with celebrities and all that sort of stuff.

How did you start writing about the valley?

When I was writing for Buzz -- the late, great city magazine -- there were two columns that were based on something they had in, I believe, Tatler. They were called "High Life" and "Low Life." In L.A., the "High Life" was in the hills and Beverly Hills, which Holly Palance, Jack Palance's daughter, wrote about. The "Low Life" was in the valley, which they couldn't get anyone to write about -- because they didn't know anyone -- except for me. So I kind of staked out that territory: anything that was not trendy, not happening. It spoke to everybody in L.A. who had their noses pressed to the glass like little match girls, looking at this party and parade in Los Angeles continually going on, which came to about 95 percent of the entire city. We all feel like there's this media party going on and we can't be part of it. And this is probably true of most of America.

Near the beginning of your book, when you're so depressed you've locked the door to your office and can't get out of bed, all you can talk about is that Gap ad.

The one with the swing dancers in khaki pants. I think advertising creates the idea, either with perfume, running shoes, soda pop or whatever, that there are these gorgeous 20-year-olds continually partying and the rest of us feel a little too exhausted to get off the couch and party.

When I was living in L.A., my boyfriend worked on commercials, and he worked on that Gap ad. And we were both incredibly depressed.

Oh, my God! [Laughs] I met somebody in L.A. who worked on that ad and they said that the dancers were oozing buckets of sweat. Not that they were underpaid, but it's not happy making commercials. And yet they transmit this idea that the people in them are having more fun in 30 seconds than you will have in your entire life, and it's such a potent image. In my book it's just the joyous yawp that they are experiencing that none of us ever can.

The thing that I loved about the book is how the geography of L.A., which is so demarcated, really matches this sort of inner territory that everybody seems to internalize. You can't keep it out in the way that I think you can in other places.


So there's a theme running through the book of the valley vs. the West Side, or young vs. old.

Yes, exactly. I write about L.A. being like these concentric circles of Dante's Inferno. There are bolgias, but there is no center. You go to Sundance, but it's not the right party; or you get into the right party, but you can't get into the VIP room at the right time; or you get there at the right time and Robert Redford is gone; or you talk to Robert Redford and he's looking over your shoulder the whole time. So I think that there's a center that people are looking for that, in fact, is fictional. And I think that's a metaphor for the whole thing, the celebrity thing, as well. I know a fair amount of reasonably famous, successful people in L.A. who feel this way. I call it the "bitterness continuum." The more successful they are in Hollywood, weirdly enough, the more bitter they are. Whereas it's the lowest flunky manning the catering table who is actually more happy than the movie star, because, "Look how great the catering table is!"

Maybe that's partly because of the idea of promise, which you talk about, too. And maybe it has to do with age.

Yeah. I think no matter what city you're in, there's unfortunately this emphasis on being 22 or 25, being the new "hot thing," whereas, of course, more than half the population is over the age of 35. Poor us.

The title of the book refers to Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence." When I lived in L.A., I was struck by how many people talked about this ideal bucolic European future. It also comes up in "Time Code," the latest Mike Figgis movie. One of the characters -- who winds up dead -- is always talking about moving away to Tuscany.

I think that's totally true. It's because it's a middle-aged fantasy. You don't have to be young in Provence or Tuscany. You could be the old winemaker or make some goat-cheese-type thing. (I just finished reading the new Peter Mayle book.) And also, when you're in this beautiful place, in Provence, you can drink all day, which is another thing that's interesting. But it's also that mass-media culture has not taken hold in this lovely corner of the world. You're not going to be bombarded with reminders of the latest Adam Sandler film. It explains why people are so drawn to these books -- as I am -- as escapist fantasy. Here in America, in Los Angeles especially, you're just bombarded with billboards all the time. "The King of Queens!" It's like Fellini's "Satyricon."

The dreamy Provençal future -- it's sort of the L.A. idea of the afterlife without the death part.

Yes! Because there's a Spartan aspect to living in L.A. We're eating the seared ahi with a little arugula. No one can ever be young enough, or trim enough, or any of that kind of stuff here, so there's an appeal to thinking you'll be able to eat or drink whatever you want -- especially fatty foods like cheese.

Which reminds me that no one seems to drink much in L.A., especially not at parties. In fact, the industry party you describe, during which you're trying to pitch this TV show based on your life, sounds like the furthest thing from fun one could imagine having.

And of course it was based on the real thing, all the schmoozing and the effort! I think television meetings are similar. Not only the forced jollity, but the required conversational approach to pitching -- so you can't really figure out where the socializing ends and the pitching begins. I've certainly had meetings where the chat before the meeting was the most important part of the meeting. Because our daily lives -- which had driven us there -- were supposedly the story of the supposed TV show we were making, which was all about regular people "just like us."

And then you describe these pitch meetings and parties where the development executives start talking to you about how great some 22-year-old male comic they just saw in Aspen is, or how young, fresh and hip these former Doublemint twins are, and you don't know quite what to do with that information or how it relates to this show that's supposed to be based on your life.

Right, exactly. You don't know and you're not told exactly where you stand. But in a way I have some sympathy for the people who work in that field. It's a big, middle-management corporate structure and 90 percent of the people in the business don't have the power to actually do anything. So they have to attach themselves like pilot fish to a big, surefire hit. It's very much a culture of fear. So I feel oddly sympathetic to their plight.

How much of the book is fiction and how much of it is real?

Well, it's a mix. What happened was, I have three books so far -- a collection of humor essays, a novel and some semiautobiographical essays about my family called "Aliens in America." I realized that the more I was writing and doing public radio commentary, the more people assumed the character was always me. So I thought, Well, I'll just keep going with that. My own literary persona had become a thing people could really remember. I like to say it's sort of like Dante the author vs. Dante the pilgrim in the Inferno. I use myself as a frantic, desperate Everyman going through this whole experience. But the most outrageous parts of the book are mostly true.

So you had a lot of Hollywood projects lined up for a while and they all went away. What happened to them?

Well, nothing really dramatic. It's what happens to 90 percent of TV and movie things. I was writing a DreamWorks feature (which I did get paid for although it didn't get made, but that's pretty typical). I had two TV deals at the same time; neither pilot went on, and of course one was based on my own life -- though at one point they wanted it to star these Doublemint twins.

After your disastrous CNN appearance, you're invited to write for a women's Web site called Did that site exist? And did they really keep encouraging you to emulate the comedy style of Carol Ann Marbles? Does Carol Ann Marbles actually exist?

The women's Web site was all based on my writing for women's magazines, and that list of Cosmopolitan clichés is from a real list, a 60-page list that Cosmopolitan sends out. Carol Ann Marbles is a made-up name, but she's a composite of all the women's magazine people I worked with, and things that happened to me over the years. I wrote for Seventeen, Glamour, Allure, Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan, and the things I wrote about reflected the experiences I had with them.

It seems as if people approach you for your style, and then the first thing they do is try to change it.

Yes. And I think the thing that's interesting with these women's magazines is how the composite characters are created. For Seventeen, I used to write stuff like "Boys Who Drive Too Fast!" It was supposed to be a personal essay loosely based on one's own experiences with boys who drive too fast. But if you don't have enough experiences, the editor herself will give you ideas of things that happened to her -- which you're supposed to throw into the article as though it happened to you or to a friend of yours named "Sharon."

So much of your writing is about struggling with success and its elusiveness, and yet you have had a great deal of success.

Well, I still live in Van Nuys. I have had some success, but I don't consider myself successful. I certainly feel lucky that I live in a bungalow with a garden and a dog and a baby -- I feel lucky for what I have. I think that by L.A. standards, I don't have that kind of success. Writing the book was about coming to terms with the fact that I'm not the young, 22-year-old ingénue anymore, nor am I the young, 27-year-old ingénue, and realizing it's time to move on. Because in L.A., even writers lie about their ages. People hate to admit they're anything over the age of 31. It's quite funny in a way. Admitting that I'm 39, almost 40, is akin to dynamiting any chances of work that I might have had.

Most people outside of L.A. probably would find this strange.

In my commentaries on public radio in L.A., I've always been frank about my age, which was shocking to some people that I worked with -- agents, managers. I think when I was 34, my first book, "Depth Takes a Holiday," came out and I let that out of the bag. I was written up in a capsule in USA Today and I gave my real age, and a person I worked with said, "Oh, my God, you're so brave! To put it all out there!" It's like a radical act. It sounds bizarre outside of L.A., but it is astonishing how much that culture has gripped this area.

There's a section at the end of the party where you tell a young assistant that you are old at heart, and that even when you were 20, you couldn't get with the youth program. It struck me because I've always felt the same way. The whole youth culture is so mainstream and boring.

Yes, it is, and I'm sure many young people feel outside the youth culture as well. It's like this big Sunny-D, Pepsi, mass-marketed culture. It's so Coca-Cola now, so much of what I call the "monoculture." We have the Gap swing dancers, or Pepsi people, or Sprite people. All these images of people who are continually doing this ecstatic conga line toward a new product that makes everyone else feel very tired and depressed, probably even young people who aren't on the volleyball team high-fiving each other. And it's probably a fictional youth culture, anyway. When I was 17, I was dressed in black sweaters and reading depressing books. I certainly never was part of that culture even when I was young.

I know I felt over the hill at the age of 22.

And it gets younger and younger -- Britney Spears is a multimillionaire at age 17. I think the mass media and advertising industry would really rather have that 17-year-old overnight success, because she makes it easier to market the shampoo that's coming down the pike.

Another thing that seems to go along with the youth obsession is the self-esteem obsession. None of the people you pitched things to seemed to understand self-deprecating humor. It's almost as if only someone who is literally grotesque is allowed to make fun of himself, and of course, that's not funny.

The idea of self-esteem is interesting. When I was in the TV writing business -- albeit briefly -- working on sitcoms that would supposedly be based on my character and my life, I realized that advertising demanded a certain kind of form and a certain kind of heroine. At one point they wanted to do a TV show based on my novel, which has an insecure heroine at the center. And they said, "Well, she's a little downbeat. We need someone more feisty, a go-getter with a little more up-and-at-'em." In TV-speak, this means an Irish barmaid in Queens called "Katie McNally" who's working her way through college! The mass media promotes a character that is maybe not the way people feel about themselves. For female comedians and performers, there used to be a slot: Maybe you couldn't be the virginal Brooke Shields character, but you could be her wacky best friend. And now, slowly, over the years, the wacky best friend has transformed into the wacky, "Baywatch" swimsuit model best friend with the little intellectual glasses. They need to look like Ralph Lauren models.

The cult of youth and beauty is so pervasive in L.A. In the book, you make a joke about your appearance -- obviously exaggerated for humor purposes -- and these appalled TV people rush in to contradict you and reassure you that you look "absolutely fine." They can't just laugh and go along with it.

That's totally true! Because this is where the beautiful people move. The Greyhound bus arrives from Ohio, the doors bust open and gorgeous specimens spill out who need to be cast immediately on "Dawson's Creek." So I think the culture rewards more and more a visual sameness, and this has implications in terms of ageism and people who are racially different or whatever. Some people have wondered why I don't put more specifically racial stuff in my work -- because I'm Asian-American -- but "otherness" is by now something that everyone shares. Why pick out Asian-American women over the age of 33, people over the poundage of 132? We've all become "other" at this point.

Even writers over the age of 30.

Yes, exactly. It's completely bizarre, and it shouldn't be so troubling for the rest of the country, except that most mass media gets pumped out of here. The reach of L.A. is so far and wide.

At the end of the book, you talk about how on your net gains/net losses sheet of life, nothing's been lost and nothing's been gained, but you feel a lot better because of having readjusted your expectations and by having left the "cracked, dead shell" of your youth behind. Is that something you still feel?

When I was about 36, I had an off-Broadway show and four gigs at once: my DreamWorks movie, an IMAX movie and pilots for HBO and DreamWorks television. Then all of it collapsed in one year, and I looked around and said, What do I do next? As a comedy performer, I'd been to Aspen and other things, and I thought, Well, I guess that's it for me. I've crossed the age of 35 and nothing has turned into a huge, explosive hit.

It was depressing for a while, but what I ended up doing was taking $20,000 of my own money and putting up my one-person show, "Aliens in America." It turned out to be really profitable, even though it was only being performed to a 99-seat house. It went on to the Seattle Rep and the San Jose Rep and I started selling tapes after the show, kind of like an Ani DiFranco solo performance.

And I'd look out into the audience of 99 people and I'd see old people, young people, sad people, bicultural people. I felt like I was seeing a version of America that was the real version, and not the one that I'd been trying to cobble together for TV land. It was making money, it felt good and I could be whatever age I wanted. Although there are 1,000 fiber-optic cable stations out there that we thought would bring more diversity in programming, they wound up bringing even less.

I remember one time pitching to the UPN network, which at the time averaged about 1.1 million viewers (before wrestling came on), and I was on public radio, on "Marketplace," which gets almost 4 million listeners weekly. And this tiny TV network was still insisting that you use the same formulaic rubric as the biggest network. And I thought, Well, something's going to change in this business eventually, but until then -- we've got two tin cans and some string! We'll just go back to the old technologies!

At the end of the book, you readjust your goals. Your idea of success becomes more personal, rather than the fixed, monolithic idea of success that is constantly promoted in Los Angeles.

The problem with a certain kind of success is that people wind up wanting you to do more and more of the same thing, and you have people walking around L.A. like zombies who are successful on the outside but so wish they could write this or that or the other. I've had TV writers say to me, "I just want to do what you do, do that public radio commentary," and I go, "Yeah? At $100 a week?" There's a lot of envy from people who are so much wealthier than you. But no one is holding a gun to their heads.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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