I recently encountered the appealing idea of “watershed books”–books that get you through a rough time. In a study in Britain, people said they chose classics like Pride and Prejudice and One Hundred Years of Solitude. My watersheds were also classics–the noir mystery novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which I read out of a desire to identify with tough, fearless protagonists.
Alas, reading noir fiction did not make me tough. Among the hard-boiled men and fast women, there was just one, very marginal character with whom I felt a kinship: an unnamed woman in Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe, the detective, wants information about a sleazy Hollywood bookseller. He enters a legitimate bookstore and flashes a badge at the woman working there, and she and Marlowe engage in crisp intellectual parrying, in which she gives as good as she gets.
The woman is reading a law book, which is intriguing in itself in a novel published in 1939. And she’s described as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess,” a phrase that struck me with its profound sense of otherness, as if she lived in a very different Los Angeles than Marlowe. And I felt hungry to know more about this nameless woman. What was her story? What was her Los Angeles?
Like many novelists, I love doing research, and I began by exploring the second question: what was her Los Angeles? I discovered Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown that, in the 1920s and 30s, was the Jewish part of L.A. As I was researching, I started hearing the woman’s voice in my mind–not as the young woman in the bookstore but as a vibrant, opinionated octogenarian. She was talking to a young person–an archivist? So she’d had a life, perhaps related to the law book she was reading, that merited archiving. And I gave her a name: Elaine Greenstein.
Then came the difficult question: what was her story? I’m an outliner by nature. I like to know where I’m going. But Elaine’s story resisted my attempts to lay it out in advance. And if that pushed me into a disorienting limbo, it was also liberating. When I started writing about Elaine’s childhood, what came out first was her grandfather’s story. I discovered that she lived within a fabric of stories, some of dubious veracity, and ultimately that led to the idea at the core of the book: that we construct our reality and give meaning to our lives by the stories we tell–and believe–about ourselves. In a sense, they’re our personal watersheds.