Los Angeles is a city of fault linesĖcultural, as well as geological. Shifts in the latter are scientifically measured on a Richter Scale and their impact is plainly visible in a cracked aqueduct or crumbled freeway off-ramp.

     Cultural shifts are more subtle. The glittering city of today with its glass tower skyline and trendy bistros that serve potato mousseline and scented bread displaced the storefront Scientology centers and mini-mall sushi bars that were so ubiquitous not long ago. When the shift occurred, there was no Cal Tech bulletin, anymore than there was a scientific explanation when one earlier L.A. culture gave way to another, barely leaving a trace, as though a slice of the city had slid into the sea.

     Fortunately, Los Angeles has had its own cultural historians, in the form of novelists, who have vividly recorded the different epochs that have made up the shifting history of the City of Angels.

     In the 1930s there was Nathanael West, a transplanted New Yorker and Republic Studio screenwriter, who wrote The Day of The Locust, a splendid account of the struggling bit players and other down and out denizens of the stucco city of the Depression. In the 1940s, Hollywood captured the noir world of crooked politicians and hard-boiled private detectives that Raymond Chandler had created in his fiction.

     By the time Alison Lurie arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, the stucco cottages were still there, but the drab atmosphere had turned into a bright landscape of dazzling car washes, zany billboards, and pulsating new freeways that circled the city.


     Raised in New England, and educated at Harvard, Ms. Lurie was the ideal visitor to cast a cold eye on her new surroundings. An aspiring novelist, she had moved to Los Angeles with her then husband, Jonathan Bishop, who had taken a teaching job at UCLA. Bishop was the son of John Peale Bishop, a critic for Vanity Fair in the 1920s.

     As Alison Lurie recently recalled, she had been a young faculty wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, then suddenly found herself in L.A., ďWhere there was a complete change of scenery, and culture, and everything.Ē

      Lurie spent almost four years in Los Angeles, raising her young sons, working on her first novel, Love and Friendship, about New England, and observing life in what she was to describe as a ďwarm, bright, extraordinary city.Ē It was a place, Lurie later wrote, of drive-ins and milk bars, houses the color of pistachio ice cream, andĖabove allĖcars. In Los Angeles, she discovered , ďautomobiles were a race apart, almost alive.Ē

     When Jonathan Bishop, who died in 2010, accepted an appointment at Cornell, the family returned East and settled in upstate New York. Over the next few years, Lurie wrote The Nowhere City, which was published by Coward McCann, a small New York publisher, in 1966. The novelís hero, Paul Cattleman, moves to L.A. with his wife, Katherine, where Paul takes a research job in the defense industry, intending to finish his thesis in his spare time. Instead, he gets hung up on a waitress named Ceci who reads Beckett and lives in Venice, a local beach community, then popular with West Coast beats. Soon, Paul is caught up in the life of the city where ďpeople are really alive and things happen right now.Ē


Sheree North

          For Katherine, it is hate at first sight: She canít stand the ďvulgar informality of Los AngelesĒ or its smog and empty headed people, one of whom is a starlet that she works for part-time, answering fan mail.

     By the end of the novel, Paulís affair with his free-spirited waitress ends badly, and he is anxious to return East. Katherine, however, has shed her proper New England background and turned into a sun-bleached blonde, slowly seduced by the carefree life of her adopted city.


     Since the publication of The Nowhere City, Alison Lurie has written a number of highly praised novels, including The War Between the Tates (1974) and Foreign Affairs (1984). She and her second husband, Edward Hower, divide their time between London and Ithaca, where Alison is Professor of American Literature at Cornell.

     This interview was posted on American Legends in April 2011; Alison Lurie died in 2020. After the interview appeared, Professor Lurie thanked AL for a "very good" job--a respectable B+ in academic parlance--and added: "I liked the Sheree North picture," maybe with a dash of her trademark dry humor. In any event, the interview later was cited by Alice Levick in her Ph.D. dissertation in English at the University of Exeter in a chapter aptly titled, "Imaging California." (2018) Lurie definitely has earned a place among those American writers of the last century--Mary McCarthy, Helen Lawrenson, Nora Ephron--who chronicled their times with style and wit.

Here, as originally edited by Ron Martinetti, is his telephone interview with Alison Lurie and her writing of The Nowhere City.


RM: The Nowhere City deals with what Edmund Wilson once called ďthe screwy Pacific Coast.Ē Yet, it appears that you held some affection for Los Angeles.


AL: I spent four years there. It was a complete change of scene and culture. I got to know the city only gradually. It was a wonderful place to be with small children. Back East, there was ice in the driveway, the kids were always sniffling. All of a sudden, it was summer all winter long.



Where did you live?


The first house we rented in Mar Vista was incredibly cheap. And the reason was that a freeway was about to be built over it. While we lived on the block, other people began moving away to avoid the dropping trees. The freeway was the one [the 405] that goes from Santa Monica to the airport. Later, we moved to Brentwood, which sounds grander than it actually was. We were above Westwood Boulevard, next to a gas station. I liked the city when I was there. It was beautiful, odd parts of it.


RM: Where did you write The Nowhere City?

AL: After I moved back to Ithaca, I decided I would write about Los Angeles. I wrote the novel in about two or three years. In those days, everybody wrote in longhand. You can correct much better on a piece of paper and you never lose anything.



Did you do much revision?



I always revise everything four or five times. I added things and tried to make it better. Even after I finished writing, I got someone to send me copies of the Los Angeles newspapers for those funny quotes from L.A. ads to put at the beginning of each section. They were all genuine.



Can you talk about the bookís structure?



It was called The Nowhere City because when I got there what struck me was how all the moods and forms that organize life, particularly in New England, were missing. So the book was structured in four main parts, each named after a section of Los Angeles. In the first section, set in Mar Vista, the idea is that there are no seasons in Los Angeles, which was the first thing that struck me. In the second section, the Venice section, the one with the beatniks, the next revelation is that there is no day or night. People are up all night. It is not so unusual now, but then it was really striking. In the third section, there are no days of the week. Stores open on Sunday and people have schedules in which they go to the office on Saturday and not on Monday, and so on. The days of the week did not have much significance the way they did back East where the Blue Laws still operated. You could get gas and aspirin but most stores were closed Sunday. And finally, in the Hollywood section, it is about how there is no past or future. It is sort of an eternal present. In the film business, once youíre not hot, youíre not only cold, youíre invisible--and so people forget what happens. You can change yourself and drop your past if you donít like it. People donít ask you about it because itís who you are right now that counts. Itís really the nowhere city and the nowhen city, but there is no such word as nowhen. ††


RM: Where you influenced by Nathanael Westís (1903-1940) The Day of the Locust?


I admire Nathanael West tremendously. I didnít think I could get his dramatic and violent apocalyptic effect because I did not see that side of L.A. But in a small way, I tried to put in strange and shocking things, on a family level, so to speak, like the time the women and children to go the [old] Getty Museum [on Pacific Coast Highway] and are frightened by buffalo. My children were frightened by buffalo, as were my friendís children. A lot of events in the book really happened, but the characters are different.


RM: Some of the events touch on the West Coast beat scene that sprung up in Venice in the late 1950s.



My husband and I met some people who lived down on Venice Beach and who were into drugs in what now seems like a small way. We went to their parties and did see a fair amount of this world, more as tourists. We didnít move there and didnít go any further than a little grass. A lot of things in the novel happened, except for the love story. I had to invent that.



In the novel, one of the main characters is a Hollywood actress named Glory Green.



I did know a starlet whose name was Sheree North. Thatís really her. I did have a job answering her fan mail, as Katherine has in the story. I used to go around to her house, and there is a scene where Glory and her understudy [Mona] are in a swimming pool, and that more or less happened. I met some of Shereeís friends at parties. I did not know who they were, and they werenít very interested in talking to me very much. I met this person who appears as Gloryís agent, Maxie, but I canít remember what his real name was. I tried to change them all a little, so as not to annoy anybody. I was sitting in the corner. I wasnít involved. That was my only connection to the movie business.


RM: Did you take notes or outline the novel while you were in Los Angeles?



I donít have to take notes. If something happens, you remember.


RM: Another character, Iz Einsam, is a Freudian psychiatrist who is improbably married to Glory.


AL: The psychiatrist is based upon some people I worked for at UCLA in the psychology department. One of them was sort of a Freudian who did have this air of knowing everything, and he was married to Sheree North. She went on to have a fairly good career in television and would have become a big star except that her husband was jealous of her. He more or less persuaded her to quit the film business. She was offered a big part and refused it. It went to Shirley MacLaine.


RM: By the end of the novel, Katherine has fallen under the spell of Southern California, but Paul wants to return to his academic life in the East.


AL: I wanted to make the point that people who really donít like who they are can come to Los Angeles and change, become someone else, the way Katherine does. Whereas if you have a strong character, if you think of yourself as Paul does, as a real Californian type, because he is good looking, athletic, and unfaithful to his wife, he really canít change because he is already someone who he wants to be. He really canít let go of the self he is, the way his wife does, so he has to go back.


RM: Did you get much feedback from readers?


AL: In some ways, not as much as the books that are set in the East. People wrote me nice letters and so on. The people I know here didnít know L.A. well enough to correct me if I was wrong on something. And, of course, when you leave L.A., itís a little bit like at the end of the book where Paul is on this plane and going back East. The last line is something like Los Angeles disappears into a smog bowl. Itís just gone for him, and he is certainly no longer there for people he knew. They will have forgotten him too.


RM: Was there any reaction from Sheree North?


AL: I sent the book to her. She said she read it, but I donít think she did. She didnít read very much.


(Editorís note: According to Wikipedia, Sheree North appeared in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956) directed by Frank Tashlin and No Down Payment (1957) directed by Martin Ritt. During the 1950s, Twentieth Century Fox attempted to promote her as a successor to Marilyn Monroe. She later appeared on many popular television shows as a guest star and died in 2005.)


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