Laurie Ochoa, editor of the much-talked-about new L.A. literary quarterly Slake, grew up in Whittier, close enough to Pasadena to decorate floats with high school friends and camp on Colorado Boulevard to see the parade. She was drawn to words as a student, and set out on the path to being an editor right out of school—first as an intern for the L.A. Weekly, then working her way up to being a writer and editor. Then the Los Angeles Times lured her away to be an editor and reporter for more than a decade, including a five-year stint as the food editor. Next came a high-profile job as executive editor of Gourmet, which entailed moving to the West Village with her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, and their daughter Isabel. But they missed Southern California, so they returned when the L.A. Weekly came calling, and Laurie served as editor-in-chief there for eight years.
Today Laurie and her family, which now includes son Leon, live in the Historic Highlands neighborhood of Pasadena. We had a long chat about print media, writing and life in Pasadena.
Editor’s note: For more on Slake, listen to the podcast by our friends at KPCC’s Off-Ramp.
You’ve always worked for others. What inspired this bold act of entrepreneurship?
As soon as I left the Weekly, Joe Donnelly started talking to me about joining up with him to start some kind of Los Angeles publication. We thought about a monthly and a biweekly, and began having meetings with potential investors, but it quickly became clear that we needed to show people what we wanted to do. Too many people wanted to push us into an online-only sort of venture, but we aren’t ready to give up on print.
“Slake” implies quenching a thirst. What thirst are you quenching?
We’re trying to preserve the endangered art of storytelling. Specifically, well-polished and well-crafted narratives that are carefully edited. We’re in the middle of this huge and exciting shift in how we get information — we can share a joke with all of our friends at the same time on Facebook, with the world on Twitter, and we can get breaking news on our phones in the middle of dinner — but faster isn’t always better. Some important voices have emerged thanks to the openness of the web, but others have been lost. And once in awhile you need a break from the sloppy writing and barely considered opinions that too often pop up. That’s why Joe and I started Slake. We think there’s a desire for the kind of deeply reported journalism, thought-out essays and skillful fiction and memoir writing that you only get when you don’t have to rush to publish a story or worry about search engine optimization.
You left print media when you left the L.A. Weekly, and we all know the struggles of print media now. And yet you and Joe have started a print publication. Does this mean you have faith in the survival of the printed page?
There will still be books and magazines in 50 years. Radio didn’t go away when TV was invented — it changed. You could make the case with This American Life, or the brilliant reporting on Planet Money, or the way John Rabe searches out cool Southern California subcultures on KPCC’s Off-Ramp, that radio storytelling is more interesting than ever. Certainly, print media has to adjust, and that’s what we are doing with Slake. Instead of trying to start a mainstream Los Angeles monthly and trying to compete with everybody else for celebrity covers, Joe and I decided to go with a more unconventional model for a city magazine. Closer to a book than a magazine in feel, Slake is perfect-bound like a quality paperback, designed with a beautiful, hand-crafted feel and edited with the intention that people will hold on to each issue and return to reread our stories about and from Southern California years from now.
Are there qualities that define L.A.’s literary and visual-arts culture, and if so, what are they?
What I love about Los Angeles is that it is so hard to define. The movie industry has an obvious effect on our cultural life, but there are so many other literary and visual-arts cultures here — niche and mainstream, high and low, some hidden and some so out in the open that we sometimes take them for granted. The point is that there’s always something interesting to write about, something new to discover. That’s one of the reasons Joe and I decided to keep Slake‘s focus on Los Angeles. There are too many good stories out there that aren’t being told.
How about Pasadena’s culture?
People sometimes forget that money isn’t the only reason Pasadena has such a strong base of cultural institutions. Artists and writers and scientists who change the way we see the world have always been drawn to Pasadena. I love that we have the Norton Simon, the Huntington, the Armory, the Pacific Asia Museum and the Pasadena Museum of California Art all within a ten-minute drive. And we’re lucky to have one of the country’s greatest independent bookstores here in Vroman’s. But these institutions wouldn’t survive without a curious and engaged population to staff and patronize them.
What brought you to Pasadena, and why do you stay?
I suppose it was Frederick Roehrig’s doing. Jonathan and I were doing a bit of architectural tourism when we spotted a rental ad for an apartment inside a Roehrig-designed home on Grace Terrace. We figured we’d get to look at a cool house and then go back to our apartment in Koreatown. But there was something magic about the Grace Terrace house. The apartment we ended up renting was essentially the three front parlor rooms of the house, each with its own fireplace, separated by sliding pocket doors and filled with built-ins and beautiful wainscoting. We knew right away that we had to live there. Our bedroom was once the home’s music room, with a stage and stained-glass windows along the alcove where we put the bed. We eventually needed more space after we had our first child and found another great old house in Pasadena. We stay because we’ve made a home here with good schools for the kids and good friends nearby.
What’s your perfect Pasadena day?
I love waking up early on a Saturday to the nudges of my son, Leon, who usually wants to snuggle in bed and have me read one more chapter of Harry Potter — we’ve just started Book 6. Then I might meet my friend Michelle Huneven for a morning walk with her dog Piper, either up Chaney Trail or along the Arroyo if it’s too hot. Michelle usually brings tea and fruit and sometimes little sandwiches, which we eat midway through the hike, looking out across the L.A. basin while we talk about writing and marriage. By the time I get back, Jonathan’s often taken Leon to the farmers’ market at Pasadena High, and my daughter, Isabel, will be getting in some last-minute cello practice before her weekly lesson. This not only gives me time alone to read or do some editing, it gives me an excellent Saturday-morning soundtrack. Lunch is typically a review meal with the kids, but we also like staying in Pasadena and treating Izzy and Leon to Pie ‘n’ Burger or else getting my favorite egg salad sandwich at Euro Pane.
If we’re feeling ambitious, we might wander around the Norton Simon or the gardens at the Huntington, but usually we’ll just do a little shopping on Lake or in Old Town, and then hang around the house until it’s time for dinner. A lot of the time Jonathan will cook, but one of my favorite things to do on a hot Saturday night is to head up to Bulgarini, the gelato place in Altadena. Jonathan loves to grumble with Leo, the owner, about the troubles with their favorite Italian soccer team, Roma, and during the last half of the summer Leo screens Italian movies outside the shop and serves a basic pasta dinner for the crowd. It feels a lot like the countryside festas we’ve been to in Italy. It doesn’t get a lot better than watching La Dolce Vita under the stars, in the shadow of the San Gabriels, with a cup of perfect pistachio gelato.
Editor’s note: Laurie and several Slake writers with Pasadena/Altadena roots, including Michelle Huneven, Jonathan Gold, Erica Zora Wrightson and Jervy Tervalon, will be speaking and reading at Vroman’s on Friday, August 13th.