Pasadena native Liza Palmer hit the literary big time with her very first novel, Conversations with the Fat Girl, which was named a Target Breakout book and hit the international bestseller lists within one week of publication in 2005. (It was huge in England.) It was optioned for an HBO series, and she went on to write another well-received novel, Seeing Me Naked. Now she’s made it a trio with A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents, just out in January. This sharp, funny, terrifically entertaining book details a Pasadena family in crisis, and how they get through it all. It’s a great read no matter where you live, but if you’re a local, you’ll revel in the hometown settings. We talked to Liza about her writing and her hometown.
How and where do you write?
I used to write at home, but then I started to spin in. Too much time alone and in my head. Not pretty. So now I write at the local Starbucks and am much better: keep office hours, talk to other human beings, comb my hair. It’s the little things.
I’m really deadline oriented — so when I’m nearing a deadline (like now) I’m pretty much a one-celled amoeba. I write, I eat, I drink tea and I sleep. So, I’ll write for as long as I can — eight to ten hours a day, and then when I get a few weeks out from the deadline, it’s gets ridiculous — sometimes 18- to 20-hour stretches. I wish I could change it, but I can’t. It’s my process, whether I like it or not.
How long have you lived in Pasadena?
I was born and bred here in Pasadena, with a brief stints in Mill Valley and La Verne (while my Mom went to law school). I went to all Pasadena public schools: Cleveland Elementary, Eliot Junior High and John Muir High. Go ‘Stangs.
What neighborhoods have you lived in?
I’ve lived all over… a fair amount in Altadena, a bit by the Arroyo, down on Seneca near the Honeybaked Ham, in East Pasadena by the Avon Building, on Del Mar right by Wilson Junior High, in South Pasadena twice…. And I don’t even think that’s all. Wow, quite the little Pasadena nomad I’ve been.
Tell us about why you used Pasadena as a setting?
I think Pasadena is that perfect combination of suburb and city. You’re far enough away from the madding crowd that you can find parking, but not so far away that there’s no individuality or culture. I just don’t think there’s another city quite like it — I know everyone says that about their hometown, and they’re probably right — but for me, Pasadena is a muse of sorts. Lush and uniquely Californian, yet founded by Midwesterners so there’s this small-town feel that permeates the tree-lined streets. The San Gabriel Mountains, which have been a geographic marker for north my entire life, loom protectively. It’s all so sensually comforting. I can’t imagine setting my stories anywhere else.
I used to temp at this convention center where my sole job was to count the take from that weekend’s festivities. My first red flag was when, upon arrival, my manager informed me that she’d put butcher paper up on all my windows “so I wouldn’t be distracted.” My hours were from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. The only distraction was sleep deprivation, I assure you. So I sat in my windowless cubicle counting dollars, pennies, personal checks, et al for hours at a time while this woman looked over my shoulder…and then re-counted everything I handed to her.
And absolutely I draw on all of it — nothing is off limits.
What do you do here when you’re not writing? What’s a Perfect Pasadena Sunday?
Not writing?? I’m not familiar with that concept.
A Perfect Pasadena Sunday — hmmmm. Doesn’t every perfect Sunday involve a trip to Target? I do prefer the Duarte Target, however… the “Fedco Target” comes in second, followed by the “double-decker Target.” Everyone from Pasadena knows exactly what I’m talking about.
I love Julienne. What is in that bread? I’m sure it’s some kind of ridiculously addictive opiate. I love Houston’s and their sushi. (Salmon mango roll? Mouthwatering.) I love walking around the Rose Bowl in the early morning and then going to Jones Coffee Roasters — I had the most perfect cup of coffee there the day I moved. I remember it to this day. I love the farmers’ market in Hollywood. I know, it’s not in Pasadena, but I make the trip. (The South Pasadena farmers’ market on Thursdays is awesome, as is the PHS market on Saturdays.) All of these are just an excuse for me to drink fresh lemonade, mind.
Any hints about your next project?
I’m working on Book Four right now and loving it. It’s entitled White Picket Fences: and Other Crimes Against Humanity. I really wanted to start a dialogue about the options women have — either you’re the Happy Homemaker or you’re Rosie the Riveter, and never the twains shall meet. The book revolves around Frannie Reid and her quest to figure out where she fits in to all of these expectations.