HERE at CultureCrash, we’re longtime fans of the Los Angeles literary magazine Slake, which put out four smart, handsome, forceful issues full of art, fiction, memoir and poetry. Editors Joe Donnelly and Lauria Ochoa — both formerly of the LA Weekly — did something not easy to pull off in sprawling LA: They galvanized a community around the written word. (And threw great parties.)
So while we’re sad Slake is gone, we’re pleased to have the new anthology We Dropped a Bomb on You: The Best of Slake I-IV.
Saturday (July 26) at 5, Skylight Books will host a We Dropped a Bomb event at which several Slake contributors — including celebrated food writer Jonathan Gold — will read.
We spoke to Donnelly (a onetime editor of yours truly who went on to helm the soon-to-be-shuttered Mission and State) about this experiment’s past, present and future.
Q: You put out four issues of Slake. What made you want to compile the best of ‘em into a book? Is it for original Slake fans, new ones, some combination?
A: Well, to be clear, RareBird Lit, Tyson Cornell’s heroic, LA-based book publishing concern, put the book together. Tyson approached my Slake partner, Laurie Ochoa, and me with the idea last fall, I believe. He felt the Slake effort deserved a lasting place on bookshelves, or at least in the Library of Congress, or wherever IBNs go to die. Tyson is a real maven and Laurie and were happy he wanted to honor Slake in this way.
I hope it’s for everyone. I mean, to my mind, it’s a great summer read. Great writers, great stories, and something you can easily take to the beach with you. Whereas, carrying all four issues of Slake could get heavy.
You couldn’t put everything in here. What criteria did you use to select the stuff that went on to have a second life?
Obviously there’s much that could have or should have or might have been in this collection. It’s tough to leave anything out because all of it was the best as far as Laurie and I were concerned. Laurie and I submitted our recommendations to Rarebird and Tyson and his editors made the final calls. Obviously some of our favorite stories didn’t make it, due to space, flow, or perhaps those stories have appeared in other publications more than once, etc. But what’s in there is all killer, for sure.
I’m sure you’re proud of everything in We Dropped a Bomb on You. But can you describe a piece or two that you’re especially fond of?
Oh, man, so hard to pick just one or two. I loved being surprised. I’m going to pick a piece that wasn’t in there, because it had appeared in another Rarebird collection – Jerry Stahl’s “American Girl”, which I think is devastating and different from what you might expect from Jerry. That’s what Slake did. I mean, John Albert’s “A Lifetime of Van Halen” is everything a piece of memoir should be. Matthew Light’s “The Niglu” is one of the best short stories to appear anywhere in the past several years, in my opinion. Luke Davies’ “Cisco Kid” still takes me away. Matthew Fleischer’s “Mushrooms to Mecca”, hilarious and sad… the journalism of folk like Hank Cherry, Cindy Carcamo, Ben Ehrenreich and so many others I’m doing a disservice by not mentioning. Slake was full of surprises and I think that’s what made it fun.
The Slake events I attended were well-stocked and excited to the point of rowdy. Did the response to these surprise you?
It’s funny when you worry if anybody’s going to come to your little party, like we worried about when we had that that first launch party at Track 16, and then 600 people show up like it’s a rock show. But, I wasn’t altogether surprised. We had a hunch LA was hungering for this sort of thing. Plus, Slake was defiantly optimistic. Who doesn’t want to do that?
You’ve now worked for the LA Weekly, Slake, and the soon-to-be-disbanded site Mission and State. All of these places were really different. Have you drawn any conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of the for-profit, non-profit and shoestring models?
I don’t know if it’s possible to draw conclusions when you’re still stuck in the middle of things like we are. Everything is changing, but nobody really knows how, or where things are going. I do know that good story telling continues to resonate. The LA Weekly, before the takeover and then the crash, almost seems like a golden, utopian time when we had money, talent and the will to do great things, and we did, and the public responded.
Slake was the thing everybody told me not to do, but I was tired of waiting for money or permission from other people, so we dove in. I may be still recovering from that, financially, but I think the positives associated with doing Slake will far outlive that that.
Mission and State was a good lesson, too. We had considered going nonprofit with Slake, but didn’t want to be bogged down with board peccadillos, and boy did I learn something about those.
Were you surprised when Mission and State announced its closing?
No, it became clear early on when board members attempted to censor or take up the cause of subjects we were reporting on that this was a compromised situation.
Is there a future for Slake?
I don’t know. I’d do it all over again if I could, but the future is now, for now.