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February 24, 2002
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Words From a Street-Smart Tale Teller
* L.A. author's work wins praise for its gritty, human touch.

 
 
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By REED JOHNSON, TIMES STAFF WRITER

High heels normally aren't part of Lisa Teasley's fashion modus operandi. "I have huge feet," she explains, "so I usually wear men's boots." But certain exceptions must be made when you're a youngish (39), semi-underground L.A. fiction writer on the cusp of mainstream recognition.

So in next month's issue of Glamour magazine there's Teasley, a vision of dreadlocked urban chic, draped in designer couture and slingback heels for a photo essay on eight up-and-coming female writers. "They put us in pinks and grays, and none of us were very pink and gray," says Teasley, somewhat bemused. "We looked like we were going to a tea party."

A few days later, Teasley is back in her element, loping along the sidewalks of Little Tokyo in a clingy cafe-au-lait dress, her dramatic appearance practically daring passersby not to notice. Not that she's courting approval, mind you. But like her fictional characters, she projects a vivid singularity that's hard to turn away from. That quality burns through the pages of "Glow in the Dark," Teasley's first published collection of short stories, which was issued last month by Seattle's independent Cune Press. Written in prose both blunt and elliptical, the dozen tales form a gritty, unflinching yet empathetic collage of lives on the precipice of contemporary America.

A New Jersey man with a dark obsession; a drug-addled Baja surfer, tough enough to handle anything but her own contradictions; a trio of young bohemians, two women and a man, adrift between their inchoate desires and the liberating possibilities of the Mendocino Coast--these are a few of the restless spirits floating through "Glow in the Dark." Post-punk versions of Kerouac's subterraneans, they're headstrong, conflicted and a little desperate, wavering between reckless defiance and romantic fatalism. "Very young and pregnant," thinks one, "what a heroic way to die."

Atmosphere shifts subtly with the topography as "Glow in the Dark" cruises from New York to Northern and Southern California, then hopscotches over to Paris. Superficially, Teasley's L.A. appears milder, less menacing than her New York, with its trash-strewn East Village streets and "Wall Street bars thick with slick hair and cigar smoke."

But the author's hometown casts dark shadows. In "What the Fertility Goddess Brought," a mixed-race couple struggling to rise above ancient tribal taboos returns from vacation to find "a bleached-haired, white girl lying unconscious on their living room floor." "White Picket Fence," barely a page long, starts out benignly, only to end with an elderly wife watching her beloved husband walk away from their Fairfax District duplex--while she screams uncontrollably.

While Teasley's dialogue-driven scenarios are written with an authority that suggests firsthand knowledge, she says they emanate more from imagination and observation than direct experience. "I'll see someone on the street or I'll read something, and I'll just want to know, 'What is that about?'" Teasley says as she slips into a booth at a popular Japanese restaurant, takes in the scene at a glance and orders the eel without breaking conversational stride.

A painter, dancer and journalist whose work has appeared in The Times, the Washington Post, Details and L.A. Weekly, Teasley says that her goal as a fiction writer is to "drop readers dead center" into the minds and hearts of people on the verge of breakdowns or breakthroughs. But the extreme situations she depicts aren't meant as furtive glimpses of some dark sociological underworld. While her characters may live far from the middle-class suburbs of much current American fiction, she maintains they're not as alien as some may believe.

"That daily drama that we hear about or read about, even if we don't experience it ourselves, it is a part of life," she says. "And I just happen to be attracted to those kind of situations, just in wondering what is the human spirit in that kind of dire circumstance, or just at the point of epiphany."

Since its Jan. 15 release, Teasley's fictional debut has drawn attention from a mixed bag of publications, including Flaunt and the trendy French magazine Rebel, as well as Glamour. Maryellen Gordon, Glamour's deputy style editor, said "Glow in the Dark" "was interesting to me because the voice of [Teasley's] characters is probably a bit edgier than some of the other writers we included." Even characters whose behavior may seem over-the-top and off-putting, Gordon says, are rendered compelling, multifaceted and ultimately sympathetic by the author.

Gordon was especially moved by "Why I Could Never Be Boogie," a lonely 10-year-old girl's first-person sketch of the heavyset boy next door, who "shows me the hangs around Washington Blvd." and other bittersweet initiations. "That little girl really stayed with me," Gordon says. "She just was so well-drawn, I really felt I could see that little girl and understand the confusion of what her life was like at that moment."

Among Teasley's closest friends is L.A. multimedia artist Ron Athey, who gained international notoriety several years ago when his performance of the NEA-funded "Four Scenes in a Harsh Life" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis drew the wrath of Capitol Hill conservatives. In that piece, Athey invoked various symbols of martyrdom, such as stigmata, to probe the metaphysics of faith. Confidants since the mid-1980s, he and Teasley have collaborated occasionally and often give feedback on each other's work. "I really think she's one of the most Zen people I know, and within that is all this volatility" in her fiction, says Athey, speaking by phone from Hamburg, Germany.

Teasley, who hopes to write Athey's biography someday, admires the way her friend and fellow performer "uses the body and ... seems to transcend its limitations." She says, "We have all this emotional investment in each other."

Choosing to invest in another human being, or not, is an issue that defines virtually every story in "Glow in the Dark." Black, white, gay, straight, young, old, the inhabitants of Teasley's stories are seduced by the urge to cross lines, smash barriers, make connections--for better or worse. Even their ethnically and sexually neutral names--Baker, Pup, Nepenthe, Jazz--link them with a polyglot, highly molten sensibility that feels very L.A.

A generation ago Bret Easton Ellis memorably wrote in his novel "Less Than Zero" that people in L.A. were afraid to merge, a metaphor for the empty lives of rich, dissolute brat-packers who manufactured cheap thrills to counter the sheer, sun-bleached ennui of it all. Teasley, a very different writer for a very different L.A., paints characters whose difficulties may be said to result from merging too much.

"We've done readings where people have been scandalized," says Scott Davis, the founder and owner of Cune Press. "They're still beating me up! And I'm saying, OK, the characters are leading rough, desperate lives, and no one's paying attention to them. They're just lost people."

Teasley's personal history is a far cry from those of most of her subjects.

The eldest of three girls, she was raised in a strict Baldwin Hills household where the only music heard regularly was classical. Her father, an insurance company executive, paid his daughters for every "A" on their report cards, "and he only accepted A's." Her mother taught her to draw and took her to her maternal grandmother's house, where she would dance away the warm Sunday afternoons to salsa music.

"It was a really sheltered childhood," Teasley says. "I've always had friends who had rebel phases. So I've always been boring that way. I've never been in any trouble. Maybe that's why I'm so fascinated by people who get into extreme trouble."

After earning a bachelor's in English at UCLA, specializing in creative writing, she began flexing the authorial voice that emerges in "Glow in the Dark." The collection's first stories were written as early as 1988, and they have trickled in over the years while Teasley moved to New York City and back and took a crack at two unpublished novels. (She's working on a third.)

But her short fiction might have languished if she hadn't met Davis, who asked her to contribute an essay to the 1997 Cune Press anthology "An Ear to the Ground: Presenting Writers from 2 Coasts." He then urged her to publish her collected short fiction as "Glow in the Dark." "She's the quintessential West Coast L.A. woman in that she's internalized the fluidity you have in L.A.," Davis says. "She has this ability to seem very comfortable in different worlds, but you don't feel like she's an outsider looking in. She seems very at home."

Now resettled in her hometown, Teasley has purchased a Laurel Canyon fixer-upper, where she lives with her husband, John Vlautin, 38, a music publicist, and their 5-year-old daughter, Imogen. One key difference between New York and L.A., she says, is how strangers react to the couple's mixed-race child. "In New York, no one thought the child was with me," she says. "They thought I was the nanny! Then I'd come here for a week and no one questioned, 'Is that your child?'"

She shakes her dreads, managing a smile. People in other parts of the country imagine that L.A. is a difficult place to live, she says, but she finds it energizing, unexpected, alive. "That's the magic of it too," she says as the waiter clears the table, wrapping up lunch. "If you would just get in your car and go somewhere different, you would be amazed that this is your city."

And then Teasley is back on the downtown streets again, turning heads as she merges into the early rush-hour traffic.

*

Lisa Teasley will read from "Glow in the Dark" at 8 p.m. March 13 at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. For information, call (310) 659-3110.

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