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
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
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."
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,
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
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."
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
And then Teasley is back on the downtown streets again,
turning heads as she merges into the early rush-hour
Lisa Teasley will read from "Glow in the Dark" at
8 p.m. March 13 at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. For information, call