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One to Watch: Colette Sartor, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award

Colette Sartor first appeared in Carve in 2014 with “F-Man,” a story about a singer who has lost her voice. Carve featured Colette again in the Winter 2016 issue—that story, “La Cuesta Encantada,” transcends time in its portraiture of love and relationships. Happily, both stories are included in Colette’s collection, Once Removed, which won the 2018 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in September of this year.

This summer, Colette and I corresponded by email about the world of this linked collection and the manuscript’s journey to publication. Order the Fall 2019 issue to read the full conversation—what follows is a taste of Colette’s thinking.

Many of the stories in Once Removed are set in Los Angeles, and your LA isn’t at all defined by Hollywood or usual LA stereotypes. What is your relationship with the city and its literary history?

I came to Los Angeles as a young entertainment lawyer. I hadn’t yet started writing and, though I was (and am) a voracious reader, I knew almost nothing about LA’s literary history. Like many people, I associated LA with screenwriting, though I knew there were writers like Raymond Chandler and Nathanial West who wrote about the dark side of Tinseltown. I also knew a bit about James Elroy given my obsession with true crime. I even knew that F. Scott Fitzgerald had tried and failed as a Hollywood screenwriter. But otherwise, I was painfully ignorant about Los Angeles’s literary history, and literature in general. I took exactly one English class in college (where I started as a chem major before switching to psychology), and then went straight from college to law school, where all I did was read and breathe law.

So it wasn’t writing or LA’s literary history that brought me here. It was fear.

I moved to LA right after law school primarily because it was about as far as I could get from my hometown in New Jersey and still be in the United States. It’s not that I don’t love New Jersey—I do. I grew up there in a large, fiercely loyal extended Italian family, but I was terrified that if I settled down anywhere close, I’d become an Italian American housewife with three-plus kids and a houseful of hungry relatives every weekend that I alone would be responsible for feeding and entertaining. I also had this idea that if I moved to Los Angeles, I could use entertainment law to launch a career as a producer making movies of the Ivory Merchant variety. Doing something creative was my real dream—I’d grown up sculpting, singing, writing—but, in my family, creativity was frivolous, fine for children but not the way to spend a lifetime of serious accomplishment.

Once I got to LA, I discovered that practicing entertainment law gave me panic attacks and producing films was mostly about the business side of filmmaking: numbers-crunching, raising money, making deals. So that storied Hollywood glitter for which LA is notorious—I decided I didn’t want any part of it.

Los Angeles itself fascinated me, though. It’s the only city I’ve ever lived in that feels like a massive suburb but with almost all the benefits of a major metropolis. Its main negative—the car culture and lack of public transportation—I didn’t mind since as a suburbs kid I grew up car-reliant. Plus, in LA, I could rollerblade beachside at sunrise and still be at work by nine a.m. I could live in an apartment with a yard and read a book in the shade of a King Sago palm. I could see three movies in one weekend and eat at five-star restaurants or tiny Mexican food stands with tender corn tortillas so full of carnitas the juice dribbled down my chin.

Still, the socioeconomic extremes in Los Angeles are vast and troubling. The west side is dominated by the white and rich who’ve built a growing enclave of McMansions (all house, no yard) in addition to the plethora of actual mansions on estates with glamorous Hollywood histories. Downtown, on the other hand, despite its gentrification, is home to one of the largest, most impoverished skid rows in the nation.

There are also the in-between neighborhoods like mine: a mishmash of clapboard cottages and Spanish-style stuccos—duplexes and homes—and sixties style, flat-roofed multiplexes fronted by carports. In my neighborhood, we stop to chat on the street while walking our dogs, trade gossip about why the police helicopters were circling for hours the previous night. There are religious families—Sikh and Jewish and Greek—whose kids set up lemonade stands and bounce on trampolines set next to the sidewalk; hipsters who commute to work via Birds and skateboards; big, muscled guys with gang tats who cradle tiny dogs and stop to pet my massive German Shepherd; striving professionals who drive glossy Teslas and rent tiny apartments instead of saving for houses; aging, odd hippies who’ve lived in the area for decades and know everyone.

There were two in particular, Jud and Joan, I’ll call them, who always stopped to ask about my kid, my dog, who would keep me updated on the most recent police raids and burglaries. For years they lived across the street in the back unit of a fourplex. Then one day they stopped by to ask whether they could rent the lower unit of my duplex, which they knew was empty. They’d gotten kicked out of their apartment, they told me, for being hoarders and for flooding their place and the one below it. “But we’d never do that to you,” they assured me. I declined as nicely as I could, and they found somewhere else to live. We’d still stop and chat, walk our pets to the vet together.

A few years later, they started avoiding me on the street. Their tans deepened and their wrinkles blackened with grit. One night, then another, and another, I saw them asleep on a bench on Pico and Bedford. After a few months, Jud slept there alone.

A few months later, he was gone too.

I still wonder what happened to them. I still tell myself stories where they’re all right, where their families finally intervened and persuaded them to move someplace safe, someplace where a brother or sister or nephew could keep an eye on them. More often, though, the stories I imagine for them are darker, sadder, more violent. And I question whether I should have given them a place to live. Whether I should have done more. What a person like me, living her life and struggling herself but who has more than someone else, owes that other person.

Those are the stories I want to tell, stories about the people in my neighborhood, where I’ve now lived for longer than anywhere else in my life. These are the people I fall asleep dreaming about, the people I worry about when they disappear. There are other fiction writers who can continue the tradition of Chandler and West and write about the seamy side of Hollywood. Other people can vie to write screenplays and TV pilots. Not me. I fell in love with a different Los Angeles that I hope to keep writing about for decades.

Colette Sartor’s linked short story collection Once Removed (UGA Press) won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately and is an executive director of the CineStory Foundation, a mentoring organization for emerging TV writers and screenwriters. Her writing has appeared in Carve magazine, Slice magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Kenyon Review Online, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Among other awards, she has been granted a Glenna Luschei Award, a Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, and a Truman Capote fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she completed her MFA.