Wednesday night, Oct. 6, I interview Jesse Katz, author of the 2009 memoir The Opposite Field.
His mom, Vera Katz, was a famous politician in Oregon. She has a long Wikipedia entry while Jesse, to my surprise, has nothing there yet.
The back of Jesse’s memoir says: “Jesse Katz is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a former staffer at the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine. He lives with his son, Max, in Monterey Park, California.”
Here’s a selective transcript of my interview:
Luke: “So, Jesse, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Jesse: “A shortstop.”
“The Dodgers would’ve been my first choice even though I was in Portland, Oregon. We were hundreds of miles from a major league franchise. Being the child of Brooklynites, the Dodgers were our team.”
Luke: “You meantion early on in your book that part of your parents’ motivation to leave New York was to get away from the rhythms of Jewish life. What did you mean?”
Jesse: “More my dad than my mom. My mom grew up in a family of [secular] intellectuals. My father grew up in a more devout family, a kosher home where there were more rules…
“Living in New York, this great megalopolis of Jewish culture, there were a lot of people there like them with similar life stories and backgrounds and I think they wanted to see who they were outside of that. What they could invent on their own without living up to the expectations of family, culture, the environment.”
Luke: “That sounds somewhat like your story?”
Jesse: “I was born in New York. I was two when I moved to Portland. There were only a handful of Jews in Portland in the 1960s. Being Jewish was not something I was conscious of. We practiced some of the cultural traditions on holiday time but I didn’t know anybody else who was Jewish. My friends didn’t know of me as Jewish. It felt like an imperceptible identity. I felt I was like everybody else.”
“There’s something in my DNA that said that you leave the place you know to define yourself against a new set of challenges. Coming to LA, I came to a place about as different as I could find.”
Luke: “How did you end up at Bennington College?”
Jesse: “It was the only school that accepted me. I had high and unrealistic ambitions. Some of the finest universities in America rejected me.”
“Bennington was one of the great non-traditional colleges in America — no grades, no tests.”
Luke: “When did you realize you were a good writer and journalist?”
Jesse: “It all clicked in college.”
“I had a chance to study with Joe McGinniss who was writing Fatal Vision. It was a non-fiction writing workshop. It introduced us to the idea that journalists could be as creative and dramatic as novelists. You weren’t restrained just because things were true. If it had just been Journalism 101, I don’t think I would’ve taken the class.”
Luke: “What were the stories you won Pulitzer Prizes for?”
Jesse: “I was part of a team in both cases. The first one was the LA Riots. The entire staff won the Pulitzer for spot news reporting for day two of the riots. My role on that was modest at best.
“Two years later, we won the same Pulitzer for the Northridge earthquake. I played a bigger role in that. I was one of the first people in the newsroom. I got there about 5 a.m. while the power was still off and there were green glow sticks illuminating things. I wrote the lead story in the paper that day even though my byline doesn’t appear on it.”
I ask Jesse about the writing of his memoir.
Jesse: “It was one thing to put Jesse Katz in motion as a character in the book and have Jesse Katz do some fumbling bumbling self-deluded things, but I am also the narrator. Jesse Katz the narrator has to be wiser than Jesse Katz the character.
“As I’m writing this thing, I realize there has to be an evolution. I have to acquire some wisdom by the end of this book that I didn’t have at the beginning.
“In the thick of that, I’m lighting some candles and praying for that insight.”
Luke: “To whom were you praying?”
Jesse: “The literary gods.”
Luke: “Did your parents attend your athletic endeavors when you were a kid?”
Jesse: “They played ball with me, but once I joined a Little League, I have little memory of them participating or even cheering me on at the park. It was like that was my thing. They were engaged in a lot of other stuff, in a lot of personal growth. They left me to my own devices.”
Luke: “How would you have felt as a kid if your parents had shown up to your Little League games and were yelling and cheering you on?”
Jesse laughs. “I probably would’ve been embarrassed.”
“I was really independent and left alone for long stretches of time. My mom groans when she hears me say this, but I was a latch-key kid from the time I was ten. I would make myself food.”
Luke: “Are you better off or worse off for that independence?”
Jesse: “My gut reaction is to say that I am better off. It’s made me an adventurous person, personally and professionally. It’s given me the confidence to do a lot of things I didn’t think early on I would do. It gave me the confidence to come to LA, knowing nobody here, having only the flimsiest of jobs as a summer intern at the LA Times and deciding that this would be my home.”
Luke: “Do you think Max is better off for your extensive involvement as his coach and as his Little League commissioner?”
Jesse: “My heart wants to say yes. I’ve invested something profound in him. He has a sense of what real unconditional love is like, that no-matter whatness that Father Greg Boyle talks about in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. I think that will serve him well. I think it has made him a grounded and generous person. But I wonder… Did I deprive him of a little bit of himself in doing that? And if I did, is that so bad?”
Luke: “Did everyone get a trophy when you were a kid?”
Jesse: “I don’t know. I don’t remember having any trophies from being a kid. We barely had uniforms.”
“My son has a wall of trophies. They are part of his identity but I am not sure that any one of those he treasures.”
Luke: “What do you think of the modern practice of giving everyone trophies?”
Jesse: “If there is something wrong with it, it does not do much harm. It’s mostly a waste of money. Those things are about $10 each for a big glittering trophy… It’s a memento of having been part of a team that cared about you.”
Luke: “When is unconditional love a good idea?”
Jesse: “It’s good from parents to children. I’ve thought I’ve had it in romantic settings before but the truth is that we sort of lie to ourselves if we say that romantic love is unconditional. I don’t think it is unconditional from a child to a parent. A child expects things. Parents have to live up to certain obligations.”
Luke: “You talk about moving to LA and wanting to dissolve the boundaries between you and the other.”
Jesse: “I grew up in white-bread landia in Portland and went to college in an even whiter doughier part of the country in Vermond and suddenly I come to LA and it was like this pinata erupted and there was color and glitter and sweets and all this mesmerizing stuff. I was intoxicated by what I was seeing in LA, the stew of ethnicities and languages and skin tones and backgrounds. It was also intimidating and terrifying at times. I felt like there was nothing in my life experience that had prepared me for that. I felt like I had something to prove.”
Luke: “Have you ever had any enthusiasm for exploring your own heritage?”
Jesse: “Not especially. I have a keener appreciation for it now. Going to Israel would be tremendous. I can’t explain why it has never intrigued me the way ‘it should’. There was always a thrill in insinuating myself into a place where I didn’t belong and being accepted. In my 20s, latino culture became mesmerizing.”
Luke: “What’s your primary identity?”
Jesse: “Wow. I suppose ‘writer’ would have been near the top of that list. It is what I have done my entire adult life. But the rug got pulled out from under that really dramatically. I spent 25 years at the LA Times and LA magazine combined. Maybe it was unrealistic to assume that you would always have a job, a livelihood. I got a pay check every two weeks for all those years without having to question whether it was going to vanish and then pretty abruptly and brutally, it all came to an end.
“I think of myself as a writer still and yet I’m not working on a story at this moment. I’m not writing anything.”
Jesse works as an editor at a law firm in downtown Los Angeles. He wears a suit to work every day.
Jesse: “My opportunities to write are connected to the marketplace. My book was this labor of love, this incredibly personal intimate expression of what I have lived, and then it became a commercial item, a commodity.”
“I was insulated from that because I was always on staff somewhere. I was owned by a large corporation but I never felt that. It gave me incredible independence. I didn’t have to worry whether my story would sell newspapers or what our sell-through rate would be on the stand for LA magazine, but if I write another book, I have to be very conscious of how viable it would be as a commercial product.”
“When I was at the LA Times, there was money to do whatever needed to be done.”
“I left in the wake of the Staples Center fiasco where the Sunday magazine had been pimped out to Staples Center. If you look at that now, it seems like a quaint problem to have.”
“LA magazine seemed like the riskier place to go. The daily newspaper was much more stable. It was going to be around forever, right? The magazine was much more vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the economy. If my editor, Kit Rachlis, was let go for any reason, I assumed my job was over. I was there at his bidding.
“In the nine years I was there, it went on this wild crazy money-making award-winning jag. It was the golden age of LA magazine. We were writing up to 12,000-word stories and taking up to six months to do them. Maybe that will be mocked by some people as bloated and indulgent. I look at it as a time of tremendous creative freedom.
“It just ended so abruptly. We went from the best year in the history of LA magazine in 2008 to just a cold brutal economic reality the next year.”
“I woke up on January 1st of this year and realized I needed a job and there didn’t seem to be any readily available.”
We talk about Jesse’s memoir.
Jesse: “There was this pressure to define what the book is about. I found that reviewers had a hard time talking about the book without getting bogged down in the baseball stuff. I found my publisher wanted me to push the baseball angle more because they thought that would tap into a pool of Little League readers and I just don’t think it is a Little League book. I think it’s about baseball in an incidental way. It’s a frame to set the characters in motion.”
Luke: “Did you finally get a divorce?”
Luke: “Did any hot women want to sleep with you because of this book?”
Jesse: “Not as many as I’d like.”
Luke: “What are Jewish values as opposed to Christian values or American values or hispanic family values?”
Jesse: “A great reverence for learning and education and the written word. A sense of things needing to be just and equitable and ultimately this deeply-rooted duty to fix things. I don’t have any religious practices but culturally I am the heir to many thousands of years of Jews who have tried to fix and repair and rescue and be rescued.”
“I like the fact that Jews are not trying to expand the membership rolls. Many times in my life people, mostly from Christian faiths, have approached me and tried to nudge me in their direction and I just find it really strange and unsettling that someone wouldn’t be satisfied in taking sufficient comfort in holding their own beliefs that they would have to have someone else join them in their beliefs. I’m cool with anyone’s beliefs. I have difficulty accepting that need to convert. Jews have a good track record in that department.”
Luke: “How has being a father affected the way you view life?”
Jesse: “You come to the realization that your needs are secondary. You have someone else who requires support, stability and nurturing.
“That was the beginning of the end of my life carousing the cantinas of Echo Park. I’d be lying if I said I never did any more cantina carousing but there’s a dramatic difference in my behaviors and my risks pre-fatherhood and post-fatherhood. It’s a lot easier to live fast and hope to die when you’re not a father. You would be disappointing your parents, but there is something about disappointing your child. If you f— up and leave your kid hanging, then you’ve committed some egregious transgression.”
“My book isn’t about pointing fingers and settling scores. I’m not calling people out. There’s no effort to embarrass people.”
“In my public and professional life, they [friends] are almost all writers and they are almost all unemployed.”
Jesse Katz posts on his FB: “Jesse Katz Getting interviewed by Luke Ford is like undergoing a Rolfing session. He sticks his finger in your chest and pokes and prods, seeking out your soul, unafraid to bruise a few major organs along the way. At the end you feel weary yet cleansed.”