I’m writing this on my phone from Monterey, California, where I’m in the midst of a road trip with my son, so this will be brief. It’s a trip primarily down the Pacific Coast of California between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and as always before a trip, I spent some time wondering what books to bring with me for the time spent in a particular place. I brought three books with me for the two week vacation and decided to go with three having to do with California: Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which somehow of Didion’s books I’ve never read, Ross MacDonald’s Black Money, one of the few Lew Archer novels I hadn’t read, and, non-fiction, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson, about the making of the film, Chinatown. Funny, all three books are set in California of the sixties and early seventies, an era in the state’s history I admit I find fascinating, perhaps because I was a child and teenager then and the stuff on the news and in films and TV shows about California created a certain very distinct image of the state to me. I like to revisit that feeling, that whole era, when I read. So far, on the trip, I’ve read the Didion book, which of course captures its time as only Joan Didion can capture a time, and I’m about a third of the way through Black Money, which is shaping up to be topnotch MacDonald. It was, I’ve read, his personal favorite of his books.
So those three books and this trip itself and my earlier thinking of what books to bring on this trip got me thinking about who my favorite California writers are. And by California writer, I’m going to use the term broadly. For my purposes here, a California writer is any writer whose work I strongly associate with the state, whether they were born in California or, like so many, moved to California from someplace else and went on to set a certain number of their books in the state.
Without having given this too much thought, here’s a list of eleven of my favorite California writers, in no particular order. I list eleven writers because I found it too difficult to limit myself to ten.
- Joan Didion
- Ross MacDonald
- Raymond Chandler
- Dashiell Hammett
- Don Carpenter (For his excellent Hollywood novel Turnaround and his collection The Murder of the Frogs and Other Stories)
- Charles Bukowski
- Dennis Etchison (For nearly everything this horror master wrote. He’s absolutely one of the greatest horror short story writers there’s been, but I also love his novels Shadowman and California Gothic. No one does sunlit horror better than he does).
- Gavin Lambert (British expat, for his Hollywood set books that I’ve read, the novel Inside Daisy Clover and the beautifully written collections, The Slide Area and The Goodbye People).
- Horace McCoy (for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and I Should Have Stayed Home)
- Paul Beatty (for his racial satire set in LA, The Sellout)
- Thomas Pynchon (for The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice, two approachable Pynchons that happen to be mysteries like nobody else could write. And I still have to read his California-set Vineland!)