Art Imitating Life - How Maria Hummel Chose Her Novel's Setting

Chris Schluep on June 07, 2018

Still.jpgThere's so much to recommend about Maria Hummel's Still Lives. Its a page-turner, for one. There's also some profound commentary on art and society--and, almost magically, she does it without sacrificing the pure story. The setting--the Los Angeles art scene--is cool, a little foreign-feeling, and really fun to read about.

In a mystery, setting can lift the story to a higher realm. Such is the case in Still Lives.

Here's an essay by the author about how she chose her milieu:

Choosing My Milieu by Maria Hummel

It is April 2001. I arrive in Los Angeles and answer an ad in the LA Weekly for a writer/editor at MOCA, a downtown art museum. I’m twenty-eight years old, a Vermonter, and I have never lived in a big city before, never lived with skyscrapers and freeways and countless humans. That month MOCA has paid for a billboard campaign to raise the visibility of the museum. The billboards are giant versions of the wall labels you see next to paintings: white rectangles with a work’s title, its dimensions, materials, and the name of the its owner. These billboards aren’t labeling artworks, however; they’re labeling the city itself. The billboard above Crazy Girls, the Hollywood strip bar, says “Nudes, 2001, Bodies, dimensions variable, A study in First Amendment rights, entertainment and business… On loan from The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.”

The coy joke is that the whole city is on view and MOCA is simply revealing it to you.

I land an interview for the position, and I drive downtown past several such billboards, park, and then descend to the museum galleries to do some last-minute preparation. The first exhibition showcases the architecture of R. M. Schindler: sketches, models, and photographs in frames. I don’t know who Schindler is, or why his houses matter. I am that ignorant of the world I am about to enter. But as I stand there in the cool white rooms, looking at the glassy, modernist lines of the architect’s homes, thinking about the billboards I’ve passed and their messages to see art around me, everywhere—I know my life will alter if I am hired.

Miraculously, I get the job at MOCA and work there for four years. I learn the inner life of a museum—the hundreds of people who contribute to that often silent, private experience that our visitors have, standing in front of a sculpture or video, looking and looking, sometimes appreciating, sometimes not. I watch the clashing passions and visions of staff members over the art that we show, and I think: there’s a story here, one day.

My office window looks out on a fenced construction site that grows into a building with sweeping, sail-shaped walls, covered in titanium. It shines and ripples like a stalled ship in wind. The emergence of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall happens slowly, but its appearance signals big changes for downtown Los Angeles. The avenues around Bunker Hill, long deserted to corporate offices and a few cultural institutions, begin to attract a flood of loft-dwellers, bars, and new restaurants, even as the city’s poorest citizens camp in alleys nearby. L.A. never ceases to be a city of contrasts, and I think, there’s a story here, too.

Here’s one truth about milieu in novels like mine: It’s a place, but it’s also a psychological state, and the heroine has to go deeper into it, no matter the danger, in order to find herself.

Eventually I leave L.A. for a writing fellowship at Stanford. I get invited back to teach a class at MOCA, and the museum puts me up in the Biltmore, the swanky, vintage hotel at the foot of the hill. I’m thrilled to return to L.A., especially in such style that the young woman who first entered the museum wouldn’t recognize my life. In the morning I stroll out to a coffee shop for breakfast. As I sit down, I feel a pair of eyes on me. I swivel to see a man with 666 carved into his forehead. A homemade tattoo, the lines bleeding their ink. He is heavy-shouldered and dirty, and he is staring at me. Hard. He flicks his tongue. When I rise and walk outside, he follows. I practically run up the Bunker Hill steps to get away from him.

Eventually I turn enough corners to know I have lost my pursuer and I proceed, shaking, to the museum to teach my class. Sunlight gleams on every surface: the parked cars, a Calder sculpture, our brick facade. I am safe for now. Safe for now. And I think, there’s a story here, too.

When I sit down to write Still Lives more than a decade later, it all comes back: the overwhelming metropolis, the art and the passionate people involved with it, and my dread of the violence and hurt submerged beneath the gleaming veneer of Los Angeles. And what I said about the heroine going deeper into the milieu, no matter the danger, in order to find herself? That’s Maggie. But it’s also me.

--Maria Hummel

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