10 Questions for... Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos was born and raised in Southern California, where she lives with her husband, James Brown, author of the acclaimed memoirs The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. After her parents divorced and her mother and siblings moved to the South, Priamos decided to stay with her larger-than-life Greek defense attorney father.

Her father's mysterious death propelled Priamos into an investigation of the shady deals and characters that led to his disbarment, which ultimately led her to write her debut memoir The Shyster's Daughter. It's a searing detective noir memoir that paints a vivid portrait of a Greek American family caught up in the scandal-obsessed, drug-addicted culture of California in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for Paula Priamos.

1. What would you like readers to know about The Shyster’s Daughter?

I wrote The Shyster’s Daughter because I was haunted by the phone call my father placed to me the night before he died.  It was as if he knew something bad was going to happen to him.  The book investigates those last few hours of his life and it also became an investigation into his career as a criminal defense attorney.

I structured the book to read like a novel because I think memoirs get a bad rap for being bloated, expository and self-important.  That’s not the type of book I wanted to write.  I wanted my book to be entertaining, and I used fictional techniques like plot, setting and dialogue to make my story move.

2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was in the second grade when I decided to become a writer.  My teacher assigned us to keep a journal about day-to-day events and I asked permission if I could write a story about an orphaned girl who inherited her own 7-UP factory.  She had a ton of adventures in her factory like fighting off thieves trying to steal her secret formulas.  At the end of the year, my teacher ran off copies and gave them to the rest of the class for summer reading.

3. Who are some writers that have affected your storytelling sensibilities?

Hemingway has influenced me with his conciseness and rhythm. Jeanette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle was inspirational because it’s not a victim’s story.  And, of course, my husband James Brown has always encouraged me to tell a story of consequence.

4. With regards to your own writing, what are the pros and cons of having a husband who is also an accomplished author?

A big pro to having an accomplished author for a spouse is that he understands the solitary struggles of a writer.  He gives me room to rant, to write and he also is a great reader of my work.  We are straight with each other about our writing in its rawest stages even if it isn’t something either of us wants to hear.

The con about having a writer for a husband is that I lived in his shadow for quite a while.  I’m younger, his former student, and it was hard getting people we both knew in the writing world to take me seriously.  Eventually, though, a lot of them were left with very little choice.  I wasn’t going away. I have my own stories to tell and I was going to be a writer whether I was married or single.  Once I started publishing in places like the New York Timesthe Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times Magazine the stigma of being an older author’s younger second wife wore off.

5. Writing a book is such a complex exercise that I imagine no two authors do it exactly the same. Can you summarize your process for me?

My process is hand writing first, starting off old school with a notebook and a pencil before coming to the computer.  I love to wake up early and write when the house is quiet and before the stresses and chaos of everyday living interrupt me.  But I write just about anywhere so I carry around a notebook with me at all times.

6. What drove you to write The Shyster’s Daughter?

The mysterious way my father died and the need to find out what happened to him are what initially drove me to write The Shyster’s Daughter. But it is also my story – what it was like growing up being raised by a successful Greek criminal defense attorney who had a conflicting set of morals.  There is also a lot of Greek culture and Greek curse words.  My father had a temper.  He was tough like the time I write in the book when he took on two burglars we caught coming out of our home one night.  He took a swing at one of them and chased both of them, who were half his age, into some bushes down the street where they hid like cowards.  But he was also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.  I wanted to capture his character and how it’s shaped mine.

7. What methods and strategies have you employed in order to promote both yourself as an author, as well The Shyster’s Daughter?

I’m teaming up with a couple of different writers for reading events. I have a publicist who is active in getting the word out about my book and I myself do what I can to help spread the word using Facebook, my own website, as well as my own big mouth.

8. Where do you see your writing career five years from now?

I see myself as both a memoirist and novelist.

9. What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a literary thriller about crimes of passion.

10 . What advice would you give to an aspiring author who hopes to see their work published one day?

Be open to revision.  Don’t become one of those writers who can’t take suggestions on improving your work.  Be confident in your writing.  Know when a work is finished.  It’s an exciting time in publishing where the Internet has opened the market for writers to either publish in New York or with independent literary presses who tend to take more risks, taking on less politically correct writing, and there is also self-publishing.  Nothing is black and white anymore.

And there you have it. I’d like to thank Paula Priamos for taking some time to hang out on Inside Martin. If you’d like to learn more about Priamos and her writing, you can visit her official website Paula Priamos: Opinionated Writer....

The Los Angeles Diaries

I’m not a big fan of autobiographies, but I love memoirs. Where an autobiography tells an individual’s life story, more or less, a memoir focuses on a specific aspect of an individual’s life. And while autobiographies are the sole territory of celebrities and public figures, in so far as the publishing industry is concerned, the memoir section of your local bookstore is bound to be dominated by relatively anonymous folks with really amazing stories to tell. In the last five or ten years, it seems the most commercially successful memoirs revolve around human tragedies—especially if those tragedies are followed up with any sort of triumph or redemption.

One of my very favorite memoirs is The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown. While—for reasons that I’ll never fathom—it wasn’t a commercial success, it has garnered a well-earned cult following. In it, Brown writes about his life as an alcoholic and drug addict.

“All the stores on Hollywood Boulevard are closed for the night, and I duck into the alcove of a souvenir shop, drop a rock into the pipe and light up. My back is to the street and at first, when I feel a wave of heat pass over me, I think it’s on account of the dope, the rush. That it’s powerful stuff. But then it happens again, an even stronger wave along the back of my neck, and that’s when I realize that it’s coming from behind me. Turning, I see it: The building directly across the street is immersed in fire. And it’s a beautiful sight.”

-James Brown, "The Los Angeles Diaries"

I was first introduced to The Los Angeles Diaries when I was an English major at Cal State San Bernardino (or CSUSB). I'd transferred to CSUSB in 2001 and was excited to find out that, within the English program, CSUSB offered an emphasis in creative writing. Up to that point, I’d spent a few years trying to learn the craft on my own. Despite the encouragement of my friends and family, who all seemed to enjoy my short stories, I felt very limited in my abilities. I had what I thought to be loads of creative ideas, however I lacked the appropriate tools to turn those ideas into engaging literary prose.

My first creative writing class at CSUSB was something of a disaster. The professor—who I will not name here—was (and is, I suspect) a very accomplished author, whose career has been decorated with awards and accolades. I was thrilled to sit at the feet of a professional author, somebody who had been to the place I wanted to be and, better yet, could give me some insight on how to get there. I showed up to that class filled with confidence and ambition. By the end of the fall quarter, the professor had managed to strip me of all said confidence and ambition. Going into winter break, I decided to quit writing.

When I told my girlfriend, Chanel, that I was quitting writing, she asked why.

“I’m no good at it,” I told her.

“Yes, you are,” she said.

“No, seriously,” I said, “I’m really not.”

“You’re a great writer,” she said.

“I know you think that,” I said, “but I’m really bad at it.”

“No,” she said, defiantly, “you’re not.”

I found myself getting frustrated with her. She simply didn’t know enough about writing, I told myself, to realize I was no good. But no matter how vehemently I tried to convince her, she refused to believe me.

“If you want to quit,” she said, “that’s fine. But will you do me a favor?”

“What is it?”

“Will you write stories just for me?”

“Why?”

“I love your writing,” she said. “So, even if you think your stories are terrible, I still want to read them.”

It seemed reasonable enough. She could go on with the delusion that I was any good and I could take comfort that only one person in the world would have to suffer my writing. So I worked on a short story that had been in my head about a secret criminal enterprise that was fronted by a children’s show starring a clown named Krazy Karl. I never finished the story, but the writing I did served as something of a bridge from the fall to the spring quarter, at which point I decided that I would try one more creative writing class, before quitting for good. So, in the spring of 2002, I registered for a class taught by James Brown.

I had never heard of Brown before and I didn’t learn until the first day of class that, like my previous professor, he was an accomplished author with a handful of novels under his belt and a forthcoming memoir, which he told us was called The Los Angeles Diaries. He seemed like a nice and reasonable man, so I felt comfortable putting the fate of my writing life in his hands. If Brown had nothing good to say about my writing, as was the case with the previous professor, then I would take it as a sign. In fact, I was in such a hurry to find out—once and for all—that I was wasting my time as a writer, I volunteered for the first workshop of the class.

I submitted a revised version of the story I had previously workshopped in my first creative writing class about a teenage boy who is terrorized by three bald men driving a rusty orange pickup truck; they follow him home, tie him to a chair and go through an eccentric ceremony, before shaving his head.

During the course of the workshop, Brown had favorable things to say about both my writing and the story. He had critiques, of course, but they were tactful and constructive. His encouragement lit a fire in my belly and I couldn’t wait to start working on my new revisions, especially since, in between workshops, Brown spent time talking about the craft of creative writing, giving me the tools I had longed for.

Later that year, the English department at CSUSB hosted a reading featuring Brown and The Los Angeles Diaries. I took Chanel with me and we sat in a crowd of people that, ironically enough, included the aforementioned writing professor (who will remain nameless). Brown read from the chapter “Snapshot,” which is the story of his mother burning down an apartment building and all the repercussions this action would have on their family.

“I’m waiting in the car for my mother while she sets fire to an apartment building down the street. I’m five years old. The car is a new Thunderbird with big seats that still smell of fresh vinyl, and the street where we are parked is lined with sycamores that have begun to shed their leaves. It is early in the evening. We are in a quiet working-class neighborhood in San Jose, California, fifty miles south of San Francisco along Highway 101, and when my mother returns to the car, slightly out of breath, we drive to Fisherman’s Wharf and have shrimp cocktails for dinner.”

-James Brown, “The Los Angeles Diaries”

I was struck by the simplicity of his sentences. There was nothing fancy about Brown’s writing; however, the cadence of his prose was methodical and deliberate, hypnotic even. As he read, his seemingly simple prose systematically painted a picture full of genuine emotion and poignancy.  By the end, I was thoroughly impressed by Brown’s mastery of the craft. I was also grateful that the man who wrote so beautifully was the same man who was mentoring me in my own pursuit to master the craft.

A few months later, I went to Barnes and Noble to buy The Los Angeles Diaries on the first day it was available. As I read it, I got the sense Brown was trying to piece together the fragments of his life, to look at it all with a sober eye, hoping to discover, through the therapeutic process of writing, how his life turned out the way it did. There are no easy answers in The Los Angeles Diaries and Brown is too wise to pretend he has any. And while Brown’s story is filled with tragedies—some unnecessary, some unavoidable—it is not without hope.

Every time I pick up The Los Angeles Diaries, I find myself feeling grateful all over again. Not just for Brown’s honest and unflinching portrayal of his life, but also for the unwitting hand he played in resuscitating my confidence and ambition. I can say with complete confidence that if it weren’t for James Brown, not only wouldn’t I be writing this blog post right now, I wouldn’t be writing at all—except, of course, for the stories Chanel would invariably have forced out of me.