DeLauné Michel's Life, Writ Large
By Josh Getlin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
NEW YORK—She's a promising young novelist with a strong literary pedigree, a Southern writer whose coming-of-age tale based in Los Angeles won critical praise when it was published last year. DeLauné Michel's Aftermath of Dreaming is rich in insights, and the story of how she helped create one of Southern California's major literary salons is also intriguing. But first let's talk about Warren.
When she was 18, Michel left Baton Rouge, La., and moved to New York, hoping to launch a modeling career. Although her runway dreams fizzled, she met Warren Beatty in 1987 while working as a hostess at the posh Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. The two instantly became very close friends, Michel said, and the story of their up-and-down relationship is central to her novel, which has just been released in paperback.
"I was green as a pea," she said recently in a purring, Southern accent, recalling the night she met Beatty. "And he was nothing but a wonderful, kind and supportive person. Being able to call him on the phone and tell him what was going on, to hear his take on it, was truly everything. He was an emotionally generous friend."
Earlier, Michel and her four sisters had been devastated by their parents' bitter divorce. Their father, an insurance executive, left home and had little contact with his children. A void opened in Michel's life, just as she entered adolescence, and her often desperate quest for another father figure continued for years.
"What I've written is a story about a young woman finally saying goodbye to her father," said Michel, relaxing in the living room of the home she shares with her husband and two children in a suburb north of Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River. "It's about a young woman struggling to grow up."
In her book, the character of movie star Andrew Madden, loosely modeled on Beatty, is a substitute father figure for Yvette Broussard, the main character. Their relationship is as much about nurturing conversations as it is about sex and jealousy. After six years, Yvette finally breaks off their affair and gets on with her life.
Beatty did not respond to questions about his past relationship with the author or the way he is loosely portrayed in her novel. The Madden character may surprise some readers: He's cast as a sensual lover and wise father figure who rescues Yvette emotionally at key moments but callously abandons her at others. "I bet a lot of women will recognize the way he [Madden] leaves messages on the phone, which is with a noise or a grunt, but nothing that could ever be recorded," said Carrie Feron, Michel's editor. "He never leaves a telephonic trail! You wonder what other ways he's covered up for himself in his life."
Aftermath of Dreaming plays out against the backdrop of contemporary Los Angeles, where a restless Yvette drives the freeways at night to escape herself. She travels in an endless loop, downtown, to the beach and back again. There are spot-on snapshots of Venice Beach, Robertson art galleries, Bel-Air and the sun-bleached streets of Beverly Fairfax.
At one point, Yvette muses on the difficulties of getting a waitress job. "I just want a job, I'm not an actress," she tells one owner, adding: "I really thought that would help. But they just shrugged and showed me stacks of other applicants' glossy eight-by-tens with smiles and sex abounding within. Who knew never being on TV would handicap me to serve food?"
Michel, a trim woman in her 30s with long, curly black hair, insists there are firm boundaries between her personal life and the novel. Still, she and her main character find the same sense of resolution with an absent parent—in the author's case, just before he died. And both said a fond goodbye to Mr. Big.
"It's not like we're in touch," she said of Beatty. "He's happily married. And this novel is not a hatchet job. [The relationship] was a very sweet, poignant thing, and was part of my growth."
Aftermath of Dreaming was praised as "a promising debut" by Kirkus Reviews; Booklist singled out its "crisp writing and keen observations." Monsters andcritics.com called Yvette "the most intriguing female heroine of recent fiction." It's heady stuff for a young writer. But to those who know her, it's not a surprise.
Michel's late uncle, Andre Dubus, was an acclaimed short story writer and essayist; her cousins include mystery writer James Lee Burke and novelist Andre Dubus III ("House of Sand and Fog"). Her mother, Elizabeth Nell Dubus, is a novelist and playwright.
"DeLauné got into writing for all the right reasons," said her cousin Andre. "She wanted to go deep into her psyche and pull it up. If you talk to her for three minutes, once you get past her incredible beauty, you'll see that she's a passionate person, and a very serious person, when it comes to writing and telling a story."
Family of storytellers
It was inevitable that at least one of her daughters would become a writer, Elizabeth Dubus said: "We're a family where reading and storytelling was vitally important. Our dinner table conversation was filled with this, and it got very competitive. You had to tell a really great story. You couldn't bore people."
Michel, who began writing short stories as a child, took these lessons to heart. Although she never went to college, she read voraciously. She studied acting in New York City and moved to L.A. in the early 1990s, where she hoped to become an actress. Like many refugees, she was intrigued by the sense of possibility on the West Coast, the notion that people could re-invent themselves. As her acting ambitions cooled, she began exploring the writing life.
Earlier, she had written two autobiographical short stories and sent them to her Uncle Andre. He praised them, and both went on to win recognition from the Thomas Wolfe Fiction competition. Then, in 1996, she hit on the idea of creating a literary salon in Los Angeles. It grew out of the cultural alienation she felt and a desire to throw big parties, as she had back home.
"I thought about the things that made people uncomfortable about the theater in Los Angeles, and one concern is that there often aren't great restaurants around, or at least then there weren't," she said. "You'd go with people, but in separate cars, and you'd leave again in your own car, and it wasn't a communal experience. I wanted to create something social in L.A., and I felt that if storytelling is the original form of theater, you could invent a space where people eat, drink and listen to writers."
The result was Spoken Interludes, a periodic gathering in Los Angeles—and now also in Harrison, N.Y.—where well-known authors read from their works as the audience dines in a comfortable restaurant. Michel met her future husband, photography studio chief Dan Fried, during one such Los Angeles event in 1999. Some of the authors who have participated include Anne Beattie, Larry Charles, Robert Crais, Elizabeth Frank, Mary Gordon, Jay McInerney, Rich Moody and Mona Simpson.
The impetus for Aftermath of Dreaming came one night when Michel herself was scheduled to appear at Spoken Interludes and read from a story she was working on. A book editor was in the audience and offered to send the material to a New York agent. The agent, in turn, sent it to Joyce Carol Oates, whom she represented. Oates was impressed with Michel's voice, but pointed out that the stories seemed to be chapters of a novel. That advice spurred Michel to try a bigger canvas.
Praises for L.A.
The author praised Los Angeles as a place where writers can take risky chances. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for her to launch a literary salon in Manhattan, because the publishing world can be intimidating. "New York is so stratified," she said. "But in Los Angeles, you can be a writer, period. No one cares if you've never been to the Iowa Writers' Workshop."
Michel and her husband moved back to New York three years ago, after their first child was born. They wanted a more relaxed setting, outside a big city. As she curled up on a sofa in her living room, Michel seemed comfortable. But she's also restless to revisit Los Angeles and eager to get closer to Manhattan nightlife.
In Aftermath of Dreaming, Yvette notes that the interstate she drove on back home in Baton Rouge, I-10, is the same one she drives on in Los Angeles. And it might be the road she rides out of town on when it's time to leave. "There is no sign at the end of Highway 10 before it merges into Highway 1," she says. "No sign to make sure you knew the name of what you were riding on. Which I find very odd—as if the ability to keep on going makes up for the lack of a goodbye. But maybe that's the whole point of L.A."