Los Angeles is often—and wrongly—accused of having no history. David Grand’s new novel Mount Terminus tells an astonishing story of the city rising out of the middle-of-nowhere to give birth to a booming film industry. Mount Terminus follows the coming-of-age of Bloom, the son of a phenomenally successful inventor of filmmaking technology who leads Bloom on a cryptic journey to live in the San Gabriel foothills to escape a dark family secret. After his father’s death, Bloom learns he has a brother with an unencumbered ambition to pursue show business at all costs. Grand’s previous books, Louse and The Disappearing Body, also re-imagine gritty tales from American history, but Mount Terminus turns this burgeoning moment of time into an allegory on the making of a modern culture. Living in New York now, but raised in Los Angeles, Grand has long been fascinated by the barren, season-less imagery from his childhood. I spoke with Grand about how he spent the last 11 years reconceiving Los Angeles into his own fabled place.
I imagine your research process must have been immense. What kind of research went into the novel?
I looked at a lot of maps and old photographs. I was just struck by how little development there was in the city and how little documentary evidence I found. I liked the idea of having the freedom to imagine the world on my own. I gathered all my childhood impressions, the impressions from my research, and then my version of Los Angeles, which you couldn’t possibly find on any map.
A lot of your fiction has been rooted in historical fact. Can you talk about this dynamic?
I don’t consider myself a writer of historical fiction—I think I’m just a man in my mid-forties still trying to figure out the contemporary world. I get very confused by it. I like being able to visit photographs and texts for the same reason that I feel more comfortable on a naked mountain with a villa, and I could live in that fictional space for a decade or more. I like having a retreat, and to me the past is a perfect retreat from the modern world.
The book is told in a chronological way, but it’s also sectioned off by thematic overtures—darkness, life, affinity, love and paradise. Why?
I knew that I wanted to structure a traditional bildungsroman, and when I had that idea I knew that I was dealing with the birth of the city, and the birth of technology and the still photographic image being commercialized into the motion picture image by the studios. It was about the growth of Bloom as a character and the development of this stark family history, but it was also about the coming-of-age of the city and the coming-of-age of the industry.
I wanted the reader to experience Bloom as if he were experiencing life as a silent film. I decided to write a young boy and his bereaved father on a mountaintop overlooking the great basin of L.A. and the sea where there’s very little going on. I wanted the artistry to be built into the perception of the character before there was this idea of an artistic act.
This book is epic—not just the historical scope of the narrative and the intimate character portrait it tells, but it’s long and the language is intricate. What was the writing process like for you?
This book is very much a departure from the work I’ve done in the past. It was very tricky to tell such a big epic story that takes place over a period of 20 some odd years. I didn’t want the book to balloon into 1,500 pages; I wanted to keep it somewhat tight. I would write three or four pages in a day and the following day I would shrink those pages down to maybe a few paragraphs. Then I did a lot waiting, and walking and pacing—I really just wanted to be patient with this book.
But I really enjoyed waking up every morning with this image of Los Angeles and it kept growing in dimension, and I kept seeing this picture of this place I had invented to the point that I couldn’t go back to L.A. for 10 years. I developed a phobia. I felt like I couldn’t go back because I thought it would interfere with my writing to see this big, wonderful, enormous, sprawling city with such a wonderfully diverse population and the freedom of spirit that lives in that city. I was so afraid of going there and having it challenge my perception of the very fragile world I was building.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her book of poetry, What Is Not Missing Is Light, will be published this fall.