"Los Angeles was totally different back then. You could literally get into a bar if you were 12 years old as long as your skirt was short enough and you had some janky sort of ID to show the bouncer at the door. It was that easy."
I’m not all that used to reading books that don’t open with some overwrought description of the night sky or a gloved hand reaching for a letter, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mandana Towhidy’s self-described “heavy metal novel” Arcadia. Turns out, high school narratives actually deal in much of the same subject matter as stuffy Victorian comedies about manners, only the women are squeezing themselves into leather miniskirts as opposed to corsets (but these chicks squeeze into those, too).
The novel’s set in Los Angeles in the late 80s, super Sunset strip steeze, and follows Ronnie, a Hollywood high schooler with a beer belly that still registers as baby fat. She’s a virgin straight-A student in hooker heels, smoking out her peers like a champ. Nothing quite earth-shattering happens, but the book isn’t some grinding psychological portrait of people making tough choices; it’s about the freedom of not making choices at all. The unraveling of Ronnie’s all-things-to-all-people disposition definitely resonates more with those looking back on adolescence than anyone too mired in it to realize how lucky they are. “My agent calls it ‘young-adult crossover’,” Towhidy says, which made me feel better about loving it so much.
This is her first novel, but apparently not the last. Before Arcadia's conception, Towhidy was a trend forecaster, art director, and creative consultant for nearly ten years, pimping out her cultural cache by day and writing fiction by night. She is also the former US Editor for Oyster magazine, the gorgeous Australian fashion glossy that I used to steal from Borders (heh).
The text of Arcadia is scattered throughout with little lightning bolt icons that correspond to a specific song listed in the back of the book. The idea of a “soundtrack” seemed gimmicky to me at first (I couldn’t help thinking of those Golden Book soundtracks I listened to as a kid); then I was simply afraid that my shitty old brain couldn’t handle reading and listening to hair metal jams at the same time, but it worked out pretty great. There’s even a YouTube channel with all the tracks listed in the order they appear in the book, so you don’t waste time searching the dark recesses of your iTunes. Tight. We checked in with Mandana from her home in Los Angeles, where she now writes full-time with her trusty pooch by her side.
VICE: What made you want to write fiction after being a creative director/magazine editor for so long? The book definitely isn't some thinly-veiled autobiography of your professional life.
Mandana Towhidy: I've always been writing books. Some of my earliest memories are of putting stories together and dreaming of having a book in the library (a favorite place of mine as a kid). If there was a fight in the playground, I would immediately go home and start writing (and illustrating) little books on lined paper about it. I've actually written three other books. The first one I thought about publishing was "too weird" to be my first book (according to my agent). And, for Arcadia, I wanted to write that book way back in ‘98. Writing stories is my first calling, but it's easier to make a living as a creative head or an editor maybe than writer of a novel.
"Too weird" for a first book? What does that even mean? Can you tell us what it was about?
That means if your first book freaks the readers out, they might never read anything else after that. It’s a different concept than most novels... a deep dark plunging hole into crazytown. I can't really say anything else. I'm also working on a new novel right now. It's about the way a relationship can end up devouring itself. And there's also a little novella about skiing that I'm aching to write.
Skiing! Let’s focus on Arcadia for now. How much of the book is based on personal experience? Were you like Ronnie as a teenager?
I don't know how anyone can write a fiction novel and not take from their own life experience. How can you write about the taste of beer if you've never tasted beer? A lot of the book does come from my experience and being in LA at that time. It was totally different back then. You could literally get into a bar if you were 12 years old as long as your skirt was short enough and you had some janky sort of ID to show the bouncer at the door. It was that easy.I was also that kid in the corner who listened to everything, even if people didn't think I was paying attention. (I'm still like that.) So a lot of the little bits and pieces are from crazy rumors or funny stories I heard when I was growing up. Ronnie is a part of me. But that's not to say everything she thinks and does is what I thought or did. It's kind of complicated and would take a long time to explain.
Did you do any research? The book is historical fiction in a way—so many details refer to real people and places in LA during this time.
I did some. But I’ve always been really into heavy metal, and a lot of those stories have been in my head for years. I just didn't know how they were going to play out, or what form they'd take. One of the main reasons I wrote Arcadia was to make sure there was some kind of documentation of how it really was back then. I used to get annoyed with some of those shows on TV about metal or whatever. They'd always show the same bands, etc. And I'd be shaking my head and thinking, "That's not how it was...at least in LA." The other reason why I wanted to write it was because I wanted to make sure young girls into the music now realize that being a girl teen into heavy metal when it ruled did not mean you were a slut and submissive and stupid, or that you had to look like a hardcore goth. I dunno. I just wanted to make sure there was some other view written down. Same reason why I went into journalism.
Personally, I love the hunt of the details when you love a book. Or an author. Or whatever. I'm one of those people who wants to go the bars that my writing heroes went to or whatever. I love finding the real location of a place where a good book was written. Those kinds of weird things. There is so much riddle and code hidden between the lines that even I've forgotten all of them.
I love the mention of the girls' out-of-control pro-skater friend.
Newt. Skateboarding has always been a big part of my life, and I do know and did know a lot of famous skaters. It was always interesting to see them with their tight friends versus how they were at a party with groupies. Newt could be based on a very, very, very famous skater.
How did you come up with the idea of a “soundtrack”? At first it just seemed like extra work—I read the first half without using it at all, and then read the second half timing the soundtrack to the lightning bolts. It was awesome!
I couldn't let people just guess what the characters were listening to. I think it really adds to you getting even further immersed in the story. You did it both ways...and how much better was it when you followed the lightning bolts? I have always loved these kind of interactive things, ever since I was a kid. I wanted to share my favorite songs with the readers, too. I don't know if people understand how good Scorpions are. Or how reeeeeeally amazing Axl Rose is. Way more than "Welcome to the Jungle" shit. There’s a couple of non-metal songs in there that help paint a good picture.
What would you want a young girl to take away from this novel? It’s not like there’s a clear-cut “lesson” at the end.
I would want for a girl (or dude) to take away something they didn't know they were looking for in the first place.
What's the craziest thing you did in high school?
I don't really know how to answer that, because however I answer it I'm bound to sound like an ass.