Judith Freeman, author of The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, unabashedly claims that she is “obsessed” with Chandler, the famed mystery writer and creator of legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe. During Freeman’s investigation into Chandler’s life, she’d become intrigued by how little was known of the hard-boiled writer’s relationship with Cissy Pascal, his wife of thirty years. Freeman had spent months researching archives of old, surviving correspondences and forgotten photographs and she also traveled all over Southern California, to the Chandlers’ many residences (apartments, rented houses and hotel rooms), in order to get a feel for how they lived and who they were.
The end result of Freeman’s extensive investigation is The Long Embrace, a genre-shifting novel that explores the nature of relationships and marriage by examining, in detail, the private lives of Raymond and Cissy. Freeman’s book also is a historiography of Los Angeles as well as a memoir, since Freeman frequently inserts herself into the narrative. The Long Embrace has been hailed as a notable book of the year by National Public Radio, Salon and The Village Voice and has received favorable reviews in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Newsweek.
Judith took time out of her busy day to discuss her latest book with me.
Joey Damiano: Some critics have mentioned how your new book, The Long Embrace, defies classification. How would you describe it?
Judith Freeman: Well, it’s certainly not a straight biography, but I think it’s a portrait of a marriage, a portrait of a writer—Raymond Chandler—a portrait of a city, and obviously, it’s a portrait of me. It ends up being about one writer’s obsession with another, my obsession with Raymond Chandler. So it’s part biography, part urban history and part memoir. It’s also an investigation of a marriage, and it even ends up being a kind of a travelogue because of the way that I moved all over the city.
JD: Your book is this interesting hybrid of literary styles—memoir, detective novel, history of L.A.—
JF: Well I think it’s one of those things that’s happening right now in the world of contemporary literature that I find really exciting and really freeing, and that is that the borders of the genres are beginning to loosen; and in some cases, the borders just dissolve. So that you don’t have to think of a “biography” as some kind of rigid form that has a kind of prescribed way of doing it: “You start with the guy’s grandfather and grandmother. Then, you move in a linear way through time.” Really, you know: biography, memoir, novel, fiction—everything seems to be loosening. And you’ve got these kinds of dissolving borders that I find really exciting because it’s fresh; it gives you a way to approach the novel differently, or approach the biography differently. There’s more freedom.
JD: Your exploration of the Chandler marriage possesses a “Marlowe-esque” vibe; you’re like a detective “searching” for traces of these people…
JF: I didn’t really set out thinking “Oh, I’m going to replicate Philip Marlowe’s activity;” and I’m going to be a sleuth and track all of these places down. But after I was into the book and into the activity of driving around L.A., tracking down these places, sort of lurking at curbs, sneaking into patios—
JD: Receiving dirty looks—
JF: Yeah. I realized that yes, it kind of is like detective work, and trying to assemble all of these clues as to how Chandler lived in L.A., and how much of his experience of all of these different suburbs, houses and apartments came into his own work. I asked myself: “How many traces of these different places could I see in many of his novels?” I could see quite a lot.
JD: What do you want readers to take away from their experience of reading The Long Embrace? A better understanding of Chandler? Of L.A.? Of you, the writer? Ourselves? American society, and it’s consumerist tendencies?
JF: Consumption? Greed? The getting and the spending? You know, Chandler lived during an interesting time. He was, as a critic had once said, one of L.A.’s finest social critics. Social historians…we think of [Chandler] as a mystery novelist, but he was much more than that. And he lived at a time before and after World War Two when he really saw American society change, and he didn’t particularly like what he saw—he saw advertising and television begin to sort of hock products to Americans whether they needed them or not. Also, these products had a kind of built-in obsolescence; so, he knew that it was going to be a cheat and a scam and that we were going to get suckered. And I think most of us feel we have been suckered right now into a tremendous level of consumption. And the other thing that he saw was what a corrupt and violent society America really was. He wrote about that corruption in L.A. And L.A. was exquisitely corrupt during the 1930’s; and he just saw this casual, everyday violence that he began to read about in the newspaper. It was everywhere around him. How that was going to be such a feature of life in L.A. and in the rest of America in the future. And how it was going to end up being a fact of life for Americans that you know, we’re a great, big, gluttonous society, he said, and crime was the price that we had to pay for all of that gluttony. So I think he was very prescient, you know, in the way that he looked at society.
When reading The Long Embrace, I want the reader to find a way [in which he or she will] connect. There’s enough there that people can connect in different ways. Some people have said to me “You know, I’ve never really understood L.A. I’ve never gotten it. But after I’d read your book, I sort of felt as if I had come to know the city in a different way.” So, you can take away from the book a certain kind of picture of L.A.; a broader sense of what this strange city is all about; or you could take away ideas about the relationships between men and women. Marriage—the nature of marriage. Can a marriage survive affairs? What about older women and younger men? Chandler’s wife was almost twenty years older than he was. How about that? And [this is a] society where the “older man, younger woman” thing is very, verycommon, but it’s pretty uncommon for a younger man to be with a much older woman—not so much in France, maybe, but in America, the culture of youth is a very different thing. And certainly I think you can take away a portrait of me. And that’s the hardest thing for me to talk about, because I can’t see it. I can’t sense it. And I think anybody that reads this book would certainly have a sense of the author because it is personal.
JD: One of the themes addressed in your novel is the idea that L.A. is this gigantic, amorphous city teeming with people, yet, it’s a lonely place. Loneliness (and the sense of rootlessness), seems to permeate Chandler’s life, as well as Phillip Marlowe’s life. For example, in your novel, you’d mentioned the popularity of cafeterias in Los Angeles.
JF: There were these low-cost, very populist eateries. Clifton’s cafeteria was one of the first of them where you put your food on a tray and pushed it along the railing and, you know, selected the dishes you wanted and you might sit down at a table, with other people, and then you could start a conversation. This was not something you could do in a higher-end restaurant, but it became a way for people from the Midwest who had sort of left everything behind and found themselves in a place where they didn’t know people, too, you know. To get out and go somewhere, to meet someone. I think it was part of the whole rise of the idea of fast food. In a fractured society, people are cut off from their past, and you still have to go and eat. But you don’t cook. You don’t want to sit at home, alone all of the time, so there was the whole idea of going out and consuming low-cost food out of almost boredom. From loneliness. I really think that played a big part in the rise of the fast food experience. And Chandler saw that and he wrote about it. For instance, in The Little Sister there are some wonderful passages about going into diners and getting pressured to eat fast or you get thrown out. Because they need the room for someone else.
Chandler not only [predicted and documented the emergence of rampant] consumerism, but he documented the kinds of habits that had to do with automobiles: driving out of boredom and eating low-cost meals. Where the food wasn’t very good, but it was cheap. And, you know, it was fast. He documented that element of speed coming into society.
JD: On page 191, you ask the question “Where do I belong?” Since you are originally from Utah, and have moved around a bit, and finally settled in Los Angeles, have you come closer to answering that question?
JF: I mean, I haven’t really answered that question yet. Many of my friends I think have. But most of the people I know who are in L.A.—they weren’t born here. They didn’t grow up here. They came here and I do think there is still a tremendous element of loneliness and separation and a lack of community in L.A. For all of the obvious reasons that we’ve all talked about over and over. It’s a city where people live private lives in their cars. And usually there is only one person to a car. And they spend a lot of time in cars. But beyond that, when they get out of their cars, they usually go home to a house that is surrounded by a garden or a fence, or [they are enclosed] within an apartment, and they tend to live very private, secluded lives. It’s not that people want to—after they’ve had a day of the city, [they don’t seem to] want to go out and take a walk in the park. There are no parks to begin with, so I still think the ideal L.A. existence is for people to have a house, a garden, privacy that you can retreat to—
JD: And a Range Rover to hide in—
JD: So what’s the future of L.A.? And what about your future in Los Angeles? Do you think there will ever be a day where (as Raymond Chandler had said before he ran off to La Jolla) you will say: “Enough is enough—good-bye L.A.?”
JF: You know, I need a break from L.A., so in the summers, I go up to a little ranch in Idaho. It’s out in the country and I get a wonderful sense of quiet and solitude. Of nature. And that’s very important, it’s very restorative. But I always love to come back to the city. I just think L.A. is so very interesting. So many people are doing remarkable work here and there is such a confluence of ideas and energy. There’s this tremendous energy about this city. I think for a writer, and for an artist, there is no better place to live than Los Angeles. So much is coming out of this city and being exported to the rest of the world. So much popular imagery and culture. And many artists had felt that need to go to New York if they wanted to be recognized and now artists from New York are coming to L.A. Because this is really where it’s happening. And certain museum directors have left New York to come to L.A. because of the tremendous energy and possibilities here. I’d just read an interview with Peter Sellers, the theatre director, who lives in Los Angeles and he had said that he moved here because he feels that it’s where things are happening. And [he said that] L.A. also represents the best and the worst of the future. And I think [what Sellers said was] true. I think we have no idea what’s coming. There’s no way to know.
And at some point, the city, for me, may become uninhabitable. I’ll look up and say, “Wow, Blade Runner. It’s here.” It’s a great movie, one of my favorites. But you know, there are days where, in my neighborhood, when I look out on a dismal, gray, rainy day, and I’m walking around MacArthur Park, I think: “Hmm…”
JD: And a massive airship, with a bright, intrusive billboard floats by in the sky—
JF: Yeah, you know, and then the handsome android comes up to me, and I can’t figure out whether it’s a guy or a machine…when that happens, you know what? I’m leaving. If it gets that bad…But for now, this is where I want to be. I can’t think of anywhere better than being in Los Angeles.
Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace is now out in paperback.
About the author:
Joey Damiano’s writing has appeared in Mediacake, Enjambed, Filmfodder and Intervention Magazine. He earned a master’s degree in literature at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills and is currently a student in the University of Southern California’s Master of Professional Writing Program. With his highly marketable weed-whacking, firearms and pinball playing skills, he figures he’ll ride out the imminent New DepressionTM just fine.