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LAist interview: Mark Sarvas

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Mark Sarvas has championed local reading series, excoriated the LA Times Book Review, and tirelessly blogged about all things literary on his site The Elegant Variation. With its smart writing, frequent updates and splashes of wicked humor, it has become required daily reading — for both Angelenos and folks in the Big Established Publishing World in NY. He is also a founding member of the LitBlog Co-Op (more about that below), which announced its latest book recommendation — Garner by Kirstin Allio — today. Mark has helped raise LA's literary profile, reminding the rest of the world that we're not just about breast implants and lunch at The Ivy.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles? What neighborhood do you call home?
It will be twenty years this August, and after far too much moving around (Beverly Center, Beverlywood, Westwood, Pacific Palisades, Mid-Wilshire), I've settled down in Santa Monica.

What exactly is a litblog?
Depending on whom you ask, they're either the future of publishing or they're narcissistic parasites. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and I content myself to describe litblogs as journals of their proprietor's enthusiams — which in my case happens to be literary fiction. The truth is that litblogs come in a wide range of flavors, with some merely providing links to the literary news and reviews of the day, and with other, more ambitious sites providing considerable amounts of original content, including reviews and interviews.

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How many hours a day do you devote to your litblog, The Elegant Variation?
(Inaudible mumbled reply.)

What's the LitBlog Coop?
It's an experiment, and one that's going quite well, I'm pleased to say. It's a group of about 20 high profile literary bloggers who get together four times a year to pick a book and say "Read this." Sort of like Oprah with better taste and a fraction of the readership. But the Co-op is gaining some real momentum — we're hearing tales of nominated publishers increasing their print runs — and the mix of books (which tends to focus on smaller presses and less well known titles) is never anything short of eclectic and fascinating. In the round of choices announced today, we've got experimental fiction, science fiction, and mainstream fiction, to cite just three of the five.

How many books do you read in an average month?
It varies considerably, depending on how far I've overcommitted myself (the months leading up to the Read This pick are always especially busy) but I'd say no fewer than 8 and no more than 10 or 12. That's books read start to finish. Obviously, there are many titles — too many to count — that get opened up, read for a chapter or three, and then abandoned.

What's your favorite book about/set in LA?
Hmm. That's a tricky one, because too much fiction set in L.A. is about the film business, and that's a genre I really hate — just as I hate books about writers or writing; anything that's too self-referential. I suppose I could play it totally safe and say The Day of the Locust but that would be disappointing, wouldn't it? Well, why don't I fudge the question and say that the last really good book about L.A. I read (following a discussion with LAist Editor Carolyn Kellogg) was Steve Erickson's Our Ecstatic Days. I'm still trying to get my head fully around it but he has a remarkable feel for this place, whether it's L.A. today or (as in some chapters) tomorrow. It's a fascinating read.

What's your preferred mode of transportation?
My yellow and black Pinarello racing bike.

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It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Coming from my training — I'm a pretty obsessive cyclist, as my regular readers know, and Thursday night is a training night. And since I'll have been on the bike for two hours, chances are I'm totally wiped out and heading straight for bed — but not without a compulsive laptop stop to check email and spiff up tomorrow's blog posts.

Describe your best LA dining experience.
Ho ho ho. You gotta be kidding me. There are too many in this city ... Shabu Shabu in Little Tokyo ... Scallion pancakes at the Mandarin Deli ... Pizza at Mulberry Street ... The tasting menu at Melisse ... The sushi bar at Taiko ... Burgers at The Counter ... The penne arrabiatta at il Forno (NOT Il Fornaio) ... but if I had to pick one, I'd probably pick the autumn tasting menu at Patina - it's generous with the fungi ...

You haven't really lived in LA until:
You've been invited to do an LAist interview. (I bet you hear that all the time.)

What is your LA pet peeve?
I share many of the usual gripes — inconsiderate cell phone use, talking in theaters, SUV shitheads. But I think what I most lament is that there isn't a decent NY-style jazz club here. (Yeah, the Jazz Bakery is a great venue but it's no club, and Catalina's too expensive and neat. I want the rough edges of the Village Vanguard, and we don't seem to have that.)

What is the "center" of LA to you?
I lived for 12 years near the Beverly Center and that neighborhood has always felt like the center of town. It's the only place I know of where any part of town really is just about 20 minutes away.

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Where is your favorite place to write/blog?
I love working at The Office, a writers' workspace on 26th street and San Vicente in Santa Monica. Unfortunately, they're facing financial problems, and so I might be losing it soon.

What's the best place to ride a bike in LA?
Well, not to sound too Clintonian, but what's your definition of best? If you mean safest, then there's no better perch than on a spinner at Revolution Fitness in Santa Monica (where you'll find me far too often). But for real outdoors riding, the best is PCH. My favorite ride starts up at Pepperdine and heads due north on Highway 1 until Camarillo. (That's a 65 mile round-trip.) Sure, riders get killed there but that's a small price to pay for beauty, right?

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
Did you know there are more subscribers to the New Yorker in California than in New York? (Really - it's true. I've blogged about it.)

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
Paris.