This novel began in 1999 with a letter from Roland Bernard Brown, a friend of mine who grew up in an upper-middle-class black family in Southern California. We had been talking about racial issues in America (and have continued the conversation for many years since then), but one of his biggest regrets was that black men get short shrift in literature. He wondered why I had never written a black hero in my fiction.
The problem with my writing a black hero—using his point of view, seeing the world through his eyes—is that I'm not a black man myself and probably never will be. I didn't grow up in black culture and so I would make a thousand mistakes without even knowing it.
Whereupon Roland promised me that he would help. He would give me background. He would catch my mistakes and help me get back on track.
Then you should write the book yourself, too, I said.
Someday he would, he told me. But that didn't let me off the hook.
Because I was intrigued by the idea. Roland had told me stories from his life, growing up in a mixed middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles—the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that he was told that his "acceptance" was less than total.
But I didn't want to write a novel about race—that is, I didn't want to write about racial conflict.
So we decided together that the ideal place to set this book was in Baldwin Hills, a middle- to upper-middle-class black neighborhood in Los Angeles between La Cienega and La Brea. There, I could create a community of African-Americans who had made it—or whose parents had made it—out of the morass of poverty and oppression.
When next I was in Los Angeles, my cousin Mark and I drove to Baldwin Hills and took pictures. I was impressed by the great variety of the houses, from impressive demi-mansions on the slopes of the hills to the more modest, but still well-tended and attractive homes in the flat. It was a neighborhood with tire swings here and there, occasional yards with eccentric plantings or houses with odd paint jobs; the flat of Baldwin Hills, in fact, reminded me of the neighborhood I had grown up in farther north, in Santa Clara.
It felt like what I had imagined when reading Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.
Above the neighborhood was the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, which had a drainage system that funneled rainwater down into the steep valleys where the wealthiest houses of Baldwin Hills stood. The park had gorgeous views of Los Angeles to the north—and of old oil wells to the south.
And between the park and the neighborhood, there was a wild area that ended in a basin surrounding a drainpipe. In a torrential rain, the runoff from the wild hills would collect there and then be drained away so it wouldn't flood Baldwin Hills.
I knew then that my story would be about the leakage of magic into the world, right there where it would spill out over this particular neighborhood; and because no one would be likely to believe what the residents were going through, they would have to solve the problem themselves. I called it Slow Leak.
It's a long way from a situation to a story. It took me so many years to come up with a good character that sometimes I despaired. I made two attempts at beginning the tale. One was the short story "Waterbaby,"[*] my first telling of the tale of Tamika Brown.
Later I came up with the character of Yolanda White—the motorcycle-riding "hoochie mama" who scandalized the neighborhood. And that finally led me to the character of my hero, Mack Street, the baby who was found by the drainpipe at the hairpin turn of Cloverdale. My first stab at writing it appeared as the short story "Keeper of Lost Dreams."[**]
[**] "Keeper of Lost Dreams," published in Flights: Visions of Extreme Fantasy, edited by Al Sarrantonio (Roc, June 2004).
Finally I found the character of Byron Williams and the way that Mack Street was born into the world, and finally this novel—which I now was calling by its present title—began to take shape. It was still painful going, and so many years had passed since my first expedition to Baldwin Hills with my cousin Mark that I had to go back and refresh my memory of the place. Aaron Johnston, one of my partners in my film company and a wonderful writer himself, came armed with a digital camera, and those were the pictures I consulted during the writing of the book.
I knew the physical place, but not the people. I don't know a single soul who ever lived in Baldwin Hills. So for those readers who do, I can tell you right now that nobody in this book is based on anybody who lives there. If you think you recognize a real person in this book, it only shows that guys who make stuff up for a living sometimes hit close to reality entirely by accident.
Then, with the book about half written, I went back to Baldwin Hills and was horrified to discover that in the process of construction of a new house just below the hairpin turn, someone had stripped all the grass and greenery from the basin surrounding the drainpipe. Instead of looking like an idyllic meadow straight out of Shepherd's Calendar, it looked like Mordor.
Disaster! Even though it wouldn't matter to most of the readers of the book, I wanted people to be able to drive up Cloverdale and see the scene that I described!
But the solution was obvious: I would have an event in the book that explained why the basin looked burned over.
The final key to the novel did not come, however, until I was floundering about in mid-book, and it dawned on me who Yo Yo and Bag Man really were. I had once designed and built the set for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I realized that if Yo Yo were Titania and Bag Man were Puck, the story would take on a whole new layer of meaning.
I went back and revised and rewrote, and now the middle of the book came together. All that remained was the realization that Word Williams, instead of forgetting the birth of Mack Street, should remember it and be Oberon's tool in the mortal world. Finally, all the elements were in place and I could finish the book.
What Roland Bernard Brown asked me for, I finally was able to deliver—thanks to his help, before, during, and after the writing of the book. In fact, it turned out to be overkill, since the characters of Ceese and Word took on so much life for me that one could argue that Magic Street is a novel with three black male heroes.
Besides driving and hiking around Baldwin Hills and Hahn Park with me, Aaron and Mark helped in other ways. It's because of the boundless hospitality of Mark and Margaret Park that I have had the chance to know and love Los Angeles as I do; that magical place where Avenue of the Stars flies over Olympic is on my regular running path when I stay with them, sometimes for weeks on end, working on projects in the city. And significant portions of this book were written on the table in the spare room they let me inhabit.
Aaron Johnston obtained for me the official maps of Baldwin Hills that I used as a resource. And he worked like a crazy man to produce Posing as People (besides writing one of the one-act plays within it), so that I could direct the plays and still have time to write on Magic Street during those hot August days in the summer of 2004.
I was helped by my normal crew of pre-readers—Kathy H. Kidd, Erin Absher, and, as always, my wife, Kristine, who also had to suffer through every idea I came up with for the story over a period of five years. Kristine also performed financial miracles, keeping everything afloat while I was six months later than I thought I'd be in completing this novel.
My assistant, Kathleen Bellamy, and my resident webwright, Scott Allen, make things run smoothly and help me in uncountable ways, though to Scott's relief I didn't write a single page of this book in the car beside him, as I had done with the novel before. Not that there was no car-writing this time—but it was Kristine doing the driving on the way to and from a speaking gig in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As she drove I wrote two chapters... and the speech.
I'm grateful for the patience and the sense of urgency provided by my editor, the saintly Betsy Mitchell, and my agent, the long-suffering Barbara Bova.
And thanks to Queen Latifah for putting Yolanda White on a motorcycle.