L.A.’s Laura Warrell on debut novel ‘Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm’

A portrait of author Laura Warrell in a pink jumpsuit

Laura Warrell has experienced disappointment from both men and publishers. At 51, she channels both in her debut lyrical novel, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

On the shelf

‘Sweet, soft, lots of rhythm’

By Laura Warell
Pantheon: 368 pages, $28

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A few years ago, Laura Warrell made the decision to give up love.

She was in her late 40s, married and divorced, and fed up with men who didn’t value relationships—who would run for the hills at the slightest sign of commitment. she wrote an essay about her decision in 2019 and has since spent many hours thinking and talking about love: its value, its effect on her mind, body and soul. The essence of it that transcends camaraderie.

“Love is finding someone you don’t have to translate with yourself,” says Warrell, 51 – a line she attributed to a friend, the poet Charles Coe. “For me, love means creating a safe place where vulnerability can happen.”

She had an outlet for those musings because one thing she never gave up, after decades of being persistent and enduring, was writing. It’s been a constant presence in her life ever since she learned to string words together. She wrote her first book in elementary school, her first novel in her twenties, and she hasn’t stopped since.

Warrell’s debut novel, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, out next week, is a classic tale of lost and unrequited love that follows one man’s series of chaotic affairs, punctuated by a symphonic array of female voices that transcend social, economic and racial boundaries to be recorded .

At the center of this love polygon is the racially mixed jazz trumpeter and womanizer Circus Palmer. Around him are the women he charms and ravages. There are many including but not limited to: Pia, who is still struggling to overcome her rejection; Maggie Swan, a free-spirited drummer pregnant with Circus’s child; Peach, a nice local bartender; Odessa, afflicted by a mistake that cannot be undone; and last but not least, Koko, Circus’ daughter with Pia, who longs in a different way for a father who is at once attractive and unattainable.

Warrell is all too familiar with the appeal of musicians. She has dated many of them, only to turn up heartbroken or disappointed. Circa 2013, after ending a five-year relationship with an on-and-off, she relegated all musicians to her list of “Off-Limits Men,” alongside skateboarders and bartenders; These are the guys she learned from will never commit. That was around the time she started writing Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.

Lisa Lucas was far from the first editor to read Warrell’s manuscript. In fact, there were about 30 others. But Warrell was among the first writers that Lucas considered editing.

Lucas picked up the manuscript in January 2021 in her early days as editor of Pantheon and Schocken Books. Hired to reinvent Knopf’s decades-old imprint, she sought books that reflected her plans to create a home for diverse worldviews and global voices. Then came Warrell’s book.

“It was a really weird sensation,” says Lucas. “What are the odds that the first thing you read is something you love so much?”

There’s a lot she loved about it: Maggie and her wild independence; Warrell’s ability to represent diverse voices without making it a matter of race, class, or politics; her intimate observations about love; and the power of her story to grab you in a heartbeat.

“She has a really wonderful sense of being emotional and intellectual, but also being really human and telling a good story,” adds Lucas. “You wonder what’s going to happen or why a character is doing it. She manages to turn the page – these are the kind of people you just want to be with – but she doesn’t sacrifice depth.”

"sweet, soft, lots of rhythm," a novel by Laura Warrell

On a scorching afternoon, Warrell sits on a shady bench in La Cañada Flintridge’s Descanso Gardens and spends almost two hours talking, among other things, about the love of her life – writing. The character in her book she seems to most resemble in her confidence and composure is Maggie, the free-spirited drummer.

Warrell’s mother would agree with this assessment. “Maggie is a realist and a person with a strong sense of self,” says Libby Ellis. “And I think this is Laura. I think she’s the kind of person who would probably have dealt with Circus the way Maggie did, which is like saying to him, ‘Okay, I love you and everything, but you’re not good enough for me. I need more.'”

Warrell disagrees with her mother, not for the first time. She thinks she is the most similar to Koko. Like the youngest of these female characters, Warrell is a mixed-race only child raised by a single mother (born in New York City, raised in Ohio). Her father, with whom she has no relationship, was also a musician, but a street musician.

And like Warrell was as a teenager, Koko is very sexual. “I see her as someone who is wonderfully overwhelmed by sensuality that isn’t being embraced, and so she’s looking for ways to satisfy it,” she says. “I did that too when I was a kid.”

Ellis worked long hours, so Warrell spent a lot of time reading and writing in her room. “It worried me a little, but she was the kind of kid who really didn’t mind being alone,” says Ellis. There were no limits to her imagination: she had read to her dolls and stuffed animals and taught them things. She would write stories about it.

In first grade, Warrell wrote her first book, It’s Nice to Have a Boyfriend, about a little girl who chases after someone her own age. But what young Laura really wanted was a movie star. Writing was just something she did as naturally and routinely as walking.

She let go of her acting ambitions as a student at Emerson College and chose the more practical path of writing professionally. At the age of 25 she had written her first real book. She couldn’t publish it. She wrote another. Then another. Then another. No luck. Four novels, a collection of short stories, and 25 years later, Warrell’s hour had finally come. While completing a script for Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, she interviewed 50 agents over the course of two years before finally meeting hers.

“I’ve waited my whole life for this moment,” she says, “but it hasn’t been a fun journey. There’s nothing glamorous or sexy about it. But it was a wonderful place to settle into and I’m incredibly grateful and really glad I didn’t give up.”

As she settles into the life of a published author, Warrell is also settling into her new home in Los Feliz, where she moved from Culver City this summer. She still has to unpack boxes. She’s taking a break from teaching at Loyola Marymount University and Cal State Dominguez Hills and is working on a new book — though she hasn’t figured out where to start yet. It’s about a love triangle between a lawyer, possibly an artist, and a third woman.

However, her feet are already itching; Warrell dreams of taking a year or two off to travel around the world. She has lived in Europe twice, once with her then-husband and the second time after their divorce. She estimates it will be around 10 years before “my hips start breaking”.

She won’t actively seek love in the meantime, but will accept it when it comes. Either way, she probably won’t stop writing about it any time soon.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-22/l-a-writer-laura-warrell-gave-up-on-love-but-never-on-writing L.A.’s Laura Warrell on debut novel ‘Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm’

Sarah Ridley

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