Nearly 75 people crowded into Skylight Books on a rainy Monday evening to celebrate Alta Journal’s Issue 22: The Desert Is Coming. Los Angeles was an appropriate location for the gathering as this particular issue delves into the terrains, cultures, and oddities of the western deserts, some of which are within a few hours drive of the sprawling city.
Contributing writers Susan Straight, Monica Corcoran Harel, and Ken Layne prepared to read their pieces as fans, Alta members, and Skylight regulars trickled in and leafed through the magazine. Once everyone got settled, editorial director Blaise Zerega introduced Alta, its mission to support and collaborate with independent bookstores, as well as its many free programs, including weekly newsletters and the California Book Club. He then welcomed Straight to the podium.
“I can’t say enough about Alta, because Alta is for us,” Straight told the audience. “This is the magazine of the West.” Before reading from the current issue, she discussed her short story “Ribs, Muscle, Bone,” published in Alta Journal 10, which follows a girl’s relationship with her father, a butcher at Stater Bros. She later included a version of the story in her gorgeous novel Mecca. Straight then read her piece from the issue, “Oasis, California,” which is adapted from Black Star Canyon, her novel in progress, which picks up three weeks after Mecca ends.
Monica Corcoran Harel, founder of Pretty Ripe, a website and newsletter for women over 40, followed Straight with a reading of “Soaking Up Some Wisdom,” a reflective and hilarious telling of an attempt at “finding herself” during a stay in Desert Hot Springs. She joked with the crowd: “I always hated the desert because l felt like it was really dry and punishing.… I was like, the desert’s overrated; the desert doesn’t try. And then when I hit middle age, and I became dry and punishing and stopped trying, I understood the appeal of the desert.”
Ken Layne read last. His essay, “An Ode to ‘Desert Oracle,’ ” follows the joys and tribulations of eight years of publishing a pocket-size magazine meant to capture the essence and allure of the desert. The piece, Zerega explained, was initially intended to serve as a eulogy to the legendary publication; there was a time when Layne believed it was reaching its final days. When it came time to write the assigned article, however, Layne changed his mind. “Typing late at night, radio or records playing low, the fireplace roaring, coyotes singing out beyond the back fence. This is all I ever wanted,” he read. “2023 marks the eighth year of Desert Oracle, an occasional publication and weekly radio show that is both burden and joy, but I’m still typing in the night.”
After Straight, Harel, and Layne sat for a Q&A, the evening came to a close as contributing writers, Alta staff, and audience members mingled over drinks, books, and magazines. Skylight Books proved the perfect setting to collectively contemplate the deserts of the West. Get ready for more issue parties at our favorite indie bookstores this spring!•