Rereading Kage Baker

The Making of Mendoza in Hollywood

All kinds of strands of Kage Baker’s personal history came together for the first time in Mendoza in Hollywood. She had a sudden new confidence, born of having sold Iden and Sky Coyote—she felt she could do anything. “I can do anything,” she exulted, twirling in her chair at the vast oak desk she had bought with the proceeds from Iden. “I have all of history at my command!”

What Kage wanted to write was Grand Hotel. She wanted lots of different Operatives, and a look into their lives—both as Company employees, and as the people they had once been. She wanted a dazzling background, a rich panorama, a wealth of history and legend and the human condition. And since that kind of accommodation was not to be found in Los Angeles in the 1860s, she set the whole thing in a Company-operated stage depot in the Cahuenga Pass.

Kage loved old Hollywood, old movies, and the history of any place she lived—the stranger the better. Mendoza in Hollywood was the first book she wrote in its entirety in Pismo Beach. She loved Pismo, but she missed the Hollywood Hills—so naturally, her homesickness permeates this book. It was also the first book she wrote after we got successfully attached to the internet and cable television, so it’s rife with old maps, old photos, and old, old movies.

Kage had originally intended Mendoza’s story to be a stand alone. Think of the end of Iden; it could have been left there, poignant and solitary. But Sky Coyote had nagged itself into existence before she was quiet done with Iden, and after that … well, once she added Edward and erotic death dreams, it got out of control. She ended up with an 8-volume trilogy, plus add-ons.

Mendoza In Hollywood was also originally just the working title. All the Company novels had Mendoza-themed working titles during their gestations. Kage said it was the Asterix model, or the Oz books, or the Bobbsey Twins (all of which she loved); So and So in the Thus and Such. In the Garden of Iden was originally just “Mendoza”; Sky Coyote was “Mendoza in Chumash Country”. The Graveyard Game was Mendoza and the Hardy Boys … for fairly obvious reasons, most of these titles never even made it to the publishers’ office. Kind of a shame, with some of them.

But Mendoza in Hollywood stuck. That’s because it was a love poem from Kage to the Hollywood Hills where she grew up. Hollywood became another character in the story, and by the time the book was finished, that was the only title possible. (Mind you, the British house of Hodder and Stoughton did issue it as Into the West, but then, they also marketed it as a bodice-ripper …)

Kage had an enormous working knowledge of the ground-level geography of the Hollywood Hills. We used to roam all over them as kids, on game trails and dirt roads, and extinct driveways; Kage found and studied every old map she could find, and we hunted down the ruins of posting inns, movie sets, stars’ hide-aways, old and semi-legal homesteads … Thomas Edison used to send his knee-breakers up into the Hills to find bootleg studios, and Kage knew where their walls still stood. She dug up Tongva shell necklaces in the back yard, as well as horse shoes, nails and bits of cavalry tack: Fremont had an outpost just uphill from Mama’s kitchen. She knew where the quartz deposits were, and the hidden springs. And she knew all the old scandals and ghost stories. We grew up hearing them. A lot of them ended up in Mendoza in Hollywood.

The sound track for Mendoza in Hollywood was mostly Miguel de Falla’s work, especially El Amor Brujo and Nights in the Gardens of Spain. It’s also Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles. I don’t know why. But El Amor Brujo is playing in every scene at the stagecoach istop in Cahuenga Pass. When Edward and Mendoza are riding across the empty Los Angeles Basin, it’s through the burning ruins and barbed wire of “Fortress Round Your Heart”.

During the writing of this book, Kage fell in love with silent movies. They weren’t intended to be part of MIH, but watching them was her main recreation while she wrote it, so the films were incorporated into the plot. Specifically, she gave her own love and obsessed fascination to Einar, who thus acquired a second career as a film historian for the Company; originally, he was just a biologist.

She concentrated on “historical” films (though what she found in silent science fiction and genre films can be found in the Tor blog series Ancient Rockets). She collected all she could, and watched them over and over, through weird Rube Goldberg hybrids of cables and screens from her computer, and on our telly when we could get actual tapes (all VHS and the rare surviving Betamax back then!). Streaming did not yet quite exist for the home consumer.

We had so much trouble finding and watching the things that she gave similar difficulties to Einar when he initiates his Cahuenga Pass Film Festival. The movies were Kage’s metaphor for what recorded history does to the living memories that the Operatives carry with them: what it means to live through all that, and then see it reduced to fables and stories. The films became the weight of Time on the survivors’ souls. And that is grievous indeed.

I really do advise everyone to watch the old films, whether or not you are a fan of Kage Baker or MIH. They will tell you things about Hollywood, technology, history and human nature that you need to know to be a complete human being. They will also sear your soul, and sometimes your eyeballs. I do NOT recommend watching them, as we did, over and over and over. They do things to your mind …

Erich von Stroheim’s Greed was one of Kage’s favorites; thus, one of Einar’s. Research for it somehow yielded the City of the Lizard Men under Los Angeles (there’s a story in that; I have the notes …), and the shooting of it is a tale of amazing determination and obsession and sadism all on its own. von Stroheim shot everything in the book, more or less in sequence, and in realistic places; it’s a wonder the cast survived. I myself ended up under the living room table, reading Origin of the Species while wearing earplugs to avoid watching any of it again. The earplugs were needed, because Kage in her enthusiasm read out every title card, every time.

But her absolute favorite was Cecil B. de Mille. One memorable night, we watched Intolerance four times in a row. I love the film, too; but it does make you insane. The audience comments in MIH are all taken from reality, and there was much leaping around and playing out action in our living room. The hysterical scenes at the end, where the Operatives rush out into the moonlit wastes of almost-Hollywood, are based (as they say) on a true story …

Mendoza in Hollywood took over Kage’s life in an entirely new way. It wouldn’t be the last time a story did that—but this was the first one we lived in quite so thoroughly. For instance—if you take notes, you’ll find that every meal in the Posting Inn is the same meal: at least until Mendoza steals Juan Bautista’s lunch of sardines and deformed tortillas (which aren’t bad. I was the guinea pig for those). Steak, refried beans, tortillas, lovingly described again and again—it’s what we lived on.

So, go camping somewhere in the sage and sycamores and buckwheat, Make yourself a skillet of beef and beans, put on some Sting or de Falla, and relax. You’ll be with Mendoza. In Hollywood.

Kathleen Bartholomew is the sister of the late Kage Baker, and pretty much her life-long collaborator. She has a background in history, historical recreation, and anthropology; plus (old but devout) degrees in English and biology. Having thus far failed to die, she is continuing Kage’s work into the 21st Century. Her blog about Kage and writing can be found at https://doctorzeus.co/. She lives in Los Angeles with another sister and her family, a parrot, a Corgi and 2 cats.

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