Ivy Pochoda swings open the door to her spacious downtown L.A. loft, which is nestled in the warehouse-thick arts district, and squeals with delight at the heavy cardboard box resting on her doorstep.
"My books, they've arrived!" she says. "There's probably 24, 25 of them in here."
Tall and athletic, the former professional squash player-turned-novelist heaves the sagging box into her arms and cradles it at her hips. It's crammed with copies of "Visitation Street" (Ecco/Dennis Lehane Books: 320 pp., $25.99), Pochoda's second novel and also the second title in mystery heavyweight Dennis Lehane's eponymous imprint, which has generated starred advance reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, among others.
"I never think of the book as a mystery," Pochoda says, settling into an armchair in her shabby chic living room, an iced coffee in hand. "I think of the book as a portrait of a community."
Set in the working-class neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Pochoda, 36, lived for three years before moving to L.A. with her filmmaker husband in 2009, "Visitation Street" is a quiet, literary thriller told in lyrical, exacting prose. It's in the vein of Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" or Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" in that a single, tragic event sends ripples through a community and character exploration carries the narrative.
It is a sweltering summer night when, bored and restless, 15-year-old best friends Val and June slip into the Hudson River for kicks on a tiny pink raft, where they're whisked away by the current. Only Val returns; she is discovered early the next morning, semi-conscious under a dilapidated pier, with no recollection of what happened.
The fallout of this event is told from multiple characters' perspectives — a Lebanese shopkeeper with a nose for news; a Broadway has-been turned alcoholic music teacher; a talented, rootless graffiti artist; a well-meaning kid from the projects living in the grim shadow of his father's murder. The characters are textured brush strokes, collectively adding up to a vibrant portrait of a neighborhood. With its new, organic produce market and hipster customers butting up against long-standing dive bars and shabby housing, it is Red Hook that ultimately emerges as the novel's lead character. Teenage angst, racism, class conflicts and the collision of cultures set off by urban gentrification all broil under the humid July sun, ensconced in the stench of the murky waterfront.
"I didn't mean to write about gentrification; but it was happening then in Red Hook," Pochoda says. "Two communities intersecting in this small space. Everyone on the verge of some new change ... that may or may not happen. I wanted to look at that."
Pochoda grew up in a slightly tonier section of Brooklyn, Cobble Hill, where squash and writing were long comingled for her. Her mom, formerly book editor at the Nation, is a magazine editor and her dad works in publishing. Growing up, they often read aloud to her at the dinner table — "the entire 'Little House on the Prairie' series!" she says in disbelief. Pochoda took her first squash lesson on her eighth birthday at a club in the neighborhood. The sport, which she describes as "a game of all angles and lines, like geometry," came easily and she was soon competing in tournaments. At Harvard, where she majored in English and Classical Greek, she won the College Squash Assn.'s individual, intercollegiate national championship her senior year.
Squash took Pochoda to the Netherlands after college, where she played professionally for more than four years on the women's world tour, earning a world ranking high of 38. "But I knew I wasn't ever gonna crack the top 20," she says. "And I loved other stuff — reading and art and culture." She landed a job editing an art and culture magazine and later did freelance writing for the Amsterdam Weekly. It was during this time, still abroad, that she started her first novel, "The Art of Disappearing," which, like her new book, features a character who goes missing.
"It's about a magician who can actually do magic, stage magic, in his real life," Pochoda says. "He makes one of his assistants disappear. It's obviously the product of a feverish 24-year-old mind."
Human erasure may be a running theme in Pochoda's work — she also ghost-writes celebrity memoirs — but Pochoda herself has so much presence. Her shoulders are squared and her posture, erect; her voice is strong, if a bit husky, and laughter comes quickly and easily.
Although she loves thrillers, Pochoda didn't start out with a genre tale in mind. "I wrote a mystery by accident," she says. It began with "writing everyone's reaction to June disappearing.... It came out of the characters."
Setting the story in Red Hook, however, was deliberate. Returning to New York after six years abroad, Pochoda found the place had changed. At the time, she was waiting for her first book to sell and trying to start a new one. "I had no idea what to write about." Pochoda says. "My mom said 'just write about what's going on outside your window.' I lived across the street from a bar, above a Greek restaurant. Apparently, I took her literally."
The character of Jonathan, Pochoda's music teacher-turned-barfly, may describe Red Hook the best: "Days pass in Red Hook like musical compositions. Sometimes they are fugues, sometimes sonatas. The wildest days, when a storm blows in from the Atlantic and water surges down Van Brunt, are certainly symphonies."
There's now a flurry of midday, industrial activity outside Pochoda's massive L.A. living room windows — intermittent foot traffic and trucks ambling by — but inside the light-filled loft it is supremely quiet but for the occasional scritch-scratch of one of Pochoda's three bunnies repositioning itself in a bed of dry grass.
The urban view suggests a possible palette for a third novel, something Pochoda would like to start but hasn't yet. It is a different street, however, that has captured Pochoda's attention of late.
"I ride my bike through skid row every day," she says. "People misinterpret it. There are a lot of poor and mentally unstable people there. But there's a definite sense of community." Pochoda is now hoping to teach creative writing workshops at one of the skid row missions. Whether a new novel comes out of that experience remains to be seen.
One thing, however, is certain: "No one will disappear in it," Pochoda says, laughing. "No one will ever go missing again."
Ivy Pochoda will be appearing at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Wednesday (vromansbookstore.com); in conversation with Dennis Lehane at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday (lastbookstorela.com); at Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach on Friday (mystgalaxy.com); and Spoken Interludes in Beverly Hills on July 22 (spokeninterludes.com).