Two summers ago, the Italian writer Chiara Barzini published in Vogue a comically tender essay about moving as a teenager from Rome to Los Angeles, where her filmmaker parents would pursue their dreams of “making it” in Hollywood. Meanwhile, their homesick daughter was left to fend for herself in a massive public high school populated by Valley Girls who were obsessed with going to Starbucks and boys bent on establishing their gangster cred (students were forbidden to wear red or blue, both gang-related colors).
Now comes a kind of extended companion piece, Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, Barzini’s eccentrically charming fictionalized account of that chapter of her life. Rendered in feverish prose with an unflinching view of teenage sexuality and no shortage of feisty dialogue, Barzini’s fish-out-of-water tale is not going to be accused of being derivative (consider this a challenge to find another book with desert raves, temperamental fax machines, and the tragic death of a donkey).
Barzini, 38, writes fiction, journalism, and screenplays in Rome, where she lives with her partner, Luca, and their two young children. She spoke with Vogue while driving through Topanga Canyon. She was visiting Los Angeles for her book’s U.S. publication, “and reacquainting myself with the magical landscape where it all started.”?All novels are autobiographical to some degree, but with a few revisions yours could have been sold and published as a memoir. Can you tell me a little bit about your decision to retain the element of fiction?
The book started off as a memoir, and I was so bored by the constraints of the genre. There was so much that I couldn’t say and wouldn’t allow myself to write because it was either too true or not true enough. I am very happy with the freedom of having written it as a novel. Those L.A. years were so formative and I was quite young and impressionable. In writing the book I took a lot of the gut feelings with me—the panic, fear, excitement, and rebellion—and gave it a shape that felt right.
You wrote the story when you were in your thirties. What did the perspective of time give you?
The early ’90s was also a very violent period in L.A.: riots, earthquakes, floods, the looming O.J. trial and the specter of another set of riots. Even the music was loaded, but as a teenager landing in the middle of it, I had no way of discerning the good from the bad. I’d seen plenty of girls, and not just immigrant girls, develop a kind of handy unconsciousness. That’s something a lot of teenagers do in general when they are confronted with trauma. They kind of shut off. It definitely took me some years and a few more chapters in American history to understand the absolutely abnormal and somewhat traumatic nature of what was surrounding me.?Why did you write the book in English, which you didn’t master until you moved to the U.S. in 10th grade?
When I wrote my first short story in English I was 16 and I felt a rush of freedom. I could be whoever I wanted. That has stayed with me. Originally I had started writing the novel in Italian, but I realized I was judging myself constantly. It took my friend [and Vogue contributor] Francesca Marciano, a bilingual author and screenwriter, to show me the light. She told me I should write the book in the language that felt true to the story, just like she had done. And that’s how it all started.?You are in L.A. now, for an extended visit. If you were to write a nostalgic book about 2017 L.A. in two decades, what details would you want to make sure you nailed?
Pressed juice bars, UberEats, kale, palo santo, succulents, Game of Thrones, DIY domestic tutorials (build your own shed! Make your own beer! Ferment your own kombucha!). Conversations about TV—all you hear is “have you seen this? Oh but have you seen that?” That kind of hip-hop that’s popular right now where the guys just kind of talk and mumble. But also: intense political awareness and anxiety, RESIST bumperstickers, Black Lives Matter, feminist children, The Future Is Female T-shirts. And everyone seems to live in Joshua Tree now, so that would play a role in the book.?I love the way you describe early ’90s party culture, and how you establish the role it played in suburban teen life. What did raves mean to you back in the day?
I discovered the rave scene in 1995. I was underage and those were the only parties in L.A. where you didn’t get carded. This was before the internet, so we constantly ended up lost in some desert driving around a lot. There were no cops, no ambulances, no parental control. Suddenly there was this tribe of people I was part of, and even though we were young we formed intense bonds. Driving around the Mojave desert in cramped cars or in the back of pickup trucks, looking for something called Moontribe Party, can do that to you. We got lost all the time and would just be out until morning going the wrong way on some freeway.?Did you dress the part?
If you’re asking whether I wore plastic baby barrettes, florescent cropped halter tops, and a tiny furry backpack, the answer is yes. [laughs]?Did you ever go to the Viper Room, which makes a cameo in Earthquake?
Yes, I did! I had such a heartbreaking crush on Johnny Depp and my dad had been invited to celebrate his agent’s birthday at his club. I remember dressing up and searching for Johnny in every room, praying I’d get a chance to just look him in the eyes once. The party went on until late. I fell asleep on the couch. Johnny never came. I cried on my way home.?You’re amazing at dialogue.The way people speak has been a fascination since childhood. I am very good at imitating what I hear. Shortly after I arrived in L.A. I figured out how tease girls by imitating their Valley Girl talk. It was also convenient for me to copy them as a way to pass as somebody who belonged. I said “like” a lot. I still say it a lot. The Valley never leaves you.