By the time she was twelve Laura Kalpakian had read through all the novels in the children’s section of the small storefront public library. That summer she taught herself to type (badly) so that she could write a novel set in the 18thcentury, featuring people who spoke French. This story romped along until she realized she knew no French, and very little about the 18th century, save that people wore difficult clothing and drank ale from tankards. Actually, she knew nothing of ale or tankards either.
Laura never did learn to type well. A long time passed before she tried to write another novel. In the interim she pounded out an undergraduate thesis and a master’s thesis, both in 18th century history. A native Californian, Laura got her undergraduate degree close to home (University California, Riverside) and her masters as far away as possible (University of Delaware). She spent some five years on the east coast before returning to Southern California beach town.
University of California San Diego was not far away, and she entered their PhD program in Literature. Grad school had many pleasures, among them, the opportunity to spend time in the vast UCSD library, reading widely. She developed special affection for memoirs and autobiographies, for 19th century fiction, for obscure writers and poets of the Great War era.
However, one of her professors told her, flatly, she had too much imagination for grad school. She was inclined to agree with him, and began to write fiction again. Three days a week as a TA, Laura taught freshman; four days a week she taught herself to write fiction. One story reached one hundred pages; this looked suspiciously like a novel, and the ten page parentheses resembled a sub-plot. This book, Laura’s debut novel, Beggars and Choosers has a grad student as a central character, and takes place in a university library.
Laura took her mother’s maiden name, Kalpakian, when she began to publish. Her mother, born in Constantinople, was just a toddler when the family, Armenians fleeing Turkey, emigrated to Los Angeles. The Kalpakians became citizens, owned a small grocery store, raised four lively daughters who attended USC and UCLA. Laura’s mother met her dad at a USO dance in 1944. Bill Johnson came from a huge tribe of Idaho Mormons. He was in the Navy about to ship out for the Pacific. They married and remained in Southern California, rooted there.
Laura Kalpakian’s novels, novellas and stories return often to the fictional St. Elmo, California, a place best described as east of LA and west of everywhere else The fictitious Isadora Island in the Puget Sound provides the setting for two novels, and several stories. Laura’s Washington roots go back to the mid-80’s when she moved north to take a six-month job that lasted for five years. Laura went on to become the Theodore Roethke Writer in Residence at the University of Washington to teach both fiction and memoir there. She served on the Board for Humanities Washington, and is a co-founder of the Red Wheelbarrow Writers, a loose affiliation of lively writers
She is the mother of two sons, Emmy award winning composer, Bear McCreary, and singer-songwriter and music producer, Brendan McCreary who also fronts the indie band, Young, Beautiful in a Hurry, a name he took from one of his mother’s favorite sayings.
[painting by Patricia Harrington]