Flava of the Month

"Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction," said a New York Times headline last month. How many first-time authors make it onto page one?Photo: Robert Yager/Getty Images (female gang member holding gun); Sol Neelman/Corbis (Jones/Seltzer)

Duck!”

I’ll admit that I was a bit reluctant when I got the assignment to interview Margaret B. Jones about her new book, Love and Consequences, a disturbing yet refreshing tale of life as it’s lived on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Not another memoirist profile, I thought. Haven’t we had enough of those?

But here I am, following her lead and diving under a table. Clutching my Mr. Pibb, I look into the street and see the slowing car, the window rolling down. Even a pampered upper-middle-class journalist like me knows what that means: Drive-by.

The seconds pass. I gaze into Margaret B. Jones’s flinty Cherokee eyes, and I’m calmed by what I see there. They’re eyes that say, “I’ll take care of you.” After what seems like an eternity, the gray Volvo rounds the corner and is gone.

“Reflex,” she says as we resume our lunch on the patio of Paco’s Chick ’n Waffle in Compton. “You never really get out of the game. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. There ain’t no getting out, homey. I saw that guy behind the wheel and thought, He looks like a Shark, I better duck.

Margaret joined the Jets when she was 9. A half-white, half–Native American orphan taken in by a proud working-class black family, she had to enter a gang in order to pay for her adoptive mother’s foot operation. Now, I’ve interviewed princesses and viscounts, moist young starlets and the most formidable Hollywood doyennes, but none of that is preparation for meeting Margaret Jones in the flesh. It’s hard to reconcile the brutal passage about her initiation with the inscrutable creature sitting before me, gnawing a chicken wing. After the initiation, they had a group hug and handed her a windbreaker and tight dungarees: She was in. But at what cost?

That’s just the first ten pages. What follows is disquieting and haunting, but it’s not all Glocks and body bags. There are moments of warmth in the sections dealing with her adoptive family, the Evanses, headed by the dignified matriarch Big Florida. As Margaret puts it at the end of the chapter “Ghetto-Ass X-Mass,” when things get financially dire right around the holidays: “J.J. had his paint, Michael had his books, Thelma had her sass, but I only had one talent: slinging rock. I stuck out like a white sheep in a black flock.”

We get in the car so she can show me the prison, not wanting to leave anyone out. She wants to introduce me to her friend Avon, a real “O.G.,” as she describes him, but visiting hours are over. He’s the one who gave Margaret her nickname, Pebbles. “I was in the game, slinging rock, smoking rock. Whenever we re-upped with the Greek, Stringer put that big rock in the middle of the table, and I’d chip away at it to make little rocks to put in them vials, you dig?” She demonstrates this for me, stabbing the steering wheel with her iPhone. “I was so good at it, only pebbles be left. That’s why they started calling me Pebbles.”

Pebbles. How fitting. Webster’s defines a pebble as “a small, usually rounded stone, especially when worn by the action of water.” Looking into Margaret’s face, I can’t help but think, maybe the nickname contains more truth than they knew.

As we return to the city, I ask her why she thinks people respond so strongly to her book. “Most people live comfortable lives, and that makes them uncomfortable.” She notices my expression and says, “That’s like a Zen koan, right, homey? Think about the times you’ve said, ‘My life is so boring—why can’t I have olfactory hallucinations or a flesh-eating disease?’ How many times have you thought, ‘Where are the killer bees, and will I be trapped alone in a desperate fight for survival when they come?’ ” I shake my head and smile: She has my number.

“There’s no shame in being average, you jive turkey,” Margaret says. “The only shame is in doing nothing about it.”

Average. That’s one thing Margaret most definitely is not. I broach this subject with her friend Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, which describes how she hid out in the forests of Europe to escape the Nazis and was taken in by a gang of wolves. Whenever Misha makes it out to the States for a visit, she and Margaret go shopping for Levi’s, which are difficult to come by in her native country. She resells them to aspiring hipsters in her village at a dreadful markup.

I visit her tiny cottage, a few kilometers outside a large Eastern European city. Misha is a little Cabbage Patch doll of a woman, with an energy beyond her years. It’s not hard to see her nestled in with the other cubs, fighting bravely for the teat of the she-bitch. I ask her if it’s harder to be adopted by black people or wolves. She chuckles at my question and sips her tea. “We tease each other, Margaret and I. She says, ‘At least we had cable and White Castle—you had to forage for nuts and berries.’ But the wolves, I tell her, the wolves have”—and here she turns her eyes to the ceiling—“they have La Vida Lobo. The Wolf Life!” It is a brief audience, and she soon dismisses me to return to work on the prequel of her memoir, about her time on the run from the Armenian genocide, when she was taken in by ferrets.

Back in the states, when I recount my visit with Misha, I think I see something of the predator in Margaret, too. In the cruel intelligence of her gaze, her long silky mane. I ask her: Can Native Americans talk to wolves, or is that buffalo? At any rate, I think I can see that half of her heritage expressing itself as she listens. “Misha loves her wolves,” she tells me. “But fighting over squirrel carcass with her pack made her competitive, for reals. You write a memoir these days, and someone’s always trying to outdo you. It’s an arms race. Just when you outrun the tsunami, cradling a baby under each arm, you look back and some joker is surfing on that mother, with a whole bandolier of babies across her chest, and she’s juggling flaming torches and a chainsaw to boot. It’s mad crazy on these streets.”

Mad crazy on these streets. I think about this as I drive back to the Chateau Marmont and observe the sad characters haunting the corners, the alleys, the gravelly shoulders of the 405. I feel so guilty! So many people out there, living, dying. Some escape, like Margaret. Most don’t. Either way, they have a story to tell. I try to think like a memoirist. Good material is all around you—you just have to open your eyes.

While the early response to Love and Consequences has been enthusiastic among critics and retailers, the book has a lot of competition. Does Margaret have what it takes? I ask Geoff Nichols, the Stephen King of self-lit, as he’s sometimes called. He’s written 23 memoirs, most recently the best-selling Mr. Chuckles: My Life With the Best Hamster Who Ever Lived and Son of Mr. Chuckles: My Life With the Son of the Best Hamster Who Ever Lived. He and Maggie play poker together. “Queen of the bluffers,” Nichols informs me one evening over mojitos.

We’re at an elegant lounge a few doors down from his magnificent Tribeca apartment. The drinks are strong and the lighting dim, according to the current chic. You have been in this lounge before, and yet you haven’t. “What I admire about [the book],” Nichols declares, “is Margaret’s consistency. She doesn’t get tripped up by the facts. Does Hamilton Street cross Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, or are they parallel? You gotta look at a map, for Christ’s sake. Why attend the ‘Hardy Knox Elementary School’ when there’s a Benjamin Franklin in the same neighborhood, one that burned down ten years ago? Use your local library or Hall of Records.

“Maggie’s not afraid of that kind of legwork,” Nichols continues, “and that’s why she’s a rising star in the self-lit biz.” A thin smile plays across his lips, twists into a playful grin. “Here’s a story: I had never been out of the country before when I was writing my memoir A Sandy Place: How an Agoraphobic With Chronic Dehydration Disorder Found Love and Laughter in the Kalahari Desert. I was under a two-memoir contract with a major publisher and had already blown the advance thanks to a gambling addiction, which I didn’t actually have but that I was rehearsing for a memoir I wanted to write later on. I was halfway through the book and I couldn’t afford to travel there. I didn’t even know what country the Kalahari Desert was in. So I went to the library. Turns out it’s in Africa. Who knew?”

Dateline: early spring. A time of renewal. My last visit with Margaret takes place at her loft in downtown L.A. It looks like a Design Within Reach catalogue exploded and someone garnished it with a year’s worth of Dwell. Her advance was modest, she assures me, but she scraped up a down payment by selling some Pan Am stock she’d inherited. It seems she’s really escaped her circumstances, been granted the dream of half-white, half-Cherokee kids who are adopted by black families everywhere: She is truly movin’ on up, and I ask her if she’s a little scared about how normal things have become. We’re a long way from the ghetto, after all.

“Actually, it’s only a five-minute drive, but to answer your question, no. There’s the book, and there’s my life. Two separate things. In the book, I had to keep it going, or as I put it, ‘Double it.’ When I came up with a showstopping set piece, I had to top myself every chapter. I think that’s true for everyone, no matter what kind of memoir you’re writing. That’s two shipwrecks, two killer grizzlies, two penknife amputations. Double it! If you’re writing about how your plane crashed in the Andes and you had to eat all the other passengers to survive, what if when you get rescued, your rescuers’ plane crashes and then you have to eat all of them, too? Double it! Without sacrificing psychological complexity, of course.” She blows on her cappuccino. “But in real life, there’s just living.”

It’s getting dark, and I’ve grown tiresome with all my questions. She reaches over and wipes a smear of foam from my mustache. It’s a surprisingly tender gesture, and I can’t help thinking of all the people she’s killed. “A lifetime ago,” she says, reading my mind. There is no more Pebbles. Only Margaret.

Before I leave, I ask if she has any tips for memoirists out there who, inspired by her story, need to share their own. She pauses for a moment and says, “It’s important to keep in mind as you write, What would I have done if this had actually happened to me? How would it have felt if I had actually felt this feeling? What would I have said if this conversation had actually taken place, and what would the other person have said if they actually existed?” She smiles. An enigma to the end. “It’s easy to lose track sometimes of why you got into the writing game in the first place: to tell a story.”

Flava of the Month