HOW IT PAYS 

I spent my career as a Los Angeles Times reporter chasing after a big payoff that never came. It wasn't until years after I left the paper and started writing crime novels that it hit me—I'd been sitting on the mother lode the whole time and lacked the sense to see it. 

I'm the first to admit that I was arrogant and jaded back then in a way one can only be at 25, before experience tempers youthful cynicism and (hopefully) renews one's sense of childlike wonder. Armed with an almighty pen and notepad, I swaggered through my glittering and deceptively beautiful hometown of Los Angeles like some swashbuckling pirate, decoding the shifting tides of politics and immigration, culture and crime, then racing back to the newsroom to write it all up by deadline. It was an adrenaline rush more intoxicating than any drug, and one to which I was hopelessly addicted. 

But was I happy? Hell no. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, living an edgy, ex-pat life in Moscow or Bangkok or Nairobi. (Nothing so sedate as London or Paris for me, thank you, I craved more challenging adventure). 

Since such a promotion did not appear imminent, I finagled my own way abroad, cadging a fellowship to Budapest during the fall of Communism and a Fulbright to Yugoslavia amidst the Bosnian War. Those were heady times, and I always hated coming home, especially once the Times posted me to a suburban bureau in the San Gabriel Valley that might as well have been outer Siberia for all the glamour it held. 

While I loved reporting, this was not the L.A. that I knew and cherished, the noir worlds so vividly drawn by Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and Ross MacDonald. This was not the L.A. of Walter Mosley or James Ellroy or "L.A. Confidential." This was a land of strip malls, tract homes, gravel pits and industrial parks. Our editorial office sat in a shopping center buttressed by Toys R Us and Mervyn's. By 9 a.m. on summer mornings, the scrubby, bony spines of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains were already obscured by a thick brown haze. 

But as I cruised the hoods and interviewed the people, I realized that a cultural earthquake was transforming the once-staid valley, toppling familiar landmarks and squeezing out those who clung blindly to the old world order. In their wake came settlers who built new monuments and refashioned the basin in their own image. Sometime in the late 1980s, Monterey Park became the first continental U.S. city with a majority Asian population. Wealthy, traditionally WASP-y enclaves such as San Marino are now half Asian, as are dozens of other towns. Drive along Valley Boulevard, the main commercial drag, and you'll see as many signs in Chinese as English. 

One sweltering day when the heat rising from the asphalt was enough to trigger hallucinations, I experienced an epiphany. I was as much a foreign correspondent in Los Angeles as I had been in Prague, and that's exactly how I should cover it. All the big West Coast cities were morphing into 21st century Pacific Rim capitals, but in the San Gabriel Valley, the future was already here. 

This immigrant world has only recently seeped into American letters and cinema. Yet it also transcends time and place the way our favorite stories always have. Slowly, I realized that if Raymond Chandler were writing today, he'd send Philip Marlowe to investigate the murder of a Taipei businessman with a beautiful young wife whose Rosemead computer factory was robbed of silicon-encrusted chips worth their weight in gold. The Midwestern extras who yearned for Hollywood oblivion in Nathanael West's Day of the Locust would be recast today as survivors of Pol Pot's killing fields living above a noodle shop in Alhambra. And Ross MacDonald's PI Lew Archer might visit a Monterey Park nightclub to track down a missing Hong Kong "golden youth" who had run away with a third generation El Monte chola from his high school English class. 

After writing a gazillion column inches about gangs and treachery and love triangles and murder, I began to chafe at the limitations of daily journalism. I wanted to imagine what happened to these people long after I filed my stories and drove home; to capture the musical cadence of their speech; to explore the riveting back stories that usually ended up on the editing room floor because they didn't fit into the "Who, What, When, Where and Why" inverted pyramid of newspaper reporting. I found it maddening that someone could be killed without anyone being arrested, much less sent away for life. Where was the justice in that? And I began to fantasize about who might have done it, and how they might get caught, and about the odd way that Angelenos come together across lines of class and race and ethnicity, especially when secrets are involved. 

Eventually, pregnant with my first child, I left the Times and embarked on a freelance journalism career. But each night, the voices of the people I met on assignment replayed like a broken tape loop in my brain, chattering in a multitude of languages. They were the voices of fear, resignation and hope. A microcosm of our society. A glimpse into an unwieldy future. I knew I had to write about it or I'd go crazy, but this time it had to be my way, unconstrained by the facts. So I started "The Jasmine Trade." After being bottled up for so long, the book poured out of me. 

In my yearning to be elsewhere, I hadn't realized how much richness there was at home. I was sitting atop a literary gold mine. It was high time to dig it up and take it to the bank.