Screenwriter and author Leah Rachel has a story to tell — or, more accurately, many small ones. Her new, personal book Love Street: Pulp Romance for Modern Women is a collection of vignettes, about bad boyfriends (or just-okay boyfriend-adjacents), orgasms (and the lack thereof), and the struggles and triumphs of being a modern woman in a world that, oftentimes, would prefer to infantilize them. It features crossword puzzles, lists (such as “15 Reasons Why I Wore A Dress Like This,” which ends with a crossed-out paragraph on being sexually harassed by a friend’s father) and the occasional recipe for Garlic Pesto Pizza with Cherry Tomatoes (“Add lots of garlic, because the only thing you’re going to be kissing tonight is the bottom of a chemical-laden Halo Top Creamery ice-cream container.”) Essentially: Very relatable content.
Fans of Rachel’s Instagram account @TheYellowHairedGirl will find the imagery within the book familiar. All others can enjoy for the first time the lite-erotica with subversive, feminist, and/or just damn funny captions like “I wish I was full of donuts instead of anxiety.” I was in the latter camp: My introduction to Rachel was via her Netflix series Chambers, a Lynchian coming-of-age story about a Native American young woman named Sasha (Sivan Rose) whose newly-transplanted heart may be haunted by a white girl named Becky (Lilliya Reid). The show is creepy, complex, and as full of mystery as it was insightful analysis into cultural appropriation. Netflix chose not to renew Chambers for season 2, and some pointed out that it was one of many by women creators not granted a second season on the platform.
Fortunately, Rachel isn’t going anywhere. At a Los Angeles coffee shop, Refinery29 sat down with Rachel for a conversation about Love Street, the fate of Chambers, and where her story is taking her next.
Refinery29: How did you begin the process of creating the book?
Leah Rachel: “Starting with the Instagram @TheYellowHairedGirl, it was [about] taking these exploitative photos and reclaiming them for women. I was looking at old Playboy magazines and other smutty magazines from the 70s, 80s, even now, and thought ‘What if these photos were really celebrating women?’ The idea was then a men’s magazine that was reclaimed for women.
“For me, it’s way easier to tell little stories than one big long one. In my life right now, I feel like I don’t have one big story. My life is siphoned off into moments. A lot of these stories go back to when I was 21, and I’m a completely different person now, just like I was a completely different person at 25. Maybe one year it’ll stop and I can be like, ‘Yay, I’ve arrived.’ But not yet. The visuals are such a big component of the book; it’s dealing with serious issues and stuff, but letting there be something really humorous after something painful was really interesting to me.”
You write about consent and sexual harassment in the book. Was the #MeToo movement an inspiration?
“I started writing the book a little bit before the #MeToo movement, so I never consciously thought about that. I don’t think it’s so much about outing people or things, as much as it is about talking about myself and my experiences, and experiences of friends. What our fears are about the things that could happen [to us.]
There are so many Los Angeles stories within the book. How does the city inspire you?
“I live in [the Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon.] Love Street is actually [also] called ‘Little Laurel Canyon.’ It ends at this restaurant I used to work at for a really long time. It’s where Jim Morrison wrote the song [“Love Street.”] It was the messiest time of my life, and I would park on the street and go to work. The stories and thoughts and fantasies and disasters that I got into, happened at that period of life. That’s why it’s the title of the book.
“I love Los Angeles. I didn’t when I first moved here, but I can say that now. I’ve lived in so many places across the city, and I’m a chronic subletter — maybe there’s something there about ‘not putting down roots,’ I don’t know. Every area of the city has inspired me so much. It’s a way for me to give seasons to the city, by [living in different places.] It’s easy to hate on Los Angeles, but people love living here. The darkness and the light, that’s what is interesting to me about it.
“There are a lot of amazing women here, and I feel like a lot of [women in LA] get bagged on, but I met the most incredible women here. I was longing to come to Los Angeles when I was in high school in Ohio. I don’t know if it’s just because [that idea] of ‘Oh, dreams can happen there!’ Everyone is longing or reaching for something there. That creates an interesting electricity. Sometimes it fries us to death. [Laughs]”
You’re pitching a TV show, also called Love Street. What can you say about it?
“[While not based off the book,] It has the same [pulpy] aesthetic of the book. It’s a modern-day, gender-flopped noir, that deals with [similar themes of sexuality and feminism]. I think everything that I do, in general, is going to deal with messy females, and what it means to be a woman.”
Recently reports came out that Netflix cancelled eight shows from women creators in 2019. What are your thoughts on that, given that Chambers was one of them?
“My experience with Netflix is that they were very supportive. They also renewed a lot of shows by women creators. Russian Doll [created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland] is one of their huge hits. Would I want them to renew a show just because I am a young woman creator? No. So, you’re sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Chambers was praised for being an inclusive show. Sivan Rose, the show’s lead, is an Apache-Latinx actress who grew up on the San Carlos Apache reservation. How did Chambers make you think about the importance of representation?
“It was incredibly gratifying for so much of our cast and crew who was native. They could feel it on a level that I couldn’t. As a creator, it occurs to me that in the next project that it is an absolute responsibility to put underrepresented people behind the camera and in front of the camera. If the show is about [that group of people or not], it doesn’t matter. A show shouldn’t have to be about a certain race’s experience for you to cast very openly. I think open casting, is really important. It’s important that people [in writing] don’t describe characters by their race. Our casting director [on Chambers] was incredible [for casting the show the way she did.]”
Do you want to tell personal stories on TV or in a book?
“Maybe one day, but not yet. We didn’t label Love Street a memoir because it was about [a combination of experiences.] It was about friends’ stories as well — it wasn’t [strictly] a ‘Leah’ thing. Love Street is very representative of who I am and my outlook on things. It’s important that yes, women have this feminist thing [many] want to represent, but that’s messy and blurry sometimes for us, too, as much as it can be for men. Anything that I do will preach that in some way, shape or form. In Chambers, Sasha wants to have sex — it wasn’t the guy [pressuring her.] We showed her smiling at her period blood. That’s not a gross thing, it’s a normal thing. I think anything I do, will have an essence of that [feminism.] The book is very, very me in vibe.”
What made you want to start @TheYellowHairedGirl in the first place, and did you expect it to take off like it has?
“I was frustrated. I kept trying to write a story like this, pitch a TV show with a character like [the one represented in the Instagram account,] and people weren’t getting it. Executives, bosses, older white men — they were not getting it. I just started the Instagram, thinking ‘I don’t want any notes, I just want to get this out there.’ I started curating stuff, and then I started shooting my own stuff. I got to the point where I only wanted to write my own stuff. The Instagram is 70% shot by me now.
“I’m really surprised by how much it took off. When I first started it, I was like ‘Oh, I’m doing this Instagram thing,’ and was a little bit [shy about it.] But it’s been really cool — it’s made so many connections with people. Everything in Hollywood, it’s a collaborative medium, as it should be. But this is 100% me and it’s something that I can control. It’s like, ‘build something, and people will come.’ I couldn’t imagine that there would be a book out of it, but it’s nice to be able to tell secrets and realize that so many people feel that way too. It helps everyone feel less alone.”
You started out as an actress — how did you get into screenwriting?
“I quickly realized that I didn’t want [to act] in the way a lot of my friends did. When I was growing up, I thought there were only two jobs in the entertainment industry: director, and actor. I didn’t know about screenwriting. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer because I’m a very social person. I started writing out of pure frustration, when I was waiting tables. My friends were like ‘Hey, you talk a lot, you should start writing.’ They were probably just telling me to shut up. [Laughs] The first thing I wrote was a script called Rachel’s Cherry, which was about a girl’s quest to lose her virginity. I wrote this show called Starfucker for HBO, which was the thing that got me signed, and everything. Not autobiographical! [Laughs] It was a dark, seedy Girls, set in Los Angeles, but it was right after Girls started going.
“I got really obsessed with making things, and started directing things, too. The book was a cool experience because my writing came from Hollywood, and the higher up you go, the more voices there are. That can be really great, but also stifling, when you’re trying to do something different. I think it was because I had the Instagram, the editor and my agent saw what the book was, and pushed me to do it without nitpicking creatively. I wrote the book so fast, right before Chambers production started, and it just came out of me in two to three months. The photographs I did over a year and a half, and I had two awesome women helping me with the design: Annette Lamothe Ramos, the former creative director at Vice magazine, and my cousin Sarah Zelman, who just graduated from [art school] in Chicago. They were both amazing.”
Why should people read Love Street?
“I think it’ll make people feel less alone. It’ll make them laugh and cry. I hope it will inspire women, and people in general, to empathize with certain situations that they might not know how. It’s messy and it’s imperfect and it’s not about being perfect, or having it all. I think that as women, that’s what we’re told we have to do. I think it’ll make people feel a lot better about not having it all — because I don’t think anyone ever does.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.