Cover Stories

Santa Cruz’s Lara Love Hardin Used Writing and Comedy to get from the Depths of Addiction to Literary Fame

Lara Love Hardin is the literary agent to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Stephen Hawking, the Dalai Lama, Bryan Stevenson and other world and cultural leaders.

In just under a decade, Lara Love Hardin—the COO and editorial director of small Santa Cruz publishing house Idea Architects—went from the depths of an opioid addiction and incarceration to being the literary agent to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Stephen Hawking, the Dalai Lama, Bryan Stevenson and other world and cultural leaders.

But that was just the prelude. Now Hardin is turning a shameful Santa Cruz headline from her past into a major-streaming-service comedy series about her life.

This is a story about an enigma disguised as a punchline and wrapped in a Patagonia fleece blanket of inspiration, hope and imagination. Hardin would also add “and framed by a jail cell,” but this journey is about overcoming stigma, turning society’s biases on its heels and making strangers laugh along the way.

A few years back, I met Hardin at a Blind Tiger open mic at DNA’s Comedy Lab. She tepidly took the stage and told a tale about life in prison that was savagely funny. Turns out it wasn’t actually prison, but the Santa Cruz County jail. Her ability to punch up her own truth to make a better story came naturally. And it was more than smart—it was raw and polished at the same time.

Lara Love Hardin made headlines in the Santa Hardin’s memoir, ‘The Neighbor from Hell and Other People I Have Been,’ will be published by Simon & Schuster. This month, producer Scott Budnick’s company One Community bought the rights to the book, and plans to adapt it into a comedy series for television.

It also struck me as odd. How the hell did this person show up to our open mic and perfectly land a story that was so well executed? What wormhole did she fall out of? Hardin seemed genuinely grateful to be included in our local comedy and storytelling shows.

It wasn’t until much later that I heard her story. Hardin has an MFA in Creative Writing and taught Creative Writing and Composition at UC Irvine and UCSC. Hardin also harbors a secret, a crushing secret that the internet is about to start buzzing about.

Hardin is the woman who made headlines in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2009 as the “Neighbor from Hell,” after she was charged with 30 counts of possessing others’ identifying information, grand theft and fraud. In fact, both her autobiography, which recently sold for a princely sum, and the comedy series that will be based on the book—with names like Amy Schumer being bandied around for the lead part—are entitled Neighbor from Hell and Other People I Have Been. It’s much less a thumbing of the nose at the past than an alchemical transmutation of shit into gold.

In the early 2000s, Hardin battled a worsening addiction after being prescribed painkillers; taking opiates eventually led to smoking heroin. When she ran out of money, she began committing crimes, stealing neighbors’ credit cards and other identifying information to buy groceries and gas after her cash went to buying drugs. In 2002, Hardin got clean and sober, but in 2008 she relapsed. In 2009 she was arrested. In a story with the now-famous “Neighbors From Hell” headline, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that Hardin and her partner David Jackson admitted to 30 counts of identity-theft-related charges after stealing mail and wallets, and using pirated internet to set up phony accounts in the names of their victims—who prosecutors said numbered more than two dozen. Hardin faced 24 years in federal prison, but the judge, calling her case “very tragic,” sentenced her instead to a year in County Jail, drug treatment and supervised probation.  

After joining Santa Cruz publishing house Idea Architects, Hardin worked on books with Nobel Peace Prize laureates the Dalai Lama (left) and Desmond Tutu (right). PHOTO: Miranda Penn Turin

“The darkness is the same darkness every addict goes through—a compulsion of the body and mind that turns you into someone you are not,” says Hardin. “I hurt people I cared about. I hurt my friends and family and neighbors.”

So how did she get from there to here? Well, in 2011 she joined Idea Architects, which Doug Abrams had founded in 2003. Abrams had been an editor at HarperCollins and decided to form his own literary agency (He was tired of slaving for Rupert Murdoch.). He was working part-time from his Santa Cruz home with a part-time assistant when he ran an ad on Craigslist for a part-time job that Hardin happened to see. From this vantage point in the story the idea of a part-time gig becoming a Hollywood force of nature seems more than improbable, it seems crazy. But Hardin was just trying to survive.

At the time, she had been out of jail for less than two years and was living in a 400 square foot apartment with her 5-year-old son. She was broke, and on the brink of homelessness.

“I didn’t have a lot of friends,” recalls Hardin, looking relaxed as she shares a meal with me at Dharma’s in Capitola. “I was living in a community where everyone hated me. I was on probation and trying to get all my children back.”

When Hardin called Idea Architects, she had to answer 27 questions that were less about job experience and more about philosophies about the universe. It was a super elaborate application for a part-time job that paid $15 an hour. “It was a fun writing exercise, at least,” Hardin remembers.

Hardin sent it off and went to her appointment at Emeline Street, where she was trying to appeal her drug conviction in order to get food stamps. “I’m with a toddler in the most depressing waiting room in the world. My little flip phone rings and they want to see me for an interview in an hour. I had to decide if I was going to wait it out at Emeline or go to this part-time job interview. It felt like dating where you don’t want to do it, but you should do it,” Hardin recalls with a laugh.

After finding childcare, Hardin encountered her next challenge: she had a car that wouldn’t go uphill and spewed oil. “You know when you hear the commercial about donating your car to somebody in need? It was that car,” says Hardin. Of course the location of the interview was all uphill. For in this origin story, there are no easy paths.

Traveling uphill, leaving behind a river of oil like the Exxon Valdez, Hardin parks on the side street of Abrams house so she doesn’t sully the driveway, and fears, since it is a Craigslist ad she’s answering, there’s a slight chance she might be murdered. Fighting through fear, sweat and doubt, Hardin emerges feeling like she gave a great interview.

The next day, Abrams asked Hardin to do some editing and track changes on the Desmond Tutu biography he was working on. He also asked her to research minivans. It was apparent this job was a mix of business and personal assistant.

“Then he sent me a manuscript about a doctor and asked for my opinion,” says Hardin. “I remember I was out in front of Louden Nelson [now London Nelson] at 8:30 at night, with my son in the car seat, and I told him on the phone that the manuscript was kind of bad and needed to be restructured and refocused on what it was about. He said, ‘Hold on, I want to put you on the phone with the doctor, tell him what you told me.’ Next thing I know I was working with the author on the proposal, and that’s how it started.” From that point on Hardin helped Abrams build a literary agency that now has twelve of their non-fiction books in film and TV development.

Despite the ascent of her rising star, redemption would not come easy, or at all.

“When I got out of jail I went to Aptos High to my son’s basketball game, and I walked in and I could feel the whole stadium stop and look at me. We would get emails at work that said I should be fired, and my neighbors would have meetings about me, trying to run me out of the neighborhood, so it wasn’t all my imagination,” Hardin says.

In fact, the taunt “Neighbor from Hell” was ringing through the hallways of Aptos High, used by students and staff to call someone a failure. That shadow continues to cast across a large swath over Hardin’s life.

Ghost of a Chance

Now a four-time New York Times-bestselling writer, Lara Love Hardin has paid her dues. Does she harbor regret for past actions? Yes. Does she also harbor resentment for being vilified? Also, yes.

That said, when somebody tells me they went up the river for fraud and within a short amount of time was hanging out in the Dalai Lama’s bedroom taking notes, it’s difficult to take them seriously. For a time, I was sure Hardin was pulling my leg. But her story checks out and, as incredible as it sounds, Hardin was Desmond Tutu’s ghostwriter.

There’s a long history of ghostwriting in the world of memoirs. As Hardin says, “The odds that somebody is going to be an amazing leader of the free world, a spiritual leader and an amazing narrative writer and provocative storyteller is very slim. You might be the world’s greatest scientific researcher, but you probably can’t tell a fascinating story.”

The first book that Hardin ghostwrote—a process she calls the “collaborative writing and sharing of brains”—was Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving. So if you read that book, although Desmond Tutu lives in South Africa, it’s full of Santa Cruz stories. “When you ghostwrite for somebody, you’re egoless, you kind of hide in the background. You’re always in acknowledgements; sometimes you’re on the title page,” says Hardin.  

Hardin was a ghostwriter for a couple of books by John and Julie Gottman, who are known for being experts in relationships and in those books her name is indeed on the title page. On only one of the 12 books Hardin worked on does her name appear on the cover, and that is The Sun Does Shine, which was also an Oprah Book Club pick.  

Hardin has had an overactive imagination her whole life, often fantasizing about being with Oprah, being on the Oprah TV show, making Oprah cry, winning an Academy Award and thanking the world-famous “O” while getting a standing “O.” And while finally hanging out with Oprah, after the success of The Sun Does Shine, was everything Hardin had imagined, she was still new to the flash and bang of the fast lane. She couldn’t even announce that she was going to meet Oprah for several months, until the publisher was certain they were able to get enough paper to print the book. And ghostwriting was beginning to encroach on her personal sense of self.

“Obviously Anthony Ray Hinton, the subject of The Sun Does Shine, and I have lived totally different lives; I poured a lot of my own stuff into that book. So it’s egoless work, but my name was on the bestseller list with him, and every writer has an ego. In that first book I added one of my metaphors from my master’s thesis, and while it felt strange to be giving pieces of myself to other people’s stories, after everything I went through it felt good to be doing good work,” Hardin says.

Lara Love Hardin spoke at Tedx Santa Cruz in 2019 on ‘Moving Past Your Worst Mistakes.’ The photo on the video screen is of Hardin with Oprah and Gayle King after the release of her book ‘The Sun Does Shine.’ PHOTO: Kassandra Thomsen

Oftentimes ghostwriting isn’t just merging stories, but physically sharing a space. “Since Desmond Tutu lived in South Africa, we did most of our talking through Skype calls,” Hardin recalls about her work on The Book of Forgiving. “It’s ideal if you can spend time, even if it’s only a week, with the person and pick up their little quirks and mannerisms and how they see the world. So you can be them on the page. The most time I spent was down in rural Alabama to do The Sun Does Shine book. Anthony Ray Hinton took me around and I met all his friends and his family and he took me to his mother’s grave. He could tell me about his high school, but he took me there and that allows me to paint a more vivid picture on the page. I wrote a book with a Stanford neurosurgeon and I went into a brain surgery with him. Through that we had the book open with the sounds of brain surgery. That’s something I could never have picked up through just a Zoom call,” says Hardin.

Coming Out

Two years ago, after twelve books, Hardin decided she wasn’t going to ghostwrite anymore and started a new division dealing with memoirs at Idea Architects. “I heard somebody wanted to come into my office and talk to me,” says Hardin. That somebody turned out to be Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, who has a book coming out called In The Shadow of the Mountain, and a feature film starring Selena Gomez (as Vasquez-Lavado) that comes out in February. “Silvia waked in and I immediately turned on the recorders and had her talk for three hours. She has an amazing story and that was our first memoir story. She was the first Peruvian woman to summit Everest and the first openly gay woman to do all of the seven summits. We were still a few months away from starting the new division. In the meantime, Silvia was sending me cakes and pastries in the mail. She would work with a writer and then I would come in and rewrite and do sprinkle writing, which is what I do now on all of our books rather than take on the projects,” says Hardin.  

The little agency started at Abrams house had Hardin rubbing shoulders with everyone from Stephen Hawking to Jane Goodall, and even though the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu affirmed Hardin’s unique presence and made her feel valuable, they didn’t know her secret. Hardin lived in constant fear that people would Google her. It was time to find her Justice League, a place she could, finally, be herself.

“It’s hard enough to make new friends when you’re an adult or middle-aged or however old I am now. It’s tough to make new friends, and I was always shaking that they would find out that I’m the Neighbor from Hell,” says Hardin. It might sound paranoid, but Hardin was scared to talk to anyone. Even though Hardin did her time and restitution and paid what she was asked to, she kept punishing herself. She was hiding in plain sight and full of shame.

“The first people I came out to about my secret was the comedy community,” says Hardin. “I had never done stand-up, but I would practice my little story about jail in front of my dogs and I would kill it. But the idea of doing it in front of people terrified me. I decided I wanted to be the kind of person who did things that terrified me. The first people I came out to was at the Fun Institute, taught by Clifford Henderson and Dixie Cox. I started with improv, but then did a stand-up class and told my jail story to a small group of comics who wanted to know if what I said was true. I hesitated, but told them it was. I think I gained some street cred that day. I then did Blind Tiger and tried it out at Rooster T. Feathers in Sunnyvale. I brought a lot of people so I got more time and began to understand how comedy works.  More importantly, I found a community that accepted me.”

This process of opening up would eventually lead to her new book and comedy series deal for her own memoir, Neighbor From Hell and Other People I Have Been.

“I had just performed my first Ted Talk called ‘Thieves of Hope: Moving Past Your Worst Mistake’ and Doug [Abrams] caught me leaving the stage and told me I have to write my own memoir.  Based on just an outline, Scott Budnick’s company, One Community, acquired the rights.” Budnick is a prison advocate who is famous for The Hangover trilogy.

“I was not someone who ever learned how to ask for help—if I had been, this would have been a far different story,” says Hardin. “I’m sorry for the people I hurt, but I’m not sorry for what I went through. I believe in the end, my story will help way more than I hurt.”

As Hardin departed from our lunch at Dharma’s, I realized I was now the ghostwriter of a ghostwriter—which in Hardin’s terms is a “meta-experience.” As she walked away, her clothes flapping in the wind like Supergirl’s cape, I thought of the Idea Architects mission statement she had once latched onto in the hopes of pulling herself up. I could see her determination to create a wiser, healthier and more just world.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. jon garcia

    October 10, 2021 at 6:12 am

    I’m not saying I wish Hardin had gotten more time, but it must be nice to be a white girl. From 24 years in the Fed down to a county year (six months) followed by probation? Because her story was “tragic”? Come the fxxk on. This world is awash with tragedy. I am frequently exposed to several tragedies of Shakespearean caliber before I’ve even had my coffee in the morning. What I don’t see are the powers that be, cutting the protagonists of these tragedies that kind of break. Ms. Hardin, by all accounts, you are talented, and that’s cool. Your talents not withstanding, you forget how unspeakably lucky you are, at your peril. If I were you I’d kiss the ground every morning the second I get out of bed and thank whatever deities I begrudgingly pay lip service to that II was made a white woman from Santa Cruz. Just sayin’.

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