Author Q&A

What in your life prepared you to be a writer? And when did you begin writing fiction?

I began writing fiction over 20 years ago after receiving a death threat from an insurance company. Having found success as a civil engineer after the Northridge Earthquake locating and documenting earthquake damage and presenting the engineering basis for repair claims, I encountered a rogue adjuster who preferred to take the low road. That was the first time I became aware of validation rackets, which was the seed from which The Anaheim Beauties Valencia Queen emerged.

Eventually, California Insurance Commissioner, Charles Quackenbush, was forced to resign for taking payoffs from insurance companies he’d been elected to police. At last, the corruption in California became evident. But friends, under the spell of what psychologists call “authority bias,” were hesitant to admit insurance companies were so dishonest. Figuring novels were a sneaky way to tell the truth to people who seemed angry about having their beliefs called into question, I took up writing fiction. It has taken me decades to become a decent writer, but I made so many writer friends I kept at it for years. Plus I had to find out what was going to happen to my characters.

The Anaheim Beauties Valencia Queen is your first novel. How long did it take to research and write?

It’s actually my seventh novel, but the first novel I’m publishing. An author friend   gave me the idea to write a story about Anaheim in the year the Ku Klux Klan controlled the city. I had planned to write a short story, but it grew legs and expanded into a novel that took three years to complete.

I began writing fiction over 20 years ago after receiving a death threat from an insurance company.

Speaking of research, you ground your reader with accuracy. A good number of people, places, and events are real. Do you do all your research on your own? And as a writer, how does research impact your process?

I do most of my own research. Over my lifetime I’ve acquired a large collection of old maps, pictures, and esoteric data, plus connections that help put forgotten faces and places at my fingertips. A writer never knows what information can launch a story in new directions. I like my research to surprise me. The J.T. Lyon and the Dr. Louis J. Elwood billboards came from real advertisements (complete with eyes) in an old 1924 Anaheim phone book that evoked Fitzgerald’s eyes of T.J. Eckleburg.  I needed billboards, so these landed in the novel. I’m also fascinated by vanished California landscapes: Valencia groves that sprawled all the way to the horizon, the forgotten pleasure piers of Venice and Santa Monica, or the Mount Lowe Scenic Railway in the San Gabriel Mountains

I strive for authenticity, but sometimes have to take some liberties. I gave Anaheim Union High School a baseball team in 1924 even though the high school didn’t have one. This was intentional. My portrayal of Coach Merritt was unsympathetic, and I didn’t want to be libeling the coach of a particular team at a particular high school who might, in fact, have never joined the Ku Klux Klan. 

The themes in The Anaheim Beauties Valencia Queen are timeless. Please give us a sense of what you consider the most important theme and what you hope your readers take away from reading the book.

This is a story about wounds left by absent (or in Helen’s case, abusive) parents and the measures people take to salve such wounds. While their backstories differ, Dean and Helen’s parents fail to offer validation or membership within their tribes. As a consequence, both Dean and Helen make terrible decisions, which empower selfish people to ruin their lives.

As a writer, do you outline? And do you know the story arc and the ending of the book when you sit down to write, or does it develop as you go?

I’m more of an organic (seat of the pants) writer than an outline writer. The two things I outline is a thorough historical timeline to keep my facts straight, and the details of my characters. Then I turn them loose and hope my characters surprise me. I had an ending in mind for Dean, but as the story neared its end, I had to change it, since it didn’t really satisfy. I finally came up with an ending that surprised me, and felt right, using the factual connection between Mount Lowe and “Pancho” (Florence Lowe) Barnes, the larger-than-life pioneer aviatrix and the granddaughter of the Mount Lowe resort developer Thaddeus Lowe.

What drew you to setting the novel in Post-World-War-I southern California? Why 1924 in particular?

The short answer is that 1924 was the year the Klan took over Anaheim. A more complete answer involves the observation that history can rhyme. I believe there are resonances between 1924 and today.

You use the term “validation rackets.” What do you mean by this and who is vulnerable to them?

I consider validation rackets to have three features:

  • A group of insiders
  • Who withhold validation from outsiders who look up to them
  • Enabling the insiders to take unfair advantage of them, or even use them to attack others even further outside their circle

The 1924 Ku Klux Klan, despite their family-values smokescreen, enabled a clique of insiders to become extremely wealthy. Using slogans like “Don’t be half a man.  Join the Klan,” Klan leaders offered members validation for a $10 fee (Klectoken) that in today’s dollars amounts to $150.00.  In the case of Hollywood casting couches, the validation rackets are too familiar and have endured, with insiders victimizing struggling entertainers who will do anything to further their careers.

What makes validation rackets insidious? What are some of the more subtle ones existing today?

Validation rackets urge victims of authoritarians to redirect their anger toward other victims, while allowing their oppressors to go unpunished. In Anaheim, Klan members pledged obedience and paid exorbitant sums to leaders in exchange for validation. They were then ordered to turn their wrath against the Catholics, diverting their attention from insiders who were using them. In segments of corporate America, underpaid employees follow orders to hurt customers to enrich and impress the higher-ups. Similar behavior occurs in gangs, cliques, cults, paramilitary groups, hierarchies, and even higher education. Scientific research documenting this leveraging of authority bias include Stanley Milgram’s experiments at Yale, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, the Stockholm Syndrome, the Third Wave Experiment at Palo Alto High School, and on a grander scale, Abu Ghraib, Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia.

At the moment we are witnessing the Milgramming of America in which authority figures shame us until we turn against each other. Validation rackets are thriving on both the right (in which mainstream Americans are maligned as “snowflakes,” “libtards” or “losers,” and on the left (where many of the same mainstream Americans are maligned as “racists”, “rapists,” ”the white cis-heteropatriarchy,” or the “basket of deplorables.” This intentional behavior, promoted by both ends of the spectrum, enriches and empowers power players on the fringes while impoverishing the rest of us. We need to call it what it is. It is predatory behavior, not all that different from the validation rackets I found in Anaheim.

There is no problem with a preference for one political party’s platform, but when that preference empowers cruelty, America is being “Milgrammed.” The only antidote is for some of us to validate each other, the way that Pancho Barnes enabled Dean to fly.

Both baseball and aviation are escapes in the book. Why did you choose these two activities for this purpose?

I have to write what I know. I love baseball, and I had the opportunity to fly while in the Air Force, allowing me to write about these topics with emotion.

Alma, Helen, Dean, Mr. Webber – how real were your main characters to you? What does an author have to feel to be able to breathe life into their characters?

As an organic writer I try to get into my characters’ minds the same way a method actor tries to become their character. This can be challenging when not all of my characters are nice people. As long as I am clear about what each character wants more than life itself, the story flows and writes itself. When I lose track of what each character wants, writers block happens, and I need to spend some more time with my characters.

As the storyteller, you chose to allow Dean to live. Why?

I thought about killing him off, but I just couldn’t. It didn’t feel right, even though some purists will argue noir requires the death of the protagonist. But this is not always the case. Mildred Pierce, for example, only dies symbolically. And similarly Dean only dies symbolically. Banished from baseball and the city that had raised him since he’d moved there, like a caterpillar, Dean must reemerge into a different mode of life.

Often writers pit good against evil. You do this, but it does not seem black and white. There is a lot of shading. Do you agree with this assessment? Why?

I agree with this assessment. I strive for honest writing, which means no character is all good or all evil. My goal is to show reality, and allow the reader to ask and answer their own questions. I try very hard to make my readers think without telling them what to think. I hope my novel’s gift to readers is to help them see and cope with gray in a world presenting itself as black and white.

You end the novel with Dean as a pilot. Why?

Sometimes when I’m stuck, I ask my characters what they want, and I can often hear their answer in their own words within the novel. There was a throw-away line early in Act 2 where Dean complains when Alma’s angry at him that he needs wings instead of strings. That was my clue to what Dean wanted, so I went with it.

What do you see as the most important role of history? Do you think that we have enough of a sense of it in today’s society?

History is how we learn from our mistakes, and to quote George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I am concerned we’re not remembering our past. Further, when our collective past is sliced and diced into one-thousand different narratives, we have no sense of who we are as individuals or as a society, and we are ripe for validation rackets.

You call your genre “Red Car Noir.” From where does this name come? What can a reader expect from a Red Car Noir novel?

I wanted a name to brand the novels I’ve written and am writing. I boiled it down to “Southern California-based historical fiction chronicling the dark side of the American Dream,” which is a mouthful. I needed something catchier and shorter. The Red Car reference is to that period of Southern California history (1901-1961) where the Pacific Electric Red Car trolleys ran throughout Los Angeles. A few works extend into the early 1970’s, since the Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam, and Watergate represent the period’s sunset. But the bulk of my work is set within the early 1900’s, an era underrepresented in our literature.

As for “noir,” the genre has both a broad definition and a narrow one, with film-noir being narrower than roman noir or neo-noir. My focus on realism, on the dark side of the American dream, with femmes fatales and protagonists who aren’t detectives but are victimized by a system that is more corrupt than they are, fits within the broad but not the narrow definition. My primary departure from the full-blown film-noir genre is that my self-destructive protagonists don’t usually die or go to prison. Amidst tragedy, they find a sadder-but-wiser resolution with jaded resignation and contentment.

Red Car Noir is more like neo-noir. The movie Chinatown comes to mind. Jake Gittes makes it out of Chinatown, but with scars.

Are there other Red Car Noir novels in the works?

I’m halfway through the second installment of my Angeltown trilogy set in the early 1900’s, amidst labor wars, the Salton Sea floods, and the Owens Valley Aqueduct. The history of Los Angeles is wrapped up in its water, and being a water engineer, I feel compelled to tell the story. The first installment, Angeltown, is ready to go to press and deals with all the dirty tricks that brought Los Angeles their water. The story culminates in the bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building in October 1910 where 22 people were murdered.

It is a story that still resonates today.

Two further volumes, Edendale, and Hollywoodland are also in the works, taking the saga of Los Angeles into the early 1930’s through the Saint Francis Dam disaster and the demise of William Mulholland. I’m 30,000 words into writing Edendale, and enjoying it.