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.
IF THERE IS A CONSISTENT THEME THROUGHOUT YOUR BOOKS, WHAT IS IT?
Like the post World War 2 noir genre, my writing was shaped by the generation of World War II veterans and their wives who grappled with the dark side of the American dream. I grew up on Indianola Way, a post-war (1948) subdivision in La Cañada California. GI Bill veterans headed more than half the households on our street. Today, most college graduates can’t name one veteran they’ve befriended. But after World War II, veterans dominated our culture; for better (They were patriots) and for worse (Think Joe McCarthy). Noir fleshes out a postwar culture shaped by unspoken but real grieving. Our fathers weren’t the men they’d dreamed of becoming while growing up. They didn’t talk about their war, but families knew they had been killers. Now they carried wounds most of us didn’t understand. Mothers who’d held down the wartime home front (and plum jobs) now had to give up their autonomy. Neither men nor women were as righteous as they pretended, and now they were at odds, forced to negotiate new rules in a world where a man’s enemy no longer wore a uniform. Their world unraveled into what became the issues of the Sixties and the Seventies: assassinations, abortion, drugs, and spitting on Vietnam veterans. GI’s grew old with holes inside them that were never really filled. My writing, and most noir is about trying to fill those holes and heal wounds that seem to want to remain open.
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.
Validation rackets urge victims of authoritarians to redirect their anger toward other victims, while allowing their oppressors to go unpunished.
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.
IN YOUR FIRST NOVEL, YOU USE THE TERM “VALIDATION RACKETS.” AND WHETHER YOU MENTION THEM SPECIFICALLY OR NOT, VALIDATION RACKETS SEEM TO APPEAR IN ALL OF YOUR NOVELS. 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.
HOW REAL ARE YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS TO YOU? WHAT DOES AN AUTHOR HAVE TO FEEL TO BE ABLE TO BREATHE LIFE INTO THEIR CHARACTERS?
When I’m writing, I write three types of characters, historical, close, and semi-distant. Semi-distant characters carry secrets even I don’t know about until their secrets find their way onto the page. Historical characters, of course, must remain true to their biographies. I know what close characters plan to do, although sometimes they make plans and I laugh.. And since I never know what the semi-distant characters plan to do, even my close characters can surprise me..
Writing historical fiction, one of the first things I do is to collect real-life quotes and moments from historical characters to sprinkle throughout their story. In Angeltown, I found editorials written by Harrison Gray Otis and printed in his L.A. Times surpassing anything I could possibly make up. I used them liberally. Next I write the character notes I always place at the end of novels. But with created characters, I get to choose to remain close or semi-distant. I like doing some of both. When I write in a character’s POV, I need to know them so well I consider them my friends. I know my protagonists and mentors, what they want, what they feel, and what they value. Good writing is true writing said Ernest Hemingway, so if I’m writing inside somebody’s head, I need to know them very well. But for non-POV characters, sometimes it’s best to remain ignorant. Especially in noir, villains, contagonists, and femmes fatales should keep secrets from their author. It makes them scarier and adds more tension if I don’t know what they’ll do. I allowed Helen in Anaheim Beauties, Loretta in Cigarette Girl, Garry in Complete Elimination of Ethan Frome and Luz in Angeltown to carry secrets that blew me away after the curtain was pulled back. I hope my readers enjoyed these moments half as much as I did..
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 true 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 novels’ gift to readers is to help them see and cope with gray in a world presenting itself as black and white.
How do you decide how to END a novel? what makes a story complete?
In my opinion, there are only three basic story journeys, 1.) I can BE God, (incomplete feminine journey eg Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard) or Icarus in Greek mythology. 2.) I can BUY God (incomplete masculine journey eg Charles F Kane in Citizen Kane and many classic war stories, and 3.) God can buy me (completed journey either masculine, feminine or both eg Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or both in the case of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) I try to follow classic Aristotelian three-act story structure. So once we’ve hit the darkest moment, things need to wrap up pretty quickly. In incomplete journey novels such as Cigarette Girl, characters die or come to terms with who they are while not meeting their objectives. In others the journey takes them where they hadn’t planned on going yet they find contentment staying there (Anaheim Beauties and Extermination of Ethan Frome) The structure of Angeltown aligns more with the structure of Pride and Prejudice and we get some completed journeys and familia amidst tragedy.
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.
IN THE CIGARETTE GIRL ON THE TANGO, YOU MOVE ON TO 1938 AND, IN LORETTA, GIVE YOUR READERS ONE OF YOUR MOST COMPLEX CHARACTERS. WHAT INTRIGUES YOU ABOUT THIS ERA, AND ON WHOM IS LORETTA MODELED?
Well for starters, 1938 was the year of the Santa Ana River Flood. But I had no idea how much unwritten local history existed in this era. The more I dug into it, the more I became simultaneously saddened and fascinated. When floods such as the Saint Francis Dam disaster occurred, official death tolls did not account for missing migrant workers. There were hundreds of unreported deaths of hidden people. Most were born in the United States but had no permanent address and no birth records other than perhaps a baptismal record from a Catholic parish not recorded with the county. Migrant workers moved between agricultural encampments, following the harvests up and down the state. Few were educated, some were less than fluent in English, and when refugees from the Dust Bowl showed up wanting jobs, the Hoover Administration began rounding up and bussing Hispanics, about half of whom had been born in the United States, to Mexico as part of “La Repatriacion” So we had this shadow civilization living or even hiding on the edges of California civilization. Add to this Tony Cornero’s offshore gambling ships in international waters and we have this whole California shadow civilization that hasn’t gotten much attention in literature. So I slammed my character, Willie O’Toole in the middle of all this, searching for his missing girlfriend. And up pops Loretta, whom we’re never really sure about, except she can be a good person when she needs to be and a total badass when forced to be. She us the ultimate survivor, and I loved being inside her head. Whom is Loretta modelled on? On any number of women who have been pushed to the margins and somehow managed to survive against the odds.
WITH THE SOCIETY FOR THE COMPLETE EXTERMINATION OF ETHAN FROME, YOU STEP OUT OF THE RED CAR NOIR TIMEFRAME AND INTO THE ERA OF THE VIETNAM WAR. WHAT DREW YOU TO THIS ERA, AND WHAT IS THE CRUX OF YOUR MESSAGE ABOUT IT?
I was drawn to the Seventies and Vietnam era because I lived it and the issues of the Seventies were never reconciled. I need to sometimes remind myself how few college graduate Millennials and Zoomers personally know any veterans. Today there seems to be this attitude, especially in academic circles that men with military records have something wrong with them. In academia I know there is a history behind this. During the 1940’s war years professors enjoyed colleges filled with coeds and men perceived as less than masculine. Then, under FDR’s GI Bill came the “Class of ‘49”, a largely male, no-nonsense majority-white twenty-something veteran population who wanted three things: to get a girl, get a job, and get ahead. Veterans and academics clashed. McCarthyism didn’t help. It took academics a decade to purge the veteran mindset from “their” colleges, and veterans have not been welcome since. So we take Allen, a misfit runner who is certain he’ll be drafted and we throw him into a high school full of college-bound elite kids. Except he has this secret weapon and her name is Mandy Richert. She teaches Allen not what he’ll learn in any college, but what he needs.
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. Angeltown, the first in the series, 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.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE READERS TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR STORIES?
I write to address what I call the three E’s.
The first, of course, is entertainment. I truly hope my readers are entertained by what I write, because if I bore them, they most certainly won’t give my work a second chance.
Second is education. I want readers to enjoy being immersed in other eras and feel as if they’ve lived them. Striving to get the local details right for each era and setting, I hope to capture the “zeitgeist”, or spirit of an era so readers can encounter history in real time. I treat settlings like they are characters. I think a setting has to want something from other characters to set up conflict. This is why I love local history as a setting. We hear about “the room where it happens” as if only one “it” happens and in only one room, as if history is a solo performance by someone else in Washington or Hollywood. Yet each of us is writing history in our own towns every day. I hope by making history personal and real I can bring it to life while empowering readers to live their best lives in their own neighborhoods.
Finally is epiphany. I said every setting wants something. But because an era demands something from us might still not make it virtuous to give the setting what it wants. In Anaheim Beauties Valencia Queen, an almost Norman Rockwell Anaheim setting promotes the Ku Klux Klan while nearby Hollywood promotes values that aren’t a whole lot better. In Cigarette Girl on the Tango a network of offshore racketeers monetizes people and then discards them. In Society for the Complete Extermination of Ethan Frome the more privileged high school elitists live guilt-free while demanding the less fortunate pay off their debts to society. In Angeltown, a City understandably wants water, but insiders will steamroller anybody to control it. We live in an age of virtue signals, yet we’re not sure what virtue is. I want my readers to think about this and draw their own conclusions.