Last fall I taught two books I loved, Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” set in Boston, and James Welch’s “Fools Crow,” set in the Montana territory before there were states, to graduate students. Both those novelists eventually left their homelands, but I haven’t, and I wanted to talk about what it’s like to write about a place where you know every tree.
This week — because my house was full of people and I wanted quiet — I wrote in a notebook while parked in the middle of an orange grove. As I did all I could hear from the open windows were mockingbirds. I have been writing about this place for more than 20 years. It’s not Los Angeles; it’s not San Diego; it’s Riverside, inland Southern California, land of tumbleweeds and citrus and people who I always knew had fascinating lives though I’d never read about them.
When I was 19, working on my first book without even knowing it, writing in the same kind of black notebook that Harriet the Spy used to carry, listening to people talk and laugh and tell stories, I never thought anyone but me would read those pages. In a college class, I read an astonishing essay by Joan Didion, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” about failed women and men and murder in a place familiar to me — lemon groves and beauty parlors. When I described it to my mother, she said casually, “Oh, the woman who killed her husband? She lived across the street from your Aunt Beverly.”
But I never read novels about this place. I worked on my first book, a novel in stories called “Aquaboogie,’’ that summer, and then when I got married at 22, I worked on it even during the second night of my honeymoon outside Tijuana. My husband fell asleep early, used to the night shift at a correctional institution, and I couldn’t sleep, so I headed out to the balcony with the notebook.
A month later when we went east to graduate school in Amherst I was still working on the stories, while my husband worked nights. Then we came back home to California, to an apartment within sight of the hospital where we were both born, where our daughters were born, too. I wrote in a closet, on a trunk his grandmother brought when she left Mississippi. I wrote in the ancient Fiat he was always fixing. I wrote about the orange groves, the forest fires, people who fished in the local lake. Even then, I knew that like Lehane and Welch, I was writing about my home in a way no one else would or could.
Twenty years have passed since I published my first book, and some characters still haunt me and keep me company; they have shown up in my new novel. A woman from Oaxaca, standing in an alley with wash water, shocked at finding a dead body; a woman whom I left in a previous novel picking strawberries in a migrant worker camp; a woman who ran a boarding house in the 1950s in a black neighborhood, who took in girls from a Louisiana plantation who were in danger of being raped by a predator; and a high school history teacher — a hero, trying to save his nephew.
During the years I have been working on the new novel I looked at pictures of Eudora Welty at her desk in the house where she’d grown up; pictures of Ernest J. Gaines in front of his house in Louisiana, which he’d built close to the cemetery where his ancestors were buried on the plantation where he was born. And I knew how grateful I was to have such a place as this, and to see every day people who tell me stories no one else could know, even as they bring me oranges and we look at the baby tumbleweeds like green explosions in the vacant lots nearby, a strange beauty in their softness, months before they turn gold.
Susan Straight’s latest novel, about a travel writer who loves art, is “Take One Candle Light a Room.” She can be reached at Susanstraight.com.