Thursday, February 22, 2018

Interview with novelist William Luvaas

My special author guest today is William Luvaas and we’re talking about his new literary satire, Welcome to Saint Angel.

William Luvaas has published three novels, The Seductions of Natalie Bach (Little, Brown), Going Under (Putnam), and Beneath The Coyote Hills (Spuyten Duyvil)—a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award—and two story collections: A Working Man’s Apocrypha (Oklahoma Univ. Press) and Ashes Rain Down: A Story Cycle (Spuyten Duyvil), which was The Huffington Post’s 2013 Book of the Year and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. His new novel, Welcome To Saint Angel, comes out with Anaphora Literary Press on March 15, 2018. His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, first place in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Contest, The Ledge Magazine’s Fiction Contest, and Fiction Network’s 2nd National Fiction Competition. His work has appeared in dozens of publications. Luvaas has taught writing at San Diego State University, U.C. Riverside, and The Writers Voice in New York, and is Online Fiction Editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Lucinda, an artist and film maker.

Welcome, Bill. Please tell us about your current release.
Welcome to Saint Angel is a story of development gone mad. In the bucolic So-Cal valley of Santa Rosa de Los Angeles (Saint Angel), townsfolk split into warring camps. Developers want to turn the valley into a sprawling bedroom community and appropriate its meager water supply to grow lawns in the desert. Al Shar­pe and his allies want to preserve its natural beauty and rural character. He and his scrappy friends halt development with their madcap high jinks and the help of local Indians, ancient demon Tahquitz, and Mother Nature. T­­he battle between them is both comic and tragic. The story of one man’s fight to save the place he loves and a rural community’s struggle to preserve its way of life and tight-knit community­, the novel speaks to the impact of unbridled development and suburban sprawl on the natural environment and on people’s lives.

I would call it a “comic, environmental novel, with a flavor of the apocalyptic.” My favorite blurb for the book comes from author and grizzly bear defender Doug Peacock:
“In the mildly apocalyptical near future, a community of colorful high desert characters fight off developers and water thieves during CA’s worst drought, a danger as recent as last year and as old as Chinatown. These decent whackos are often shot in the ass with human frailty but transcend their flaws with hilarious courage. SA is a painful, redemptive belly laugh and well worth it.”
            - Doug Peacock, Environmental Activist, Author of Grizzly Years
Welcome to Saint Angel comes out on March 15, 2018 from Anaphora Literary Press.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was living in the high desert in Riverside County, California and writing short stories focusing on the scrappy, inimitable characters that often occupy desert country, who are as rugged as the environment itself. I’ve always been attracted to outsiders and social rebels in my work, and they abound in the high desert. Moreover, I often set books and stories in places where I am living when I write them, which have included Oregon, New York City, Upstate N.Y., Mendocino, CA, San Diego and recently the SoCal high desert. In a sense, my work grows out of the local soil and is compelled by the people and issues of the region. I wrote the first draft of S.A. during those lunatic years of the subprime housing boom; Riverside County was one of its epicenters. Heedless developers were throwing up houses all sides without a thought for the local people or the fragile environment, turning the chaparral country into a suburban nightmare, with huge, ugly houses crowded together cheek by jowl where had once been farms and orchards and open country, guzzling up our meager water supply. I was angered and heartbroken by this intrusion and felt compelled to write about it. Mankind’s threat to the environment has long been a major theme in my work—and here it was happening around me. Moreover, at that time I was engaged in an effort to stop greedy developers from building a huge housing tract in our neighborhood, which would destroy its rural character, chase off the owls and coyotes, and knock down palms and olive trees. We successfully fought them off. That effort, too, helped inspire the novel and provided grist for the mill.

Excerpt from Welcome to Saint Angel, Chapter 8:
Pulling up to Sam Jenson’s place off Indian Springs Road, I heard the whunkety-whunk of well-drilling rigs nearby. Three giant new water tanks stood atop rocky knolls behind his place. Two bedraggled palm trees at top of his drive were generally decorated with Christmas lights by now, as were the chain-link fence and junker cars, and white and blue icicle lights usually outlined the chassis of a ‘37 Chevy flatbed and his decrepit trailer. Not this year. Generally, the lights summoned gawkers from town, and Sam bitched, “You’d think I was Santy Claus.”

After he left the hospital, one or another of us stopped by daily to check on him, brought him casseroles. Sam complained that we were coddling him and threatened to shoot the next person who stepped on his property uninvited. Likely meant it. With Sam, you never knew. I was yelling from the moment I parked in the dusty yard and approached his trailer on foot. “It’s me, Sam, don’t shoot.” No sign of him. Odd. Sam always heard and recognized cars the moment they turned off Yucca Road into his long drive, would be awaiting you on his front porch with your own personalized coffee mug in hand, filled with java boiled at five a.m., black and tarry as used motor oil.

“You hear me, Sam? I’m not here about your heart. As far as I can tell, you don’t have one.” Approaching the trailer gingerly. “I’m here about your well.”

Another thing: curtains were drawn. I heard a frenzied electrical buzzing as I stepped onto the porch and feared Sam had electrocuted himself via the ancient toaster which he regularly washed with other dishes. “You home, Sam?” I called softly. An odor of putrefied flesh chased me off the porch. I feared I’d find Sam covered in a glistening carpet of blow flies. Fucking doctors had sent him home with a bad ticker. But it wasn’t Sam I was smelling, rather rotting jack-rabbit carcasses pinned by their veiny ears to a clothesline. Flies roiled over them, flashing silvery blue in turmoiling light. “Crissake, Sam—” I stepped back onto the porch and rapped on the screen door “—you plan to eat those, you old bastard?”

I couldn’t make out much in the dark interior, only a bare foot extending stiffly off the sofa, artificial and ghostly, illuminated by a shaft of light in which dust motes danced and spun.

“Sam!” I called imperatively.

No answer. Sam in one of his misanthropic moods.

“I’m here, Jenson, you just as well get used to it.” Stepping inside, I let the screen door slam behind me. Sam lay stretched out on the couch in khaki shorts and shirt, one arm thrown across his chest, a foot splayed awkwardly on the floor. I prodded his arm. “You got rabbits
rotting on the line and a world of opportunity passing you by.” His pale eyes stared past me into space.

Death’s feel is as unmistakable as its smell: Sam’s arm was cold and wooden. I leapt away. “What did they do to you, old fellah?” Then I remembered his bad ticker and heard Sage’s water baby, that whimpering pa?akniwat. I couldn’t bring myself to close his eyes. I worked a slip of paper out of fingers which clutched it in a death grip. A penciled line: Don’ dring the water. A nauseating rotten-egg smell lingered about him, protecting Sam’s corpse from predatory flies that covered the screen door in a fierce, buzzing pellicle. At the hospital, he’d asked me, “Have you smelled your water lately?” I smoothed that note across his chest.
They’d killed the old bastard all right: Cal, Ches, TexHome, one or another of them.

Driving into town to inform Charlie Haynes, I saw a white van trailing me in the rearview, keeping its distance. Though I couldn’t see them, I knew there were two faces watching me from beyond the windshield.

What exciting story are you working on next?
Something altogether different. A woman and her adolescent son escape an abusive husband and flee from place to place across country, staying just ahead of him. He is a Deputy District Attorney in L.A. and has all the surveillance capabilities of local police forces and the FBI at his disposal—in this age of GPS tracking, CCTV cameras, license plate scanners, facial recognition software, and all the other hi-tech tools of personal invasion when it has become nearly impossible to get off the grid, as they must. They have many adventures along the way; her husband just misses cornering them a couple of times. But I don’t want to give it all away. She is also battling depression and opioid addiction that so often accompanies it. I started writing this in early 2016 before the “Me Too” movement and in the midst of the debate about high-tech invasion of privacy and opioid addiction. For whatever reason, I often find hot button issues creeping into my work, sometimes just before they become popularized.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I wrote a little poetry in college—awful stuff! Didn’t start writing seriously until I was well into my thirties, although I did write a dreadfully long, terribly flawed novel in my late twenties about a group of hippies living in the redwoods in Mendocino County, CA, a picaresque book that a NY agent actually showed an interest in—if I could cut it by 2/3rds. I had no idea how to do that in those early years, so it died and remains a corpse buried at the back of my manuscript closet. It wasn’t until I was well into my first published novel, The Seductions of Natalie Bach, that I dared call myself a “writer.” It is always a huge leap to make such a declaration. You ask yourself: Am I really? Will I be able to pull it off? Will I stick with it?

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am able to write full-time now as I could not for years while I was teaching, although I always kept the work going, mostly on days when I didn’t teach and wasn’t overwhelmed with class prep. or other matters. In my early days as a wanna-be writer, I became friends with Frank Dunlap, a Chicago writer who’d moved to Northern California and the first real writer I’d ever known. Frank gave me some much-valued advice: “Always put your writing first.” I have tried to do that, but it hasn’t always been easy.
I am something of a workaholic, as is my wife, an artist and filmmaker, so that works well for us. I can’t imagine sharing life with someone who doesn’t understand artistic obsession and doesn’t realize it’s not just that we “want” to create; we “must” create. For both of us, it is a passion. Other than this, I work out, love to hike, love movies, travel some, visit friends; I always have some project going around the house. I worked for years as a carpenter and like to keep my hand in. Next comes landscaping our new place in L.A.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Likely my wacky characters. I love to write what my father called “oddballs.” Those who live outside the mainstream and face the challenges of an idiosyncratic life. Glimmer Train editor Linda Swanson-Davies has said of them: “Luvaas manages to make such swerving and impossible lives feel utterly true and real and maybe–incredibly–even normal.” Then, too, I have an imagination that refuses to behave itself. It seems there is no line it won’t cross, no place it won’t take me.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I had no idea. Rather I had no interest in growing up. Growing up was for grown ups, who didn’t seem very contented to me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life until I had passed through my tumultuous youth: working as a VISTA Volunteer in Alabama, living in the redwood forest, traveling around on the cheap, making soapstone hashish pipes, living in a refurbished chicken coop, doing odd jobs, trying my damnedest not to get stuck in the grind. This was the Sixties, after all, the Age of Aquarius, when anything seemed possible. John Lennon’s “Imagine” was our national anthem. Then, in my early thirties, my wife and I moved to New York where she grew up, and I was forced to decide what I was going to do with myself.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
My work, as agents and editors have often told me, isn’t easy to classify; it doesn’t fit into any particular genre. It does what I suppose I have done in my life: wanders along back roads, trying to find its way. There is no fixed itinerary, no reliable map, no certain destination. There is just the journey.


Thanks for being here today, Bill.

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