Sue Staats in Conversation with Author Mary Camarillo
Actor Ruby Sketchley will perform a chapter from THE LOCKHART WOMEN. Register for the March 25 performance here. Order THE LOCKHART WOMEN from Capital Books to pick up at the performance.
Most of the time we try and plan our Stories on Stage events around a theme. This month, for instance? Los Angeles Noir. Because both of our featured novelists live in Los Angeles, and set their dark tales there.
But wait, there’s more! Both stories have, at their core, events that took place in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, and that headlined national news for weeks. Steph Cha’s story, “All Luck,” which you will hear performed this month, is set during the so-called “Race Riots” in 1992. Mary Camarillo’s novel, THE LOCKHART WOMEN, begins with the slow-motion car chase involving O.J. Simpson, and ends with the outcome of his trial. In talking with Mary Camarillo, we learned that while her novel is not about OJ, the events definitely provide a scaffolding to her tale of growth and self-discovery ... and, for Mary Camarillo, they are tied to her personal experience.
SUE: Mary, so much was happening in Los Angeles in the early 90s – why did you choose this event to anchor the book in time? What does it mean to your main character, Brenda? Why is she so fixated on it?
MARY: Well, the initial reason was pretty mundane – I was in a writing group and we’d challenged ourselves to set a scene in this historical period, and I was already writing about the nineties, so I thought, it’s the O.J. chase, I was there, it went right by my house. I sat on the couch and watched it on TV, and I could have reached out and touched it. I was working at the time, so I couldn’t actually sit on my couch and watch every single minute of the trial, but it was inescapable.
Brenda (one of the Lockhart women) got addicted to the trial because her husband had just left her and she needed to go out and find a job, but instead she sat on the couch and turned on the TV. Not that it excuses her neglect of her family, but it was a pretty compelling time on television. I kind of see it as the beginning of our social media. Back in those days, we didn’t have Facebook or Google, we had television. There were the helicopters, and they were chasing the car chasers; it was the inception of that. It was also the beginning of reality TV, of must-see TV. It’s what people talked about the next day at work.
SUE: You think of this event as the beginning of social media. How different would Brenda’s story be today, given that social media has equaled, and maybe eclipsed TV as our source of information?
MARY: It would be completely different. There are a lot of events in the story that would be on social media, because everyone posts everything that they do all day long. So that really would have been in the story.
SUE: Something else this brings up: Brenda is a woman who’s never worked. Would that be possible today?
MARY: Well, I know that in the neighborhood I set it in, that would not be possible, with the high price of housing today and the extraordinarily wealthy people who live there. Real estate these days requires two incomes. Back in those days, though, Huntington Beach was a very interesting place to live. I lived there for almost twenty-five years, and when we moved there iT was almost an affordable beach community for working class families. My husband and I were both postal workers, and we could almost afford our house when we first moved in. Now, there’s no way we could afford to buy a house there. It’s crazy.
SUE: You were a postal worker, and Brenda’s daughter becomes a postal worker, and Brenda is married to a postal worker. Does much of the novel have an autobiographic base, or did you simply use that experience as fodder for the development of your characters?
MARY: I think all of them have little pieces of me. One thing is, I like to read about what kind of jobs people do, and I like to write about it. I worked for the post office for almost forty years. There were a lot of stories, all the time, and I knew that it would be a great place to set a novel. Lots of drama, people worked crazy hours, it’s kind of an insular community, and they have fights.
SUE: My experience of the post office is going to the counter and buying stamps. It doesn’t seem like a hotbed of drama…
MARY: Any time you put a lot of different cultures together, different backgrounds, the number of hours you have to work, the crazy days off, it kind of adds to the tension.
SUE: I’ll never see my letter carrier the same way again! The chapter we’re using, which comes about a third of the way inTO the book, shows how bad things continue to happen to Brenda as a result of her denying the truth of her situation. What does that chapter mean in Brenda’s evolution, and her children’s lives?
MARY: Well, it’s one of the worst nights of her life. Unfortunately, there are even worse nights that happen later. Brenda’s in complete denial at this point. She’s drinking too much, not really realizing how destructive it is, and her daughters are really out of control. Her older daughter, Peggy, has gotten involved with older people at the Post Office, and she’s not really emotionally capable of handling the situation she’s getting into, and Allison is deeply in love with a very troubled young man who has a lot of violence and anger issues, and some drug problems, and Brenda is simply not aware of any of that. She’s only focusing on herself.
SUE: Do you think that what’s coming out of this chapter for the reader is more and more the degree to which Brenda is unconscious of the effect she has on her children, and not realizing what is actually going on in her life.
MARY: Right, and this is kind of a wake-up call. She does eventually stop drinking, she does realize it’s not helping, that she needs to be more alert. It’s a little bit too late, but there’s hope for her. She makes a lot of bad decisions. That’s one of the features of this story: I kind of like characters that are troubled, and not always likable, and who don’t make the right choices.
SUE: It does seem like a novel of bad decisions; they just keep shooting themselves in the feet. You’d think their guns would run out of bullets, but they never seem to, right?
MARY: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess I’m attracted to that kind of story. If you woke up and made all the right decisions it wouldn’t be A very interesting to read, would it?
SUE: Not much dramatic possibility, no. But I really did like all your stubbornly misguided characters. It’s a great read and a terrific depiction of the time. I was reading in one of the reviews that The Hollywood Reporter had given it a shout-out as a book that had appeal to studios, and in fact it’s a finalist in their contest. Have you had any attention from TV or movies?
MARY: No, not yet. But I’m hopeful, because I think it does have a cinematic quality. A lot of people have told me they envision what actor would play what role, and in fact I’ve even thought about that. But so far, no nibbles.
SUE: We’ll just keep hoping. One day we’ll stream it on Netflix! I also am intrigued by your publisher, She Writes Press. Tell me a little about it, and how it works.
MARY: She Writes Press is a hybrid publisher, which means that the author funds the cost of the project. Which means it costs a little more, but the royalties are higher and the author has more control over the cover and the page design. One terrific thing is that they have a distribution system, which means that my book can be purchased anywhere. That’s pretty huge, an advantage you don’t have when you self-publish. The other tremendous benefit is that it’s a feminist press, so it’s all women who are super supportive of each other, and they’re there to answer questions, and offer to do readings with you, and promote your book. One thing I’ve discovered in this process is that writers are incredibly generous.
I initially wanted to go the traditional route, but I queried over a hundred agents, got a lot of good feedback, but I kept hearing, we love the writing, we love the story, but we just don’t think we can sell it. In hindsight I understand why; the novel was too long when I was first shopping it around; it was a hundred and six thousand words. Since then it’s been trimmed down to ninety-three thousand words. It’s kind of a difficult category too, in that, it’s not really historical fiction, and not really contemporary fiction either. And I’m an older writer without much of a social media platform, and, of course, publishers want to make money. So that’s one reason I had sort of a struggle. I know there’s a lot of beautiful stuff published, and I think the publishing industry is really changing, but I was just not ready to start learning how to publish my own book. I had to learn a lot to market and promote this novel, but I wasn’t really ready to take on the whole new skill set of self-publishing.
SUE: You mention that it fell between two genres. Can you elaborate?
MARY: Historical fiction has been defined to me as something over fifty years old and of course, I don’t think the nineties are historical, they seem very present to me.
SUE: (Laughs) Exactly. Kind of depends on your age, doesn’t it?
MARY: Yeah, and many readers are young enough to have been upset by the televising of the Simpson chase, and the Simpson trial, because it pre-empted the cartoons they were watching.
SUE: So, not historical, and not contemporary. You sort of slide in between two genres.
MARY: Yes, and I was encouraged to classify it as “women’s fiction” and I’m not sure it really fits that, either. I think I would like to call it literary fiction, but I feel presumptuous call in it that.
SUE: Well, it does fit somewhere in the middle there. It’s interesting, because "genre" used to be a term where you could strictly categorize things, and it was easy to pigeonhole a writer, but more and more writers are sliding between genres and incorporating elements of all of them, and moving easily between crime fiction to literary fiction to historic fiction. It’s harder and harder to pinpoint writers, these days. We’re seeing a lot of that in the writers we’ve selected for Stories on Stage Sacramento.
MARY: I’m a big fan of Stories on Stage and have watched a lot of the productions online because I don’t live in Sacramento. I think you pick wonderful work. You’re responsible for my bookshelf that doesn’t have enough room anymore!
SUE: I’ll take that as a compliment!
MARY: I love the stories you pick, and I’m happy to be one of them.
SUE: We’re happy to have you. One thing I noticed in researching you for this interview is that your book gets a lot of mention on “vacation reads” lists. Do you think of your book as a “beach book?”
MARY: Well, it’s a fast read. And the book came out in June, so I think that’s where my publicist was pitching it, as a summer read. But it’s not really lighthearted. These women are troubled.
SUE: The style is light-hearted, and yet, bad things do happen. There’s a death, several unexpected occurrences, and many serious things happen. But you always get the feeling that they’re going to survive them.
MARY: They do. Even though things seem pretty hopeless at the beginning.
SUE: So, pivoting a little bit. You’ve said you’re an “older writer.” You were not the girl who had an eighty-thousand-word novel in your back pocket by the time she was eighteen. At what stage in your life did you begin writing? What triggered it? And more importantly, what helped you to continue writing, once you’d discovered it?
MARY: Well, in high school I wrote poetry, and I edited the literary magazine, and I considered a career in journalism. But, very foolishly, I let an unfortunate teacher discourage me. I didn’t go to college right after high school. I went to work for the post office. I think one of the reasons I did that is because my father had just been laid off from Aerospace, and he lost his pension and I thought, oh, I need some security.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, I’ve always loved theatre, I’ve always gone to plays. And I worked my way up through the postal service and eventually became an audit manager, which means I was responsible for countless audit reports. And this will sound really weird, but I started thinking at that point, I could probably write fiction.
SUE: Really? Why?
MARY: Well, there are critical parts of the audit reports that could translate into fiction. And when you have something that happens in a facility, you have to say why it’s wrong—the cause and the effect. And you keep reading because you want to know why somebody did something and why you should care. And I thought oh my god I could make a story out of this.
So, when I retired, I started taking classes at community college, and I went to the Community of Writers in the High Sierras, and that’s when I really started taking myself seriously. I came home and told my husband, I need my own office, I’m going to dedicate a few hours a day to working on what I want to work on. I took more classes, and more workshops, and I finally started getting stories published in small journals. And I was working on a story about Brenda, and she just demanded more space. She’s a pushy woman. And it just got longer and longer—hence, THE LOCKHART WOMEN.
SUE: I love your story. It’s a lot like my own! One more question: in your bio on your website, you mention that you live with your husband and Riley the Terrorist Cat. I have to know more about Riley and of course we will include a link to his Instagram page.
MARY: Well, we share an Instagram page but Riley is the star of it. Riley is a fifteen-pound flame point Siamese. He’s a very handsome boy and a very dominant cat. He’s responsible for the terrible condition of our carpet, he can leap on any surface. We call him a terrorist because he alternates between wanting to be a stuffed toy that sits on your lap, and destroying every single thing on your shelves. He’s a handful, but he’s very photogenic and he doesn’t mind sitting next to books.
SUE: We’ll definitely be posting a photo. Would you call Riley a muse?
MARY: Well, amuse-ing, more likely.
(Sue's interview with Mary Camarillo has been edited for length and clarity.)