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Native Californians write about their favorite state in very different ways [updated]

April 26, 2010 |  9:03 am


In California, "the stories find you," says author Thomas Steinbeck. In the Festival of Books' panel The California Way on Sunday, moderator Antoine Wilson started by asking each author to read the first page of his book, which allowed the audience to hear the widely different myths, realities and experiences of California that exist in their work.

Victoria Patterson read her collection of short stories, "Drift," which deal with the "unmined territory" of her hometown Newport Beach, Calif., and deepening an understanding of Orange County beyond the stereotypes of popular culture. She also revisits Newport Beach in her new novel due out next spring, because like "a dog shaking a rag doll in its mouth," she’s not quite done uncovering the complexity of the O.C.

Stereotypes were also present on page one of "The Jook" by Gary Phillips, a native of South L.A., which tells the story of a black athlete who has trouble making his way through customs at LAX. A crime story, distinct from mystery in that it follows a “criminal” rather than crime-solver“ route, "The Jook” develops, as character and place shape each other.

The central question, "what if," drives the work of Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck. He regaled the audience with a history lesson about what he called “the richest state in the union.” In his new novel, “In the Shadow of the Cypress,” artifacts are found in Monterey, implying that Chinese explorers had “discovered” America before Columbus — a historically accurate view that was popular with Monterey’s residents, including his father — and how that might have effected the city's turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese immigrants.

Mexican drug cartels in Malibu led Katie Arnoldi to travel to marijuana growing sites along the coast to research her book, “Point Doom.” Raised in Malibu, Arnoldi set out to explore the tension between the city’s older blue-collar community and the wealthy families who have more recently moved in. But she found a more literal sense of “native and invasive species” when she was tipped off by a park ranger that marijuana production by Mexican dealers had come to the hills of Malibu.

In shifting the topic to the craft of writing, the authors compared method (Steinbeck pre-plans, while Arnoldi reaches the finishing point of her novels by “miracle”), reading preferences and the struggles that come with their chosen profession.

“Why do you live in California?” was the last audience question posed to the panel. Each member had the same response: "I was already here." However, all four California-born authors were wide-eyed when Wilson relayed the recent statistic that less than half of the state's population were born out-of-state -- a first in the state’s history.

“Look at Connecticut -- they’re fine,” Wilson said jokingly. But for a group that spoke lovingly of California’s diversity, constant reinvention and changing landscapes, the hope is that the shift will deliver new material, uniquely Californian, to explore.

-- Heather Robertson

Photo: From left, Gary Phillips, Victoria Patterson, Thomas Steinbeck, Katie Arnoldi and Antoine Wilson. Credit: Heather Robertson

[Updated at 5:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled Katie Arnoldi's last name as "Arnold."]