Take me home, California roads

So I was trying to think of things that could liven it up around here, since I’ve been sort of maudlin and boring recently. One of my ideas was to ask a friend to interview me, with mostly inane questions to which I can give hilarious, apropos-of-nothing answers but also talk a little bit about the book, since I can guess what people are interested in but might be wrong. Katie volunteered to help me out, so that’s on its way, perhaps next week. Y’all are free to make suggestions or ask questions in the comments (which are woefully empty most of the time, but I think there are some people out there, so this is an open invitation) or via email (anna {dot} jarzab {at} gmail {dot} com).

Anyway, I was having a conversation with my mother the other day, and she asked me what I was working on. At this point, I am “working on” about four different novels, although in truth I’m only doing real work on one–MB. The thing that ties all of these books together is that they’re all set in California, albeit different parts of California, and I thought I could talk a little bit about why I chose the setting I did for AUT, since it’s something I didn’t plan and cannot fully explain. When I can start talking about MB more, I’ll do another post about the setting for that book, which was way more deliberate.

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I know this means nothing to most people now, but this view
of Dublin and San Ramon is the inspiration for the overlook in AUT.

The first time I wrote All Unquiet Things, it was set in the Chicago suburbs. This is because my family had moved from Chicago to California two years beforehand and, even though I was going to college in California, I really missed it. The problem with that was that, even in my head, the landscape of the town the events took place in looked nothing like anything you would find in Chicago. There were large foothills, for starters. Basically, I was writing the book to take place in California, but calling it Chicago because I was too bitter about the move still to admit I was being influenced by where I was living.

In the second version of AUT, I did away with the Chicago suburbs farce and just set the novel in a fictional town which is basically an amalgam of Dublin, Pleasanton, and San Ramon, CA, with a little bit of unincorporated Castro Valley thrown in. The town’s name, Empire Valley, is completely fictional, but there are a lot of “Valley” names in the state, because there are a lot of valleys, and there’s a town called Inland Empire as well. All of these towns, and Empire Valley as well, are in the East Bay Area, outside of Oakland and on the cusp of agricultural country.

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I used this area partly because it’s very familiar to me. I could take bits and pieces of each town (for instance, I moved Castlewood, a fancy schmancy Pleasanton foothills neighborhood, and used them to replace the Dublin foothills–less schmancy, but still pretty nice–are because I needed the ritziest houses but geographically EV looks more like Dublin) and mix them up and still know what the heck I was talking about.

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But also I think I chose the Dublin-Pleasanton area because the foothills make it feel isolated even though a lot of people live there, the towns feel small even though they’re sprawling and expanding. I need that feeling of exclusiveness and isolation, because geographically the town represents what the main characters are feeling internally, this sense of being trapped, emotionally and socially. That location, with so many highways nearby, feels escapable but isn’t. You can leave, but where do you go?

It’s too bad I’m such a bad photographer and have such a crappy camera, because the San Ramon Valley is really very stunning, especially at night. AUT takes place in the fall, so the town looks more like the first, which I took, with the brown grass that looks like sand. The abrasiveness of the way the town looks is key to the sense of isolation and entrapment–it looks like a desert, it’s sizzling hot, and there’s no relief. Neily, my main character, starts out the novel by fantasizing about what it’s going to look like in the spring, after the rains come, because the summer is that oppressive to him. That’s exactly what it’s like to live in that area when you don’t particularly want to: you chafe against the summer and fall, with the miserable heat and dust, but in the spring it’s like the Garden of Eden.

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