CONJURE UP IMAGES of Palm Springs and you’ll probably think of pastel-colored pool floaties, midcentury chic architecture, a gigantic Marilyn Monroe that watches over the city like its guardian angel. But you don’t need to scratch deep to find darkness in the desert — and even Palm Springs, with its endless well of pools, violently colored cocktails, and impossibly green lawns, is no exception. As Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, editor of the Palm Springs Noir anthology published in July 2021 by Akashic, writes of Palm Springs, “Noir made me see things differently, made me suspect what lay beneath bright, shiny surfaces. The contrast between light and dark are never more apparent than when I am in the desert. Such a sunny place, what could possibly go wrong?”
The anthology contains stories from Tod Goldberg, Janet Fitch, Eric Beetner, and more. Each story tackles a different corner of Palm Springs — and the surrounding desert areas that make up the region, presenting the popular tourist destination in a new light. The anthology joins Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Oakland, and Berkeley in California’s noir series arena.
DeMarco-Barrett’s work has appeared in Orange County Noir, USA Noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series, Crossing Borders, the Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her first book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within, made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list and was honored with an American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award. In addition, she cohosts Writers on Writing on KUCI-FM.
HALLEY SUTTON: What sets Palm Springs noir apart from Los Angeles noir?
BARBARA DEMARCO-BARRETT: I think L.A. is often thought of as being the spot for noir. When I think of L.A. literature or crime novels, I think of Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly, just all these novelists. And Palm Springs — people don’t think of it as having this dark side. It’s just such a resort town, everybody goes there to lie in the sun.
I’ve been going there for years and running writers’ retreats. I started looking at the crime log, and I would just get blown away by all the crime in Palm Springs, because you don’t think of it that way. There’s Desert Hot Springs, which is kind of known for meth labs, or you think of Indio as having gangs, but Palm Springs has stuff going on, too. I thought the contrast with it being a resort town and a vacation spot, and yet with this dark underbelly was very interesting. So to me, it’s very different from L.A., and L.A. noir.
And I want to read stories that take place in Palm Springs. I couldn’t deal with the idea that somebody else might do it. So I had to come up with this. And I had to make it work.
Absolutely. My experience of Palm Springs is to go there for a fun weekend, as a tourist. But there’s such a difference between the tourism and the people who live there full-time. I was curious if that was something that came up as you were looking for contributors.
Yeah, one of the things Akashic wanted was to have most of the people be from there. And if not from there, to have a strong relationship to the place. I started looking for writers in Palm Springs, and there just weren’t a whole lot. It expanded to have people who have a relationship with the place, who can write about the place. Part of the criteria was that people know Palm Springs in a certain, intimate way.
How did the writers’ understanding of Palm Springs tie into the structure of the collection, where each story is set in a specific area of Palm Springs and the surrounding cities?
I didn’t want everything just set in Palm Springs city limits, because to me, Palm Springs is that entire area. I just thought [it would] be more interesting to have writers writing about the whole desert area. And I definitely wanted to have a story set in Joshua Tree, I wanted Anza which is at the far south, the Salton Sea, and then what’s in between.
I would throw out locations when I first started getting the writers, and a few of them picked those. Others came in and said, I’d really like to write about a specific place; Ken Layne does Desert Oracle [a podcast that covers desert news and stories] and he lives in Joshua Tree, or in that area. Tod Goldberg lives out in Indio. Janet Fitch, she wanted to write about South Palm Canyon, because her grandmother had a trailer down there.
I know Palm Springs well enough that I know how many small desert cities are clustered there. But for I think a lot of people, they think Palm Springs is different than it is. And you know, I think that breaking that out, and each [story] having its own different feel for the setting and what life there is so fascinating. And my story took place in Twin Palms because I was renting a house there. I love the architecture. I love midcentury modern. And the house I was in had this pool.
One other thing that sets Palm Springs apart from Los Angeles is that it has this reputation as being the playground of the stars, back in the midcentury. There are subtle threads of this — for example, the way that Frank Sinatra popped up in your story. Did you give the contributors any guidelines about what to write, in terms of themes or motifs?
Frank Sinatra is so Palm Springs, and that was for me this running motif. I wanted to expand that into the section titles, which are Sinatra songs. But I think all of these stories are really different in terms of theme or plot. Basically, the contributors were free to write what they wanted as long as they stuck to the basic noir guidelines, whatever that means to them. Which is kind of an interesting metaphor for noir, that it doesn’t necessarily have to stick to any specific guidelines. Like T. Jefferson Parker’s story, “Specters.” It’s not exactly what you think of with traditional noir, but it has the vibe. The vibe is good.
Your story, “The Water Holds You Still,” was not the first noir anthology story you’ve published — you also have the story, “Crazy For You,” in Orange County Noir. Even though they’re both in Southern California, they both feel really unique. I’m curious how you approach writing for Palm Springs noir versus Orange County noir.
With the story “The Water Holds You Still,” I knew it had to have a swimming pool. Because a few retreats ago, I remember thinking about the pool, wondering, “Well, do they check the wiring of these things?” And so that helped the plot. I love writing about the desert. Setting for me is easy to do when you love the place or you find the place interesting, right? I’m sure it’s been captured in fiction, but with Palm Springs there’s so much to say, there’s so much going on in the environment.
I seem to include my life in all the fiction that I write. In “Crazy For You,” you would never be able to connect it with me. Even people that know me would never go, “Oh, that’s so and so, or from this time in my life.” And the same with “The Water Holds You Still.” I had a difficult relationship with my brother. What if I had not been a forgiving type? What if I was someone like my character in this story? I mean, people do these things. And so I started out with brother stuff in my story, because my brother made me mad. And I had to forgive what he did.
You have such a sharp ear for dialogue. Do you have any tricks that you can share about writing dialogue?
Just try to leave the least interesting stuff out. Leave the filler out. In the scene, what would you have said, if you had the nerve? And then I listen to how people talk. I love dialogue that isn’t on the nose. Don DeLillo writes dialogue like that, where people are going their own way. And every so often they’re intersecting and answering each other. And I appreciate you saying that, because I love writing dialogue, and I probably write too much of it at times, instead of narrative and interior. For a screenplay, all you need is to see what’s going on and let the dialogue carry it. But in fiction, that doesn’t always work.
Was there anything that you felt was particularly instructive in the other stories, that you want to add to your toolkit as a writer?
Rob Bowman has a really strong voice. And so I was looking at it going, “What’s he doing with voice?” He’s doing something else, something different, which is hard for a writer to do. And then I think Robert, his story was a little shocking — somebody sitting with a cyanide capsule in his mouth, waiting for someone to come for him. I mean, that’s really interesting to write a story that’s compressed in that little bit of time, because it’s mostly the character’s reflection, and it still works.
The writers who are really good at staying in the scene, like Janet Fitch, the interiority is present constantly, because you’re filtering everything through the characters’ eyes. The way that characters view the chair or whatever tells you something about who they are. I think the masters really get that. What’s your character thinking when she’s washing the dishes? What is she thinking when she’s putting on her shoes? We need all those moments in time to reorder what somebody is thinking.
It’s just a marvelous collection. It really is. I love that it’ll end up coming out in the summer. That ties in so well with the hot, dusty murderous feel of the book, really.