I FIRST INTERVIEWED Victoria Patterson on my radio show in 2009, upon the publication of Drift, her debut short story collection. Set in the affluence of Newport Beach, Patterson focused on the people who were struggling to belong or who would never belong — the divorcées, alcoholics, stoners, trophy wives, and transvestites. Drift was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Patterson went on to publish the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. We recently talked about her latest book, The Little Brother, on my radio show, at my speaker series, and finally via email.
BARBARA DEMARCO-BARRETT: When the Greg Haidl rape case was news back in ’06, I read the paper daily to find out the newest developments. Even though you moved away long ago, apparently you read the Orange County papers as well.
VICTORIA PATTERSON: I did. I’d been following the case and wanting to write about it for quite some time. It was such an incredible case, and it dragged on and on. The Haidl family had thrown so much money at the defense. They had a PR team working for them. Yet there was this horrific video evidence of the gang rape. How did the lawyers manage to get a mistrial? It was just crazy. Then the second trial came and the young men were finally convicted.
I was impressed that the “Jane Doe” in the case had had the endurance and strength to go through two trials.
Then there was the flood of corruption that was exposed with Sheriff Mike Carona and Don Haidl and the others, and it was all connected. As a writer, how could I not be interested? I remember telling my writer friends about it — I couldn’t stop talking about it.
During and after the trials, the alliance between Sheriff Carona and his two assistant sheriffs, Don Haidl and George Jaramillo, was tested. Jane Doe’s refusal to settle was one of the threads that unraveled this alliance. Carona and Jaramillo ended up being indicted on public corruption charges. Haidl pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud and cooperated with the authorities by wiring his body and ratting out Carona. Both Carona and Jaramillo served time in federal prison. Even the Haidls’ lawyer, Joe Cavallo, has had repeated trouble with the law, including being convicted of illegally paying bail bond agents to steer clients to his firm. Look him up. He’s a piece of work.
But I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Things needed to be resolved — although I believe the ramifications are ongoing and some things can’t have a resolution. It just wasn’t the right time to write about it. Time had to pass.
Was there an inciting incident or a moment when the idea took root?
When “Jane Doe” made her name public, I knew it might work. Ten years had passed. Many of the players involved had gone to jail.
I got in touch with a reporter who let her know I was interested in writing a novel. Eventually she and I talked by phone. She already had a book agent. Jane Doe signed a nondisclosure agreement and wasn’t sure she could write the book that she wanted. If not, she said she might want to work with me on a fictional account.
Fortunately, she was able to write her book. She gave me her blessing to write my novel. We both agreed that her case encompassed more than one book. In fact, I think there’s more that can be written about this case, especially a thorough nonfictional account.
Besides reading the papers, what sort of research did you do?
I read everything I could about rape and gang rape and rape culture — fiction and nonfiction. Among the books that were most influential: Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz (about the Glen Ridge rape case), Lucky by Alice Sebold, and The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help by Jackson Katz. I also watched movies like The Accused, the documentary The Central Park Five (I recommend the book by Sarah Burns as well), and Boys Don’t Cry.
You open the book with a quote from Dostoevsky about culpability, a subject he certainly loved to explore. Did you want to show people who followed the case and made assumptions about guilt and innocence that those assumptions are always too easy?
Yes, and that we’re not excluded from the equation. There’s a tendency to dismiss rapists as animals and to believe that they aren’t connected to us. We don’t want to face the truth that most of the men who rape are our brothers, sons, fathers, boyfriends, and husbands. And that they’re members and participants of our society, and that our society doesn’t do much to deter rape.
When did you know you would tell the story through the little brother, that that was the angle that would be most fertile?
It took a while. I realized that Even, my narrator, would be the oddball in his family, but he’d also be forced to make a decision that might ostracize him. I wanted him to be involved — implicated. Without the cushion of moral outrage, I would have a fuller range of human complexity. I wanted Even to be tested. He might move toward a moral decision or away from it.
What are the challenges in writing a novel based on true-life occurrences?
You never know who is going to get angry — and most of the time, it’s someone you didn’t expect.
All fiction is based on real life. Life is stories, and even when you’re making stuff up, you’re drawing from real-life experiences. It’s all a big mess of real and unreal.
But I suppose the challenge is to not feel tied to the facts — to let your narrative expand and breathe and come to life. I would add that The Little Brother is inspired by the Haidl case and not based on it.
What’s the reaction from people in the case, or in the community, since the book came out. Did anyone accuse you of exploiting the situation?
I’ve had mostly good feedback from people in the community. From people involved in the case (except for one person), no feedback, which is — in its own way — a response. So far no one has accused me of exploiting the situation.
In The Little Brother I expect it was difficult to create sympathetic characters yet you were able to do so Did you feel this way about them when you began writing the novel?
Thanks. Just the other night, I had a reader tell me that she still hated the characters after she’d finished the novel!
Although there are some characters that — through Even’s point of view — I continue to dislike, such as the sheriff, the Ks, and the lawyer Jonathan Cavari, I grew to have sympathy for Even’s brother, Gabe, and for their dad.
By living the novel through my characters, I understood them better. They became complicated and human and real, just like people I know in my life. This doesn’t excuse their behavior. A terrible crime was committed. But I certainly understand, like the dad in my novel, that we all have the capacity to make horrible decisions, and to do so with what we view or rationalize at the time as the best of intentions.
I read the book in two days. It was very much a literary page-turner. I assume this is what you intended.
I’d not written a “page-turner” before, and I wanted to try. With each of my books, I’ve tried to do something different, something that scares me, something that I don’t know if I can pull off.
I know that feeling of starting a book, and whether you like it or not, you can’t put it down, and it drives you a little nuts. You want to go to bed, but you’ve got to read what comes next first, just to find out. But once you find out, you want to see what happens after that. It’s like an itch that you have to keep scratching. I wanted to do that — and by the end, to have the reader have a sense of fulfillment for having gone on the ride.
Also, I think the subject matter is important, so I figured most readers — as in real life — don’t necessarily want to read or think about a gang rape. So if I could pull the reader in and keep him or her turning pages because it’s entertaining and compelling, by the time the reader has finished, he or she might hopefully be thinking about rape culture and what it means and subjects that he or she might otherwise simply push away or ignore.
Was writing the rape hard? Did you worry about the possibility of eroticism?
Yes, it was difficult. But it was always important to me that I not avoid it. I tried to show how the video evidence of the gang rape forever altered anyone who saw it — a person who saw it would live with a hole inside them forever afterward. I also wrote about it in a very technical way so that the violence and degradation were clear. I wasn’t worried about eroticism, because there was none.
Was the beginning of the book always the beginning?
No. The middle of the book became the beginning. As often happens, I had to write my way to the beginning. I’d focused quite a bit on Even and Gabe’s childhood in Cucamonga. Probably about 75 to 100 pages got cut.
Orange County is used as a setting in too few novels. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure. It’s certainly rich terrain to mine. Why do you think that is?
From the outside, it seems so homogenous here, so perky and calm, yet it’s anything but. There is a dark side that doesn’t give rise to TV shows. I can think of only a few writers who’ve written about the dark side.
I will say that when you come from a background like mine, where art isn’t valued or explored, it’s challenging to consider yourself an artist. People in my family know about business and sports. Not art. My challenge has been to accept who I am and my background as being worthy of art, whether or not it’s acknowledged by that same world. Then there are also people, let’s say from New York or wherever, who come from families with art-centric backgrounds, who might normally dismiss art from and about Orange County. Orange County is often scorned for being a crass, superficial culture, and it can be that. But there’s far more to it.
You spent a great deal of time as a kid living in Orange County. You went to Corona del Mar High, where you did not — ahem — have a great time. Is your fiction a sort of revenge?
We moved to Corona del Mar after my mom remarried, when I was entering seventh grade. Before that, we’d lived in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Texas. Throughout high school, I rebelled. There was so much wealth and entitlement. I was on the high school newspaper and I remember I was supposed to cover something like cheerleading tryouts, and instead I turned in this piece about why we had so few people of color at our school. It didn’t go over so well. They wouldn’t publish it. But I was a coward, too. I lived a double life, since I didn’t want to disappoint my family and I wanted to fit in. I was on the tennis team. I made good grades. Meanwhile, I was getting my best friend drunk before her volleyball practice, getting into her parents’ liquor cabinet. Doing stupid stuff. I was a nightmare. I remember I’d write papers for my friends, because that was the one thing I was really good at. I wrote this paper for my friend on James Joyce’s Dubliners. We were in the class together. The teacher knew. She made my friend get up and read the paper in front of the class, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to pronounce some of the words I’d used. I was mouthing the words to my friend, but it didn’t work. I ditched all the time. I was a mess. But the whole time I was there, I kept thinking, one day I’m going to write about this place, and it sustained me.
The novel might have started as revenge, but it’s grown into something deeper. I love Newport Beach — my grandfather built a home on the bay the same year that I was born, and I still have dreams about this home and exploring the bay and ocean. I feel like the area is inside me — the beauty of it.
Yet, for example, just the other day I was visiting my mom, who still lives in Corona del Mar, and I went for a walk, and this woman approached me — she knew who I was, recognized me from an article that had come out in Orange Coast Magazine — and she told me that she’s just treading water all the time. She doesn’t have a lot of money but she has to pretend like she does. She can’t afford Botox or plastic surgery, she explained, and she can’t keep up. She has a job that’s to a great extent reliant on her beauty. While she told me all this, she had tears in her eyes. She thanked me for my writing and said that she felt like I was talking about her, giving her a voice. She said that she felt like she was barely holding on, and she wasn’t getting younger, so it was just a matter of time. When we parted, I felt stunned and sad. I don’t know. It’s not like I want to get revenge anymore.
So your relationship with Orange County is maybe a love/hate sort of thing?
That’s closer to the truth.
The act of creating art usually includes carving away. Talk about your revision process and knowing what to leave out. Did you cut much?
I did cut quite a bit. I had two amazing editors, Anjali Singh and Dan Smetanka. Anjali had worked with me on Drift. I trust her. I worked with Anjali first, and she helped me to see the wisdom in feeding the background information through the forward momentum of the narrative, rather than dwelling on it in the beginning. But I had to write all that background to really understand my characters, and to know their pasts.
Dan got a more complete draft, and then he pointed out places where I could further siphon the novel, so that it could be a tighter read.
How do your first drafts evolve? Do you barrel through the first draft or do you need to get each page perfect before moving on?
I’m one of those writers who labors over the same page until I get that sentence, paragraph, page just right. Then maybe I can move on to the next page. I’ve never been able to barrel through a draft. Also, I can’t work on more than one project at a time.
Your first book, Drift, was a collection of short stories. What’s the crossover between short and long fiction? Are you still working on short stories — and how do you know when an idea is a story and when an idea has the traction required of a novel?
I still write short stories. I have one in the latest issue of The Rattling Wall. Both This Vacant Paradise and The Little Brother begged for the novel form. The Peerless Four started as a short story and developed into a novel. Usually I can tell the difference. It’s funny, I don’t pay attention to word counts. Oftentimes, a writer will ask how many words my novel is, and I’ve no idea. I just write until it feels done.
Do you identify yourself as a California writer? What does it mean to be a California writer?
I haven’t thought of myself as a California writer. Southern California is often the geography of my novels and stories, and it’s important to my characters’ identities; but the narratives that emerge from my characters are universal, like loneliness and grief and love and connection, and those are what the stories are about.