Checking in with Mary Camarillo: In Conversation with Stacy Russo
by Stacy Russo
Orange County writer Mary Camarillo has done it again! Her second novel, Those People Behind Us, set for an October 10, 2023, release, is a compelling, tightly crafted creation in the style of her 2021 award-winning debut novel The Lockhart Women. I was fortunate to check-in with Mary to discuss her upcoming release and discover some of the magic behind her successful writing life.
Let's start with a big one. Those People Behind Us is your second published novel in the last few years. How did you become a first-time novelist and now the author of two novels around age 70?
That is a big question. As you mention in your new release, BEYOND 70: The Lives of Creative Women, “creativity is pleased to show up at different times, including late in life.” I’m 71 and a half years old and very grateful to have a creative outlet show up at this point in my life.
In BEYOND 70, you noted three distinct arcs in the lives of artists. Some women practiced art their entire life, some took long breaks, and some started much later. I’m in that middle category. I took a very long break after high school until I retired eleven years ago.
In high school, I wrote poetry, edited the literary magazine, worked on the school newspaper and planned a career in journalism. I was frustrated with the sour attitude of the journalism teacher though, as well as the school-imposed restrictions on what we were allowed to print. I got a few kids together with the idea of starting an alternative newspaper. Some UC Irvine students who belonged to Students for a Democratic Society offered to support our efforts, but the principal got wind of our idea and warned me that if the paper came out, I’d be expelled. He suggested that since I had enough credits to graduate, I might as well go ahead and do that. It sounded good to me.
I got my diploma then worked in a drapery factory, pizza place, and massage studio. When I’d saved enough money, I backpacked across Europe alone for three months, then came home and went to work for the post office. I never intended to make a career there, but I stayed on for many reasons. The benefits were generous. Five weeks of vacation and ten paid holidays meant I could keep traveling. I made lifelong friends and met my husband. There was a pension too. I’d just watched Douglas Aircraft had just laid off my engineer father before he was entitled to his pension.
There are a wide variety of jobs at the post office. Eventually I found my way into the accounting office, went back to school at night, got promoted into management, earned a degree and CPA license, and finished my career as an audit manager for the Office of Inspector General.
My degree was in business administration from Cal State Fullerton, but I’ve been a voracious reader of novels my entire life. Writing and editing all those audit reports weirdly gave me the idea to try my hand at fiction. I saw some similarities. Audit reports concern a problem and are required to identify the cause and effect, as in why did the bad thing happen and who the heck cares? Good fiction, in my opinion, helps us understand other people and their problems and teaches us to care. Audit reports are required to be truthful of course, but the best fiction also tells the truth, and is a lot more fun to write.
Those People Behind Us is heavily character-driven with quite an assortment of complex and troubled souls. I thought it would be fun for anyone reading this to hear a little bit about one or two of your characters, such as who they are and the complexity of their situations.
Complex and troubled is a good description of these souls. Those People Behind Us has five main characters. There’s an aerobics teacher numbed by horrific tragedy, a haunted Vietnam vet caring for his aging mother, a teenage boy who’s working through the shock of his father’s abandonment by slamming on a drum set, a young ex-con living in his Honda Accord near his parent’s house, and a realtor, Lisa Kensington.
Lisa is juggling her job, her shopaholic husband, a mother-in-law who knows how to push all of her buttons and two teenagers with ideas of their own. She acts as a kind of through line for the story. As a realtor, Lisa has a unique perspective on her neighborhood, the Prestige Haven homes in Wellington Beach, a fictional suburban Southern Californian coastal town. This tract is also Lisa’s territory and she’s fully invested in making sure the property values continue to rise. She walks the streets daily, keeping her eye on untended lawns, dusty cars, and trash cans left out on the street too long. She writes and hand delivers copies of a newsletter with helpful household hints, upcoming garage sales and discount offers on plumbing fixtures. She taps on the window of that young man living in his car and tells him, politely, to move along.
Lisa is always polite and professional. Her neighbors represent future opportunities, and she can’t allow herself to openly dislike any of them. She’s careful what she says to future clients too, not wanting to offend anyone and lose a potential sale. She’ll admit to clients that look like her that the Prestige Haven tract is a “homogenous neighborhood.” She admits to herself that she doesn’t mind foreigners with cute dogs, especially if they speak English. She believes people are more comfortable living “among their own kind” because “like follows like” but she usually keeps that opinion to herself. When she learns about the City Council’s plans for a new affordable housing project adjacent to the Prestige Haven tract, her polished veneer starts to crack. What will this do to property values? Where will those people park? She can’t imagine how they will fit into the Wellington lifestyle.
That young ex-con living in the Honda is Keith Nelson. He parks in the Prestige Haven tract where his parents live because he loves the trees in the neighborhood, especially the crepe myrtles. Keith gets solace from nature, but he has a dark side. His violent tendencies combined with his poor choice of friends have landed him in trouble his entire life. He’s twenty-four now and trying to keep a tight lid on his emotions by following a strict diet and workout routine but his anger is always there, just below the skin, ready to erupt. He’s too muscular to fit comfortably in that Honda. He isn’t comfortable anywhere. Except for his grandmother, Keith’s family has given up on him. And then, he’s invited to a political protest.
Let's get into this more. What is it about these unlikeable, or perhaps difficult, characters? What compels you to create them? Besides creating them, do you also like to read works with unlikeable characters?
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, famously said, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities." I agree with Messud, but I know some readers are searching for friendship and escape in what they read. They get no judgment from me.
I’ve always been attracted to characters who are flawed, keep secrets, think things they aren’t proud of, and say and do things they later regret. People I recognize. People like me. I’m also interested in stories about folks who can’t solve all their problems with money. So many novels set in Southern California especially are about incredibly wealthy, talented, good looking, and/or privileged people whose problems will all be resolved once their trust funds are released.
My favorite unlikeable character novel is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, although I actually like Olive despite her tendencies to be disagreeable, irrational, judgmental, and unhappy with the changes in her neighborhood and in the world. She’s ruthlessly honest, except with herself, which makes her feel very human to me.
I also like to read and write about characters I don’t quite understand. During the pandemic, my husband and I walked around our neighborhood and made-up stories about our neighbors. We couldn’t figure out why one family never closed their garage, front or side doors, day or night. We wondered who was always pounding on that drum set on the next street over. We tried to figure out what the flags people were flying meant and why they chose them.
These days we don’t always try to understand each other, maybe because most of us only listen to the people we agree with. Our social circles get smaller, our world more homogenous as we draw firm lines in the sand. And yet we’re still bound together (as Shaky Town author Lou Matthews said after reading my novel) by “time and place and the loneliness that is at the center of so many American lives.”
This is your second novel set in Huntington Beach, although it is thinly disguised as Wellington Beach in Those People Behind Us. What is it about this particular location in Orange County that led you to place both novels there?
My husband and I bought our home in Huntington almost thirty years ago. At that time, it was an affordable place for two postal workers to live in a single-family home sort of near the beach. I immediately bought an HB sticker and proudly affixed it to my car window. I had wanted to live in Huntington since high school. I thought the high school’s faux Spanish exterior was so much cooler than the boxy brand-new school I attended in Fountain Valley. I loved soaking up the sun at the beach as a teenager, although my skin did not. I still love walking in the wetlands and around the beautiful main library in Central Park. But once I started following local Huntington Beach politics, it didn’t take me long to scrape that sticker off the window with a razor blade.
Huntington has always had an outlaw vibe. It was an oil city first, named after railroad/real estate mogul Henry Huntington. Downtown HB was a biker hangout when I was a teenager. Later on, it morphed into a punk music headquarters and then a skinhead capital. In 2021 there was a KKK rally down by the pier. During the pandemic there were constant anti-mask, pro-Trump rallies. Currently we have a hyper conservative city council that wants to close libraries and ban books despite very vocal community opposition.
Surf City, as it’s locally referred to, was once 80 percent white but is gradually becoming more diverse. Housing prices have skyrocketed. Only the wealthy can afford to buy detached single-family homes here now, excluding fire-fighters, police, teachers, landscapers, child and elder care providers, and postal workers.
People here, like everywhere, don’t want things to change. Huntington Beach and my fictional Wellington Beach is divided by politics, protests, and housing prices just like so many other cities. It is a very specific place but the problems here are universal.
One thing I've noticed about your work, both in your debut novel The Lockhart Women and now Those People Behind Us, is how compelling your writing is. It is hard to put the books down. You seem to have a great tempo that never lingers too long in one scene. Have you given much thought to the rhythm of your work and how this creates a compelling experience for your readers?
Thank you for saying that. In an alternate universe, I’d be one of the backup singers for a rock and roll band, knowing exactly when to come in on the chorus in perfect harmony. In the real world, I can’t carry a tune, but I love listening to music. I love analyzing song lyrics too, especially those by artists like John Prine and Tyler Childers. It’s amazing to me how good songwriters can tell a story in such few words. I always include music in my work. Both of my novels have Spotify lists.
I’ve learned how important it is to read my work out loud, repeatedly. My husband has become used to what sounds like me talking to myself out loud, upstairs in my office. When my tongue trips over a phrase it most likely means the wording is off and something probably needs to be cut.
I always overwrite and I’m not afraid to cut. I like to write in present tense because it gives the scenes a more propulsive, cinematic quality. I also love to write from multiple points of view because it allows the reader to see the characters from all different angles.
You have managed to create two complex and wonderfully crafted novels in a relatively short time. It's always interesting to hear about how writers do their work. Where and how do you write? For example, do you have a daily practice or some other method?
First of all, let’s talk about your volume of work. Wild Crone Wisdom, an anthology featuring poetry and stories that you co-edited, releases in September 2023. One Day I Started a New Life, an art book featuring your own collage and mixed media work from the past decade, is forthcoming in 2024.
There’s also this year’s wonderful BEYOND 70: The Lives of Creative Women.
You recently created Wild Librarian Press and have published two books under that imprint. In addition, you’re a librarian, a teacher, a dog whisperer, and you’re getting a PhD. I want to know about your methods and practices.
My process is to start with characters, more sketch-like than real story, and then give them lots of trouble and problems to solve. Eventually they start telling me their stories. I write in my upstairs office on a laptop, usually supervised by my 15-pound roommate Riley the cat, but I’m also constantly scribbling things down on any available paper, often a real estate pad, which gave me some ideas for Those People Behind Us.
I try to write every day, after coffee, LA Times, and exercise, usually for a couple of hours. Life interferes which is fine because life is what I want in my stories. Up until February of this year I was trying to be a caregiver for my ferociously independent 100-year-old father who was convinced he didn’t need any help. He’s gone now, and I miss him fiercely. There’s been a lot to deal with settling his property but I’m starting to recognize that I’m going to have much more time to sit at my desk with my stories.
I’m doubtful I’ll ever catch up with you, Stacy!
As soon as I finished Those People Behind Us, I thought, "I'm ready for Mary Camarillo's next book." Besides being busy with your new release, are you working on anything now? What are your future dreams with your writing life?
I’ve got some very un-fleshed-out ideas for a third novel but it’s too soon to share them. Most likely it’s going to be set in the 1970s.
I’ve always wanted to write a mystery where someone goes missing and ends up being murdered. That was my plan for Those People Behind Us, but none of the characters would cooperate (although—spoiler alert—one of them does seriously consider murdering someone.)
I’d also love to write a good ghost story, but my prediction is, none of the yet unwritten characters in my third novel will cooperate with that idea either. I am pretty sure that whoever the characters are they will be complicated, have lots of problems, make poor decisions, not always likeable, but hopefully very human.
Stacy Russo, librarian/associate professor at Santa Ana College, is a writer, poet, visual artist, librarian, and DIY oral historian who is committed to creating art and books for a more peaceful world. Stacy is a current PhD student at California Institute of Integral Studies. She writes across the genres of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. She is also the author/illustrator of two children’s picture books. Stacy's books have been adapted for university classes and featured on National Public Radio, Pacifica Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting System, Sirius XM Radio, KCET Artbound, LA Weekly, and various other media channels. One Day I Started a New Life, an art book featuring Stacy’s collages and mixed media work over the last decade, is forthcoming from Sacramento-based Litwin Books. If a large pot of gold fell in her backyard, she would follow her dream of opening a community gathering place called the Wild Librarian Bakery and Bookstore. Stacy eats chocolate before noon every day and always takes her coffee black. She lives on a purple tree-lined street in Santa Ana, California, with her two dogs from Coastal German Shepherd Rescue.
Mary Camarillo is the author of the award-winning novel The Lockhart Women. Her second novel Those People Behind Us will be published in October of 2023. Mary’s poems and short fiction have appeared in publications such as TAB Journal, 166 Palms, Sonora Review, and The Ear. Mary lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband, who plays ukulele, and their terrorist cat Riley, who makes frequent appearances on Instagram.