Violence upsets any communal equilibrium in a cruel way. It slices through social strata, civic cohesion, galvanizes, polarizes, and exposes a community's underpinnings. It also is a chance to come together, learn about each other, and change. This is the focus of acclaimed author Deanne Stillman's two narrative nonfiction books TWENTYNINE PALMS and DESERT RECKONING.
Widely known for MUSTANG, her best-selling saga of wild horses in the American West and the ongoing wars against them, Deanne Stillman works like a meticulous archeologist in her books about modern life in our wide open spaces. She digs deep and lays bare a complex web of personal stories that intertwine victims and perpetrators.
Both books are set in in the subduction zone of California's Mojave Desert, where the thin layer of civilization pushes over the last refuge of those who try to avoid it. It is the zone people escape to in order to pursue whatever drives them with little interference. It is also the zone young people try to escape from, unless they get absorbed into their parents' businesses and lifestyles. One of my young writing students, who grew up in the Mojave Desert, aptly called it, "the place where all the excitement is always an hour away."
In TWENTYNINE PALMS, which Hunter S. Thompson called "a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer," Deanne Stillman shows helplessness, disbelief, and denial in the face of heinous violence committed against two young women. In DESERT RECKONING, the 2013 Spur Award winner, she rephrases the biggest manhunt in modern California history as a profoundly personal and philosophical clash between the worlds of Deputy Sheriff Stephen Sorenson and desert hermit Donald Kueck.
Recognized for its importance as an exemplary work of narrative nonfiction, TWENTYNINE PALMS is taught in many college nonfiction classes, along with the works of Krakauer, Capote, Mailer, and Didion; in some quarters it is considered the IN COLD BLOOD of this era.
Read together with MUSTANG, and they should be read that way, Deanne Stillman's books deliver an unvarnished and nuanced portrait of people who coexist in this stark landscape. Over the past 30 years, I've come to know the Mojave Desert well and I have never read a more accurate description. -- AK
ANDREAS KOSSAK: You are a best-selling writer of non-fiction books. What made you decide to become a writer?
DEANNE STILLMAN: I've been writing since I was a little girl. It was not a choice, really, just something I always knew I wanted to do. A lot of this has to do with the Edgar Allan Poe poem, ELDORADO, which my father used to read to me when I was growing up. It became an escape for me and opened up a world. Also we would make up stories and characters and it all went from there. Here's a link to an essay I've written about the origins of all of this…
Hunuvat Chiy'a or Humwichawa
AK: Which other writers or artists influence and inspire you?
DS: So many… Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, Mary Austin, Willa Cather, Melville, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Kem Nunn, Robert Stone, Jim Harrison, Tennessee Williams… musicians/music: Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Dick Dale, Coltrane (John and Alice), Billie Holiday, Eminem, Guns N' Roses, reggae, The Ring Cycle, and on the list goes…
AK: Most of your books are set in the desert. It seems to be a special place for you, not just geographically, but as a state of mind. What attracts you to the desert and its people?
DS: It's the land of escape and rebirth and it fuels the great American promise, meaning all of the mantras about freedom. That's all kind of conceptual; I guess I just feel at home there; it resonates for me, like other terrains do for other people. For more on this, see the above essay, and also this one.
AK: The research going into DESERT RECKONING and TWENTYNINE PALMS was immense. How long does it take you to complete these books? How much of that time goes into research?
DS: Eight years on DESERT RECKONING ; it began as an article for Rolling Stone though I knew it would be a book some day… Ten years for TWENTYNINE PALMS. It's not just the research; it's waiting for people to want to tell their stories; it's having to step away some times because of the emotional toll my work takes; it's the rhythms of writing and what certain stories need or want or where they take me… Not unlike life itself…
AK: The people in your books reveal a great deal of very personal information. Desert hermits, gang members, nuns, police officers, Marines, and even former Los Angeles County Sherriff Lee Baca opened up to you on a deeply personal level. How do you gain the trust of people of such diverse backgrounds?
There's something happening here...
DS: I suppose my upbringing does have something to do with it, but really, if there's one thing I've found in my work, it's that most people feel that no one listens to them and they're right. Once someone starts listening, I mean really listening, they tend to open up. It's not like I'm thinking "OK I'm listening now…pretty soon, I'll hear what I need to know." I am really interested in the lives of the people I write about; I don't drop in on people and then leave; some of the people in my books have become good friends…Tom Wolfe once said, "If you spend more than a few hours with someone, you start to like them." Of course trouble ensues when it becomes time to write something they may not like, but that's another story…
AK: Your books are structured in a complex way. In DESERT RECKONING the main story line of the day-by-day manhunt, is intercut with passages that explore the background of many of your characters. Those "biographical flashbacks" then inform and drive the main story line. How do you plot out and keep track of these complex structures?
DS: With DESERT RECKONING, the manhunt was a natural structure for a complicated story. Once I realized that, I knew that I could go back and forth in time inside of the seven days of the manhunt. With TWENTYNINE PALMS, I first wrote it chronologically and that was really boring.
It ran out of steam. An editor suggested I intercut the over-all narrative with the trial narrative and that made it more dynamic. In terms of keeping track of everything, I have extensive files and then when I'm writing, I use storyboards, a trick I learned while writing for film and television.
... What it is ain't exactly clear.
AK: Not all elements of a book come together at the "right" moment. I understand, that in DESERT RECKONING, the friends of Kueck's son decided to talk very late in the process. What made them suddenly open up to you? How did that affect your manuscript and publishing deadline?
DS: You just never know when people will feel comfortable enough to talk; again, as in life…I got a late-breaking phone call on this book, literally as it was going to press. I called my editor and got to say, "Stop the presses!" The story line that I was able to add as a result of this call and then others took my book from three cylinders to four and it would just not have been as good without it.
AK: You are also a professor at the UCR Creative Writing Program in Palm Desert. How do you balance your two lives as a writer and a teacher? I don't know.
DS: Just works somehow.
Past Dreams - Llano Del Rio commune founded 1915 by socialist LA mayoral candidate Job Harriman
AK: Have you ever been tempted to write fiction?
DS: I think about it. Maybe some day. I do write plays which have won prizes around the country, and have written for network television series, which I didn't really like. And I've written screenplays; my books are periodically under option and sometimes I attach myself as screenwriter.
AK: You don't like to talk about the books you're working on, and I won't ask you what you're working on. But, maybe you can give us a one-word answer. Are you're working on a new book?
DS: Yes, and actually I can talk about this one, a little bit, because the deal was announced in Publishers Weekly. It's called BLOOD BROTHERS, and it's about the unlikely friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. This grew out of my book MUSTANG, a narrative account of the wild horse in the West, from prehistory through the ongoing wars to wipe it out via round-ups and massacres.
AK: We're looking for ward to reading it. Thank you for talking to us.
DS: And thank you.