THE VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE
By Amy Wilson, The Orange County Register (June 16, 2002)
Jeff Parker's house is 15 miles from any beach, which, knowing Jeff, is a little shocking. For 20 years you simply took Laguna Canyon Road south and looked up to find his house on stilts near the end. From there, he could see everything. From there, he got to feel everything. Even things he didn't want to.
These days you get to T. Jefferson Parker, best-selling author, by driving south out of Orange County, then east, past an old mission and a new development, brushing by avocado groves of indeterminable age and ending up in Fallbrook, at a house with elbow room, a tennis court and pool on a lot very near an oak forest that is darn near as ancient as the land on which it sits.
Jeff Parker still sees plenty.
Parker's 48 now, no longer the golden boy of Orange County letters but among its most consistent chroniclers, a man who writes about the noir of us and folly of our low sprawl and the less appealing ramifications of all our choices.
In point of fact, Parker writes about crime and he puts it here, has been doing that since his first published novel, Laguna Heat, was published in 1985. It's nice that he puts it here because it is all so familiar when you read him.
It has not hurt his marketability much to be so local, as his prose lands in airports nationwide, in chain bookstores across the land, and regularly does "best-seller" business.
And now comes some professional recognition. Last month, at its 56th Edgar Allan Poe Gala in New York, the Mystery Writers of America named Parker's ninth book, "Silent Joe" as the year's best novel.
Parker's 10th novel, "Black Water" (Hyperion Books, $24), was published in April.
We thought we'd ask him how it feels to be outside Orange County looking in, and how it feels to be feted. And since we had his attention we asked some other stuff, too.
Q: Why'd you leave us?
A: We outgrew the house when Tommy (who is now pushing 4) was born. I was renting an apartment in Laguna, just to write in. We hated to leave that beautiful little town, but we began to feel like prisoners on the weekends and in the summers. (The Parkers lived off Laguna Canyon Road, where summer tourists flock for the annual art festivals.) I also had the thought that a new place might be good for my writing, that it'd recharge my creative batteries, that I'd get new landscapes to work from.
Q: Did you?
A: I think so, yeah.
Q: You ever come back?
A: Yeah, now we visit a lot. I guess that makes us part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Q: Leaving had nothing to do with Cat?
(Parker's first wife, whom he had lived with in the Laguna house on stilts, died of brain cancer in 1992. She was 34.)
A: No. I lived there alone for a few years and Rita (Parker's second wife) lived there with me for the last few years. So, no, I had no particular need to leave and no Gothic need to stay.
(The phone rings. It's stepson, Tyler Rice, imploring his motherwho isn't hometo pick up the phone. Jeff grabs the phone. Seems Tyler is feeling bad and wants Jeff to come get him at school. Without hesitation, we get in the car and go. I must ask the next question quickly, before the fourth-grader gets in the car.)
Q: Is sex hard to write about?
A: (He laughs.) You start out and it's hot and steamy and it moves the story along or you write it because it's borderline holiness and it moves the story along. Either way, you write it long enough and it evolves into comedy.
(We go into the school and nobody takes much notice of the celebrity novelist. He signs out Tyler who gets in the car and begins to tell all.)
Tyler: Dad loves snakes and he loves tennis. He is really strict and can be crabby. He used to smoke but don't write that down because they would embarrass him.
Jeff: Like he's concerned I'll be embarrassed. Tyler's a great kid and he's a good brother to Tommy. Of course, he's taught him all these 11-year-old scatological jokes that Tommy just repeats to anybody.
T: Tommy's really annoying.
J: He's 4. I rest my case.
T: When Dad's had a bad day of writing, he's grumpy. It was one of the first things I learned.
J: Tyler, you could at least act sick.
Q: So, Jeff, I notice nobody knew you at the school. Does that mean you are the right amount of famous?
A: It's perfect. I sell a few books and no one stops me in the streets. (Defensively.) I do know his teacher.
Q: Tell me about the snakes.
A: I have this trailer out in the desert and I go out there where there's no phone and the TV doesn't work. I belong to this club. We don't have land; we have trailers.
Q: And you collect snakes?
A: I have since I was little.
(We talk some more and Jeff decides that we need to go find Rita who is probably waiting in front of Tyler's school for her son. We get back in the car. We find Rita in the white family minivan, with her seat hinged back, resting. Son Tommy is asleep in his car seat. Jeff wakes up Rita with a soft "Sweetie?")
Q: (Later) So, did you get the life you wanted?
A: I love my life. I came to fatherhood kind of lateI was 44and it's a huge part of my life. After Cat died, there was a million ways I could have gone wrong. I am, however mystifyingly, doubly blessed.
Q: It's very beautiful here. I saw horse stable down below there. You keep horses?
A: I'm scared of horses.
Q: That makes me laugh.
A: It's all true.
Q: Somebody who's known you a long time told me you were world-weary when you were 25. Is that true?
A: I'm a Capricorn; I was born old and I'm getting younger. I am much more able to enjoy myself now than when I was 25. The world is a much more interesting place to me now.
Q: You seem a bit, well, cynical in your books. You surprised by anything?
A: I am surprised by the light, the serendipity and the humor that you stub your toe on every day.
Q: Does the Edgar matter?
A: Yeah, I guess it does. It's generally not given for economic or political reasons. It's not something that you get because you've measured up to the marketplace or because you know people or you've flattered the right ones.
Q: Your novels suggest you know something about Orange County that the rest of us don't. What's the secret? Good access?
A: I never did have access; I still don't. I never will operate from within. I pull everything straight out of your newspaper or from the Times.
Q: Some people contend you tell more truth than newspapers can.
A: I take that as a compliment, but I don't know if it's true.
Q: The T. really doesn't stand for anything?
A: No. My mother told me once she thought it would look good on the presidential letterhead.
Q: Do you read your stuff out loud?
A: I can hear it in my head.
Q: How do you know what your characters look like?
A: I have a picture in my head. Once, with Merci (his recurring O.C. sheriff's department heroine), I found this picture in Victoria's Secret. The model had those drop-shade Ray-Ban cop glasses on and her hair was whipped by a sea breeze. I cut it out and put it on my wall for a while for inspiration. (He smiles.)
Q: Now that you are gone from Orange County, are you, you know, gone from Orange County?
A: My next book is set in San Diego County, but I'll come back to Orange County. The distance could be illuminating.
Jeff Parker's day
Jeff Parker is not very sympathetic when people tell him "they wish they had the time to write."
He reminds us this is not a hobby. And that he made the time 20 years ago when he had a full-time job to write his first novel in five draftsand time to tear up four of them.
Today, "novelist" is his job description. Here's how that looks, on a daily basis.
Up at 6. Take 75 steps to the outbuilding on his property that is his writing studio. Hits the computer by 6:30 but not before drawing the blinds to avoid distraction. Writes hard until 8. Waves his children goodbye. Writes until noon. Eats lunch with Rita. Goes back to write until 5.
His goal is to write five pages a day, 25 a week. ("Five pages is reasonable. It is not looking at the screen and saying, 'I need to write 580 pages.' ")
If the pages are going well"if I'm in a one-page bonus situation" he will schedule a tennis game at 1:30.
You ask if he could really be that disciplined.
"No, I am that stupidly obsessive."
As in the past six years, he wants to deliver a book to his publisher every September. Parker takes the fall to revise, per his editor's whim, and to come up with the idea and plot for his next novel. He is usually published in April and takes a few days off to tour.
He agrees that it is kind of relentless. But Parker is conscious that relentlessness made him who he is. He remembers that he finished his first novel on a Friday and started his next on the following Monday.