Marianne Wiggins on Ending a Novel After Suffering a Stroke and Finding Inspiration in California’s Dry Terrain ‹ Literary Hub
Properties of thirstthe new novel by Marianne Wiggins, whose Evidence of unseen things was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a complex, in-depth and captivating novel. It’s huge in scope – an emotionally satisfying family saga, an exploration of 20th century homelessness and the taking, insightful insight into the filming of early Hollywood Westerns, and the story of the effects of government policies on individuals. such as the diversion of water from California’s Owens Valley to Los Angeles and the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II at Manzanar and other hastily built and uninhabitable camps.
Virtually every page offers poetic language, conceptual surprises, striking sensual details. It’s a sensational, almost miraculous achievement, completed after Wiggins’ massive stroke in 2016. Marianne’s responses are in quotes because they were addressed to her daughter, Lara, who has been by her side throughout throughout his recovery and the completion of the novel.
Jane Ciabatari: Congratulations on completing Properties of thirst despite having a massive stroke in 2016 when you only had a few chapters to go. How did you spend your time recovering from the stroke, finishing the novel, and preparing to launch it, all while dealing with the ongoing pandemic?
Marianne Wiggins: “Since my stroke, I have had a lot of free time, most of which is devoted to healing exercises and therapy. What usually happens after I finish a novel is that I need to fill the empty space in my head, but life has provided me with new things to focus on, like learning to walk again – my Healing protocols now take up most of my time. These therapies take place at my daughter Lara’s home (she’s typing this for me as I speak), so being housebound was already in place before the pandemic. The peak of the pandemic coincided with my 24/7 care regime, the difference being that my daughter was now always at home – the pandemic gave me the opportunity to have the help of my daughter to engage my
words on paper to complete the novel.
I wanted to write a book about California and water scarcity since I arrived from England where it rains all the time.
JC: What inspired Properties of thirst? What inspired you to write about this area (the Owens Valley), this time (primarily the 1940s), the Lone Pine rancher fighting the water utility’s appropriation of waters of Los Angeles, the story of Manzanar, the Japanese-American internment camp where 10,000 were detained during World War II?
MW: “I was amazed to discover Manzanar as a National Historic Site on a road trip my daughter took me to when I moved to California from England. I was amazed to discover that we, as a nation had interned our fellow citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. I had never been taught that and didn’t know it either. I wanted to write a book about California and the water shortage ever since arriving from England where it rains all the time. I usually take a historical event and then populate it with my characters. When I saw the scenery surrounding Manzanar in the Owens Valley, I knew it there was a story to tell, I felt it on my skin.
JC: In Evidence of unseen things, a Pulitzer finalist, you write about the rise of nuclear science after World War I to the airdrop of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima – about “the physics and writing of nuclear fission…and about the way the government blatantly and quietly lied to us,” as you put it in an interview. In your new novel, the rising value of water in a time of extreme drought today is palpable in your descriptions of the Owens Valley with its natural waters diverted by “river piracy”, leading to “decapitated lands”. Why did you choose The Properties of Thirst as the title of your new novel?
MW“My original working title for the novel was Six Miles South of Independence, it’s the location of Manzanar, California, and I liked the pun. As I delved deeper into my work, I needed a broader title, which suggested it would be a book about WATER.
JC: You structure the novel by section headings, from “the first property of thirst is an element of surprise” to “the last property of thirst is evaporation”. Can you explain the origin of these definitions of thirst?
MW“I was trying to match the emotional territory of my character’s storytelling to the elements of landscape and thirst. When I write, I see each page of the book as a canvas and I like to put sentences with brush strokes – in John Dollar I played with side notes and in Eden without watch I’ve played around with running titles – I’ve taken a word or phrase from each page and placed it above the text in the corners of the “running titles” pages – I think these margin notes and headings current ones, as well as the chapter titles in Properties of thirstprepares the ground for what must be played out in the text.
JC: What was your research process for this novel? What was most useful to you – documents, oral histories, travels, archives, history – when you created the world of the Rhodes family – Rocky, influenced by Thoreau, who leaves the East to establish a ranch in the wild desert from Lone Pine, California in the Inyo Mountains; his twin sister Cas, his French-born wife Lou, who died of polio when their twins, Sunny and Stryker, were toddlers – and visitors like Chicago-born Schiff from the Department of the Interior, who participates in the creation of Manzanar shortly after Pearl Harbor?
When I write, I see each page of the book as a canvas and I like to put sentences with brush strokes.
MW: “Seeing the topography on that original trip was the stage setting. That came first. Then I started reading about the historical development of Los Angeles and the prejudice on the ground in the United States against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor and those two things lit the fuse. To answer your question, I love traveling and reading stories written as part of my research.”
JC: In 1912, during his first visit to the Sierra Nevada, Rocky camped near Lake Owens and saw thousands of snow geese melting on the water. Then Teddy Roosevelt granted his “executive privilege” to divert water to LA – “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Once the water from the valley was diverted to Los Angeles, when the snow geese attempted to land on their annual migration, they hit crusted salt, breaking their legs. Later, the poisonous dust becomes a health hazard to the inhabitants of the valley and the internees of Manzanar. What was involved in developing the narrative thread about the roots of California’s current water crisis?
MW: “It was a decades-long learning process for me. I was born and raised on the east coast where it rains all the time, then spent much of my adult life in England where it also rains all the time – heavy rain! So experiencing extreme drought was new to me when I moved to California. I had visited the Sahara and Egypt but did not understand that there was American deserts so when my daughter moved to California, the first time I visited her, I came by train because as an expat, I wanted to see all of my country—and that opened up my eyes on the changing topography and climate we experience as a unified nation.You cannot live in Southern California without knowing the severe water limits.
JC: Your opening line – “You can’t save what you don’t love” – echoes throughout the book, Rocky’s comments about the land he fights to save through Schiff’s feelings towards Sunny. How did this chorus evolve?
MW: “I did it! I think that’s what Rocky means to me. He came out of Rocky Rhodes. He came to know his character. He’s got a hook and a springboard so that’s a front line perfect! That’s the springboard… if I were to give a speech for example, that opening line would reveal 30 different perspectives, different narratives. It made sense to bring it back to the end. That’s what I think of when I’m thinking of Rocky Rhodes. And relationships could be saved if we could all love – you can’t save a relationship without love. When I use ‘save’, I’m using it as a guardian of life.
I wait for my dreams to stimulate my imagination, to receive inspiration.
JC: As a counterpoint to thirst, food is a major element of this novel. French cuisine, taken from the cookbooks and recipe box of Sunny’s mother, Lou, with notes in purple ink. Haute cuisine served in private dining cars, on cruises, in New York and Paris, when Sunny’s aunt, Cas, took her on a trip at age twelve. The food Sunny cooks for Lou’s, the restaurant she names in honor of her mother, where she uses local vegetables and game (duck rillettes, trout dumplings), to serve ranchers and service employees waters and Hollywood film crews. Food prepared on the ranch, from tacos and chicken soup, which Schiff and Cas make together, through a menu of green salad, elk terrine, soufflé, burgundy. How did you develop this theme?
MW: “A writer’s day is all about eating and drinking a lot! I write by hand and all my notebooks have food and drink stains, mostly pasta sauces and red wines! I love to eat. Writing is a lonely pursuit and the dinner bell is something to look forward to! My father was a grocer and my mother’s father was a grocer. Food is part of my vocabulary, it’s in my DNA and I love to cook. I also collect cookbooks, everything from Escoffier to Betty Crocker. I don’t watch much TV, but I love the big cooking shows. Since my stroke, I have watched all of Anthony Bourdain’s shows and the “Chefs Table” documentary series.
JC: The food theme also underscores the novel’s love stories “Show me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” Schiff thinks at one point; Sunny’s food immediately appeals to her. Cas is captivated by Lynwood, a visitor who becomes a collaborator, after he prepares a memorable gin martini – like a “Norwegian fjord in the middle of winter”, with bay leaf, juniper berries, coriander, mustard seeds, a “exhalation” of vermouth, a blue borage flower and a single flake of salt, “the iceberg”. Did you have that in mind from the start?
MW: “Yes. I like to drink and I live to eat. I invented this recipe – my first adventure in mixology.
JC: What are you going to work on next?
MW: “Walking independently and living life outside of a diaper!” I wait for my dreams to stimulate my imagination, to receive inspiration. I also read a lot of non-fiction to see what triggers. I never know when or where a great story will reveal itself to me.
Properties of thirst by Marianne Wiggins is available at Simon & Schuster.
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