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The ties that bend

Special to The Times

Most days, Peter Craig brushes the hair of his two small daughters before driving them to their Presbyterian school and perhaps a play date. Later, the single dad will bring the girls home and serve them his specialty of the house -- anything grilled, a vegetable and perhaps French fries. Then it’s off to bed at the stroke of 8:30.

At 9, Craig switches gears. He sits down at his computer and writes about the rings of hell: gift boxes tied with a bow that open to reveal a severed finger; men murdered by being imprisoned inside a column of flaming tires; drug goons spraying an occupied trailer with assault-rifle fire before slamming into it head-on with a Chevy Impala.

“My imagination has dark pockets,” Craig says with an easy laugh. “It’s almost like I push myself to do it. I want to be able to write anything with as clear an eye as I possibly can, and if there are a couple of really graphically violent sections in the book -- there aren’t that many of them, they’re just visual when they come -- I want to be able to not flinch.”

With his newly published third novel, “Blood Father,” Craig, 35, brings a surgeon’s eye for detail to a landscape pocked with drug criminals and the emotionally hapless, which an errant daughter and her estranged ex-con, biker father must traverse before finding redemption in their familial bond. Entertainment Weekly applauded his skill in evoking Los Angeles’ netherworld of sociopathic meth dealers, saying, “Craig dazzles with slick L.A. gang-speak, elaborate shoot-outs, and extensive knowledge of the Mexican Mafia.”

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That world may seem continents away from Craig’s modest Sherman Oaks home, where wind chimes dripping pink plastic shells dangle over the back porch. But he knows some of the rocky terrain and desperate figures that fill out his book surprisingly well. The chaotic upbringing of the daughter, Lydia Carson, echoes his own difficult teen years as the son of divorced parents living on different planets -- his movie-star mother, Sally Field, in her comfortable Brentwood home, and his hippie-biker father, Field’s high school sweetheart, Steven Craig, who lived on a commune.

In the book, Lydia grows up in privilege in her mother’s home but after bouts with abusive stepfathers, she runs away and ricochets from one friend’s couch to another, living a life of unparented excess. Craig too navigated what he calls the “drug-friendly” carnival at Palisades High School before dropping out at 16.

“Lydia’s life is something I really was close to on the Westside here, that kind of public school lunacy that goes on,” he says. “I was a geek who got to hang out with the cooler kids, getting into trouble and blowing off school, house parties, not going home for weeks at a time.

“I think that was just the moment. Let the kids be free to figure it out. That was kind of my family’s attitude to a fault. Both parents.”

Asked to elaborate, Craig leaps to his family’s defense. “Maybe I was so aggressive that it was impossible for them to deal with me, so let me take the bullet on that,” he says.

Often self-effacing, Craig is gangly and boyish, with a dark brown goatee and long surfer-boy locks that dust his shoulders. In their room, the girls, Isabel, 7, and Sophie, 4, are dressed up in full fairy-princess regalia. They’re playing with Craig’s maternal grandmother, Maggie Mahoney, a former actress whose husband, Jock, starred in “Tarzan Goes to India” in 1962. She helped raise Craig and his younger brother, Eli, an actor, and he still thinks of her as the glue that held the fractured family together.

Youthful extremes

It certainly was an unusual childhood, shuttling between his mom’s movie sets and his father’s communes, first in Southern California and later in Oregon.

“The bulk of the time I lived with him, when she’d be working a lot, was just a real wild time in his life,” Craig says. “I was a little naked kid running around a commune. We’d be barefoot and covered with mud, and every now and then my mom would send a car over to pick us up, and all the kids would come running over to it and look at it like the apes at the beginning of ‘2001.’ They’d paw this limousine that drove up. My brother and I would be mortified because we knew we were going to be beaten up.

“The class dynamic in my family was so crazy, between one place where nobody had any money and they were anti-materialistic, and then a limo coming over to pick us up.”

Perhaps the contrast helped give Craig a reality check that kept him grounded, although he also credits his mother’s middle-class values. Field likes to tell the story about how her then-11-year-old son refused to let them jump the movie line at an “E.T.” screening.

“I pleaded with him: ‘Peter, I’ve been working really, really hard,’ ” Field told Good Housekeeping in 1998. “ ‘Just let me have this one little payoff.’ He said, dead serious, ‘Mom, coal miners work hard. And they don’t get to jump the line.’ ”

Craig nods at the memory. “I was around some movie stars. I’d watch them treat people badly, and I think it was very distasteful to my mom,” he says. “It was distasteful to me, so I remember that story. At a really young age, I had the sense, don’t be a snotty kid who thinks he’s entitled. I really think all that entitlement is even sort of frightening.”

As Craig’s father matured, he gave his son the structure he needed. When Peter dropped out of high school, Steve Craig pulled him out of his soft Westside adolescence and made him get a construction job in Oregon.

“He felt guilty, I think,” Craig says. “He knew exactly what it was to be a kid acting up, and he was the only one who could help me, and he did help me. He made me get up every single day, got me coffee, made me get a really brutal physical job.”

Craig says he drew on much of that to create the fictional father, John Link, who tries to help Lydia.

Steven Craig’s intervention set his son on a path that led to his graduation from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and receipt of a James Michener-Copernicus Fellowship for fiction writers at the dawn of their careers.

The push-pull of stretched family ties as well as their promise for ultimate salvation has been an abiding concern in Craig’s novels. In his 1998 “The Martini Shot,” the estranged, illegitimate son of an aging alcoholic action film star comes to Los Angeles to find his father. In his second novel, “Hot Plastic” -- lauded as “an explosion of wit, creativity and superlative writing” by the Washington Post -- a hustler, his son and a woman they recruit from an escort service cross the country scamming people’s credit cards.

In “Blood Father,” 17-year-old Lydia gets mixed up with brutal errand boys of Mexican drug lords and goes on the lam. The only person who can save her is her estranged father, a 12-stepper eking out a living as a tattoo artist. With Lydia’s deadly enemies on her tail, they set off on an escape through Libertarian desert encampments and biker bars and along the way discover a deep connection.

Earlier this month, Warner Bros. announced that it would produce a film based on the book, which was optioned by Anonymous Content. “Peter told a beautiful story placed in this dark, disturbing world, which has a very redemptive father-daughter relationship at its core,” says Anonymous Content features head Alix Madigan. “It’s a very exciting read, but the characters are just so sad and violent yet wholly heartbreaking.”

With his last two books, Craig has cultivated a fairly unpopulated literary subgenre -- family crime novels. With “Blood Father,” he matures into a writer who peers at family relationships from both sides of the lens, both as the untethered child and the worried father.

“I was a bit of a reckless guy until I had a little girl and suddenly I wanted to change everything in my life,” he says. “I felt that parental love was such an amazingly significant thing ... that if somebody really commits to being a good parent, it’s even redemptive. So I like testing it out with characters who’ve done something wrong. Especially in this book, I wanted to experience how far a father can go and still reclaim his daughter’s love. Genuinely, not just the person she’s idealized. And how far can a daughter go and still have a father step in and save her? And can they be strengthened through it?” His next book -- about the created family of a kid incarcerated by the California Youth Authority -- continues his exploration of the permutations of family.

Craig tried to heal the chaos in his life by creating his own family, but he didn’t find the stability he was seeking in his marriage. At 24, he married Amy Scattergood, a poet five years his senior whom he’d met at school in Iowa. When they divorced two years ago, Craig won full custody of the children.

“I want to write a love story about two people too, but that’s been harder for me in my life than loving my kids,” he says ruefully. “I think there are two kinds of love stories -- parent-child and a romance. And a romance is going to take me years before I can pull that one off.”


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