A place to use her voice

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Times Staff Writer

In late September 2005 -- two years after she was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Evidence of Things Unseen” -- Marianne Wiggins was on her Woodland Hills deck watching the Santa Susana Pass fire that would eventually char 17,000 acres.

Today, she describes the colors and images she saw as resembling the otherworldly beauty of a Renaissance painting, and recalls the event itself as a kind of baptism into her adopted life in California.

“That,” she said over lunch this week at a French cafe in Studio City, “was the first time I felt, ‘I think I belong in this place.’ ” She had found a setting that literally fired her imagination.


Wiggins, a Pennsylvania native who lived in London and other European capitals for more than 20 years and moved to Los Angeles in 2000, has fallen in love with California’s landscape and history. Given the combination of rhapsodic lyricism and a restless -- sometimes cutting -- intelligence in her work, it seems only fitting that her feelings for the place would be fixed by a natural disaster.

“I’ve just become completely enamored,” said Wiggins, an intense, playful woman whose energy is somewhere between sassy and brash.

Her new book, “The Shadow Catcher,” which Simon & Schuster will release on Tuesday, takes place mostly in the Northwest and Seattle. But her next projects will be set farther south. “I’m just head over heels committed to writing a series of California novels.

“I was in London 16 years,” she said, “and never got a good story out of that city.” California, she said, she expects to sustain her for years to come.

Wiggins? Sounds familiar

“The Shadow Catcher” is an odd hybrid: On one hand it’s a historical novel about the early 20th century photographer Edward S. Curtis, best known for his images of Native Americans. On the other, it’s a memoir told by the writer Marianne Wiggins, who begins the book pitching a roomful of Hollywood weasels. In both cases the real-life Wiggins has remade the material to suit her novelistic purpose.

“I play as fast and loose with Curtis’ life as I do with my own,” she said. “And I have a very feminist agenda for almost everything I write,” which orients the book around its themes of disappearing fathers and, in the story of Curtis’ wife, Clara, what she calls “all these silent women who are lost to history.”


At times the sudden shifts of time and tone in the novel, which seems to disappear into the 19th century for more than 100 pages, can be disorienting. But most everything is tied up thematically, at least, in the end.

The joint structure, Wiggins said, comes from a long-standing interest in writing about Curtis, as well as a recognition that the only way to get at some of the more resonant aspects of his life and work -- his altering of photos, his work with disappearing Native American tribes, his abandoning of his family -- would require a 21st century frame.

“I wanted to be able to go on at length about the power of photography, and how it can present an alternate reality, a reality that is not necessarily true.”

And the insertion of herself and her family history into the book, she said, came after 20 years of writing novels and keeping herself out of them. “I wanted to lift my skirt a little bit, show the legs.”

It’s not the only book of hers to feature a photographer. Her daughter, Lara Porzak, who shot the book’s cover, is an L.A.-based fine art photographer, and one of the reasons Wiggins moved here.

Wiggins said she’d be a photographer if she hadn’t become a novelist. It seems likely that as a non-college-educated woman who fought her way up through what she sees as a patriarchy of writers, Wiggins identifies with the mavericks of early photography who asserted, over the years, that what was once seen as a chemical trick was actually a modern art form.


She also sees writing and photography as escapes from time.

“It is the closest act to prose writing, the way I write prose,” Wiggins said. “I tend to see my scenes as images in my mind before I write them down.”

The heights of respect

Though she has kept a pretty low profile in L.A., Wiggins, who teaches at USC, is at the very top tier of literary novelists in Southern California. Praise, especially for “Evidence,” was lavish.

The transnational writer Pico Iyer, a friend and admirer of Wiggins’, calls that book, a love story set alongside the invention of the atom bomb, “one of the great American novels of the last many years: so decidedly in the American vein of Melville and all our other forefathers, and yet original and unexpected at every turn. To me, one of her great virtues is that you can’t place her, geographically or within the context of the novel itself. She’s always in motion, always staking out ground that the rest of us have overlooked, always taking the inner, pulsing concerns of classic American literature and putting them in places that we might not have imagined.”

And “The Shadow Catcher” has already generated excitement before its release, with some reviewers comparing the book’s juxtaposing of photos and prose to the work of the late W.G. Sebald. Bookforum’s Eric Banks described the book’s “mixture of fact and artifice” as “sui generis and inspired.”

Her next novel, and the first of her California books, will be about the now-desiccated Owens Valley and the fight for water rights. When in London, she tried to take all the city buses to the end of their lines to get a sense of that rambling city’s expanse. Since moving to California, her urge for adventure has lured her into long drives, and one of the most memorable was up the 5 Freeway to Inyo County.

“One of the things that struck me about the sprawl of Los Angeles,” she said of the drive, “was the stretching of the county line to absorb water rights. The county goes up forever -- and guess why?

“It’s more horrible than Las Vegas, and that’s one of the reasons I want to live here.”

Years of safe houses

There are some things she misses about her years in London, during some of which she was married to then-condemned writer Salman Rushdie. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie dropped about a year after the couple’s wedding, and their ensuing 2 1/2 -year run to dozens of safe houses as far away as Wales put her burgeoning literary career into suspended animation. It also showed her the way ordinary people can be caught up in history, something that’s found its way into her novels since. The book tour for her feminist reworking of “Lord of the Flies,” 1989’s “John Dollar,” needless to say, was immediately canceled.


Almost as bad was the everyday atmosphere of the British literary world, where the community was so strong as to be suffocating.

“Everybody knows everybody else, everybody has slept with everybody’s sister, or is godmother to somebody’s child. And the internecine wars rival the Peloponnesian. It is brutal and backstabbing. And since so many of the participants came up through boys’ schools, they’re used to that kind of hierarchical savagery, and to anointing a ‘head boy.’ ”

While she misses some of the literary chatter she remembers from life in Europe, and knows friends in New York are closer to news of publishing, Wiggins, at 60, feels she’s found the right place with her wide-open views of the San Fernando Valley.

“Now I have about 20 books I want to write: I’m entering my Philip Roth period, where all I want to do is to live away from everything, have that little place in Connecticut, that barn to write in.... I don’t need to be rubbing up against humanity at breakfast. I’m at an age where I don’t need all that, I just really need a lot of solitude so I can get it all down.”

While she hangs out with screenwriters, “There are not a lot of trail stories we can share around the campfire.... It’s a completely different tale of woe.”

More important is her ability to get to know people who don’t write for a living. “We writers of prose fiction really need to know people outside what we do, if we want to write about the human experience. I want to know plumbers and ballerinas and widget makers.”


The thing she most craves about her time in Britain, rather than book talk, is the more engaged discourse around politics. She flew to California, naturally enough, on Nov. 8, 2000, the day of the disputed Bush-Gore election.

Moving to the States, she said, “I was shocked by the veil of complacency, smugness and disinformation.”

It’s what she calls a wealthy culture’s obsession with frivolity and celebrity, and the news media’s abetting, that makes her the angriest. The good news is that literary writers will, she thinks, rush to fill in the gap: “It’s now actually coming back to writers to provide that kind of insight.”

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” set in a post-apocalyptic America, “is an excellent example -- it’s asking us to face something that could be addressed in newspapers or on ’60 Minutes.’

“This is going to be an injection of adrenaline into the future of fiction,” she said. “Novelists are really going to be telling you, again, the most important things about your life.”