This interview probes events in Bones of a Saint. It contains some references that may be spoiler alerts.
What events from this novel were inspired from your own childhood?
The first that comes to mind is the tumbler pigeons. I had tumblers when I was a little younger than R.J. My dad and I built a cool coop, similar to R.J.'s, that was high so that predators could not get in. It had a large door in front so I could clean it out and a smaller door within that I could open from time to time to let them fly as they pleased once they were "homed." They really do tumble as it's described. It's amazing to watch. My sister had cats. End of story.
You were raised in the San Fernando Valley, which is at the edge of Los Angeles. But the valley in the novel is a fictional place far from any city. Is there any connection between the two?
Back when I grew up, the West Valley as we called it, was nothing like it is today. I based some of the places and events on that place and time. For example, we used to run all over the fields, and sometimes older guys would chase us, just for the hell of it. One time there was an old water trailer that I hid in. These bullies figured out I was in there and locked the latch. They pounded on the outside and it made a terrifying echo, a sort of hollowed out darkness. Then they left me in there until my friend got me out.
There are a lot of claustrophobic images in the novel. Is that what inspired them?
That and a few other incidents.
Are you claustrophobic?
So, are you saying that while some of the events in the novel were based on your own experiences, Arcangel Valley is actually a fictional place?
Yes. It is entirely a figment, as R.J. would say. However, there are places outside the valley that are real and that I tried to portray as accurately as I could. The scene at Big Sur certainly had some reality to it. Another example is that a reader might wonder how the boys could so easily have sneaked into an army base like Camp Roberts. Well, in 1978 the Vietnam War had ended several years ago and people did not foresee another major ground war. In fact, they were more freaked about nuclear annhiliation. So sections of many of the military bases had been closed down, especially in remote areas.
How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
I was working on another story. I can't even remember what it was. Anyway, this kid, R.J., walked into the room. Well, into my brain. And he started telling me this story of how he sold his brother's toes. He wouldn't leave me alone until I got it down on paper. I fill notebooks before ever starting a story. So I thought that was the end of it, but he just kept coming back with more stories until I gave up and began to shape them into a novel.
You wrote it a long time ago?
I first began work on it a number of years ago. Various versions were set aside as I worked on other books. And there were rejections, of course. Many rejections. There is a lesson here, I guess. Never give up. Never. Seriously, never. It has been said that you'll win if you just get up one more time than you're knocked down. Unless, of course, the beating kills you. There's always that possibility.
So the toe dough story is where the novel first began?
R.J. has a unique way of narrating in the present tense that you don't find in many novels. How did that come about?
R.J.'s fault. That's how he told the stories to me. I experimented with changing it from time to time, but he would have none of it. I also had people over the years insist the voice didn't work in first person present and I should "correct it." For a while I tried to please them. Going against your instinct to please others, not a great idea. I'm sure there are some people who read it today and still think the voice sucks. But you have to write your story the way you believe it is meant to be written.
I thought it was R.J.'s story.
Mr. Leguin's story is very different from the rest of the novel. How did that come about?
Well, it might not be as different as you first think. There are some connections, such as the Canterbury Tale stuff. And the Catholic, or spiritual side as well. However, the inspiration for me goes way back to when I was a teenager and I was travelling in Europe and I came across the WWI battlefield at Verdun. The place is beautiful, eerie and sad. My memory is of these rolling hills and mounds that you discover were formed by all the bombs that obliterated the landscape. Then there are white crosses and stars rolling across these hills for what seems like forever. Anyway, there are also bunkers. I went down in these. I imagined soldiers surviving in that confined space, with the terrible thunder of those bombs raining down from above. And the carrier pigeons.
What about the carrier pigeons?
In WWI they used carrier pigeons to communicate across battlefields. I imagined someone trapped in that hellish world releasing one of those birds and wishing he could be that bird flying free of all that horror. There was an actual carrier pigeon during WWI, Cher Ami, who was a war hero. She was responsible for saving many lives and won war medals for her bravery. She has had stories and poems and even a song written about her. Her body is in the Smithsonian, I think.
Moving on. Was the original Star Wars movie really around as far back 1978?
Yes. And it was a really big deal. I think it's still the best one.
Mission San Miguel Arcangel is a real California Mission, and you describe it in great detail. Yet it also feels like it's part of the imaginary valley. How did this Mission enter the story?
Mission San Miguel Arcangel is for me the spiritual center of the novel. I have tried to stay true to its description and history, but there are a few places I had to take some small liberties. And there are probably a few other places where I just messed it up. Any incorrect details are entirely my fault. However, as R.J. points out, the Mission is outside the edge of Arcangel Valley. Maybe some symbolism there.
How did it come to be such an important setting in the novel?
There was a time when I was travelling between my parents' house in L.A. and my grandparents' house in Carmel, and the mission was about half way. I stopped there and went into the chapel for the first time and was struck by its simple beauty and spirituality. I needed it at that moment, with things that were going on in my life. Sometimes, if you're lucky, when you are at a dark place inside yourself, you might come across a place in the real world that just might inspire you.
R.J. is surrounded by people and yet he seems so lonely. In fact, his best friend calls him the Lone Ranger. Is loneliness a theme in the novel?
I'm not sure I'd call it a theme. It's more like a haunting.
Did you intend to portray any real hauntings in the novel? The oak tree, for example.
I'll leave the readers to decide that for themselves. As R.J. says in the first chapter, "there are worse hauntings than plain old ghosts."
There are certain events that make the novel feel like it is written for a younger reader. The Banzai Flyer, for example. Then there are other events, such as the those surrounding Roxanne or the Blackjacks, that are much more mature. In fact, the era of 1978 might even appeal to a much older reader. Did you have a specific audience in mind as you wrote it?
I would listen to R.J. as much as possible to get a sense of a reader. Then I would revise, of course. And revise some more. Revision is the most important part of the writing process. However, R.J. would let me have it whenever the revisions pissed him off.
Okay, then I'll rephrase it. Do you think R.J. had a specific reader in mind?