With a major in Social Anthropology from UC Irvine and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, Baer Charlton has the type of resume most people could never develop in ten-lifetimes. Currently demanding his attention are his novels, Stoneheart and Pirate’s Patch. Charlton took time from his busy schedule to talk to me about his career and current projects.
You can learn more about Charlton by checking out his homepage.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what are some books that you loved reading? Are there any that you still revisit?
Baer Charlton: Much of my concepts of storytelling were founded by the classics I read before I turned ten. (Understand, I started reading at age 3. But setting type for my mother – Dr. Patrick L. Stevenson, Orthopedic Surgeon and Geriatric Podiatrist – is not the same as ‘see Spot run. Run, Spot, run.’) My family also had a decent sized library that took up a few walls.
Dr. Jekale and Mr. Hyde, taught me the gray of characters is always more interesting than the black and white of good and evil.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was one of the few books I reread over the years. I still hold it as one of the greatest romance novels of all time. The more because of the story being based in truth. It taught me about the layers in a story. The priest lusted after Quasimodo, who yearned for Esmerelda, who wanted the Captain of the guard. If you need a guide for unrequited love—this is the standard to aspire to.
In the forth-grade, I finally pulled out the large book; the annotated version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The full story is not a horror, but rather a love story of narcissism. The doctor wanted to create in his own image (but without god overtones), the monster was his yoke and guilt. It is a cautionary tale of results not being what we thought we were creating.
My introduction to the hero’s journey came in four parts. First, was The Odyssey by Homer. The next came from my sixth-grade teacher who introduced me to Gilgamesh. The others came as post pubescence mandatory for the times: The Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. All of which I have had reason or pleasure to revisit.
Yanes: On this note, what are some books (fiction and non-fiction) that have influenced you the most over the years?
Charlton: Many of Hemingway’s books, short stories, and articles influenced my writing as a photojournalist. Learning to paint large landscapes with a small brush and canvas is a talent and skill I try to drum into those I mentor. Eschew the narration that is nothing more than ‘just walking around.’
Rodrick Thorp’s Rainbow Drive, I still hold as the best cop novel written. I find his craft of direction with the right blinker, then suddenly turning left, to be the standard I most like to emulate. And, if I don’t, my characters riot and take worse turns.
Jack London and Mark Twain led me to a friend of theirs—Robert Service. Service wrote gritty manly poetry that spoke to the gristle in one’s soul. I have been told that my genre is not the pretty white line, nor the picturesque road, but rather the characters I am in love with are the grit that lives in the gutter or cast about on the side of the rural backroad. It’s where Jack, Mark, and Robert led me, and it is where I find the better, albeit grittier, stories live and prey.
Yanes: You have a degree in Social Anthropology. How do feel this field has helped you craft better characters and narratives?
Charlton: Many have a confused understanding about anthropology. A lot of anthropology is studying older cultures and societies. But my focus was more on living social orders and cultures. Many of us have seen young writers call out to their Facebook “friends” for suggestions. It usually goes something like this: “Quick, I need a guy’s name. He’s very sexy but he’s also the bad guy.”
The first thing through my mind is, “what ethnic back ground?” If he’s Swedish blond and tall, then I damn sure won’t be using Poncho or Mustafa. Both were sexy in their own way… but a Mexican revolutionary or the spokesman for Old Spice, are not the image for an adolescent angst version of a tattooed psychopath.
Understanding diverse cultures and some stereotyping names, can save a lot of page space from supercilious back story. Lars, Jean Pierre, Jun Kim, Marybeth, or Max come to mind. Each calls forth a social collective response.
In my phone, I keep a list of uncommon names. I collect them from people with those names by asking where the name comes from, and their ethnic story. All is grist for the pages.
In Stoneheart, I used a Mexican name. It is not Spanish, but has a basis in eastern Mexico and possibly of Aztec origin. The name is Osiel, but pronounced O-C-L. The young man I borrowed it from was a very likable waiter. By the time I published and gave him a copy, he had become an assistant manager. The grit in the corner is not a John or a Mary, they are an Osiel. They are unusual, and memorable.
The Hawaiian language is interesting. There is no “S,” so a name like Sampson would be a new culture on the island, not a compatriot of the past kings. The cowboys of Hawaii are called Paniolo… it is the Hawaiian pronunciation of Espanola, after the Mexican cowboys who were brought to the islands to teach the islanders cattle ranching.
The “W” is also pronounced like the German “V”. So, in Pirate’s Patch, I have an Hawaiian character named Kawika…which is pronounced Kavika. The two chapters dealing with Hawaii, seem like a side step, but the story told by an Hawaiian and the immortal Kawika, is the story of the relationship of the original peoples and water—the ocean and the freshwater that is pulled from the springs in the ocean.
I could have cut the two or three chapters from the book, but they provide a cohesiveness to the whole story, which is made stronger by the understanding of the culture most tied to the ocean. This, is Social Anthropology.
Yanes: One of your novels that has garnered a lot of attention is Stoneheart. What was the inspiration for this story?
Charlton: There were about ten small stories I wanted to tell for decades. None really had a beginning, and there were no endings. They were just little orphan snippets in need of a home.
A vet, returning home, but with no compass to find his direction was a theme I have been close to too many times. A chance meeting of a generous trucker, who hopes the kindness will be somehow passed on to his lost son, was a personal story I have wanted to somehow tell and give closure to since 1974. A waitress in her mom and pop’s country café under the green canopy of rural logging country. She asked me ‘if I was someone she needed to know, or was I just passing through.’ I have tried to live my life in the spirit of that question ever since she asked in 1988.
But you asked about the single spark which ignited the novel into full being. It would be seeing the image which became the cover. The night I saw the original photo taken by a good friend, I was running a temperature of 104°F. In my fever dreams, the image became a book. By the morning, my fever had broken, and I had the outline or thread to string the pearls of stories on. It wasn’t complete, but then, I trusted in my characters—they would tell me the rest of their story.
Yanes: Centered on a former Marine who finds it difficult to deal with life as a civilian, Stoneheart touches upon the real issue of vets struggling with life after the military. What steps did you take to make the story so emotionally authentic?
Charlton: I, personally, have walked the same path. Not as a vet, (my service was way too short for that), but the coming back to the familiar, which is no longer familiar. The first time I was going to go abroad, my travel agent asked me I was certain I wanted to do so. He explained that once I took a long trip to the strange, the familiar would no longer exist. He warned me that I would lose over 3/4s of my friends over the first year. He was right, they drifted away because we no longer had the same world views. Mine had grown by London, Paris, Brussels, the bush of the Serengeti, the haunting emptiness of the Olduvi Gorge, and the volcanos and gorillas of Rwanda. Or, as I like to say, ‘once you have been pissed on by an eighty-pound female mountain gorilla, nothing is ever the same again’.
There is an anger which occurs when something personal is misplaced. A young man goes into the service. He comes home after boot camp, his buddies are there, and his room is just the way he left it (except mom washed the sheets, picked up the clothes, and made the bed…) but it has been only 10-weeks. The next year of “A” school, and deployment is the first change. The buddies are there, but busy. The next deployment gets extended, and upon return, there is a sewing machine where the ratty old TV was. The bed has a nicer spread, and there are containers of fabric where his trophies were. He can’t get mad at his mother, or his buddies… but everything is changing. The hardest thing to see is the change within ourselves. Our own beliefs and habits have been somehow misplaced, or taken from us.
Traumatic Brain Injury causes diverse problems. In me, and the character Stone, the lack of laughter. It’s not that we can’t laugh, but to really laugh would require deeper feeling. Along with fluid speech, remembering things without the aid of touchstones, and months or years without massive headaches—laughter has been misplaced. This is the root of PTSD, it’s what has misplace, or simply stolen.
I grew up on Asian food. My mother was an amazing cook who never met a recipe she didn’t learn to love. Half of my childhood was spent with chopsticks in my right hand. If it wasn’t Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey, tacos in the summer, or dinner guests, the meal came with sticks. Six surgeries on my right arm and shoulder took that away from me. My arms are now braced to keep me from destroying them more. My right hand doesn’t rotate enough to turn the sticks or even a fork to the degree for me to get food in my mouth. The standard is the fork or spoon rests on the top of the index finger. I now either rest it between the middle and ring finger, or turn the fork over and stab in the Continental fashion. Where I used to be extremely right-handed, I’m now ambidextrous. I find I feed myself with my left hand, as I edit manuscripts with my right. One thing will never change—my signature with my left-hand sucks. The right-hand isn’t much better.
Why am I telling you this? Well, in Stoneheart, there is a kid named Spuds. He lost both of his legs. Does he miss his legs? Sure, but that isn’t what he misses most. It is the trivial things you never think about. For Spuds, it’s driving around at night, the radio low, his right arm around his girl, and the left elbow cocked out the window as he steers with one finger.
For me—it’s chopsticks. I love sushi, and I’ve become that guy who needs six napkins because he eats with his fingers. When I’m eating sushi—I eat alone. My neat eating was taken from me, and the left will never learn.
When I was 16, I worked with a guy who survived the Batan Death March. He had been a graduate student at UCLA studying aeronautic design. His buddy had been studying metallurgy. When I was washing dishes with Irving, the total IQ of the two men combined wouldn’t get close to 100. Every so often, Irving would have a flash of lucidity and the former PhD student would show through. His life and brilliance had been stolen. I washed the odd pieces of used aluminum foil for his friend to stick carefully in his wool watch cap. He never was without it—even when the temperatures in Bishop, CA hit 112°.
Yanes: Given the cinematic feel of Stoneheart, could you comment on your plans for adapting this to film? Are there any specific scenes in this book you truly want to see brought to life on a screen?
Charlton: The beauty of a powerful and dense book like Stoneheart being turned into a season consisting of 15-hours, instead of 2 or even 3-hours in a movie, is that almost no scenes get lost in the writing or editing. I think it is brilliant of Council Tree Productions, to focus on bringing exceptional stories, with deep emotional layers, to the smaller sized storytelling box instead of the panoramic screen. With Stoneheart, I think many will be grateful for the viewing in a more private venue. I for one will be one of them. I have probably read the entire book a couple of dozen times. For me, it is visiting with old friends. It is also why I can never do a reading from the book—I know where every story came from, and where it is going. I don’t bother with a tissue… I use a towel.
Without giving anything away, I would say the scenes I look forward to is of Stone meeting people. Some of the more impactful moments are in his meeting new people with his new view. Sometimes when we are thrashing about in the water of life, and going down for the third time, there is a chance meeting, that we don’t realize at the time, but it sometimes is our life saver ring.
Yanes: Another novel of yours is Pirate’s Patch. What was the inspiration for this? Specifically, how did the ideas of immortals, pirates, and environmentalism come together?
Charlton: You never know where the spark of an off-the-wall idea will come from. Pirate’s Patch is a splendid example.
One of my closest friends, who I never get enough time talking with, is the Director of Special Events at the University of California at Irvine. Homecoming is one of her events. About four years ago, she invited me to come down and have a booth, and sell some books. It was great and we did it again, and again. One year, I asked if we could have dinner on Friday night so we could catch up and just talk. I took her to a cove I used to surf at a billion years ago.
Our conversations are like a kid with ADHD on a pogo stick. We had covered the question of if she had ever heard of another woman named Blake. The only answer both of us had was Blake Lively. I told her that there just needed to be a terrific book or movie with the main character to be an alluring kick-ass woman named Blake.
Later we were having desert, and listening to the surf pound. She laughed at how I was listening to the waves as if it was a symphony. To me—it was. I could tell by how the curl closed out, the surf was coming in. She laughed and asked, ‘you used to surf in this cove, you sail, you have scuba and free dived around the world, you joined the Navy, you go on amazing cruises that cross the oceans—yet, you have never written a book about water.’
I threw up my hands. ‘What would I write about… pirates?’
She laughed and leaned in with wild eyes. ‘Is the kick-ass female lead character named Blake?’
We laughed about nuclear subs, sharp swords, big battles… it was all fun and games… until the characters started showing up in my bedroom at night, poking my ribs with their swords and guns… Then I remembered toying with my mother about different immortalities. One we never figured out how to kill… When you kill the body, the entity transmutes to another body. It’s called shell shifting. So, the question ‘how do you kill THAT kind of immortal?’ was born. Hence, Pirate’s Patch.
Yanes: Given that Pirate’s Patch is screaming for follow up adventures, what are your long-term plans for this story?
Charlton: For right now—it must stand in line. I am just finishing a mystery which takes place in my home town of Bishop, CA (Mule Capital of the World). The timeline is 1942, and the main character is damaged goods. The woman has a deformed hand, and is a sociopath who can’t feel pain.
My auto biography about where creative stuff comes from needs some shuffling and dealt a finishing touch or two, and sent to the editors to tear limb from body. It’s a small book, but has been hacked at for four years and deserves a decent birth or burial.
An important historical fiction I have been working on for eight years deserves at least another 60,000 words. The research has been daunting, as the novel spans from just before the Civil War to modern times. It is about a woman of mix race, born in 1905, who is a surgeon and passing for white.
And if these weren’t enough, there is a list of over 38 titles with draft plots attached.
Yanes: Your novels span many genres. However, when people finish reading any of your books, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Charlton: A friend and fellow author, Shye Ryder, explained my single genre I write. I told her I wrote crime mysteries, fictionalized thriller history, fantasy, science fiction, and she was trying to get me to co-author a lesbian romance titled What About Marsha?.
She pointed out the window at the street. ‘See that pretty white line on the smooth paved street?’ I nodded. ‘You don’t write about that crap. See the gravel and bits and pieces of garbage on the edge of the street? THAT is your genre. You don’t care about the pretty and petty, you go for the grit in the corners of life. You write about the people who life marginalized long before society had its shot. You look at the grit’s story, and then write the story that explains how the grit ever got to the gutter. You write about the people who are on the edge of society, the people who operate in the darkness to make sure things run smoothly. Your characters are the damaged goods, the forgotten, and the unseen. You give them voice, and substance. And if that makes society uncomfortable, you tell society to wait until they get to chapter 23.’
Shye is a pretty sharp cookie. I’m never going to say she’s wrong. But she’s right, 80% of what I work hardest on is creating fictional characters that might as well be real. I have friends who cry on the phone how they want a Stone of their own.
A friend once called me and said I was an evil man. She was out of Kleenex and there were nine chapters left to read. I told her to go get a bath towel. She called the next morning and asked why I hadn’t suggested the bath towel at the start of the book. Now what kind of spoiler would that be?
Take away? How about falling in love?
Yanes: Finally, what are you currently working on that people should look forward to?
Charlton: BWHAHahahahaha… Hopefully out for Christmas, (but probably first of the year), the next book is titled Death in the Valley. The main character is named Thorny Wallace. 1942 in Bishop is a time of reckoning.
I Drink Coffee and Make Shit Up, is hopefully out by next summer.
Going Home, if I find enough time, I look for maybe 2019, but it is not one I want to rush. IF you want a taste of this story, there is the short story on my website, http://www.baercharlton.com.
I’m getting threats from my sister, and may have to get the sixth book in my Southside Hooker series out and live.
Meanwhile, I have a picture frame shop to run. I frame people by day, and kill by night.
Remember, you can learn more about Charlton by checking out his homepage.