On Writing Savage Garden

Several years ago when I was still doing a lot of journalism, a bizarre murder rocked Southern California. It involved the well-known band Los Lobos, one of those rare rock bands that seemed to have it all. Founded by a bunch of childhood friends from East L.A., the band became international superstars and sold millions of records while staying true to their Latino roots and maintaining homes on the Eastside instead of fleeing to Malibu and Bel-Air like so many of their contemporaries who hit it big. But behind the veneer of success, a tragic set of circumstances was unfolding that would eventually leave the wife of lead Los Lobos singer/guitarist Cesar Rosas dead and her half-brother charged with murder. 

As soon as I heard about this case, I knew that I wanted to write about it. It had all the epic qualities of a classic Greek tragedy, writ large across the contemporary Angeleno landscape: Betrayal, blood, Pandora's box, murder, missing siblings, money not buying love and the inevitability of fate. 

Trouble began when Cesar Rosas' wife, Sandra Rosas, who had been adopted, was going through a rough time in her life. Figuring that finding her roots might give her a stability she felt she lacked, Sandra launched a search for her biological family. (She and Cesar Rosas had been together 22 years, married for 17, with several children.) What Rosas uncovered was a half-brother, Gabriel Gomez, who had felony convictions for arson and PCP possession. Nonetheless, Rosas embraced her blood relative and began helping him out with money. Eventually, he lived in a trailer on the Rowland Heights property that she and Cesar called home. But Sandra grew disillusioned with her newfound brother and tired of his belligerent demands for money. Instead of bringing her happiness, her brought only sorrow and more trouble. Soon, she was preparing to cut him off. Then one night when Los Lobos was on tour, the Rosas' two adult daughters returned home at 11:30 pm to find their mother and her van missing and broken glass strewn across the front lawn. They called her cell phone, which activated, and overheard Gomez say something ominous. Then the phone went dead. Two days later, the van, filled with bloodstains, was found nearby. No body or murder weapon was ever recovered, although Gomez eventually confessed to murdering his half-sister and was convicted of the crime in court. 

I tried to interview Gomez as he sat in jail, awaiting trial, but he refused to meet with me. And therein was born the inspiration for Savage Garden. The story haunted me. The circular nature of it, the inevitability of fate, the opening of Pandora's box, the being careful what you wish for, and leaving well enough alone, resonated deeply with me. I wanted to explore this world, or one like it, in fiction. It was also just such a damn tragedy, that here this band Los Lobos, universally beloved in the Latino community and outside it for staying close to its roots, whose members had pulled themselves out of poverty and surmounted the barrio dangers of crime, drugs, gangs and violence, would rise to the level of superstars, only to be torn apart in the end by a damaged individual from that very community who had been unable to resist its dark allure. This was literary irony, the human condition, writ large. 

I love Los Lobos music, have seen them many times live, own many of their CDs. I too, was horrified by what had happened. But a true crime story does not a novel make.Savage Garden is very different from the real life tragedy of Sandra Rosas, but it does explore some similar issues. In Savage Garden, Eve's boyfriend Silvio has a friend who is a former gangbanger turned acclaimed playwright. Alfonso Reventon's plays deal with universal themes, set in the barrio. He mixes high and low culture. He has an unhappy marriage to a woman who was adopted as a child and feels that if only she can find her birth family, everything will come out all right and she will know where she stands in the world. The novel explores that happens when she opens Pandora's box, set against the backdrop of the disappearance and murder of the play's leading actress on opening night of Alfonso Reventon's greatest play. 

There was a second big story unfolding in the national media as I sat down to writeSavage Garden - The Jayson Blair scandal. Blair, if you'll recall, was the young cocky African-American reporter who brought down himself along with the head editor of The New York Times when it was discovered that he had plagarized or simply fabricated parts of dozens of stories. L'Affaire Blair rocked newsrooms across America and was a huge scandal among my friends in the chattering classes. I wondered what I would have done if I had known a character like Blair who I suspected might be making up stories. And how racial politics and newsroom politics would come into play. So I gave Eve a foil in Savage Garden. She's a very young, very smart, very ambitious African-American reporter named Felice Morgan whom Eve is assigned to show around during her first week in the newsroom. Eve is annoyed about what she calls "glorified babysitting" but she's also insecure enough to feel threatened by Felice. The plot quickly thickens as Eve begins to think Felice may be stealing her stories and making things up. I made the stakes even higher by throwing Eve and Felice together on the story about the missing actress. If Eve believes Felice is making things up, she may make dangerous assumptions that could put her life in danger as she investigates the murder of the actress. If she trusts Felice and ends up wrong about the younger reporter's veracity, she could also get herself killed. We don't find out the truth until the bitter end, but the jousting relationship between the two ambitious, smart savvy reporters thrown together on a breaking murder story serves to heighten the tension of this book and leave readers gasping until the very last page.