On Writing Sugar Skull

As a cub reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I often worked weekends. And on summer days when the mercury climbed into the triple digits, one thing was sure: There would be a lot of murders. 

People shot and stabbed and strangled each other in sleazy bars and hillside mansions, strip malls, abandoned houses and parking lots. Often, there were so many dead bodies clogging the news wires that the Times could barely mention them all. 

Unless they were rich or famous or had died in a particularly gruesome fashion—such as the toddlers killed in a spray of drive-by bullets meant for someone else—the deceased didn't merit their own stories. There were just too many murders and not enough room, and so most of them got folded as smoothly as egg whites into cake into what we called the "murder round-up" that ran every Monday morning. 

Usually, that meant calling the police and coroner and getting only the most basic details—age, occupation, residence, cause of death. Still, when you had 40 murders in one weekend, that was one long litany of death. 

I often wondered what exactly catapulted victims across the threshold of celebrity or gruesomeness into meriting their own story and how harried city editors made the decision to relegate someone's life to several sentences. Where was the justice in that? And what did it say about my profession, assigning value to a person's life based on their "newsworthiness." 

So I'd sit there Sunday afternoon with my scraps of paper, pulling together the "murder roundup" and trying to make sense of the city's senseless mayhem. And I began to imagine how some of those murders might be connected. 

Because here's the weird thing about LA. It's so huge and geographically diverse, and yet people know each other across all sorts of improbable lines, especially when secrets are involved. Reporters hear many tantalizing stories they can't print, and it's only when Hugh Grant gets caught off Sunset Boulevard with a black prostitute or O.J. Simpson goes on trial for murdering his wife that it becomes a story. And then all sorts of seedy and surprising revelations trickle out, and we realize how swiftly the line can blur between those on the street and those in hillside homes perched high above it. 

"Sugar Skull" takes the reader into three very disparate worlds that end up being connected in that improbable Angeleno way across frontiers of race, class, money and geography. I examine this interlinked world through the prism of the "Sugar Skull," a gaily decorated confection that many Mexican families lay on the graves of departed relatives during the "Day of the Dead" celebration that follows Halloween. 

Sugar Skulls also provided a handy leitmotif for delving into the city's vast and varied Mexican-American community. I'm by no means an expert in this field, but after all, Southern California was once part of Mexico—as Silvio tells Eve in "Sugar Skull," and you can't walk around Los Angeles without the strong sense that the two remain strongly linked. In addition, my husband is Mexican-American, and while his experience is radically different from Silvio's, it nonetheless gives me a window into this world, as does my understanding of Spanish. I realize that all too often, people are still judged by what they look like, instead of who they are. That's an issue that cuts both ways, and it fascinates me. 

In addition, I was haunted by a story I once wrote about a teen runaway from a loving family who came to a bad end while hanging out with her street kid friends. As I dug deeper into the story, I learned of a phenomenon in which upper-middle class and wealthy girls sought out homeless "squatter" boyfriends. It seemed to be the epitome of cool in a world that called for ever more drastic extremes to shock one's long-suffering parents. The teen characters in my story are quite different from the unfortunate girl I reported on, but the tragedy inspired me to try to get inside teen heads and explore through fiction the eternal lure of life's darker side. 

Lastly, my novels are a paean to Los Angeles itself, the city of illusions. In a place where the klieg lights of Hollywood cast their allure and people remake themselves every day, no one is who they seem. Like revelers at a Day of the Dead pageant, we're all wearing masks, costumed by our professions, ethnicities and socio-economic status. 

I have a sneaking suspicion that if Raymond Chandler were writing today, he wouldn't focus on Hollywood and the city's westside and beach communities. His plots would unfold deep in the sprawling suburbs and ethnic enclaves of L.A., places that didn't even exist in his time, places where the third generation Americans live next door to just-arrived immigrants in newly built tracts and all sorts of terrifying and fascinating things can happen. 

I read a lot of Chandler and Ross MacDonald when I first started writing mysteries. Not because I wanted to write like them—they were white, middle-aged men who lived in a mainly white, middle-class homogeneous city more than 50 years ago. But there was something in their tone that made me swoon, how they made love to the city, held it up for inspection like a discerning lover, noting all its outer loveliness, its quirky, non-traditional personality as well as its flaws. 

My L.A. is not their L.A.—it's a bustling, vibrant, chaotic, clashing millennial world capital where violence and lust and greed bubble over daily in the papers and TV news shows, where the first world lives cheek by jowl with the third, where a motley collection of underground tribes eke out a living well below the radar of average, middle class folks. My jumping off point is where all those words collide. 

That's the landscape Eve probes with her pen. Being a journalist gives Eve—and me—an unlimited passport into the city. With her dogtags and notebook, Eve gains entrée into the most rarified strata of society—that of power brokers and blue blood—all the way down to homeless Latino transvestites who bathe in the L.A. River. To Eve, as to me, we are all linked. And it's only when someone is killed unnaturally that we begin to trace back the threads to see where it all connects.