Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Moving Mountains to Make a Book: Carl Brush talks High Sierras

Writing Belle's 2013 Author Program

You may or may not be aware that I love the mountains. I grew up about an hour away from Kings Canyon National Park, and just a half an hour down the road from where I live now, I can pop up in the rolling foothills of the High Sierras. So when I met Carl Brush - the author of The Maxwell Vendetta and The Second Vendetta - I was intrigued to hear that his stories featured the High Sierras as a setting. So it was only natural that he visit with Writing Belle and talk about the influence these beautiful California mountains had on his writing. And so here he is today!

Moving Mountains to Make a Book
by Carl Brush

Bit by bit,
Putting it together...
Piece by Piece-
Only way to make a work of art.
Every moment makes a contribution,
Every little detail plays a part.
Having just a vision's no solution,
Everything depends on execution:
Putting it together-
That's what counts—

Stephen Sondheim, Sunday In The Park With George

When Summer suggested I do a piece about how I created the High Sierra locales for my historical novels, The Maxwell Vendetta and The Second Vendetta, I did a little dance for joy. Although much of the action in both novels happens in San Francisco, Andy Maxwell’s family ranch, the Circle M, is the beating heart of the story, and I loved reliving the process of assembling the pieces that made it whole. 

I grew up in Northern California, and my father liked camping and fishing, so we spent many family vacations trundling around to high mountain streams and lakes. I have an inborn love of history, and my imagination always turned to the trials of immigrants and their wagon trains as well as to the adventures of the trappers and hunters and miners who risked so much to traverse the peaks and ravines that we sped over so easily in our automobile. From those travels (I haven’t stopped, by the way.), I unconsciously gathered the elements that became the world of the Maxwell novels.

The “multi-gabled log-and-stone ranch house [Andy’s] Grandfather had designed and built” lies at the foot of my fictional Sawtooth Peaks, three granite pinnacles that give their name to the springs at their base and to the valley that spreads out before them. You can travel hither and yon through the Sierra, hike the John Muir trail from one end to the other, but you won’t find these peaks and that valley in one place. You can, however, glimpse their components.

If you turn north off I-80 on highway 89 near Lake Tahoe and drive for about 40 miles, you’ll find yourself in Sierra Valley. It’s a large, flat, former lakebed, an anomaly amid the peaks that enclose it. Legendary highway 49—the road that runs through the main California Gold Rush sites—rises over Yuba Pass to its west. Highway 70 runs over Beckwourth pass (named for a legendary black wagon train pioneer) to the east. Like most mountain ranges, the Sierra harbors many small valleys, but our travels often brought us to this one, and it seemed special to me. It’s a rush to crest the surrounding hills and see it—surprise—suddenly there at your feet with its fields and cattle and the 200-occupant metropolis of Sierraville offering such food, shelter, and entertainment as small mountain towns may.

My own Sawtooth Valley is not so large as Sierra Valley, but it’s big enough to support a good number or ranches and farms, and its defining community, Sawtooth Wells, is, like Sierraville, named after the mountains that surround it and the valley where it lives. They’re all bound together by both name and geography.

Although Sierra Valley is surrounded by some pretty high mountains and sits at nearly 5000 feet elevation itself, no signature feature on its skyline matches the Sawtooth Peaks of the Maxwell novels. For that, I turned to some big hills much farther south.

Mineral King is an isolated valley, home to a few summer cabins and backpackers, in Sequoia National Park. Here’s what I mean when I say “isolated:” If you drive there from my home in Oakland, CA, you’ll spend three and a half or four hours covering the 220 miles to the San Joaquin Valley town of Visalia, then another 4 hours or so to travel the remaining 55 miles over twisting old wagon trails and logging roads to Mineral King. It’s off any grid you can name. The only electricity is by individual generator; the only fuels are firewood or propane. Disney once had plans for a ski resort in the area, but lost the fight, so it’s still a place that takes some determination and navigation to reach.

The little valley—no more than a notch in the granite, really—is 7400 feet above sea level, and rising above it are several jagged peaks, one of which is called Sawtooth. For obvious reasons. In my mind, I topped the peaks with jagged granite pinnacles sort of like the Minarets near Mammoth Springs. If you want to drink pure glacial water and catch native trout, you can take a nice hike over Sawtooth pass, starting at 7400 feet and climbing another 3500 feet or so, to Lake Columbine. We did it once, my 60-year-old father hanging on to mule’s tale to pull him over the top. It seemed funny at the time, but it turned out later he had cancer that was draining his stamina. Still there’s damn little oxygen at 11,000 feet, and that will leave any unacclimated person short of wind, cancer or no.

Such memories form the protoplasmic core of what became Sawtooth Valley, its nourishing springs and stream (Granite Creek instead of Sawtooth Creek, just for variety, reminiscent of a watercourse at the foot of Mount Shasta where I lived a few years as a child), and, of course, its anchor community—Sawtooth Wells. Once the Circle M/Sawtooth Peaks/Valley organism began taking shape in my mind and heart, there arose the necessity of giving it a home in my story. It had to be located close enough to San Francisco and Berkeley that my characters could travel back and forth with relative ease using available 1908/1910 transportation. Yet, it had to be deep enough into the mountains to be believable as a High Sierra location.

I decided to place it all southeast of a real town named Placerville (once called “Hangtown”), on highway 50, thirty miles or so east of Sacramento. I say “decided” as if I thought it over, made a list of possibilities, then settled on this one. The actual process was much less rational and linear. It just felt to me like that’s where it belonged. Although I was careful to stick to the geographic facts when linking the Bay Area to the mountains as far as Placerville, I played fast and loose with the landscape thereafter.  I made both Hope Valley and Markleeville, for example, an easy day’s ride from the Circle M. Not really possible, but it seemed natural as I was writing. And so on.

And there you have it. The genesis of The Maxwell Vendetta and The Second Vendetta.  In The Maxwell Vendetta, I send Andy across the Great Basin, through Wells, Nevada, and into the Wind River Range of Wyoming on a quest for the motive behind the campaign against his family. But the research behind that trip is a story for another chapter. For now, I leave you with thanks to Summer for the opportunity to delve into what I guess you’d call my creative process and the hope that you’ve enjoyed our journey to Sawtooth Valley.

About Carl 
Carl Brush has been writing since he could write, which is quite a long time now. He grew up and lives in Northern California, close to the roots of the people and action of his historical thrillers, the recently-released The Maxwell Vendetta, and its sequel, The Second Vendetta. A third volume of the trilogy, set in pre-gold-rush San Francisco is nearing completion. Its working title: Bonita.
You can find Carl living with his wife in Oakland, California, where he enjoys the blessings of nearby children and grandchildren. Journals in which his work has appeared include The Summerset Review, Right Hand Pointing, Blazevox, Storyglossia, Feathertale, and The Kiss Machine.  He has participated in the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Tin House Writers’ Workshop.
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  1. I always say I hold a special level of respect for historical fiction writers. Nice of you to pop by Carl and while I'm not a mountain person, they are grand to look at.

  2. Thanks, Sheena-Kay. Mountains could also make a great environment to travel around vicariously. Give the Vendettas a try.


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