Fresno author weaves California tales in new book

Mark Arax spent 14 years driving the dusty roads of the central San Joaquin Valley as a writer for the Los Angeles Times. His beat was the farms, businesses, bars, and anywhere else locals were willing to share their tales.

It was the Fresno native's job to dig beneath the soil that had been cultivated over the decades with so much blood and sweat.

He had to see peer intently through mirages of this arid valley to get a clearer picture of the people and the land.

Arax, an Armenian-American, left the Los Angeles Times in 2007. Longer versions of some of the stories he wrote while still at the newspaper, along with some original snapshots of this land's people, are in his new book, "West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State" (Public Affairs, $26.95).

"I wanted to write a book about California as a whole," he says. "I didn't exactly know the shape or the form. I think the shape found me in the middle of it."

The book, a collection of his writings about the diverse peoples of California, focuses on stories that unfolded from 2004 to 2009. During that period, Arax dealt with his own major life-changing events: his oldest child moving off to college; the loss of his newspaper job; an answer finally being found regarding the murder of his father in 1972.

Arax, who is involved in a book-signing tour that will take him up and down the central San Joaquin Valley, answered a few questions about the book, his life and the Valley.

Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Question: You were writing this book at the same time the murder of your father was solved. Did that have any impact on the stories you decided to tell in this book?

Answer: My family history is present in every one of the pieces. Even in the pieces where I never appear, at least not visibly. What I was trying to do was this conflation of voices. I was trying to do reportage, essay, memoir and combine it all together so you get a piece like the Home Front where all of a sudden I pop up out of the narrative as a way of informing that story. My personal history and family history are everywhere in those stories.

How important to your writing is your personal history in the area?

So many folks who try to write about California from New York or the East Coast fly in and fly out. They are playing with all of these stereotypes and tropes of California. What I try to do is write a book about California in which there wasn't a single wildfire, earthquake, mudslide. I wanted to write a book that really dug into the soil of the place.

What is your fascination with the history here?

The past is never really the past. If you listen close enough, you'll hear on the land the echoes of families, of harvests. This is a place where I can go out to a vineyard near Weed Patch and walk in the same fields where my grandfather worked.

How hard was it to keep your professional distance when dealing with some of the emotional stories?

To me, the notion of journalistic objectivity is kind of a false premise. To me, as a journalist, our obligation is to be fair to the issue and fair to the search. But the idea we are automatons, on the outside looking in, is a false notion.

Could you have written similar stories in other states?

No. This state, the Valley, is a dream for storytellers. Look at the tales that have played out here. You have these big stories that play out on this big land. This is an epic landscape.