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San Diego’s Darkside Exposed In Latest Noir Anthology

Aired 6/27/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Since 2004 more than 50 cities and their writers have been featured in books celebrating the dark and disturbing genre of mystery fiction called "noir." This year San Diego's dark corners have been exposed in "San Diego Noir." We discuss the art of noir fiction set within the San Diego region.

San Diego Noir is one of the newest releases in Akashic Books' noir series.

Above: San Diego Noir is one of the newest releases in Akashic Books' noir series.

When Akashic books started their noir series of anthologies set in large cities, San Diego did not leap to mind. Since 2004, more than 50 cities and their writers have been featured in books celebrating the dark and disturbing genre of mystery fiction called noir. It started with "Brooklyn Noir" and from there, "Detroit Noir," "Las Vegas Noir" and even "Mexico City Noir" were published. Finally this year, our own city's dark corners and broken dreams were exposed in "San Diego Noir." Fifteen local authors contributed to the collection.

Guests:

Gabriel Barillas' story 'The Roads' is featured in "San Diego Noir."

Debra Ginsberg is a memoirist and novelist, her noir story is called 'The New Girl."

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: When Akashic books started its noir series of short story anthologies, San Diego did not automatically spring to mind. Since 2004, more than 50 cities and their writers have been featured in their books celebrating the dark and disturbing fiction called noir. It started with Brooklyn noir, there's been Chicago noir, Las Vegas noir, even Mexico City noir. Finally our own city's dark corners and broken dreams are exposed in San Diego noir. 15 local authors contributed to the collection, and two of them join me now. Gabriel Barillas has written the story the rose for San Diego noir. Hi Gabriel.

BARILLAS: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Deborah Ginsberg is a memoirist and novelist. Her latest book is set here in San Diego, called the neighbors are watching. Her noir story is called the New Girl. Hi, Deborah.

GINSBERG: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: To some people, the term San Diego noir is a contradiction in terms. We are sunny, we're happy, we surf. So Gabrielle. What could be noirish about San Diego?

BARILLAS: There's a waterfront, that's a seedy downtown area. If you for me, noir is more about sense of circumstances. Sets of circumstance rather than location. I think you have a person in a predicament that is usually of their own making. So location doesn't matter.

CAVANAUGH: Deborah, what kind of noirish spin does San Diego have for you?

GINSBERG: I've always thought that the sunnier and the brighter I place is the darker its under side would be. It's like the other side of the sun or the other side of the planet when the sun is not shining on it. I love to explore that dark side, what happens when the sun goes down kind of a thing. Or what kind of dark thing happens when the sun is out even. And just because this is a sunny, happy, lovely place, America's finest city, doesn't mean there isn't some sort of dark side to it.

CAVANAUGH: Is it sort of like the higher your expectations, the deeper your disappointment?

GINSBERG: I'm not sure if it's that so much as -- I like to compare it to Los Angeles. Because Los Angeles has a long noir tradition. James Elroy and so forth. And I think San Diego is really much the same in that way. Although it doesn't get the same kind of attention that Los Angeles does in so many different ways.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

GINSBERG: This just being one of them. But I feel like it is just as noirish as Los Angeles.

CAVANAUGH: Gabrielle, what did San Diego noir editor Mary Elizabeth Hart say she was looking for in these short stories?

BARILLAS: Obviously something that was very noir. And in my case, she wanted something a little more Latino oriented. She had nothing that was ethnic. I think Albert Luis ray and I are the only two. So that's what she was looking for. Deborah and I were supposed to do the story together. Deborah was the talent and I was the ethnicity.

GINSBERG: No, no. But that obviously didn't work out.

CAVANAUGH: Tell me some of the writers included in this collection, Deborah.

GINSBERG: Well, we have T. Jefferson parker, he's been writing about San Diego for quite a while actually. We have taffy cannon, another local author, Martha Lawrence, Gabriel Barillas. This is actually his first time being published. So it's very exciting. And Jeffrey Marriott, don wins low, another one of my favorites who represents San Diego really, really nicely in his work as well.

CAVANAUGH: Who many people might have heard of. And these stories take place pretty much all over the county don't they? They go from north county to national city. And there's a wide swath of local areas that people are gonna recognize in these stories.

GINSBERG: If you think of San Diego, it's not so much a centralized location. It's not just downtown. Because the county is really big and really spread out. And I think you -- there's the Los Angeles noir, is part of the series too, and there's actually two volumes because Los Angeles also is so spread out. I think that was one of Mary Elizabeth Hart's challenging, actually, was to figure out how to corral all these different areas. All the different areas are really thematically different as well. The experience of somebody in Del Mar, for example, could be extremely different from the experience of somebody in Escondido or downtown. So --

CAVANAUGH: And yet that creepy sort of grayness is in all of them.

GINSBERG: I think you can find that anywhere, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: You found your creepy grayness on the rose, Gabrielle, that's the name of your story as I said. Of the main character does not come from San Diego. But you say everyone in San Diego is from somewhere else. That's not really true.

BARILLAS: Not really true. But it does have a representation of it. Even Los Angeles where people, oh, you're actually a native here, and by and large you find that they're not. Though that has changed, the communities have gotten bigger, and more people tend to stay. In the past, there's just cities that sort of have that. It's an immigrant, a transient place. People come back and forth across the border, people from LA come down all the time. See there's a lot of fluidity there.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things that your story explores very well I think is the fact that San Diego is one of the last places that you can run to, if you're running in the United States.

BARILLAS: OJ was almost here.

CAVANAUGH: I know. It's that you think people would go up and away, but no, gravitate down here. And there's the sea and then there's the border.

BARILLAS: It's like a funnel.

GINSBERG: Well, it doesn't have the same sort of feeling as the northern border, right? Canada, running to Canada doesn't -- it doesn't have an end of the line kind of feeling, Canada doesn't. But San Diego does more.

CAVANAUGH: It does, it does. And your novel, the neighbors are watching, already exposes some of that noir element of San Diego. You have been -- you've kind of been exploring this for a while, as you say.

GINSBERG: I love San Diego in all ways. I love being here, I love being here. Half my life was spent traveling and living in many, many far flung different places. And the second half almost has been here in San Diego. And I'll never leave. And I love it for so many reasons. Just one of them is this idea of exploring what people wouldn't ordinarily see on the surface. It's sort of that under the surface behind closed doors, behind drawn shades kind of thing that I'm really interested in. And I find that San Diego offers so much diversity and so many different aspects and experiences on the spectrum of human experience.

CAVANAUGH: Some people have sort of a rather limited notion as to what noir mysteries are. For instance, neither one of your stories has a detective or a murder in it. And your story, the new girl, is the first one in the book that doesn't have either of those elements in it. How can a story be noir without those elements?

GINSBERG: Well, it's an interesting thing about noir, actually. If you get down to the real definition of it, although of course that's a lot of play, it's an elastic kind of definition. But hard boiled fiction is usually what we think of the traditional detective story. Noir actually doesn't necessarily have a detective. It has the people sort of around the crime, the perpetrator, the victim, somebody who saw it maybe. And not necessarily a detective actually. And it usually has -- I don't want to say sleazy, but that sort of on the edge element to it. But it doesn't necessarily have a detective.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed at the end of your story, Gabrielle, there's no family, there's no support system, there's a person alone. The end of your story too, Deborah. Is that one of the elements of noir?

BARILLAS: For me, one of the elements of noir is definitely -- the most important part for me is the antihero. Sam spade, the detective, yes. But like Deborah said, it is by and large someone who is not an innocent. Someone who is in a circumstance because of the situations they made. We all know people who deviate from the norm. Maybe a little slightly sleazier lives. My character sells marijuana. That's his currency. But not by choice. But he's locked into a certain kind of a life, and he has -- you have to have something that you can trade, and in his case, that's what he did to keep ark live and maintain his -- but he got there because of choices he made. But he's gonna get his. In the noir story, the antihero, he never saves the day, he never gets the girl. He's doomed by the girl and doomed --

CAVANAUGH: The dame.

BARILLAS: The dame.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Hi Sarina.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Oh, good afternoon. Thank you so much for taking my call. I just wanted to say -- to compliment the compilation of San Diego noir. I got it from my local library, and it was extraordinary. Anything that has to do with San Diego is wonderful for me. I've been here since 19 -- and grownup here. And it was people oriented, it was gritty, it was a page Turner. I mean, I couldn't put it down. And I just wanted to say thank you for putting this together.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Sarina, thank you for the phone call. I think there's great fun in reading a book that has locales that you recognize. I think there's a great sense of enjoyment in that. But I'm also wondering if both of you think this book might change people's perceptions of San Diego. Deborah?

GINSBERG: I've been reading some of the reviews of this book. And I find it entertaining. Well, I haven't read reviews obviously of my own book for a long time. But that everybody has a completely different take on what they think it should be. And critics kind of are raising questions that they don't normally raise for other books in this collection. Nobody questions the noirishness of Baltimore, for example. Right? But I've noticed that with San Diego, some of the critics are saying, well, there's too much San Diego. And some other critics, there's not enough San Diego because everybody has a preconceived notion of San Diego as we started this discussion by saying that it's sunny and light. And I think maybe people are just jealous.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we run into that quite often I think. Do you think it's gonna change some perceptions though Gabrielle?

BARILLAS: I really don't. I just think it's San Diego. You get off the airport and you're on the water and you are driving down the five and you're looking at the water, and I don't think so. I think people will enjoy the stories. And there's a great variety of stories. Almost every writer took a different twist on the noir thing, which I find interesting. But I think San Diego is a beautiful place, it's sunny, and it's beaches, and I think that's what everyone will always think of when they think of San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, what was one of the most surprising things you read in reviews about this book? Deborah?

GINSBERG: That there was too much San Diego in it. And I thought, well, okay. I mean, really?

CAVANAUGH: If you have to criticize -- before you wrote this book, both of you, were you fans of this genre?

BARILLAS: Absolutely.

GINSBERG: Oh, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of your favorite books and films?

BARILLAS: Favorite books, I read the Chandler books, most of the Chandler books.

CAVANAUGH: Who of course lived here for a while.

BARILLAS: Who actually died in La Jolla.

GINSBERG: Which he called Esmeralda.

BARILLAS: And I do have to pitch the best evidence of noirness that I've seen anywhere is this terrific French movie called Rififi, but that is just perfect noir. Watch that. It's perfect. I have not enjoyed a movie as much as that movie in forever. I'm not gonna say more about it. I could go on and on. Enjoy it.

CAVANAUGH: Wonderful.

GINSBERG: And I'd like to add James Elroy. Who I think is fabulous. I think he's a master.

CAVANAUGH: The book is San Diego noir. I've been speaking with two of the contributing writers, Gabriel Barillas, and Deborah Ginsberg. And I want thank you so much for speaking with us.

GINSBERG: Thank you so much.

BARILLAS: Thanks for having us, Maureen.

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