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New Book Mixes San Diego Fact And Fiction

New Book Mixes San Diego Fact And Fiction.
We are just days away from our national domestic holiday- Thanksgiving- where we open up our homes to family, friends and neighbors. It's a celebration to give thanks for what we have and for the people we know.

Book Signing

Debra Ginsberg will be signing and reading from her new book, "The Neightbors Are Watching," on Thursday, November 18 at 7 p.m. at The BookWorks in Del Mar

We are just days away from our national domestic holiday- Thanksgiving- where we open up our homes to family, friends and neighbors. It's a celebration to give thanks for what we have and for the people we know.

But just how well do we know the people we know? That's the question posed in a new novel by San Diego author Debra Ginsberg. After a series of memoirs exploring family relationships, Ginsberg's third novel explores domestic secrets and lies.



Debra Ginsberg, author, "The Neightbors Are Watching."

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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We are just days away from the national domestic holiday Thanksgiving when we open up homes to family, friends and neighbors. It's a celebration to give thanks for what you have and the people we know, but just how well do we know the people we know? That is the question posed in the new novel by San Diego author Debra Ginsberg. After a series of webinars exploring family relationships. Ginsberg explores domestic secrets and lies and I'd like to welcome my guest.

DEBRA GINSBERG: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Now this is about what we don't know about our neighbors. Why would you want to write about that?


DEBRA GINSBERG: I'm fascinated by the concept of closed doors. And as seeing your neighbors, but not really seeing your neighbors. And I also like the idea of this group of people who all have something to hide and yet they are very judgmental of the people they see. The people who they see on their block.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And of course you know the standard line that somebody says every time there's a terrible person is found in the neighborhood, is he was such a nice guy, he's so quiet.

DEBRA GINSBERG: Right well there's this standard, oh yeah, he was a loner, he didn't. I mean it's sort of, yeah, it is the standard line. And he kept to himself and that sort of thing. But these are people who don't really keep to themselves. Sort of, some of them are nosy, and some of them are in each other's business, and there's weird things going on, but each one of them has his or her own weird little things that are going on under the surface.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about the plot of The Neighbors are Watching.

DEBRA GINSBERG: Well the key, I guess the idea that started when I thought to myself I wonder what would happen. It started with a question, I thought what would happen if a man had a child with a previous relationship and he sort of abandoned child and that this child shows up as a teenager. You know, almost fully grown on his doorstep and he's not mentioned this to his wife at any point and nobody else in the neighborhood knows anything about him suddenly she arrives and I thought what would happen? At first I thought what would go through his mind how would you justify it what would it do to the marriage and then I thought I wonder how people on the block would view it and that's sort of how it developed and all these other characters sort of started coming in. And then so that is exactly what happens. This pregnant teenager shows up. She is the daughter of one of the neighbors and he had told his wife about it. So that blows up over there with them. And then all the other neighbors are sort of looking in and wondering what's going on and they've all got stuff going on. And then there is the gigantic witch fire which we had which is a turning point in the novel and as you know everybody was evacuated and they are evacuated, and she's just had the baby and when everybody sort of comes back around she's missing, the girl. What happened to her?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's so interesting the way you put it, what would happen when the neighbors found out about this girl turning up because we have a curious relationship with our neighbors in some neighborhoods in southern California. We know them, we talk with them, maybe have barbecues with them but there is this really such a level of intimacy that we don't usually cross.

DEBRA GINSBERG: That's right and one of the things I was thinking about what I was writing it is where is the line between sort of being nosy and being helpful? And what should you do? How involved should you get. What caused you to go over to, not call the police because it is too loud, the party next door, but what would you see that would alert you to may be something going on? And I think we are so trained to be socially correct that maybe we see some things that we let go by, that looks strange, but I'm not going to you know, interfere. So where is the line between interference and helpfulness and I found a really interesting to explore.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with author Debra Ginsberg. Her new book is The Neighbors are Watching. We know, Deborah I think one thing is indeed insult the drawn to in this novel is how many local scenes and local news stories there are at this point.

DEBRA GINSBERG: The fire is a big one of course but I think yeah, the agents will recognize a lot of what's going on. Because the landscape as I was with my previous novel, The Grift, is very much a character in this book. The landscape, the weather, the natural phenomena here. And that kind of thing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now as you say you make a big reference to the Witch Creek fire that happened in 2007. You were evacuated during that. Did it make a big impression on you?

DEBRA GINSBERG: Oh sure, sure. You think about what would you take, and what would you do. I live quite close to the coast. A couple of miles. Nothing has ever come down that far before and these characters live in the same place and they say the same thing we are going to get evacuated because we are almost at the water. The fire doesn't burn down to the water, it burns in East County, that happens somewhere else. And then it was our turn, literally. Yeah. It was a very, there's a sense of dislocation but it's also just surreal to be, you know how it looked, you remember how it looked, the sky, the air, these apocalyptic scenes of gas stations with cars wound around the block. I mean I felt like I was in a Stephen King novel there for a minute.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. It was very disturbing. You're going to read from a session of the book that deals with that fire in that evacuation. is going to be reading from her new book The Neighbors are Watching.

DEBRA GINSBERG: Sunday dawned clear and warm, the forecast called for heat and anxiety. Before noon exactly as predicted the Santa Ana winds began blowing hard across San Diego raising the red flag warnings all the way to the coast. Visibility was sharp and bright with twinkling dust, the air buzzed with electricity and crackling nerves. Then again this time of year always made Southern Californians apprehensive. The Santa Ana's, those airy devil winds tear every bit of moisture from the skin and lips and hair and send allergies raging. People cursed, felt terrible and made it dark jokes about earthquake weather. Psychics did a booming business, greeting cards for nervous patrons wanting a glimpse into a better future and chiropractors adjusted more backs than they had all summer.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Reading from her new book The Neighbors are Watching about kind of the way it feels about right now it's very very dry right now luckily we don't have the wind so.

DEBRA GINSBERG: This is exactly that kind of weather, that's right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How do, you also write about one of the main characters from the book is drawn from a woman who lived in your neighborhood.

DEBRA GINSBERG: Well it happened, I didn't have her as a model for this character but it so happened that a news story happened that was very similar. I had this idea for the novel and characters kind of set and then the story happened which does happen to me sometimes when I'm writing and I'm making stuff up and then it happens actually which is why sometimes memoir is easier to write than fiction. But yeah, there was a woman I'm sure everybody who lives here remembers who came home one day and suburban housewife and was arrested in her driveway and everybody remembers that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Everybody remembers that she was a fugitive from the law living a double life for something like 20 years.

DEBRA GINSBERG: Right and here's what you say, wow that's crazy newer for the last 20 years I never would've suspected anything like that and that is really what's going on in this novel with all of the neighbors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, this novel takes some very serious and dark turns. Has that surprised some of your readers?

DEBRA GINSBERG: I think that readers of the book wouldn't be surprised. It's a little too early and the book is just going on sale now, so it's a little early except some of the early reads have been great. People are really enjoying it. But everyone who's read The Grift know that I like to get inside my character's heads and sometimes that's a dark place, inside people's heads. And I think that anybody who sort of opens this book up and knows it inside in the suburbs, I make jokes about this but it's true, there's always a dark side. It's been explored before in other ways. But whenever you go into the sunny, nice, beige suburbs, you are going to get something freaky going on below the surface.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now when you take time to explore those dark places why do you want to lead your readers into that?

DEBRA GINSBERG: Because it's interesting, I think. And it relates actually to this whole concept of knowing your neighbors and understanding your neighbors. What's happening in the imagination can be much darker and creepier than reality and its the basis for human interactions and I've written this myself... people fear what they don't understand or what they don't know and when people become fearful they become hostile and so I think a lot of misunderstandings and the tension between people is caused by this very fact that they don't actually understand, or it's alien to them. And a lot of these neighbors have lifestyles or have made life decisions or are in situations that feel alien and were threatening to their neighbors. And thus, their response is one of hostility.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I made the point that The Neighbors are Watching is your third novel but you are also quite well known for your memoirs. Waiting, the true confessions of a waitress. Raising Blaze, mother and son's long strange journey into autism, and About My Sisters. Now, I wonder since all of these revolve around relationships within families, has it helped your fiction writing, do you think?

DEBRA GINSBERG: I do think it has definitely informed it, although I find myself, and somebody pointed this out to me recently, that in The Neighbors are Watching, all of the children in the novel are single children. And he asked me, did you do that on purpose? And I said actually, no I didn't. But maybe it's easier for me to focus actually, even though my writing is informed by these family relationships, perhaps it's easier to define characters if they are only children if that makes sense.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting, yet I reference the fact that we are all getting together for Thanksgiving, all the family, all the friends, sometimes the neighbors, as well. Do you think that having this idea of where this intimacy, this line is, will help us with our relationships with our friends and our family, or is it better to break down the line just a little bit on occasions when we are all together?

DEBRA GINSBERG: I think, you know, I'm a big believer now, and I won't say it, it's actually not because of the novel, but I do think that the fire had a lot to do with it. But I think it's really important to have not just a good relationship with one's family, which is obviously something that you should have, but with one's neighbors at the very least a congenial short of relationship. After the fire, where we are living now, I sort of knew the neighbors in passing because of the way the houses are structured, you can't miss each other when you're coming and going but I really got to know them after the fire when we all came back after being evacuated and when everybody was cleaning up the soot and we were talking to each other where did you go or did you do that kind of thing, what did you take and it's not like the neighbors now get together and hang out, particularly. But there is much more a sense of camaraderie, I think and also support for each other. Say if somebody got into a bind and needed something I really could knock on a neighbor' s door and they would be there and I think they feel the same way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because you never know when you're going to need them.

DEBRA GINSBERG: Yes but also it's just as really a feeling of, I think that feeling, people give a lot of lip service to the notion of community, but I don't think that people experience it that often. And it's really important I think.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How fertile do you find San Diego is as a location for storytelling?

DEBRA GINSBERG: I absolutely love San Diego. I'm passionate about my love for California and specifically San Diego. I think it is the most beautiful place on earth and I also find it endlessly entertaining. In some good ways and some bad ways. So I think it's an amazing setting for fiction and I will happily set all my fiction here forevermore I think. So I think and hope that comes through in my writing. And I feel like, I really feel like we should be represented here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because sometimes when you're dealing with your publisher centered in New York they don't really get what you are writing sometimes.

DEBRA GINSBERG: They totally don't get it. I was running the story for the graft passed my agent at one point a real New Yorker, I don't know that she is I don't know where she's been, actually, she said to me you know, I just don't buy it that a person would ask their Yoga instructor if they knew a good psychic. And I said well, you've never been here obviously because who else would you ask? You know?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. That would be the person perfect person to ask. So there is still that sort of East Coast centric idea about where things should be located and what makes sense.

DEBRA GINSBERG: That's absolutely right and I think anybody will maintain you often (inaudible) obviously, but how many novels are centered in New York and Manhattan specifically? And we have here two fabulous writers, well more than two, but T. Jefferson Parker and Don Winslow comes to mind who have set a number of their novels here in San Diego and his wonderful I think and I think there should be more of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Debra Ginsberg, now you're just launching this book, but are you working on another project though?

DEBRA GINSBERG: I'm working on another novel and still darker.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Still set here?

DEBRA GINSBERG: Always, forever more.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us about your book.

DEBRA GINSBERG: And thank you very much for having me and I'll be at...

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've got to tell everybody, Debra Ginsberg will be signing and reading from her new book The Neighbors are Watching this Thursday night at seven at the book works in Del Mar. And thanks again.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you'd like to comment please go online at Days. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.