Exclusive interview with author "Sarah Burns"
Sarah Burns' latest novel, “Cookesville U.S.A.,” introduces Lynnie Weathers, the detective/fixer who is the Harry Bosch, no, make that the Ray Donovan of his town. Lynnie has kept a pair of bloody boots in his garage for 40 years, to keep a murderer from the gas chamber. Lynnie hunts down tourists who murdered a child, a wealthy mob-connected wife who may have killed her husband, and other psychopaths. He’s not above cleaning up dead bodies or bribing local officials.
Want to commit a crime and get away with it? Lynnie's lawyer-boss will make that happen, for a fee. The best part? Lynnie's story is true. All the stories of sex, stolen money, murder and brutality in Cookesville are true. Author Sarah Burns changed only the names and a few details to protect the guilty. Cookesville is the blood-drenched, sex–crazed secret history of one of California’s most prominent cities.
Fans of Harry Bosch, Ray Donovan, and Raymond Chandler will enjoy this lightly fictionalized thriller.
Sarah Burns has gained an international reputation as a distinguished researcher and academic in the field of gender and race relations. A Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society recognized and rewarded her graduate work, which competed with those of U.C. San Diego, U.C.L.A., and U.C. Santa Barbara. She developed the first survey course on Women's History at Bakersfield College (the first of its kind), which she began teaching in 1997.
Cookesville, U.S.A. is a fictional western town whose story, location, and people have been ripped from the pages of history. From Santa Fé, New Mexico to the goldfields of California in 1850, to the settling of Cookesville in California's Central Valley, its colorful characters bring to life the true drama of westward expansion. We recently caught up with Sarah for this exclusive Writer’s Life interview.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I have lived a colorful and exciting life, residing in numerous regions of the United States, and Canada. Growing up on the Ohio River in Owensboro Kentucky, I had rich and fulfilling experiences, spending close family time with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This differed greatly from the life I would adjust to and love even more when my family moved to Anaheim, California. From having African American babysitters in Kentucky to becoming a latchkey kid in 1960s Orange County, I found a group of friends who were all transplants from the Midwest to the West. Experiencing junior high and high school together, I think the adjustments we were all making, along with weekends at the beach and Disneyland, gave us girls the spines we needed to become leaders in our eventual vocations and fields. I can safely state that each of us married too young, but our aspirations were on hold, and eventually divorced. Marrying a college graduate/engineer took me from Orange County to San Francisco, and on to British Columbia. My husband and I eventually settled in his hometown of Bakersfield, where I raised our three children, divorced, went back to college, and became a historian. With eyes wide open about life, I came to know this community, which I had at first resisted wholeheartedly. After decades here, I was constantly looking for a way to “escape.” Instead, as I studied and taught history at the college and university levels for 26 plus years, I awoke to the fact that my personal story had become interwoven in the fabric of Bakersfield—a town that outsiders could never fully understand, appreciate, or admire. I decided I was put here for a purpose, and that was to tell the hidden and dramatic stories of this wild west town.
Is this your first book?
No. My very first book was published in 2003, as Daughters of Juno, Chronicle I; Matilda of Argyll. After a few years under that title, I decided to remove the first chapter and change the title, so that the book could stand on its own—not as a series. I republished the book in 2007 as Matilda of Argyll. Because of my concentration in Women’s History (both European and American), I decided—just before my mother died in the year 2000—that I needed to reach back in time, look at my family’s roots, and share women’s journeys, experiences, and traditions, from the Old World to the New. Matilda Campbell’s story begins in Scotland, with experiences in London, and takes her to the Jamestown colony in Virginia, a successful tobacco colony by 1640, where she was sold into indentured servitude. This book is still available through Amazon and from the University Press of the South.
What was the impetus for you writing “Cookesville U.SA: The Wildest, Wickedest, Wealthiest Big Small Town In the West?”
Perhaps you can remember a regular article in Reader’s Digest called, “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Well, I eventually met someone whose chosen profession and lifestyle so shocked and impressed me that I had to tell his story. When I heard that someone in Hollywood also wanted to tell his story, I was totally hooked. “Lynnie” was the “fixer” for the leading criminal defense law office in town. He was a dedicated snoop and investigator in the old gumshoe style—but with immense panache and style. I had been very involved in the Bakersfield community for decades, through various social and career choices when I met the man who is still my partner today. He spent decades in the legal community—first as a criminal defense attorney, then a public defender, eventually a family law specialist, and finally as a Deputy Commissioner for the Board of Parole Hearings in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). With him, I have met and socialized with many people in the local law enforcement community. However, one of his associates was a stand-out. My fictional character, “Lynnie,” is based upon that unforgettable character, and he served as the final impetus for writing stories about this town—its social and political scandals, crimes, trials, and torrid love affairs (extramarital and otherwise). There is good and evil in every community, but when a community has defined borders (unlike the wide expanse of Southern California), the stories become more potent, volatile, personal, and positively erotic and exciting. If you’ve lived here long enough, and been active in the community, you realize that others can tell a story about you—whether it’s true or false. The investigator I knew personally shared the most salacious stories I had ever heard, and most community leaders knew this man well. He did impeccable work, and he left his indelible mark on Bakersfield. In fact, he made his mark all the way to Hollywood and back. Dennis Quaid approached him about making a movie about his involvement in a nationally known murder trial, which took place in Bakersfield. When “Lynnie” (fictional) shared this with Steve and me, in my home, over dinner, I knew that I must write his story.
Can you tell us what the book is about?
While the story of “Lynnie’s” life flows from the mid-20th and into the 21st centuries, the full story of the establishment of Cookesville, U.S.A. takes the reader from the era of the Mexican War (1846-48), to the goldfields of California, and the establishment of this central valley town. The fictional valley of San Andreas serves as that central valley, and Frank Cooke becomes the founder of Cookesville in 1850—the year that the state of California was established. From that point, the real history of California is told—a story of vigilante justice, the subordinate position of the West’s indigenous peoples (Native Americans). Additionally, the Spanish and Mestizo races, the Chinese who worked first in the goldfields, the railroads, and then matriculated throughout California—all combine to help advance the white man. Frank Cooke married a young Choctaw woman during his time in Santa Fé, New Mexico before making his fortune in California. When they move back to the southern San Andreas Valley, through which they transited during their move to California, they bring an entourage of all of the aforementioned ethnicities and races; and they each transplant their cultures into the town of Cookesville, California. Their interdependent and related stories are woven throughout the 20th century, and we learn about them through the experiences of both the Cooke family (the stalwarts of the community) and “Lynnie,” whose real-life counterpart was an investigator par excellence. I can compare Lynnie to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosche, in his relentless pursuit to uncover the truth and discover corruption. More importantly, I can compare him to Ray Donovan in his ability to cover up that truth, as an investigator for hire. In both comparisons, however, Lynnie is far more meticulous—about his personal appearance, his self-control, and his ability to hide any trace of himself at the scene of the crime.
What surprised you most about writing the book?
What surprised me the most has been my ability to make an educated guess at what might have occurred during a real, provable historic event. For instance, when “Lynnie,” as a “G man in Vegas” meets Bugsy Siegel (which the real Lynnie did, and whom he truly investigated), I wondered if perhaps Del Webb might have been able to be in Las Vegas at the time Siegel purchased and took over the construction of the Flamingo Hotel. I began to write a story around that, thought better of it, paused, and did the research. It took only minutes to find news articles which identified Del Webb as—a little drum roll please—the actual head of construction for the Flamingo Hotel. It gave me chills as if a ghost was sitting on my shoulder, guiding me through the process. This type of supposition and research has worked for me in the past, and it confirms to me that I have a talent for recreating scenes and people quite authentically. As I continued my fictional construction of true crimes, people, and time frames, I also continued my historic research. The fictionalized version of events involving Cookesville, and my characters, are woven together in a fascinating fashion. My friends and associates in Bakersfield are having fun, just like the maids in the movie, The Help, at making connections. However, and most importantly, the way “Cookesville U.S.A.” aligns itself with both national, state, and local events will grab any reader’s attention.
Would you say this book appeals to a particular type of reader?
First of all, it is written for an adult audience. Secondly, anyone who loves to uncover crime mysteries—while reading about red hot, erotic sex and love affairs, as well as shocking murders which actually occurred—will definitely be drawn into this storyline. The characters are never boring. Few of them follow mainstream traditions. Many of the storylines are heart-wrenching, based upon authentic people I have known through the decades. From start to finish, all characters are clearly defined and described. Their physical appearances are drawn with distinct and clever characteristics, which readers can clearly envision. I fall in love with my characters as I create them, and I believe readers will quickly develop that same intimacy with the stories and people.
What would you hope readers take away from the book?
First of all, you never know a community from a brief cruise on a freeway. If Hollywood has had fun putting a particular face and name on the town of Bakersfield, California, it is because they know nothing about the hidden communities, entertainment, wealthy ranches, farms, country clubs, tennis clubs, restaurants, and opportunities that make up the broader appeal. Nevertheless, the inside stories also present a type of Peyton Place, behind the scenes. As I state at the start of the book, as the narrator, one of the most common descriptions heard from the mouths of newcomers is this: “This is the best-kept secret in California.” Indeed, the old welcome sign said, “Sun, Fun, Stay, Play.” As one who has plotted her escape throughout the decades, I have instead stayed and played in the valley sunshine. Now, I am its storyteller.
Do you have any other upcoming books on the horizon?
Yes, I am already working on a book that starts in a small hamlet in Kentucky. It is the hamlet outside of Owensboro, Kentucky, where I attended elementary school. It was a three-story brick schoolhouse, with a beautiful auditorium/gym/stage that I remember fondly, and a basement cafeteria. I was in plays and played in the band on that stage, played basketball in the gym, and baseball on the playground. After starting first grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Owensboro, where my teacher, Miss Polly, had absolutely no patience with a five-year-old starting first grade, I was fortunate that my parents bought a home in a subdivision right outside of town. Entering Philpot Elementary in the hamlet of Philpot, my life suddenly and dramatically changed, for the better. I will use the experiences of my childhood in that region of Northwestern Kentucky (Owensboro is on the Ohio River) as a launching pad into the scandalous era of 1960s America, especially as it unfolded in Orange County, California, and beyond. There was nothing boring about the 1960s, or the increasing pace of the remainder of the 20th century!
For more information on Sarah please visit http://sarahcburns.com/