What: He has done hard time as a musician, songwriter, and sound designer, but still refuses to apologize for it. BLACK’S BEACH SHUFFLE, the first novel featuring the guitar-slinging detective Rolly Waters, was a San Diego Book Awards finalist. The second, BORDER FIELD BLUES, won the genre award at the 2013 Hollywood Book Festival. His third Rolly Waters mystery, DESERT CITY DIVA, has just been published by Severn House.
Where: San Diego
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just finished your latest Rolly Waters mystery, DESERT CITY DIVA. How did you come up with this story about alien-obsessed cults in San Diego?
This story had a long germination, beginning with a weekend driving trip to the Southern California desert my wife and I made about ten years ago. That’s when I first encountered Salvation Mountain and Slab City, and their essential ‘outsiderness’ appealed to me immediately. Salvation Mountain is a brightly painted fever dream of Christian faith that was constructed over many years by one man, Leonard Knight, who lived at the site. It’s a remarkable piece of folk architecture, like the Watts Towers.
Next to Salvation Mountain is Slab City, an unincorporated, off-the-grid trailer community of free spirits, retirees, and survivalists built on the remains of a WWII Marine Corps training facility. The Marines abandoned the camp after the war, leaving only the concrete slab foundations. Over the years it developed into a wintertime stopover for folks living in their RVs and trailers, to the point where it became a semi-permanent community. A cafe, library, and church have been set up, along with a sculpture garden of junk art called “East Jesus”. What really got my attention was “The Range”, an outdoor stage where they have jam sessions every weekend. I knew I had to get Rolly Waters, my guitar-playing protagonist out there and DESERT CITY DIVA is the result.
I originally based the UFO cult on the Unarius Academy of Science, which is headquartered in San Diego. Its founder had a local cable-access show in San Diego for years, which made for some fascinating early morning viewing when I got home after gigs. It was also one of the few things on at that hour. The Unarians owned a piece of land in the mountains east of San Diego, which they intended as a landing pad for the alien beings who are central to their cosmology. After some research, I found the Unarians outlook to be rather gentle and benign. I had to look further for something more villainous. I found that in the infamous Heaven’s Gate suicides that took place in another San Diego neighborhood.