Raised in El Cerrito, Lawrence Coates drew from his deep Bay Area roots in writing his most recent historical novel, set in the Santa Clara Valley a century ago.
Coates wasn't born until 1956, half a century after the book, The Garden of the World, opens. But his family goes further back, with his grandfather having been the village blacksmith in Saratoga, where Coates' mother grew up. He graduated from El Cerrito High School, having grown up in a home on Arlington Avenue where his parents still live.
Now an associate professor of creative writing and literature at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Coates will be back in El Cerrito Tuesday, May 15, for a reading from his novel at 7 p.m. at
Recently published by the University of Nevada Press, the book offers a detailed portrait of time and place animated by family drama centering around an ambitious winemaking patriarch and societal intrigues bred by Prohibition. It is Coates' third historic novel, all set in California.
Coates didn't set out to be a novelist and professor straight out of El Cerrito High. He first served four years in the Coast Guard and another four in the Merchant Marine. Turning to the scholarly path, he earned an undergraduate degree from UC Santa Cruz, a master's from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah.
We'd like to thank him for agreeing to answer a few questions from Patch via email:
What attracted you to doing a historical novel set in the wine-growing milieu of Santa Clara County in the early 20th century?
I grew up with a lot of family stories about the Santa Clara Valley. My mother was raised in Saratoga, and her father (my grandfather) was the village blacksmith there. So my first novel, The Blossom Festival, was originally inspired by those memories, though it grew considerably during the writing process.
I came across the incident that inspired The Garden of the World during the research for The Blossom Festival. In 1928, during Prohibition, Paul Masson’s winery in the hills above Saratoga was (in the news). ...
The incident was colorful, of course, and I loved wine, and I was inspired to write a novel based on this incident, ... though in most aspects it’s a work of my own imagination.
(Editor's note: We have omitted part of Coates' answer in order not to give away the plot.)
Can you say something about how you managed the historical research for the novel? I was struck by the degree of period detail.
I spoke with someone at Mirassou Winery while doing research. I also looked up period winemaking material at the Napa Wine Library in St. Helena, and at the Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg. Also, the California History Center, at De Anza College has a trove of oral histories about grape growing and winemaking. And I already knew a lot about the period from my first book. There are a couple of characters who appear in both books.
Forgive my literary ignorance, but something about the time, place, subject, dialogue and characterization invited in my mind a comparison with Steinbeck. Is this a comparison that you are comfortable with? Was he an inspiration?
I know my first and third books do invite a comparison with Steinbeck, though I tend to think of William Faulkner as my main literary inspiration. But I am also indebted to Steinbeck, as most writers from California are. One difference, of course, is that I can write about a place in the past while also understanding what is to come. For instance, The Blossom Festival ends in 1941, just as World War II is beginning. I hope that there’s a sense in the book that the festival will never again be held after the war, that the Santa Clara Valley is on the cusp of a momentous change.
I've just reached the part of the novel where Nancy, the youngest daughter of the San Natoma Star publisher, is described as having loved books from an early age and having been fascinated with all the cams and levers and belts of the Linotype. Were there any particularly influential experiences in your early life that played a significant role in your calling to literature and writing?
I remember my mother taking me to the library a lot when I was young, and I’ve always loved books. But I’m not coming up with anything specific.
How do you create time to write novels when, I assume, you have many other demands on your time, including the responsibilities of a full-time faculty job?
Finding time to write is always a challenge. A job as a professor does bring with it some advantages, but there’s a lot more to the work than simply the time in the classroom. However, I wrote a lot of my first book on a manual typewriter at the kitchen table in a cramped apartment. I think that if you’re truly compelled to write, you’ll find time one way or another.