Lawrence Coates toasts release of third novel
Written by DAVID DUPONT | Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor
Saturday, 26 May 2012 06:56
Lawrence Coates' fiction is rooted in the landscape and stories of the northern California of his childhood.
|Author Lawrence Coates. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Coates, director of the Creative Writing program at Bowling Green State University, has just released his third novel, "The Garden of the World."
As with his previous two novels, it is set in territory he knows well, the Santa Clara Valley, and in a time now past, the Prohibition Era.
The novel's main character is a severely scarred World War I veteran, Gill Tourneau, who returns home after years of wandering. The facial scar, Coates said, reflects the inner scars from his strained relationship with his father, Paul, who operates a vineyard.
The plot was inspired by a news item about a robbery at the Paul Masson vineyards.
While Masson is now associated with inexpensive jug wines, he was a pioneer in developing sparkling wine in California.
From that sprang a taut tale involving gangsters and guns and wine. For Coates it doesn't get any better.
He grew up in El Cerrito, Calif., near San Francisco, and had a happy childhood - nothing he could fashion a best-selling memoir from.
He loved to read, and was drawn to writing early on.
The desire to create fictional worlds, he said, stems from an inner compulsion. "There's just a certain dissatisfaction with the world as it's handed to you ... a lack of comfort with received wisdom, a refusal to accept things as they've been presented to you."
Last week he went back home on a book tour, and a high school friend told him he remembered Coates wanting to be a writer when he was 17. Coates however, wasn't a prodigy. After high school he enlisted in the Coast Guard, and after a four-year stint, joined the Merchant Marine for another four years.
Only after that did he go to college, earning an undergraduate degree at the University of California in Santa Cruz, then a master's at the University of California at Berkeley and finally a doctorate in writing from the University of Utah. He also lived in Spain and taught English in France.
While he published short stories during that time, Coates, now 55, didn't published his first novel, "The Blossom Festival," until he was in his late 30s.
As with his new book and his second novel "The Master of Monterey," it was set in the past.
It marks the passing of the vineyard economy. "It has a more epic sweep to it," Coates said. He characterized it as "elegiac."
"One of the things I'm trying to do," he said, "is make the past knowable and comprehensible. .... Historical fiction gives us an anchor to the past.""
In order to submerge the reader in that world, Coates researched the details of everyday life and industry. He had to learn about the winemaking business. He wanted the book to span the entire life cycle of a vintage, using that to frame the heist plot that drives the novel along.
Coates renders this in clear prose that shows his experience in journalism. He had a piece published in 1988 on the cover of the Chicago Tribune's Sunday magazine about the territory along the Mexican border. That detail, as rich as it is, never gets in the way of the story.
The publication of his first novel helped him get a job at BGSU. He had been teaching at South Utah University.
He wanted to teach in a graduate writing program. He knew of BGSU's high standing in the field.
The graduate program is highly selective, accepting five applicants a year from a pool of about 100.
This May he was promoted to full professor. Had he not just published "The Garden of the World," he would not even have applied for promotion. "For a fine art program to be legitimate it has to be taught by working artists," Coates said.
"This is not something I take for granted," Coates said. "It's a privilege to teach these talented young people."
The undergraduate program has 80 to 100 majors, he said.
His wife, Kim, who teaches literature in the English Department was granted tenure in May as well.
He's now at work on his fourth novel, set in the same locale as "The Blossom Festival," but in 2003 in the wake of the high tech bubble. Now the Santa Clara Valley has completed its transition to being Silicon Valley.
Coates, who lives in Bowling Green, expects his books will always be rooted in the same landscape, though he's now resided more than a decade in Bowling Green.
"I hope my students read my books, then locate their books in the Great Black Swamp."
He anticipates despite the current disruption in the way books are published, marketed and consumed that people will still want to read the books he and his students write. "I don't see the lure of a great story going away anytime soon."
Last Updated on Saturday, 26 May 2012 07:02