Deanne Stillman's richly textured works of nonfiction about life and death in the Mojave Desert involve more than casual research, and consequently take some time in the writing -- from eight to ten years each. Her true-crime debut, Twentynine Palms, explored the 1991 murder of two girls by a berserk Gulf War veteran and drew praise from Hunter S. Thompson. Her study of the fate of the country's wild horses, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, appeared on several reviewers' "best of 2008" lists.
Stillman's latest book, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in California History, is, at first glance, about the dragnet launched in 2003 to catch a hermit who killed a lawman for no apparent reason. But it's also packed with southern California history, local lore and desert ecology.
Stillman, who teaches writing at the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert, will be at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, at 7:30 p.m. tonight to sign her book, which she recently discussed with us.
Westword: How did you become interested in the desert beat?
Stillman: The desert had me at "Eldorado" -- my father used to read the Edgar Allen Poe poem to me when I was a kid. From then on, I was wandering in the desert, even though I grew up in northeastern Ohio. That really opened up the West for me. I started going there in my dreams and fantasies, and years later I actually moved there. Certain stories started to call me, and here I am.
This is my third work of narrative nonfiction -- I include Mustang in this trio. The books are all about war and peace and the frontier and the modern West, and the land is in the main character in all of them. Something I like to explore in my work is our connection to what's wild -- or our disconnect from it, and how that shapes behavior. To me, the effort to wipe out our wild horses and burros is the end game of the Indian wars.
Were you struck by the particular story in Dead Reckoning when you first heard about the shooting on the news?
I was at the home of photographer Mark LaMonica in the Antelope Valley, which is the part of LA County where this story takes place. We heard sirens shrieking into the desert -- not just one or two, but dozens. I don't do where's-the-fire kind of stories, but the commotion was so noteworthy that we turned on the TV and found out that a beloved deputy sheriff had been gunned down at a remote trailer. Choppers and squad cars were en route, and as the manhunt unfolded over the next seven days, the FBI, the DEA and others joined in. It became clear to me that there were elements that appealed to me, including these fascinating characters: the hermit, Donald Kueck, who turned out to be Dr. Dolittle with an assault rifle -- he lived with bobcats and ravens -- and Steve Sorenson, who also loved the desert. Here were these two men on a collision course, who'd had a road-rage encounter years earlier.
Were you ever able to establish that either of them ever recognized the other as the person from this previous encounter? Nobody knows for sure. It's an open question, even though they lived in each other's backyards. Cops never forget a bad call, so it's unlikely Sorenson didn't know Kueck was living on his beat. Exactly why he made the turn down Kueck's driveway, nobody knows for sure.
The research process stretched over eight years. What were the major hurdles? Each of my books takes a long time. It's not so much hurdles; it takes a lot of time for people to trust me as a reporter. A lot of the people I need to speak with are people who live in the desert because they don't want to be approached by strangers, especially reporters. And cops are pretty leery of the media, too. But after the Rolling Stone piece I wrote about this came out, some other cops began to come forward, and also friends of Jello Kueck, the drug-addicted son of the hermit, began to feel comfortable, too. These things evolve naturally over time. Most people feel that nobody listens to them - and they're right. Nobody does. So down the line, they want to tell their story.
In this kind of narrative nonfiction, with both main characters dead, there are scenes and details you can't nail down with the precision of a novel. Is there some frustration about having to speculate about what people might have said or done? I tried to talk to as many people as possible about the characters I'm writing about. What was limiting in this case was that I wasn't fully able to get Steven Sorenson's story because his closest associates weren't willing to talk about it. I tried and tried -- we're talking eight years here. But I just wasn't able to fully get it.
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Who would you consider your influences? It's almost impossible for me, in reading about this part of southern California, not to hear the voice of Joan Didion at some point. Some people make that comparison, and I love her work. But she's not a direct influence of mine. Of course, she's on my list of required reading for students. But the writers who influenced me over the years, it's more like Wallace Stegner, Charles Bowden (who wrote the preface to the new edition of Twentynine Palms), Jim Harrison, Mikal Gilmore, Ed Abbey - so many. And early Native American stuff, like Black Elk Speaks. Melville. Cormac McCarthy. Truman Capote. And Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey -- I read a lot of westerns as a child.