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A place to use her voice

Marianne Wiggins feels comfortable in a new setting that has her inspired again as a novelist. It's California.

June 02, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

In late September 2005 -- two years after she was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "Evidence of Things Unseen" -- Marianne Wiggins was on her Woodland Hills deck watching the Santa Susana Pass fire that would eventually char 17,000 acres.

Today, she describes the colors and images she saw as resembling the otherworldly beauty of a Renaissance painting, and recalls the event itself as a kind of baptism into her adopted life in California.

"That," she said over lunch this week at a French cafe in Studio City, "was the first time I felt, 'I think I belong in this place.' " She had found a setting that literally fired her imagination.

Wiggins, a Pennsylvania native who lived in London and other European capitals for more than 20 years and moved to Los Angeles in 2000, has fallen in love with California's landscape and history. Given the combination of rhapsodic lyricism and a restless -- sometimes cutting -- intelligence in her work, it seems only fitting that her feelings for the place would be fixed by a natural disaster.

"I've just become completely enamored," said Wiggins, an intense, playful woman whose energy is somewhere between sassy and brash.

Her new book, "The Shadow Catcher," which Simon & Schuster will release on Tuesday, takes place mostly in the Northwest and Seattle. But her next projects will be set farther south. "I'm just head over heels committed to writing a series of California novels.

"I was in London 16 years," she said, "and never got a good story out of that city." California, she said, she expects to sustain her for years to come.

Wiggins? Sounds familiar

"The Shadow Catcher" is an odd hybrid: On one hand it's a historical novel about the early 20th century photographer Edward S. Curtis, best known for his images of Native Americans. On the other, it's a memoir told by the writer Marianne Wiggins, who begins the book pitching a roomful of Hollywood weasels. In both cases the real-life Wiggins has remade the material to suit her novelistic purpose.

"I play as fast and loose with Curtis' life as I do with my own," she said. "And I have a very feminist agenda for almost everything I write," which orients the book around its themes of disappearing fathers and, in the story of Curtis' wife, Clara, what she calls "all these silent women who are lost to history."

At times the sudden shifts of time and tone in the novel, which seems to disappear into the 19th century for more than 100 pages, can be disorienting. But most everything is tied up thematically, at least, in the end.

The joint structure, Wiggins said, comes from a long-standing interest in writing about Curtis, as well as a recognition that the only way to get at some of the more resonant aspects of his life and work -- his altering of photos, his work with disappearing Native American tribes, his abandoning of his family -- would require a 21st century frame.

"I wanted to be able to go on at length about the power of photography, and how it can present an alternate reality, a reality that is not necessarily true."

And the insertion of herself and her family history into the book, she said, came after 20 years of writing novels and keeping herself out of them. "I wanted to lift my skirt a little bit, show the legs."

It's not the only book of hers to feature a photographer. Her daughter, Lara Porzak, who shot the book's cover, is an L.A.-based fine art photographer, and one of the reasons Wiggins moved here.

Wiggins said she'd be a photographer if she hadn't become a novelist. It seems likely that as a non-college-educated woman who fought her way up through what she sees as a patriarchy of writers, Wiggins identifies with the mavericks of early photography who asserted, over the years, that what was once seen as a chemical trick was actually a modern art form.

She also sees writing and photography as escapes from time.

"It is the closest act to prose writing, the way I write prose," Wiggins said. "I tend to see my scenes as images in my mind before I write them down."

The heights of respect

Though she has kept a pretty low profile in L.A., Wiggins, who teaches at USC, is at the very top tier of literary novelists in Southern California. Praise, especially for "Evidence," was lavish.

The transnational writer Pico Iyer, a friend and admirer of Wiggins', calls that book, a love story set alongside the invention of the atom bomb, "one of the great American novels of the last many years: so decidedly in the American vein of Melville and all our other forefathers, and yet original and unexpected at every turn. To me, one of her great virtues is that you can't place her, geographically or within the context of the novel itself. She's always in motion, always staking out ground that the rest of us have overlooked, always taking the inner, pulsing concerns of classic American literature and putting them in places that we might not have imagined."

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