Since well before the Gold Rush, restless people have traveled west—to California—to escape friends, families, even history itself so that they could reinvent themselves in keeping with their own imaginations. For just as long, artists and writers have traveled east—to New York, Paris and Rome—to test their imaginations in the creative centers of Western culture. Somewhere in the roil of these contrasting movements is David Ebershoff and his lush second novel, Pasadena.
Ebershoff was born in Pasadena in 1969 and knew by his early teens that he wanted to write fiction. After high school he headed east, to Brown University, to major in English and Asian studies, then bounced west again to the University of Chicago for an M.B.A. before returning to New York to work in publishing.
"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," Ebershoff says during a call to his office in New York, "so I thought I'd try to work in publishing, try to bring some business knowledge from my schooling and some editorial knowledge from my reading and writing. . . . It's what we all do here; we have to know how to respond to books as readers, editorially, and we also have responsibilities to the business."
In 1998, after several years in the sales and marketing department at Random House, Ebershoff was appointed publishing director of the Modern Library, one of the publisher's most prestigious imprints. "The imprint has been around since 1917 publishing contemporary and classic classics, releasing new books and new editions of the classics, bringing great writers to readers," Ebershoff says. "So I'm reading books for this list that are really helpful to me as a writer. In that way, my work feeds my writing. But there's very little other overlap. I don't learn any publishing tricks that really matter in terms of writing a novel."
Apparently, Ebershoff learned to write novels through wide reading and plain hard work. In 2000, he published a widely praised first novel, The Danish Girl. Inspired by a true story, it traces the slow physical and psychological metamorphosis of a Danish artist named Einar Wegner into a woman named Lili Elbe. The novel was a New York Times Notable Book, and Ebershoff was hailed as "one of America's finest young writers."
Like The Danish Girl, Ebershoff's new novel, Pasadena, explores the nature of personal identity as one of its central concerns. But Ebershoff wraps this exploration in a compelling love story and an almost old-fashioned, grandly conceived narrative firmly embedded in a deep appreciation of history.
Set mainly in southern California between the two world wars, Pasadena centers around the life of Linda Stamp (formerly Sieglinde Stumpf), the daughter of a Mexican mother and a German-born father. The novel tells the story of her rise from a poor fishergirl who lives on a small farm on the coast north of San Diego, through a lingering, emotionally complicated relationship with Bruder, a strong-willed, taciturn orphan her father brings home after fighting in the First World War, to her unhappy marriage to a wealthy Pasadena fruit grower named Willis Poore.
Ebershoff draws his chapter's epigraphs from poems by Emily Bront, and he freely, if coyly, acknowledges her influence on his own characters and story. "A free-spirited woman who can never quite know her own heart but who is taken by a man who knows his so well that he isn't quite prepared to share it certainly describes Emily Brontë's two most famous characters," Ebershoff says. "And her emotional insight and the way she used landscape and the natural world to reveal character has always interested me."
It's an interest Ebershoff uses to great effect. His verbal virtuosity in re-creating the unsettled southern California coastline and the lush, sunlit rural farms and orchards that comprised California not so long ago is astonishing and delightful.
"Somewhere I read the fact that 75 years ago, Los Angeles County was the largest agricultural county in America," Ebershoff says. "If you think about New York City now and 75 years ago, while there are lots of changes, you can still see close to what you would have seen then. But in only 75 years, Los Angeles has seen a phenomenal transformation of topography, of economy, of the way people live their lives, and that really, really interests me. I wanted to re-create a world that had just disappeared and yet was still in place not that long ago."
Readers of Ebershoff's two novels will understand that his interest in history, particularly California history, is not simply a passing interest. "I think writers often write the books they want to read," he says. "At some point when I was growing up, I became fascinated with what California had been. I wanted to read about another era in Southern California, about the dramatic lives of people who thrived there, and did not thrive there."
Ebershoff adds, "There's a certain sense of the uselessness of history in American society that we're now beginning to pay for. But the great value of history is to tell you what's going to happen next." Unfortunately, many of the characters in Pasadena leave their personal and family histories behind as they try to fashion new identities. And they do so at great risk.
In Ebershoff's fiction, history can also illuminate the borderlines where character aligns with fate. "I'm obsessed with this idea of fate versus free will," Ebershoff says, "the balance between the two. You can do some things to change the course of your life, but at some level you can't do anything at all."
In terms of the novel Pasadena, Ebershoff sees this struggle played out to tragic effect between Linda and Bruder: "Linda is convinced she can control her own fate without understanding the dangers of what it means to try to control that. And Bruder is resigned to fate without knowing the danger of such resignation."
In terms of his own life, however, Ebershoff seems to have achieved a kind of balance that, at least at the moment, makes him master of his own fate. He works with "a great set of colleagues," and writes, he says wryly, "in a very regular manner, on an almost daily basis, just steadily pushing the book along, breaking the book down into manageable problems, dealing with the task at hand. There's no real mystery to it. Just a kind of regular devotion. A steady amount of progress, with a few cycles of insane fervor."
Alden Mudge is on the staff of the California Humanities Council.
Author photo © Miriam Berkley.