The Loma Prietan - July/August 2010

Anthology Q&A with Peter Fish

by Andrea Winden

Peter Fish. Photo: Andrea Winden
Peter Fish. Photo: Andrea Winden

How did you come upon the idea of putting together a regional anthology?

My friend Caroline Patterson, an editor at Farcountry Press, asked me if I'd be interested in doing the anthology. It took me about one nanosecond to say yes. It was a great excuse to reread some of my favorite California authors, classic writers like Mark Twain and contemporary writers like Tobias Wolff. I also wanted to spread the word about some California writers I think are terrific but who aren't as well known as they ought to be. People like Gertrude Atherton, whose autobiography is a hoot, especially if you live on the Peninsula, where she spent much of her aristocratic dysfunctional childhood. And San Joaquin Valley poet Wilma McDaniel and San Diego newspaperman Max Miller and... well, I could go on.

What do you think it is about California that inspired these writers?

A lot of the writers in the anthology were inspired by the California landscape, of course. Robinson Jeffers writing about the Big Sur coast, John Muir and Gary Snyder writing about the Sierra Nevada. That sense of transcendent beauty. But other writers focus on the other side of the coin—California as a place that could make you famous, make you rich. Wallace Stegner writing about mining at New Almaden, Frank Norris's fight between wheat farmers and the railroad in The Octopus, Tobias Wolff's couple driving across the Mojave, hoping to become stars in Hollywood. I think of that as the essential California conflict, between honoring California and wanting to make a fast buck off of it.

What perspective did you bring to this anthology as a native Californian and Sunset Magazine editor?

I grew up in Southern California—in Ventura, specifically—and when I went back east to college I had to confront the fact that most people outside California don't understand the state very well. They think we're all acting on sitcoms, or on our third wife and fourth facelift, or I guess on the Peninsula working 100 hours a week on a software start-up. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with any of that, but California is a more complex and interesting place than those stereotypes suggest. So I hope the anthology will make non-Californians understand that. As for working at Sunset, all I can say is that for a couple of decades I've been paid to explore and write about places like Yosemite and Big Sur and the Channel Islands. It's been like an extended graduate course in California Studies, and it made gathering the materials for the book much easier. I don't think there's any place included in the book that I haven't been.

How do you see the cultural, historical, and geographical depictions in California's Best reflecting the environmental future of California?

One of the essays in the book is Joan Didion's memoir about growing up in the Sacramento Valley, "Notes From A Native Daughter." I think it's one of best things ever written about California, and it has one of the single best lines about what it's like to see a place you love change: "All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears." In my case it was watching orange and lemon groves give way to houses and shopping centers; on the Peninsula, of course, it would be cherry and apricot and peach orchards giving way to semiconductor plants. It's hard not to feel a terrible sense of loss. I think throughout the book you see people celebrating California's plenty but also wondering how to be good stewards of that plenty. The final essay in the book is one of my favorites. It's called "Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.," and it's by the contemporary environmental writer, Jenny Price. I think she does a masterful job of showing how, even in a city like Los Angeles, the natural world endures. It's not always nature as we're used to seeing it, but that doesn't make it any less essential.