by Silver Webb
DJ Palladino is a former newspaper writer and editor who now co-owns with his spouse Diane Arnold, The Mesa Bookstore, a tiny emporium of mostly great books in Santa Barbara. He is also the author of two books, Nothing That Is Ours and Werewolf, Texas. He is also featured in Volume 8: Moon Drunk in the "Down the Rabbit Hole" section, which includes this interview, as well as two excerpts from his novel.
Silver: Mesa Books is, in all fairness, a hobbit-sized store. There are women in Montecito with larger closets. And yet, the books you sell are invariably really good ones, as if you have somehow persuaded people to only bring by boxes of the very best used books. Obviously, you read. A lot. How do you curate and maintain such an intriguing collection of books, and has it surprised you that people have responded as well as they have? Every time I come in here, there is someone browsing.
DJ: Well, I’m not the only curator. I push for the things that I like, but there are three other people, the most important of whom is Diane, my wife, who is great with children’s books. I know thrillers, but literary stuff, and poetry are my thing. My personal taste is constantly being mitigated by what sells in the store. We recently put a sign on the store that says “Just bring us your best books.”
The short answer is, I love to look at books and pick beautiful books. Signed first editions are cool, but I’d rather have a beautiful edition of a book I’ve never seen before. I’m not shocked people have responded so well, but the place already had good faith, good press, it’s been here for 25 years. There was initially some skepticism when we bought it, people who had been shopping there for 18 years, but for any customers we lost, we gained a bunch of new customers. I love the young people who come in from City College and ask “Was this James Joyce guy really any good?” So I spend some time as a used-book mentor.
Silver: Perhaps it’s just writers, but most people I know miss having a bookstore on every corner of town, the feel and smell of books, being able to pick them up and flip through them before you take one home. You can divide people into two camps, those who are perfectly happy with a kindle, and those who have strong opinions on soft cover vs. hardcover. Do you think bookstores will make a comeback? Is that why you bought Mesa Books?
DJ: I think they already have made a comeback. Amazon wiped out the big chains, but little used bookstores were thriving during Covid. I don’t expect there will be a resurgence of chains though. We bought the bookstore on a whim. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different. I had lunch with Nick Welsh from the Independent and he said, “It’s for sale, you should buy it.” It’s an open secret, my wife had just retired and she was driving me crazy. She’s wonderful, but for years I was used to having all this time to write at home. And I thought, Oh, I can get her into the bookstore, she’ll leave me alone in the morning. And she thought, Oh, he’ll go down to the bookstore in the mornings and leave me alone. In a few days, we confessed what we were thinking, and we still bought the bookstore. Within six months of that lunch, we had the bookstore. Now I tell her, “It’s my bookstore, leave me alone!” We love it.
Silver: What did the road to writer look like for you? And who are some of your book heroes?
DJ: I’m old! So I feel like I have one more book in me. I’m writing something now, and maybe I’m wrong, but I’m 70 and it takes me a long time to write a book. I plug away at it every day. I really value this idea of having an obsession that unifies your writing. James Joyce is my great writer hero, and that is a promise to work the craft as best as you’re capable of doing. The idea of sitting down and writing every day, I love it more and more. When I was a journalist, I loved when it was over. Now I just love doing it, writing fiction. The idea of following the road to wherever it leads, Writers like Flaubert, who have a weird group of stories like Madame Bauvery and St. Julian the Hospitaller, and just followed the craft of his work. As a journalist, I wrote Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and the rest of the week I was relieved I didn’t have to write. Now, I’m happy to write every day. I always wanted to write fiction, but I never had an idea stick until was about 50, when I started in earnest on fiction.
Silver: Previously you had a news beat at the Independent, and it seems you know just about everyone in this town. Did your background as a journalist inspire your mystery novel, Nothing That Is Ours, which I believe is set in Santa Barbara?
DJ: Santa Barbara 1958/59. I didn’t intend it at first. The inspiration for it, the working title was Castle Rock, because when I was very young, I read about Castle Rock,which was this thing nobody knows about. There used to be a four-story rock and people came from all over and had picnics on it. I couldn’t believe that nobody knew about it. Supposedly it was partially destroyed by the earthquake in 1925, and then they used that as a pretext to destroy it, and popular mythology is they used those rocks for the harbor, but it’s not true. They built the harbor with other rocks. There was a fight over the harbor. Some people wanted to dredge out the bird refuge and make that the harbor, but people argued for 50 years, and then this guy, Fleischmann, had a big boat and he paid for the harbor, well, half of it. He was the yeast guy, Fleischmann’s yeast. And he only paid for it if they put it right there, so they had to get rid of Castle Rock, which changed the drift of sand forever. All kinds of crazy things happened because of it. West Beach didn’t exist then. So it was an ecological nightmare, which couldn’t have taken place when I was a teenager, but it could take place in 1925. So I started to write a book about that, and I ended up writing a book that took place in 1958. It was like a noir novel, but a lot about Castle Rock ended up in it. Mostly it’s about 1959, one of those cruxes in history, things before then were different than what came after, the environmental movement came along.
It was an interesting time to write about. Aldous Huxley came to Santa Barbara in 1959, gave a series of lectures called “The Human Situation” at UCSB that were ten years ahead of their time, all about anti-war, anti-pollution, and LSD. This was so popular that they set out speakers outside the classroom and people from Santa Barbara went up to listen to him talk. I was on the history beat at the Independent, so I had a lot of research already done for the book.
Silver: What inspired Werewolf, Texas, your latest novel? I know it’s set in Texas, but have you seen any werewolves in Santa Barbara?
DJ: I’m a werewolf in Santa Barbara! No, this is so random, as the kids say. I love werewolves, the idea of them, movies about them, like Werewolf in London, the original Werewolf movie, all of that. I love the idea of them. They’re the Id Monster, they come from within. You transform, but you go back. It’s also interesting the combining of human and animal, the idea of metamorphosis, change. There’s a mystification when I start writing. I was in Austin, and we were walking down the street, and kept noticing that all these stores had five-point stars in the window, and I thought it would be cool if they were really signs to keep werewolves away. And then I couldn’t leave it alone, the novel came out. That’s all you need to write, some sort of idea that you can safely obsess over. The things you already have inside of you collect around it, somehow.
Silver: What is the universal appeal of creatures that sulk about under the full moon? Part of the pathos of the original Wolfman, was the fact that he didn’t want to turn into a werewolf, and he was tortured by his own nature.
DJ: I don’t want to give away too much. One of the games of the novel is to figure out which character the werewolf is. It’s not clear who it is. One of the werewolves has gone through everything, has lost everything, and is in love, but he knows he can’t be with that person. The torment is there, but there’s another side to it, a releasing of the Id Monster. The violence of werewolves is pretty senseless compared to other monsters. They don’t even eat their prey, they just kill them. Vampires suck blood, zombies eat brains, but werewolves are pure hatred and anger. It’s not pure in a good way; I don’t want people to turn into werewolves. I had a young woman tell me once she wanted to turn into a vampire. I said, “Oh, honey, you don’t want to do that. You have to kill people.” Death is certainly a subject of my book, and what is the price a werewolf pays for immortality? They’re cast out, can’t live a normal life. And there’s a lot of violence. Can you de-fang a werewolf? There’s a lot of vampires in books these days where the vampire chooses to drink goat blood. A vegan vampire? I never heard of a vegan werewolf, except maybe the ones in Twilight, or maybe they only killed people off stage.
Monsters become metaphors. Vampires, for instance, are a metaphor for druggies. I don’t know about Dracula; I think he’s a metaphor for foreigners. You don’t want to hang around with a Romanian, they’re weird!
Silver: As you may have noted, there is a genre of book that dips into the romantic lives of werewolves. Pulp fiction for the furry, as it were. Are your werewolves smoldering beasts of fury and the love that dare not speak its name, or are they regular people, who occasionally need to go out on the town when the moon is full?
DJ: When I finished the book, my wife said, “There’s too much sex in this book.” Then the publisher read it and said, “There’s not enough sex in this book.” I didn’t know there were werewolf romance novels until after I published it. There’s a significant romance in the book, but whenever I write about love affairs there has to be something unexpected. There are many star-crossed lovers in it.
My characters who are werewolves don’t remember what has happened after they turn into werewolves, but there’s something that persists in their consciousness. When they’re werewolves, they don’t think, but there are rules about who you can attack when you’re a wolf. You can’t attack your own child, your mistress, etc.
Silver: As a writer of witches and vampires, I’ve been counseled by very good writers of literary fiction that subtlety is best, that you have to treat your supernatural characters with the same premeditation and restraint you would show if you were writing David Copperfield (let it be noted, Dickens was anything but restrained with his word count). How did you approach writing your werewolves?
DJ: It’s magical realism. You do it because you want to use the fantastic for some reason, to make it interesting or explore something. But you have to adhere to something realistic, certain limitations you want to obey. Part of its believability. You want people to buy into it, so you can’t just make them ridiculous, you have to put in limits of reality. Most writers make rules for themselves and their characters, and it happens as you’re writing, you decide what they would and wouldn’t know. It’s a weird pragmatic thing. You know that Disney had this thing called “believable unbelievability.” When a character runs off the cliff and they run eighteen steps into the air before they fall? Those eighteen steps wouldn’t really happen, but then gravity takes over.
Silver: Do you have any literary plans afoot now? Any events at the bookstore we should be looking forward to?
DJ: I’m working on another version of a novel I started when I was thirty, a mystery involving comedians. And another book set in Santa Barbara, but I’m calling it something else, fictionalizing it this time. There’s a witch in it! For the bookstore, I host Sunday afternoon readings, outside, where everyone can join us. We’ll have an anniversary event in spring with readings, music, etc.
Silver: Thanks so much for keeping Mesa Books around and all that you contribute to our community. And thanks for being interviewed.