Notes of a Survivor: An Interview with Barbara Seranella



Book Features
Notes of a Survivor: An Interview with Barbara Seranella
By
May 1, 2000, 16:02

Barbara Seranella burst upon the literary scene in 1997 with No Human Involved, an expertly-crafted and poignant crime novel which introduced readers to her singular protagonist, Miranda “Munch” Mancini. Rapidly slipping into the oblivion of heroin addiction, Munch supports her habit by stealing and turning tricks. In the opening chapter (one of the ballsiest in contemporary crime fiction), an emotionally and physically exhausted Munch sits bleary-eyed at a bar, suffering through the tired pick-up lines of yet another paying customer. One day into her latest attempt at kicking junk, Munch is determined to escape from the life and get her shit together before it kills her.

We soon learn that Munch's abusive father (who is also her pimp) has been murdered and that the undercover cop posing as the john has pinned her as the prime suspect. The killing sets the novel in motion, and Munch on the run. Ultimately, Munch resurfaces as an auto mechanic in Hollywood, maintaining a cautious but shaky sobriety. Drawing upon her own experience with addiction and recovery, as well as her many years as an auto mechanic in Los Angeles, Seranella follows the old writer's maxim of “write what you know” with honesty and compassion, yet never resorts to preachiness. She's since followed up her auspicious debut with two more excellent novels, No Offense Intended and Unwanted Company. I spoke with Barbara Seranella as she was preparing the final edits on her fourth Munch Mancini novel, Unfinished Business, which is slated for release in Spring 2001.

First of all, can you give me a little background info? I'm assuming you were born and raised in California? Were you a nascent writer as a kid, or was that an ambition that came along later?

I was born in Santa Monica, raised in Pacific Palisades. I ran away at 14 and wound up in the Haight where I joined a commune. I always wrote stories as a kid, always had long involved dreams, and I read a lot. Being a writer was my first career choice. After astronaut and before Veterinarian.

Munch is such a wonderfully-wrought, human character. Obviously, much of the material you drew upon to create her was autobiographical. Can you talk a little bit about this—ie., how long did you use, and how did you finally manage to get straight?

I used drugs from age 14 to five days before I turned 22. I didn't use heroin until my 17th birthday but after that I kept at it until I really liked it. What followed was four years of all-out suicidal craziness until I basically got sick and tired of being sick and tired. Things kept getting worse—worse damage to my body, worse busts, down and down but I never died. I finally admitted to myself, followed shortly thereafter by a similar admission to my PO and the judge, that I had a problem. They gave me a chance to rehabilitate. I went to AA and NA meetings and thank God, it stuck.

It takes a hell of a lot of guts to reveal so much about yourself in your fiction. Naturally, because there are certain similarities, the reader is tempted to assume that you are Munch. This is an all too easy assumption to make. In your apprenticeship as a writer, did you know from the beginning that this was the voice you wanted to use, or did you do a lot of experimenting with different kinds of characters before settling on Munch?

I did experiment with other fiction first. Writing Munch has always come easy to me. We are not quite the same, however. Munch grew up poor with terrible parents. I grew up privileged with good, loving parents. I don't think a character from that background is as sympathetic as one who had to create all her own breaks.

Let's talk a little bit about your first book, No Human Involved. How long did it take you to write it?

Six months (or 37 years).

At the beginning of the book we meet Munch, a woman who has clearly hit rock bottom in her life. We watch as she struggles to get sober and find a little stability in her life. One of the things that I admire most is your realistic portrayal of her recovery. You constantly emphasize that all it takes is a simple slip for her to fall back into using.

And that's still true to a degree.

Did you conceive of No Human Involved as the first of a series, or did you think it would simply be a stand-alone novel?

A stand-alone if I thought about it at all.

Can you talk a little bit about the difficulty of keeping the momentum of the series going as Munch gets further and further away from “the life”? In the second book she is pulled back into conflict by people from her past, but obviously this can only happen so many times to remain plausible. There will always be those who will argue that Munch isn't as interesting straight as she is when she's fucked up. I'm not saying that I agree with this by any means, but it begs the question—how do you keep a crime series going with her as the lead? It almost seems like she'll have to get a private investigator's license at some point to keep realistic conflict coming into her life.

This is certainly the challenge I face with each book. In the fourth book she comes to terms with why her love life is so unfullfilling and has to deal with the fallout of surviving rape and other sexual misadventures. Maybe after that I'll jump ahead another seven years and make Asia 14. We all know what trouble a 14-year-old girl can be.

Mace St John is a great character, and the relationship he has with Munch is very convincingly drawn, esp in the forthcoming book. Is he based upon any real person, or is he a composite?

He is a composite. Except now he has become very real to me and feels like a real person.

I think that one of your main achievements in this series has been Munch's relationship with her adopted daughter, Asia. I always look forward to reading those scenes. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for that relationship, or was it just one of those happy accidents that came out in the writing process?

I have had four girls as step-daughters. Two of them since they were babies. I also have two nieces. Asia is the kid I never got to have. I love kids. I'm not so sure now I would have been that great a parent but it sure is nice being able to live it out in my head anyway.

Your series begins in the late '70s (1979, I think), which I assume is roughly the same time period in which you were using. Do you still have friends from this era who, like you, survived addiction? Are you in touch with any of them? What has their response been to the books, and has talking with them helped to get some of the period details right?

Yes, you're correct that this was when I was ripping and running out there and why I chose this time period to set my story. So much has changed in the world of hypedom, primarily AIDS. Also, police work has gotten more efficient what with computer networking and DNA analysis. I have three girl friends who have survived so far. One lives up in Oregon. I saw her when I was six months sober and she almost got me turned out by the Gypsy Jokers. Sound familiar? The next time I saw her was a few years later. She had a big zipper scar running up the middle of her torso from when she dropped her gun at the bar and shot herself in the belly. She was hanging with a parolee who was an active pot dealer, drinking alcoholically, and doing a lot of speed. I came very close to getting her into a recovery house after the boyfriend kicked her out. She was sober about a week and then the boyfriend decided he still loved her so she went back to him and forsook sobriety. The last time I heard from her she was in Amsterdam with the same guy and called me and asked me if she could mail some stuff to me and would I forward it on with a USA postmark. I declined.

Two other women friends got sober and fared a little better. One became a nurse and I hung with her in Northern California when I toured up there. But then she read my second book and decided it hit too close to home and stopped talking to me for a year. I was really surprised how she reacted. I had given her the book in manuscript form. I wish she had told me then what bothered her. I still don't really know for sure and I still feel bad about that. She was also better friends with Ellen and supplied some information about her, specifically the bank burglary scam. She told me some other stuff about Ellen that was too raunchy to make it into the book.

Another woman who I knew way back in the SF hippie days is sober and living in the Valley, but she's got some, uh, issues. In fact, a whole book's worth. When I go to Venice Beach, my old connection always comes to my signings. She's been sober a year less than me.

Have you had any interesting experiences with acquaintances from the old days showing up at signings and scaring the hell out of you?

I'm happy to see anyone at a signing. So far they've been invited. Remember that I went by many names in the bad, old days. For the most part I was known as Crazy Barbara and I'm afraid most of that crowd is either dead, insane or in jail.

Also, I'd imagine you have a certain number of readers plaguing you with auto repair questions, like me for instance! How did you get started as a mechanic?

I'm always happy to use my automotive knowledge for good. I learned how to work on cars in San Francisco when I lived in the Good Earth Commune. My gender never worked against me. Customers remembered me and asked for me. I think that my boss, Eddie, who hired me when I first got sober, was tickled to have a woman mechanic.

You worked for a number of years at a station in Brentwood, right? When were you finally able to quit and write full-time?

Yeah, I have lots of stories about sports stars and movie stars. Once I put brakes on Jackie Jackson's (of the Jackson Five) Range Rover. He came back because they squeaked. He said that the last thing he needed was to be noticed more. I finally left in September, 1993, to write full-time and luckily, I've been able to do so since.

I know that you've worked on several non-Munch novels. Can you tell me a little bit about them? One was a science fiction novel, correct?

Yes, I had some beginning novels that aren't worth consideration, but after I wrote No Human Involved I wrote a book called The Catalyst. It's set in the desert out by where I live and in contemporary times. I still think it's a good book. The protagonist, a half-Cahuilla Native American Marine named Adam Luna, had some mutations in his physiology that made his touch react to certain rare earth minerals found in the mountains out by La Quinta. He's assigned by his General to investigate a mysterious disappearance and gets involved with the wife of a guy building a gated golf community. My agent wanted me to concentrate on the Munch series. She was also concerned that the book crossed genres. However, MaryElizabeth at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego read it and thought it was Crichtonesque.

Who are some of the writers who've been influential to you along the way?

Any writer who's written a good book. One that I want to stick with to the end, one that stays with me, surprises me, and makes me laugh. I hate to start naming names because I have so many writer friends and my tastes keep changing. I used to say I didn't like books written in the first person. Now I'm writing one. I just won a bunch of books at an SIC meeting. The ones I enjoyed out of that were written by Dick Francis, Ed McBain, and my first Raymond Chandler. I also like Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard and Laurence Shames. That's not to say that I don't love a lot of women writers too. Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Peters.

Are you still in your writer's group? How has that been helpful to you throughout the years?

I'm in a group in Orange County called the Fictionaires. I read my works-in-progress there and get good feedback. It's a high caliber group of mostly published authors. They're very smart, know a lot of interesting details, and can analyze what is and isn't working. There's also a social aspect to meeting with other writers. It's lonely work. I have another group in the desert. We meet on Tuesday mornings and free write together for two hours. Much of my new material comes out of those sessions.

What are you working on now?

I've sold my next two Munch books to Scribner and Pocket. Scribner doing the hardcover, Pocket the paperback. I've turned in the first manuscript and am still awaiting my editor's comments. Until I hear from her, I'm working on a stand-alone called Widow's Work. It's a dark comedy about two women who've known each other a long time. They get together after some years apart and realize they both have husbands who need killing.


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