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Susan Gulbransen

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Susan Miles Gulbransen: What Makes Santa Barbara a Book Town

By Susan Miles Gulbransen, Noozhawk Columnist |

Label me a book junkie. That’s someone who easily gets sucked into a story, has enough books on the bedside table to constitute a two-year reading program, has so many books on the Kindle that it actually feels heavier, and yet can’t pass a bookstore or big-box discount table without buying “just one more book.” If you find yourself guilty of any of the above, Santa Barbara is the place for you.

Years ago I read that Santa Barbara has a special aura stimulating creativity, a place where the mountains slope gently to the sea. Most of the world’s coast lines are either flat, often arid, or lined with steep, rugged cliffs like Big Sur. Few places fit in the mountains-to-the-sea formula like Santa Barbara.

Perhaps that explains a literary history that goes back 174 years to Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast that was published in 1840. After spending part of his time in Santa Barbara, he may have been the first surfer author of what is now a huge industry of magazines and books.

When his ship moored off our beaches, no harbor offered them safety so the passengers were taken to shore in a landing boat. He wrote about the thrill of riding a “comer,” or huge wave. “As soon as we felt the sea had got hold of us and was carrying us in with the speed of a racehorse ... we were shot up upon the beach.”

About the same time Alfred Robinson wrote Life in California, published in 1846. He married Anita de la Guerra and stayed until his death in 1895. Their land holdings included part of today’s Hope Ranch.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, several writers passed through or stayed for periods of time. Among them, D.H. Lawrence did a reading at the old adobe of the Santa Barbara Foundation. William Butler Yeats, 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature winner and Irish poet/dramatist, took a rest here from his travels. Fanny de Grift Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s widow, lived out most of her final years on Padaro Lane.

The controversial Ernest Thayer (“Casey at the Bat,” 1888) spent the last 28 years of his life in Santa Barbara. The poem has been copied and misappropriated so many times that it has gone through years of accusations about plagiarism. Most agree now that Thayer was the author.

As a child in the 1950s, I discovered what a gold mine Santa Barbara offered readers. Among my favorite books was Java Jive by Dorothy Lyons, a horse story about the 1952 earthquake. The book still sits on my shelves.

Another favorite, Give It Back to the Lemon Growers, about the craziness of local suburban growth in the 1950s was written by Willard Temple, the father of one of my childhood friends. I remember realizing one day that Mr. Temple actually earned a living writing books. He also wrote for magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, great publishing resources for some of America’s most famous authors, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.

The Temples were close friends to Kenneth and Margaret Millar. He was better known as Ross Macdonald with his Lew Archer series. The Drowning Pool and Harper, later movies with Paul Newman, were among his well-known novels. He is often credited with shaping the mystery genre, along with Dashiell Hammett in San Francisco. Macdonald elevated the mystery genre to a high literary level with good characterization (“tough but humane” as someone called it) and plotting. His books today remain classics.

Margaret Millar (Beast in View) wrote high literary quality and good characterization although not as well known. Some have opined that she was better than he.

Macdonald took Santa Barbara as his setting but named it Santa Teresa. Sue Grafton doffed her hat in honor of him by having her “alphabet” mystery series with private investigator Kinsey Millhone located in Santa Teresa. She, along with Marcia Muller in the early 1980s, turned detectives from boy-toys to include women as PIs. Her latest, W Is for Wasted, came out last fall.

Another local author and good friend of Ken Millar was Barnaby Conrad, founder of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, now owned by another author, Monte Schulz. Conrad started his writing career as secretary to Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel Prize in Literature), who rented a house here in the 1940s. Lewis read Conrad’s first manuscript, Matador, and told him to eliminate the first 76 pages. Conrad did that along with more editing. It became one of his best-known works.

The last novel Conrad wrote was The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth. Lewis had created its premise but knew he would never write it. When Conrad showed interest, Lewis signed over the rights to him.

Several nationally and internationally known authors have lived here part time, among them Gabriela Mistral, Chilean poet and winner of the 1945 Nobel Prize in Literature. She lived across Anapamu Street from Santa Barbara High School in the late ’40s.

Author and poet Ken Rexroth taught at UC Santa Barbara and is buried in the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Called the Father of the Beat Movement, a title he disdained, Rexroth was perhaps the most controversial of our local writers with his iconoclast poetry using themes from ecological to erotic. Aldous Huxley also taught for a time at UCSB.

Jumping ahead to today’s roster of local writers, the list is still impressive. Besides Grafton we have other novelists such as Gretel Erhlich, Fannie Flagg, T. Correghasan Boyle, Andrew Klavan, Melodie Johnson Howe and many more.

Poetry has caught the public’s attention the past few years with the naming of our city’s Poet Laureates: Barry Spacks, Perie Longo, David Starkey, Paul Willis and Chryss Yost. Their names represent the active poetry community we have.

The same goes for Santa Barbara children’s authors ranging from mid-20th century Don and Audrey Wood to today’s Lee Wardlaw, Val Hobbs, Marni McGee and the list goes on.
Nonfiction has its share with the likes of Lou Cannon, Pico Iyer, Annie Bardach, Martha Smilgis, Sander Vanocur and Kathleen Sharp.

Do you know of authors I’ve missed? The reason is easy: there are too many for a mere column. Such a list would be finished by the twelfth of never, or at least by the tenth of. But they and those mentioned here give you an idea of how rich our community is in literary resources.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.




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