The Literary Lair of T. Jefferson Parker

T. Jefferson Parker.
T. Jefferson Parker.

The thing is, T. Jefferson Parker makes it look so damn easy. He rises at 6 a.m., walks a few steps from house to writing lair, by 6:30 he's in his chair, fingers on the keyboard, writing again -- one word after the other. No foot dragging, no procrastination, no excuses.

His two Labrador retrievers, bird dogs both, watch from thick pillows as he writes. His daily writing goal is five completed pages which works out to about 1,500 words a day. When on a roll, he writes more. But even on rough days, when it's like pulling teeth, he seldom writes less. No black magic. No incantations for inspiration. No tricks up his sleeve. He simply writes.

A writer writes. No doubt, you've heard that before. But Parker walks the talk, his work ethic bordering on obsession. There is a pay-off though. A couple of weeks ago Parker sent his 20th mystery novel to his editor. The new book is tentatively titled The Famous and the Dead, and it's scheduled to be in bookstores this time next year.

Parker is an award-winning, best-selling mystery writer. Heck, even his first book Laguna Heat, which came out in 1985, was a best seller. A tense, psychological father-son story, bought by HBO and turned into TV movie in 1987, Laguna Heat was an auspicious start to his mystery-writing career. He's never looked back.

It's something of a mystery how he came to be a mystery writer. He read as a kid, sure, but no more than most. Not particularly studious, he was more a kid in Keds, prowling dirt lots in his hometown of Tustin, eyes peeled for snakes slinking through the brush. He'd catch them if he could.

He went to University of California at Irvine and majored in literature, where he read books like James Joyce's Ulysses, but rarely a mystery.

It wasn't until after college when he found his friends reading Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John D. McDonald and Ross Macdonald that he picked up Chandler. It changed the direction of his life.

After college, he eventually landed a job at the Newport Ensign, a small Orange County weekly where he covered a little of everything including the cop beat. Remember this was post-Watergate, when J-schools were graduating reporters that went after jobs like ants at a picnic. Getting a newspaper job was a big deal, so he worked hard, and won press awards. After a couple of years, he moved over to the Daily Pilot, a bigger paper covering the same Newport Beach and Costa Mesa territory, but writing more features.

Back then, reporters still wrote on typewriters. In fact, he would wrap the cord around the paper's IBM Selectric and take it home at nights. It was on this typewriter that he wrote Laguna Heat. "It was a good way to write," he said. "But I've written novels longhand with No. 2 pencils on yellow pads. Writing that way is very different, very tactile, but it works. But I write on a computer now. Like most writers, I'm spoiled."

In the mystery world, T. Jefferson Parker has established himself as a California golden boy. Many of his murderous plots unfold in Orange County, where the landscape is awash in blondes and bikinis. His name is synonymous with a fluid yet tight writing style, character depth, velocity of plot. By the way, the "T." in T. Jefferson Parker doesn't stand for anything. His mother just thought it would look presidential on his letterhead. Plus it has writerly ring to it. His friends just call him Jeff.

He's become a link in the chain of great Californian mystery writers. Edgar Allen Poe, sometimes credited for writing the first mystery, may have started it all. But Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald -- California writers all -- certainly pushed the mystery genre to literary heights. The California mystery tradition is a proud one, and it continues with the likes of Parker.

"It feels good to be part of that writing tradition," Parker says.

But it isn't all fun in the California sun in Parker books. In his 2008 novel, LA Outlaw, he started a series featuring a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy named Charlie Hood. Over the course of the series, Hood leaves the department to join the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fireams (ATF) and heads for the border to deter gun running into Mexico. His current book, The Jaguar, is the fifth in the six-book Charlie Hood series. Though The Jaguar starts with a kidnapping in Valley Center, much of the thriller is set in Mexico.

Here's a brief plot summary:

Erin McKenna is a beautiful SoCal songwriter who is kidnapped by Benjamin Armeta, the head of a Mexican drug cartel. Erin's husband, a shady, Los Angeles deputy, enlists Charlie Hood to help him rescue Erin who is being held captive in The Castle, a rambling mansion built in the Mexican jungle. To stay alive, Erin must write a song, a narcocorrido, which immortalizes Armeta's exploits. Not just any narcocorrido, but the best ever written. If she fails, she will die.

Setting so much of the novel in Mexico is trouble for Parker. Many of his fans expect California settings. They want to read Parker as they've always read him, with the California sun on their shoulders. Sending characters to Mexico rubs some Parker readers wrong.

And Parker plays another dangerous game in the Charlie Hood series. In an earlier Charlie Hood novel, Iron River, Parker introduced a character named Mike Finnegan,who is a self proclaimed devil, hinting at magical realism that goes against the mystery genre grain. Mystery readers expect realism, and characters from the beyond buck the mystery conventions. Although some of the Finnegan character can be explained within the context of the story (his daughter Owens simply describes him as crazy), other aspects of Finnegan can't be so easily explained away. It's a prickly situation for Parker who recognizes the risks. "It's split about 50-50, those who like it and those who don't," Parker says.

But he explains it this way, "I liken it to writing about the myths of the West, the great tall tales, like Paul Bunyan. I'm telling tall tales with a straight face, hoping that interaction works."

Besides, by strict definition, Parker's latest books aren't murder mysteries. They straddle the gray area between mystery and thriller, which gives him a more latitude.

Parker fully discloses the Finnegan character in the sixth and final Charlie Hood installment, The Famous and the Dead. Meanwhile he hopes readers will be patient and just enjoy the ride.

As a kid, his family vacationed in Mexico, pitching a tent on campgrounds near Rosarito Beach, where he caught waves on rubber rafts, walked the beaches, ate street carne asada tacos, and later drove dune buggies in the sand. He loved Mexico. He still does. Now he says, it feels like there are two Mexicos, the one he remembers as a kid, and the Mexico of heads severed in vicious drug wars described by the media. He's hoping in some small way, his books might help heal Mexico, help it change for the better. One can always hope.

And Parker doesn't let the violence stop him from visiting Mexico. He has a family trip planned in a couple of weeks.

Ever wonder how a writer comes up with ideas for novels? Parker said The Jaguar plot sprang from a story he read in the Los Angeles Times about how Mexican drug lords were having narcocorridos written about them. He combined that with childhood memories of his mother reading the story of Schererazade to him, the tale of a woman who must tell a different story every night or face death from a king. The two ideas percolated into The Jaguar. The character Erin is based on his first wife, Cat, a singer who died at the age of 34 in 1992 of brain cancer.

"Part of writing is revisiting your life," he says.

Although he's been anointed as an Orange County writer, about 10 years ago, Parker moved with his new wife and sons to Fallbrook, a small town tucked into the hills of north San Diego County. It's a good place to raise a family, he says.

In the book-lined room, bands of red, white and black slither along a glass-walled terrarium, forked tongue tasting the air for something to eat. Although Rodney, the California Mountain King Snake, ate the other day, he appears to be hungry again. He's partial to white mice.

A half-dozen king snakes inhabit glass cages in T. Jefferson Parker's writing lair. There's a another rubber king snake stretched out on the hardwood floor. Another fake one poised on a book case.

Does the snake hold deep symbolic meaning for Parker? Naw, he just happens to like snakes. A friend gave him the snake 1988, and Rodney's like part of the family.

Just one of those childhood things Parker never outgrew.


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