Since her retirement from journalism, longtime Sentinel writer Peggy Townsend has shifted her storytelling skills to the realm of fiction. In her latest novel, “The Beautiful and the Wild,” Townsend explores the depths of isolation and the power of secrets, drawing from her personal experiences as a journalist and a seven-week van trip across Alaska. She appears at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday.
There is a tension right away in Peggy Townsend’s new novel “The Beautiful and the Wild” (Berkley). It’s a tension borne of contrasts in place.
Townsend’s first-person protagonist, Liv Russo, finds herself in an intimidating new environment, the country’s largest, least populated and most rugged state, Alaska. But in Alaska, she’s trapped within an environment that is everything Alaska is not — tiny, ugly, industrial, ordinary. Liv is being held hostage in a shipping container.
Liv and her young son, Xander, came to Alaska in search of Mark, her husband and the boy’s father, a man long presumed to be dead. She found him. Then he separated her from Xander and threw her in a dark shipping container with a moldy mattress.
Despite its wild and natural setting, “Beautiful” is foremost an intensely interior family drama and a thriller with a vivid sense of day-to-day desperation. There is another woman involved, and before long, there’s even another. Mark’s illicit Alaskan hideaway begins to come into view as some mix of transgressive polygamist clan and personality cult.
Rest assured, “The Beautiful and the Wild” is a work of fiction. That’s a distinction that has to be made because many locals know Townsend for her work in nonfiction. For decades, she was one of the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s most well-known reporters and feature writers, winning countless national and regional awards in journalism, and covering just about any topic that needed covering in a midsized town like Santa Cruz, from murder to bake sales.
But since her retirement from daily journalism, Townsend has pivoted. In 2018, she published her first novel, a mystery titled “See Her Run,” and followed that up with “The Thin Edge” the next year. Both novels centered on Aloa Snow, a disgraced former newspaper reporter with an eating disorder.
“The Beautiful and The Wild” is a new story, with new characters and a new focus. On Tuesday, Townsend will be on hand to talk about the new book at Bookshop Santa Cruz.
So, how did a career journalist used to being at the center of things turn to the desperate isolation that is so part of her new book?
“Well, I heard Jane Smiley talk once,” said Townsend, “and she said, if you’re a fiction writer, you take a small personal experience and you blow it up big. So we have a little cabin in Tahoe, and in the winter, we would have to hike about a quarter-mile to it through the snow. So you can’t take really heavy things when you haul in your groceries. I had to continually chop wood to keep the fire going and keep the pipes from freezing. The power would go out and you’d have to learn to adapt to living without power for, like, 10 days. And I felt really isolated up there sometimes. So I took that experience and multiplied it 100 times to get an idea of what it means to be really cut off.”
On top of that, she and her husband, Jamie, traveled across Alaska in a van for about seven weeks. She was overwhelmed at Alaska’s natural beauty and its remoteness, which is of a different degree than anywhere she’d been in the lower 48.
“So I thought, this is the perfect place for a person who had a secret to go to and hide,” she said. “But also, because it’s so harsh that I thought it’s also the place to peel away all the protective layers you build up around yourself.”
At the core of her new novel, she said, are secrets — the secrets between spouses, between parents and children, the secrets kept from the world. As a journalist, Townsend was told off-the-record personal secrets several times by sources, and said she wanted to explore the psychological dimensions of keeping secrets. “Secrets are so harmful,” she said. “I have three or four secrets I was told and, to this day, I’ve never told anyone. And I still think sometimes, ‘Why did you tell me that?’”
“The Beautiful and The Wild” oscillates between the present moment when Liv struggles to find a way to escape her confinement, reunite with her son and flee, and the past that fills in the colors of her relationship with Mark, her own family secrets and her special bond with young Xander. Liv’s confinement gradually lifts, and we come to know Mark’s other “wives” and his other son with another woman, Rudy. It’s from this relationship tangle that Townsend fashioned a family drama. She interviewed people in polygamous relationships and read widely on the phenomenon.
“I was [interested in] how to negotiate time together and attention and all this stuff. But I couldn’t help thinking, this sounds great, but how do you tamp down the human jealousy? How do you tamp down someone’s desire to dominate? And I really wanted to explore that, too.”
For years, Townsend has been at the center of the Santa Cruz literary community, as both a journalist and a novelist. She has leaned on friends and fellow writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth McKenzie and Jill Wolfson. “They are so supportive and so collaborative. And reading their stuff has taught me a lot about fiction writing.”
Though, said Townsend, on one level, writing is writing, fiction works different literary muscles and measures different expectations between reader and writer than journalism.
“When I was a reporter and wrote a story, I felt really confident about it because I had researched down as far as it could go. But when you’re making stuff up, it’s different. There is nothing worse than a book that at the end says, ‘Ta-da!’ And there was nothing leading up to it that brought it to that point. You have to lay the stepping stones without people seeing them until they get to the end. Then, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that back there.’”
Peggy Townsend will introduce her new novel, “The Beautiful and The Wild,” on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. The event begins at 7 p.m. It’s free.
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.