Girl Power: Forget saving the world, Tim Pratt's Rangergirl is here to protect the only town that matters.
The Rangergirl Tour of Santa Cruz
Join Tim Pratt in 'The Adventures of Rangergirl' and see the supernatural side of Santa Cruz
By Rick Kleffel
Santa Cruz is such a perfect place to live that it often seems a shame that more fictional characters don't get to hang out here. Oakland author Tim Pratt goes a long way toward correcting that in his new novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl (Spectra; 416 pages; $12 paper). Think Stephen King meets Zane Grey on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk; and then think of something even more fun. Marzi McCarty works as the night manager of a Santa Cruz coffee shop and during the day writes a comic about The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, a cowpunk neowestern yarn. We may want to keep Santa Cruz weird, but when the supernatural forces Marzi writes about start to bleed into our world, weird gets uncomfortably close to apocalyptic.
Metro Santa Cruz hooked up with the talented Pratt, who lives in Oakland, and asked him about his Santa Cruz inspirations.
METRO SANTA CRUZ: Tim, why did you choose to set this novel in Santa Cruz?
TIM PRATT: I moved to Santa Cruz in August 2000, and lived there for the next year, during which time I wrote most of the first draft for Rangergirl. Santa Cruz is still my favorite place, and in a perfect world, I'd be living there still. I left because I found my dream woman (now my wife) and my dream job in Oakland, but I still go down and visit Santa Cruz several times a year. I lived right downtown, on Maple Street, just around the corner from Caffe Pergolesi, which is the loose model for the coffee shop in my novel, so I spent a lot of time walking around, hanging out downtown in the bookstores and cafes, visiting the beaches and the hills and the boardwalk and environs.
I started thinking about stories where heroes fight to save the world, and something about that notion bothered me—"the world" seems too big, almost too abstract, to make a really good story. It seems more powerful, to me, to write about saving a smaller, particular place that you know and love. Since the place I loved most at the time was Santa Cruz, it was the natural setting for my novel. Rangergirl is, in many ways, a love song to Santa Cruz. I took some liberties with history and geography, and I'm sure I didn't get everything else right, but I hope the affection for the place comes through.
Tell us about your interest in Western fiction and how Santa Cruz fits into your understanding of the Western traditions?
I moved to California from North Carolina, driving across the width of the country, and I stopped when I hit the ocean. I went about as far West as I possibly could. "Going West" has all sorts of associations, about creating a new life for yourself, challenging frontiers—physical and personal, chasing your potential, heading over the next ridge to see what lies beyond. My journey to Santa Cruz lived up to all those associations. As for my interest in more traditional Westerns, I used to watch all the movies when I was a kid, and I started reading a lot about Western history in college. I was especially fascinated by the way the Old West was being mythologized even as it happened. People living out there were writing dime novels in which they romanticized their own experiences! That conscious kind of on-the-fly myth-making really appeals to me. The imagery and iconography really does it for me, too—the blazing sun, the high desert, the creak of leather, the squaring off of rivals in a dusty street. My love for stuff like that is so elemental I'm not sure I can explain its origin.
Could you talk a bit about the transformative power of art and how you transform that into a supernatural power in this novel?
Part of the fun of Rangergirl was the opportunity to set up all these different artistic philosophies and let them bang and smash together. So I've got commercially oriented artists, "holy fire" artists who consider art a sacred calling, pretentious artists, academic theorists who love art but don't create it, instinctive artists who work from the gut, technically skilled and possibly overeducated artists, etc. But despite their differences, those characters all share one belief, which is that art is important. Art is transformative. Making art has transformed my life in very obvious ways—it has affected where I live, who my friends are, what I do with my time—and experiencing the art of others has helped me understand my responsibilities to myself and my fellow human beings. Art teaches us things about ourselves, if we're willing to learn them. That said, my main goal with Rangergirl was to write a fun book people would enjoy, not to create art. Consciously setting out to create something great is a recipe for embarrassing failure, most times.
Artists shape the world through their art. At the very least, they provide an interpretation for the world which can have far-ranging real-world consequences. That's why artists are so often suppressed and brutalized under dictatorships and other varieties of tyrannical rule—because they can change the way the world is perceived, and, in so doing, change the world. Artists are dangerous. That's exactly the sort of thing Marzi does in my novel. When faced with a being of unimaginable power, she interprets it, transforming an ancient spirit of earthquake, mudslide and wildfire into a comic-book Outlaw. It's not by accident that the Outlaw is the only character in the novel who is utterly oblivious to art, who simply can't comprehend artwork of any kind.
Tell us about any art of Santa Cruz—or artists in Santa Cruz—that inform this work.
I lived for a while in a house that has a wonderful, huge mural by Alvaro—the same guy who did the mural in the Bagelry. Admiring his work made me think about murals, public art and the like, and I think I've looked at every mural in Santa Cruz!
In terms of literature, the poet Ellen Bass was a real inspiration. She writes about Santa Cruz with great affection, and sometimes exasperation, and her poems are a delight.
Who are your literary influences for this novel?
Influence-identifying is tricky work. Early in life I imprinted on Stephen King, Jonathan Carroll and Charles de Lint, and they all probably contributed a bit to the underlying nature of the book. More consciously, I was thinking about Terri Windling, particularly her novel The Wood Wife, which one of my characters reads in Rangergirl, and Neil Gaiman's comics.
Who are your comic book influences for this novel?
Preacher, by Dillon and Ennis. Great, over-the-top, violent, melodramatic stuff with some genuinely moving moments and larger-than-life characters. Far West by Richard Moore—wish he'd write more things set in that world! Gaiman's Sandman. Everything by Alan Moore. Everything by Warren Ellis. Everything by Adrian Tomine and Dori Seda. Hellblazer, Fables, Y: The Last Man ... I could go on. I think it was R. Crumb who said, "Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." I'm very envious of people who are capable of creating visual art. Even my stick figures look bad.
Have you set about creating the actual Rangergirl Comics?
No, not at all. If you know any comic artists or writers who'd like to try an adaptation, put them in touch with me! I don't know how to write comics. It's something I'd like to try, someday, but I'd like to get a better handle on novels first. That said, I have written one prose story set in the world of the Rangergirl comics, as opposed to the world of the novel itself. It's called "Bluebeard and the White Buffalo: A Rangergirl Yarn," and I've put it up online for free at my website.
Myth Maker: Santa Cruz, says Pratt, lived up to all his ideas about 'going West.'
Tell us about the earth powers and why Santa Cruz seems like such a natural place to give them a face.
Looking at photos of the aftermath of Loma Prieta gave me chills. Looking at photos and footage of wildfires in action astonished me. Seeing footage of mudslides burying houses stayed with me for days. Santa Cruz is such a precious place, but in many ways, it's so menaced—there are wildfire warnings, there's the chance of mudslides, and always the possibility of earthquakes. Granted, it's not something I worry about when I'm spending time there, but that notion of a beautiful place threatened by its own environment is very powerful for me. And there are reminders of that danger—the signs warning about the level of wildfire danger, signs warning about camping too close to sea cliffs, places demolished by Loma Prieta that are still empty. Little disconcerting reminders that nothing is certain and everything could change.
Take us on the journey from art to oracles in Santa Cruz.
I could probably take people on a "Rangergirl tour" of Santa Cruz, starting at Pergolesi, strolling down Pacific Avenue to Bookshop Santa Cruz, over to the river, down to the boardwalk, up West Cliff Drive, down Highway 1 to the beaches ... there's inspiration everywhere. I still love nothing better than sitting on the deck at Pergolesi with a mocha chai or a pint of beer and a notebook.
Do you have any other work set here?
I wrote a story called "The Scent of Copper Pennies" which is set in Santa Cruz, and my story "Little Gods," which was a Nebula finalist a couple of years ago, is set there, too. There are probably others. I tend to be very influenced by the place where I live, so I wrote quite a bit about Santa Cruz while I lived there.
Will there be a sequel to this novel?
I don't think so. I might return to that universe, sort of, because there might be other stories about Lindsay, but I think I'm done with Marzi. She saved her world. She's done enough.
Have you set—or will you be setting—any further work here?
Oh, certainly. Every time I visit I get ideas for stories, and I don't expect that to change.