Deanne Stillman is the author of four books, including Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. In 2013, Inlandia’s online literary journal published “The Lost Children of the Inland Empire”, an excerpt from Desert Reckoning. She teaches in the UC Riverside-Palm Desert MFA Low Residency Creative Writing Program.
Cati Porter: Much of your subject matter is inspired by the west — old and new, including the Inland Empire. What brought you to this region?
Deanne Stillman: I grew up in Ohio and had been wanting to escape for as long as I can remember. My father used to read the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “Eldorado,” to me when I was little. I would vanish into it, and later started to read Mary Austen, Willa Cather, Native American myths; Tony Hillerman was a professor of mine at UNM – an early trail guide. Also, I grew up around horses; my mother was an “exercise boy” at the racetrack, and that fueled my wanderlust. I was writing as a little girl as well, and knew I wanted to continue. Everything came together when I got out of Dodge, and, well, came to Dodge.
CP: In 2013, a year after Desert Reckoning was published, Inlandia brought you out to present for us at the Riverside Public Library, and it happened the same week the Christopher Dorner manhunt took place. What was that like?
DS: Strangely, Desert Reckoning – about a manhunt – merged with the Dorner manhunt as it was unfolding. One of the characters in my book, Rande Linville, lives in Big Bear, and had spotted Dorner’s burning truck during the search. He alerted cops, putting them on Dorner’s tail. Weirdly, Rande was planning to come to my talk that night, but his neighborhood was locked down as I was speaking! Remember the sirens? That was cops chasing Dorner. Also, the cabin where Dorner was killed was owned by some people from the Antelope Valley, where my book takes place. In the end, Dorner went out in a blaze of glory, like Donald Kueck, the hermit I wrote about. He had probably seen the coverage; I wrote about it for Rolling Stone and the manhunt became the template for other law enforcement agencies.
CP: Former Inlandia Literary Laureate Gayle Brandeis says of your work, “One of the greatest gifts of this book is how Deanne Stillman is able to open our hearts to people we might otherwise judge or dismiss.” How is it that you are able to paint such a complex portrait of the people you write about?
DS: Certain stories call me; they are place-based, generally, with the desert as a character. I’m sympatico with the people who live there, due to my riches-to-rags childhood which took my family from the right side of the tracks to the wrong side in about 24 hours. Suddenly we were persona non grata as far as certain relatives were concerned. I learned about America’s dirty little secret, class, at a young age. There were castaways, and I had become one.
CP: This is the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, about two girls killed by a Marine in Twentynine Palms after the Gulf War. What drove you to write this particular book?
DS: I was hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and afterwards, I stopped at a bar for a drink. I heard people gossiping about two girls who had been “sliced up by a Marine.” I asked about them and was told that they were “just some trash in town.” That hit me hard and I knew I would tell their story.
CP: Twentynine Palms was an LA Times “best book of the year” and bestseller, and Hunter Thompson called it “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer”. It’s taught in many college literary nonfiction classes, yet remains controversial. Can you talk about that?
DS: The town depends on the Marines and tourism for income. In part, my book is about a Marine with a history of violence towards women, and the culture that aggravated his behavior. The murders of Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega happened on dollar-drink night, which was Marine payday, when violence spiked. Twentynine Palms, which I love by the way, is the portal into Joshua Tree National Park. Some town elders were concerned that my book would drive tourists away. But to this day, people tell me they have visited Twentynine Palms because they love the way I wrote about the desert.
CP: All of your work features heavy material — a mustang massacre, the killing of two girls, a hermit who digs his own grave and commits suicide by cop. Does this affect your emotional well-being?
DS: Yes, it does. It’s one of the reasons my books take years to write. Sometimes I have to step away. Incidentally, people come to me with violent stories all of the time. I am generally not interested. There must be a way in for me, and most stories of crime are smaller than the sum of their parts. I simply cannot write those.
CP: Your book Mustang will soon be released on audio with an all-star cast: Anjelica Huston, Frances Fisher, John Densmore (the drummer in the Doors)…. What has the process been like, seeing your book move into an audio format, and, more importantly, did you get to meet Anjelica Huston?
DS: Well, the cast is an embarrassment of riches, and they sound great! Everyone is now involved in the wild horse campaign, and some were before Mustang came out, such as John Densmore. I met Anjelica Huston some time ago; she had optioned Twentynine Palms.
CP: You’re also an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, with credits going back to the 80s teen television show “Square Pegs” and a recent play, “Star Maps”, performed at the Ink Fest series at the Hudson Theatres in LA. What other projects do you have on the horizon?
DS: My next book, with roots in Mustang, is Blood Brothers: The Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, which I’m writing for Simon and Schuster.