By May S. Ruiz
Pasadena is only 12 miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown Los Angeles, but you’d never know it if you are a resident of its canyon area. Here, busy activity comes from the bears, mountain lions, and exotic wildlife that call it home. Human residents are used to observing animals we would otherwise only see at the zoo go about their daily existence.
In a newly published young adult book called ‘The Sorts of Pasadena Hollow: Hannah’s Fires,’ (available on Amazon) humans and the wildlife share equal billing as well as the locale’s physical space. Readers will be excited to read on and find out what creatures are lurking in the book’s pages.
‘The Sorts of Pasadena Hollow’ is an unexpected offering from M. G. Rawls, a former lawyer who spent her working career battling with contractors who had failed to pay pension and fringe benefit contributions on behalf of their union employees. Let me add that I am also her friend and, in all the years I’ve known her, never imagined she would come up with this book. But, as this article will reveal, there is a logical explanation for the theme choice.
Conducting the interview by email, I start by remarking, “I’ve heard of previous lawyers who ended up writing legal thrillers, proving the adage that you write what you know. And that begs the question – why fantasy? Have you been harboring an interest in the genre for a while?”
“Great question!” answers Rawls. “I’ve wondered about this myself. Before retiring in 2013, I represented union trust funds in breach of contract actions. I enjoyed what I did, but it’s probably not an exciting basis for a novel.”
“What inspires and continues to inspire me is living in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in the Angeles Crest Forest and watching bears with cubs, deer, coyotes, skunks, mountain lions, foxes, miner’s cats (bet most have never heard of those stripe-tailed and raccoon-eyed nocturnal animals), the list of sightings is endless. Many of the descriptions in my fantasy story have their genesis in real events that happened and most of the wild animals I write about are local to the Pasadena and surrounding areas. I have been nurturing this story in my mind since I moved here in 1988,” reveals Rawls.
“Did the ideas about what animals to include in the books come before the people?” I ask, and Rawls replies, “No, generally the people came first and then as I developed their characters, their animal forms emerged.”
One of Rawls’s characters is a Tongva man and I ask what compelled her to write about the tribe. She responds, “I first learned about the Tongva, an indigenous people that inhabited the area thousands of years before the Europeans settlers, through docent training at the Pasadena Museum of History. Their descendants exist today and their language continues to be taught. I love history, especially local history and wanted to learn more, so in researching the Tongva, I discovered that they believe in a spiritual connection between themselves, animals, and the land. That is fascinating to me, given the little canyon where I live. There is so much more I want to learn; I hope to do further research on this.”
The book includes real events that transpired in Pasadena and I ask if she investigated major events that made the news to build around and if there were places she wanted to include beforehand.
“I did both,” discloses Rawls. “It was fun to put the pieces together as I wrote the story. Having been an attorney, I worked to make my fantasy story as logical as possible. For example, there was a small discovery of gold in Southern California in 1842 before the major discovery in Northern California in 1848 at Sutter’s Sawmill in Coloma. I found that idea fascinating and built a small subplot around it. Also, one of the largest solar storms to hit the earth, known as the Carrington event, occurred in 1859. It was so bright, it was reported that gold prospectors got up thinking it was morning. That event is an important part of my books, but written in a way that I hope readers will remember. As for local places, between the three books, I think I will have written about every place of interest in the Pasadena area from the Cawston Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena (closed in 1935) to Pasadena City College and the Huntington Library in San Marino.
“Why did you chose to make it a fantasy story and why did you give your characters extraordinary powers?” I inquire. “Every writer is different of course,” Rawls states. “But for me, writing fantasy allowed me to expand my love of history in a creative manner. I wanted to include local history, but also have the flexibility to invent when needed. Wrapping local history with fantasy is my sneaky way of making history interesting and memorable to younger readers.
“I forgot to mention that I’m also a volunteer in the Junior Docent program at the Museum, training seventh and eighth graders in tours of the historic Fenyes mansion. So I’ve had some experience seeing what works and doesn’t work in retaining information.”
Then I inquire how she decided on who her protagonists were going to be, whether training young people had any bearing on her choice, and if she thought the Z Generation had more compelling life challenges to overcome.
Rawls says, “In this first book, I knew it was going to be a young female. In that regard, I guess you do write what you know, since I was once 19. Though I want to stress this is a fictional story. I don’t know that training the junior docents influenced me other than hearing what interests them – like the stuffed owl and marmoset monkey cage in the Mansion’s studio. You may see these in Henry’s Hopes. I think young or old we all have life challenges to overcome, though the young may have the additional burden of not knowing where they’re headed, having so much of their life in front of them.”
“Why did you give them extraordinary powers?” I ask. “That’s an easy one,” declares Rawls. “In Hannah’s case, she is a 19-year-old girl who’s had a tough life, with no real family, and an evil stepfather. She suffers from nightmares and real life demons that she cannot get rid of. But there is hope as she enters this magical place called Pasadena Hollow.”
Curious about her process, I inquire, “Did you already have all the components planned out before you set out to write the books or did you make them up as you went along? Did you base some of your characters on people you know or have met or are they purely imagined?”
Replies Rawls, “Essentially, what I did is title my chapters and then write the story around the names of the chapters. I have no idea if this is how it’s supposed to be done. But it was important to me to get chapter names I was happy with. All three books are the same, chapter headings first and no outline. My characters are fictional! Even if there was a connection with a real person, living or deceased, I don’t know that I would say who it was.”
Asked what was the most difficult hurdle to overcome as she wrote, Rawls confesses, “Probably myself. I didn’t even tell my husband I’d written a book, until I handed him a near final draft. He took it in good stride and was very supportive, but he read it so fast I went back and lengthened it!”
“Where did the name ‘sorts’ for these fantasy characters come from?” I query. And Rawls says, “It’s from the phrase ‘It takes all sorts,’ that I’ve been fascinated with forever. I couldn’t figure if the phrase was positive or negative, so I’ve used it for both and included it in my prologue. I don’t know the origin – maybe one of your savvy readers does.
“I’ve even taken to sometimes calling the creatures we see on a daily basis, ‘Sorts.’ You know, the grasshopper that clings to the screen door, the cricket that chirps inside the house or apartment, but you cannot locate, even the friendly jumping spider with the inquisitive eyes and red body I found in my house and relocated outside. Even if we don’t live near the forest, I think we’ve all wondered about these everyday creatures. – what they’re thinking and who they really are…”
‘Hannah’s Fires’ is the first installment in a planned trilogy. I ask her how far the characters’ arcs go and if the books will span several years as they grow older. Rawls replies, “In book two, ‘The Sorts of Pasadena Hollow: Tony’s Tales,’ the characters only age a few months, but you learn more about their back stories and personalities. And this second book takes a deep look, literally, as to what lives or rather lurks deep under Pasadena. I met with a Caltech geologist and despite my insistent prodding, he assures me that absolutely nothing like I imagined lives under Pasadena. But who knows? Haven’t we only gone down about seven miles? As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of Jules Verne, having read ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth.’
“The third book, ‘Henry’s Hopes,’ continues the same time period, but just might have a brief flash forward at the end. ‘Tony’s Tales’ is nearing final edits and will appear first as an e-book without illustrations. I have also completed the first draft on ‘Henry’s Hopes,’ which should be online by late next year.”
‘The Sorts of Pasadena Hollow’ is aimed at readers from middle-school age to adults. Rawls asserts, “There is no reason why adults can’t enjoy fantasy or, in my case, enjoy fantasy writing. I want my readers to be able to escape, even if only for a brief period.”
Readers, young and old, will be treated to beautiful full-color drawings that begin each chapter in the ebook and a colored edition of the paperback, which is now an available option (order here). Rawls enthuses, “I want to give a shout out to the illustrator, JJ Dunn. JJ has been a friend since our children were in preschool, but I never knew she could draw until she gave me a picture for Christmas a couple of years ago. Her pictures are amazing! I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.”
Having been a Pasadena resident close to four decades, I was fascinated to discover its history through Rawls’s book. It gave me such a thrill that some of the landmarks where the events happen are places I frequent and know very well. I had fun figuring out what a fictional location’s real name is and trying to guess who a character is based on. It’s almost like an insider’s view of Pasadena and its residents. And that’s fantastic!