Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Q&A with William P. Barrett

Chronicling a wide cross-section of the human condition, William P. Barrett has worked as an award-winning journalist across the country and abroad for major newspapers and national magazines dating back more than four decades. At various times he’s been a police reporter, court reporter, local government reporter, feature writer, foreign correspondent, national correspondent writing about very small places with very big problems, investigative reporter and business reporter. Barrett’s longest stretch was at Forbes, where his writings illuminated dark sections of the financial world and sent miscreants to prison. A New Jersey native, Barrett holds two degrees from Rutgers, one in law, and is a Chartered Financial Analyst charterholder. On the weekends he has refereed youth soccer in the West, including Southern California, for 17 years. Barrett now lives in Seattle. This is his debut novel.

1. What inspired you to write Offside: A Mystery?

 I have been a magazine and newspaper journalist across the country and abroad for more than four decades, writing thousands of stories. But I never had written something as long and detailed as a book. So that became a challenge. I thought a murder mystery would be interesting, so long as it incorporated some real history and allowed me to indulge in social commentary. I had been a referee of youth soccer for years, first in New Mexico and then in Southern California, so I knew a lot about soccer. As an old courts-and-crime newspaper reporter with a law degree, I knew something about the legal system. And as a business writer for Forbes for nearly a quarter-century, I knew a lot about finance. Having lived in Houston, Albuquerque and the Los Angeles area, I knew something about Latino culture. And when I started working on the book, I was living around Los Angeles and was quite aware of--struck even, by--the racial tensions. So I wrote about what I knew.




2. What was the development process like?

Lengthy. The process took eight years. I don't write long works without first composing an outline. I started working on OFFSIDE: A Mystery in 2006. I dashed off my first complete outline on a yellow pad during on a single cross-country airplane trip. But I kept revising the outline, trying to work through problems with the plot. Then in 2008 we had the mortgage meltdown as a result of the bursting of the real estate bubble, and Los Angeles was more or less at Ground Zero. I immediately knew I had to get that into the book. So I basically threw out most of my first outline and started over. At some point I stopped writing and spent nearly a year researching more about the history of soccer, California, finance, whatever.




3. Did you relate to the main character, Diego Diaz, in any way? If so, what?

I'd say the main character is Hector Rivera, the 24-year-old college dropout dating the adult daughter of Diaz, the coach accused of killing the referee. Rivera has clear intellectual and physical talent but is stuck in a dead-end job while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. I think there are a lot of people out there in his situation. I am reminded of Thoreau, who wrote, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Fortunately, I decided while in high school to become a journalist. Because as a journalist I've written so many hard-luck stories, I can relate to Rivera, but not on the basis of personal events. An interesting comparison with me, a part-time soccer referee, is with the part-time referee in the book who ends up seriously dead. I hope the book doesn't prove to be too autobiographical.




4. What was the hardest part about writing this book?

Constant rewriting, making the plot believable, working through plot problems, while holding down a full-time day job.




5. What are some of the main socio-economic issues that you explore in this book and why did you explore them?

The final version is set in 2006, two years before the real estate/mortgage meltdown, but there's plenty of foreshadowing. I was quite aware when I moved from New Mexico to Southern California in 2004 that an epic real estate bubble was under way, driven by easy credit. I was old fashioned enough to only buy a home with 20% down and a fixed-rate loan for 15 years. One real estate agent told me he hadn't had a client do that in 18 years. Everything had become little down, adjustable rate, and sometimes interest-only payments. About the same time, I went to a college alumni function in the L.A. area and heard 23-year-old recent graduates bragging about making $120,000 by working as a mortgage broker. I thought that was a commodity business, but it turns out a lot of the brokers were convincing buyers to borrow way more than they should, and maybe helping to "spruce up" the paperwork. The events take place in a town I invented, the allegorically named Valley Mirage, an upscale, racist place full of big homes but with a small Latino population in the rundown older part of town doing much of the menial labor. Rivera's mom ekes out a living as a seamstress, which she is able to do because hardly anyone knows anymore how to sew. I have a line about this in the book: "Much of the American economy was based on the inability of Americans to be economic." In Valley Mirage--as elsewhere--youth soccer is a unifying theme.




6. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?

A feeling that they didn't waste their time in reading the book.




7. What inspired you to be a writer?

I have ancestors on both sides who were newspapermen; one actually co-owned a newspaper in Scranton, Pa. So maybe it's in the DNA. I like learning about things and communicating what I learn to others. Writing is a good way to do this. As baseball great Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot by just watching."




8. What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?

Best: the research and observation process. Worst: the writing process.




9. Who are some of your favorite authors?

For fiction, Rudolfo Anaya and Tony Hillerman come to mind. But frankly, most of what I read is nonfiction, often biography, like the works of Robert A. Caro. I just finished John Lewis Gaddis's award-winning biography of the diplomat George F. Kennan. It was a terrific book, although Gaddis had the benefit of cooperation with Kennan himself.




10. Are you working on anything right now?

I now live in Seattle, so I guess it's likely the next book will be set here. However, family members think I should do a sequel to OFFSIDE: A Mystery with the same characters, or at least the ones not killed off.




11. And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?

While my book involves Latino characters and deals with Latino/American issues, I don't consider it Latino literature per se. I'm not a Latino, but rather a mere outsider observing. I wrote a murder mystery involving Latino characters with, perhaps, some elements of literary fiction. However, I can't help but notice how much of the writing of the new generation of genuine Latino novelists consists of, for want of a better description, crime fiction. I am thinking especially of Juan Gabriel Vรกsquez and his translated novel,

 "The Sound of Things Falling." I don't think this development is a bad thing. One thing contemporary novels should do is deal with the problems of society, and crime is definitely a problem. So the future is good.



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