To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel. This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me. Here’s the second one.
I actually showed up late for my job interview. I was on campus with plenty of time. My interview was scheduled to be in a room in a building called Bell Tower West. I went to the Bell Tower building and I could tell I was in the right place because I saw the actual bell tower. I walked around that building for ten minutes trying to figure out why the numbers of the rooms weren’t exactly sequential and why the room number I had for my meeting wasn’t close to the room numbers I was seeing. I was afraid I’d actually miss the interview. Luckily, one of the interviewers was running late. I didn’t know who he was, but I stopped him in the hall and asked for directions. He introduced himself and walked me to the interview. I was only a couple of minutes late, but I walked in with my alibi.
At the end of the interview, the woman in charge asked me if I had any questions. I had the typical responses that I’d learned to ask at all job interviews. They gave me the typical answers to those questions. Then, I asked a genuine question. I said, “If this is a brand new university,” which it was; it had only been in operation for about a year at the time, “why are the buildings so old? What was this place before it was a university?”
The three-person panel looked at each other and smiled. They all knew something good and seemed unsure whether or not to share it with me. Finally, one of them said, “It was a nuthouse.”
I guess I looked too confused, so another interviewer clarified matters for me. She said, “These are the old grounds for the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.”
I laughed. It was literally a nuthouse. I knew I should’ve stayed focused on the interview, but all I could think was, there’s a novel here.
The campus at Channel Islands doesn’t seem like a nuthouse anymore. It’s largely renovated. Most of the more bizarre artifacts of the hospital have been torn down and replaced with something else. Either that, or they’re inaccessible. During my first few years teaching there, though, the relics of the madhouse surrounded me.
An old bowling alley still sits on campus. It’s tiny and dusty and only two lanes wide. You can stand on a bench and squint through a dirty, barred window and barely see the old warped-wood lanes. They’re gone now, but I seem to remember, years ago, you could still see a few balls hanging around, hard chairs and scoring tables.
Underneath the old administration building which is now the library was the former hospital morgue. Some students claim that the morgue is still there. It’s not. I was on campus the day builders tore down the old administration building. It was an incredible structure. Wrecking balls pummeled the roof, and the roof barely gave way. I had the sense that, untouched, the hospital administration building would have stood on those grounds for centuries. Maybe the new library will. It’s pretty well built, too. Like the old admin building, the new library is a beautiful structure. I don’t mind tearing one of them down to build the other. I spend a lot of time over in that library now. I spent almost no time in the old admin building, mostly because it was always locked and I had no business there. Supposedly, there were all kinds of crazy rooms in the building. When the hospital was around, they had their own courtroom where a judge sat to try crimes committed on the grounds. Apparently, the courtroom went down with the morgue and the rest of the admin building. The courtroom was in an early version of Madhouse Fog. It didn’t withstand the wrecking ball of my revisions.
On the day the old administration building came down, I stood next to a woman from personnel. She started crying. She told me, “I can’t watch this.” She kept watching for a few more whacks of the wrecking ball, then said, “I can’t watch this,” again and left. Part of me empathized; part of me saw the other side of the story. Sad to see the old admin building go, but this was a university, not a museum. Life goes on.
There used to be an outdoor stage on campus, too. A small concert shell. It was in the north quad. It stuck around until the summer of 2011, when progress took it down. I didn’t see it come down. I don’t know why it did. I hope for structural reasons. I hope it was just structurally unsound. Otherwise, it would’ve been a great place for outdoor performances. Back around the time when I was writing the first draft of the novel, the student government brought in some manufactured “indie” rock band to play the concert shell. I don’t remember who they were. I’m sure I could find out, if I cared enough.
There was also a hallway of murals on campus. I think that came down with all the recent North Hall renovations.
The coolest artifacts were right around the corner from my office on campus. When I wrote the first draft of Madhouse, my office was in a building called Malibu Hall. In its previous life, Malibu Hall was the center of worship on hospital grounds. To the west of my office was the Protestant chapel. We still hold events in this room. It still feels a bit like a church. Behind my office was the Jewish temple. That was turned into classrooms for the music department. I think they still use it for that. To the east of my office was the old Catholic church. The Performing Arts program uses this room now for classes and plays. I saw a play about the Donner Party in the old Catholic church a few semesters back. Recently, Performing Arts put on a presentation of Cabaret in the old church. I should’ve gone to savor the irony, but I’m just not a fan of musicals. In the back of the church were the old confessionals. They were empty when I started writing Madhouse. A couple of times, I went over and checked them out, my Catholic childhood itching me like a phantom limb. Now the confessionals are used as closets for Performing Arts junk.
The confessionals and the courthouse ended up on the chopping block of the novel. The outdoor stage, the hall of murals, and the bowling alley survived, though I bastardized them. The things from the old psych hospital days that survived the most in my novel were the stories I heard from old employees. But that’s a whole other column.