The characters in Barry Siegel's stories inhabit a vast and unsettling gray landscape, whether searching for bearings in the seasonal fog of the central California coast, or along the mist-shrouded border between truth and deception, guilt and innocence.
Siegel, a journalist and the author of two nonfiction books and two novels, is thoroughly at home in this terrain, having explored it in his work since shortly after his graduation from Pomona in 1971, and even before then as a student working on a cross-college newspaper called The Claremont Collegian.
He is especially interested, he said, "in stories where there are no clear answers, where people are wrestling with moral issues or ethical dilemmas, and making choices and decisions in ambiguous situations." A collection of his stories for the Los Angeles Times, for which he has worked since 1976, was published in a book titled, fittingly, Shades of Gray: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances.
Siegel's most recent book, a novel titled Actual Innocence, first published in 1999 by The Ballantine Publishing Group and now out in paperback, treads a slippery turf peopled by characters furtively seeking to advance their interests while skirting, or blatantly ignoring, the line between conscience and criminality. The novel plays out in an isolated central California valley, seemingly pristine but for the patches of asphaltum oozing up from the earth, suggestive of malignancy just beneath the surface.
Actual Innocence resulted from a two-book contract Siegel signed with the sale of his first novel, The Perfect Witness, a courtroom drama published by Ballantine in 1998. In both novels, the protagonist is a defense attorney, Greg Monarch, whom Siegel describes as "a moral man who's trying to prevail in an amoral world." Both novels are set in Siegel's imagined Chumash County, where nature's grandeur may be obscured by a creeping fog or by the acrid smoke from hillsides aflame. When people are murdered here, the pursuit of justice turns murky as well.
Siegel's novels probe the weaknesses inherent in our system of jurisprudence. His courtroom adversaries are motivated less by a sense of justice than by the drive to prevail. The plot lines reflect, to a significant degree, his journalistic observations. "The system, as I've seen it, is not a direct pursuit of justice and truth," said Siegel. "The notion is that, out of this clashing of adversaries, you're going to get something approaching truth and justice. But it doesn't always work out that way."
Unlike in many legal thrillers or courtroom dramas, the crimes, conspiracies, and ethical dilemmas presented in Siegel's novels are not all resolved in a healing denouement, but often continue to fester. "In most of the books in this genre, usually it's a clear-cut case, and the good guy wins and the bad guy loses," he said. "What I've tried to do in these books is walk off with a certain level of ambiguity. In both cases, Greg Monarch ends up wondering, 'What have I done here?' and that's really what I'm after."
Siegel's fiction also goes after those who would abuse legal authority, despoil the environment, or evade corporate responsibility. These are themes he has visited in his journalism as well. The rise of corporate dominion has a particular resonance with Siegel, whose own employer has grown by purchasing other newspapers and media outlets, before being absorbed itself by the corporation that publishes the Chicago Tribune. "This is happening everywhere, including the business I'm in," Siegel said. "I've written more than one story at the Times that involved these themes of conglomeratization, and the fact that corporations can shield themselves from liability in a way that individuals can't. I've drawn from these stories in creating my novels' plot lines."
Although he is apprehensive about the constraints that could arise within an increasingly monolithic media industry, Siegel himself enjoys one of the most unfettered assignments in journalism. A national correspondent, he plumbs the country for conflict, for people and communities confronting the obfuscated moral issues that intrigue him. His newspaper stories are few but protracted, usually starting on Page 1 and spilling across several inside pages. The most recent was about parents and guardians of troubled children drawn to a Colorado town known as a hotbed of so-called attachment therapy, whose practitioners seek to mend behavioral problems through intensive forms of psychotherapy. The practice received notoriety when a 10-year-old girl suffocated during a treatment session.
Siegel has been alternating between fiction and journalism since writing The Perfect Witness in the mid-1990s. His first nonfiction book, A Death in White Bear Lake, an examination of child abuse and murder, was first published in 1990 and was recently reissued. That was followed by Shades of Gray, a collection of his newspaper articles, in 1992. His two-book fiction deal having concluded with the publication of Actual Innocence, he has written a third courtroom drama, Lines of Defense, also set in Chumash County, but without the doubt-plagued lawyer Greg Monarch as protagonist. Ballantine is to publish Lines of Defense next spring.
He first moved into fiction, Siegel said, when he found that nonfiction publishers were primarily interested in what he calls "big concept" works. "All I wanted to do was tell a tale. I didn't want to do broad-canvas," he said. He also wanted to escape the fact that the nonfiction writer is saddled with characters and circumstances that may be far from ideal. "In real-life stories, what's frustrating is that the facts most often don't fit exactly the way you'd like them to," he said. "The victim, say a person on Death Row, isn't necessarily a very admirable character. He may be innocent, but he's often still a no-good bum who should be in jail for some other reason, and just didn't happen to commit this particular crime."
"So for me, writing a novel is sort of a way to fix things," he added. "I can improve the elements of real life that don't make for a satisfying tale."
Siegel's own career has worked out very much along lines he could have plotted in 1967, when, as a freshman at Pomona, he began working at a six-college newspaper published three times a week in the basement of the Honnold-Mudd Library. "I was drawn to Pomona because of the intimate, human-scale size, because I would be sitting in small classrooms with full professors rather than in amphitheaters with teaching assistants," he said. One of his teachers and mentors was Darcy O'Brien, a professor of English who became widely known as the author of several bestselling "true crime" books, as well as works of fiction. O'Brien died in 1998. Siegel also fondly recalls studies with, among others, Thomas Pinney, now a professor of English emeritus, Lee McDonald, a professor of politics emeritus, Stephen Erickson, a professor of philosophy, and Stephen Young, who is now the Dr. Mary Ann Vanderzyl Reynolds Professor of English.
"The relationships I forged there, besides with students, were with professors that I got to know in a way that never would have happened at a big university," Siegel said. Among the students he got to know was William G. Keller '70, when they both worked on the cross-college newspaper in the tumultuous late 1960s. "We had to cover building takeovers, demonstrations and stuff like that all the time," Siegel said. "We had to pull all-nighters just to cover all that was going on. We had a wild time." Keller went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent and managing editor of The New York Times. Siegel, after graduating from Pomona, received a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote for a features section of the Los Angeles Times before becoming a national correspondent in 1980.
This summer, he has been sequestered in his study, wrestling with his next newspaper story, and pondering the direction his fourth novel might take. He finds the differing demands of journalism and fiction writing both alluring and frustrating.
"Journalism can be a great preparation for writing novels, because of the discipline required and the experience you gain in the observation of people," he said. "The hardest part of the transition for me is trying to create three-dimensional fictional characters.
"Right now I'm sitting here with 3,000 pages of material for a project I'm doing for the L.A. Times," he added. "It's very daunting to think of how to distill it and interweave it into an article. You would think that if this were to be a piece of fiction, that there would be this great freedom to just sweep all of this stuff off the desk, and just sit there with a pad of paper and your mind, and write it. But of course that just opens up another kind of challenge. Because when you can do anything, the question becomes, what are you going to do? The hardest thing is to try to bring the characters to life, and try to make them something that people will believe in and care about."