Victoria Patterson picks the place we meet for lunch, Alta Coffee in Newport Beach, where years ago she waited tables. It’s lunchtime and crowded, but a server finds us a quiet table on the patio. Walking to the back, she spots a magazine article pinned to a bulletin board. It’s about the son of a longtime employee, a young local furniture maker whom she babysat when he was a boy. Wordlessly but with great emotion, she places a palm on his photo.
She’s Tory to her friends at the cafe, and her bond to Newport Beach is unbreakable. She grew up here, a daughter of privilege—with country clubs and private tennis lessons, and weekends in Catalina on a classmate’s family yacht. As a novelist and short-story writer, Patterson has spun literary gold from her insider access, but also because of her ambivalence about it.
Gilded Age New York had Edith Wharton, and contemporary Orange County has Victoria Patterson. Like Wharton, she explores social hierarchies and class prerogatives with a penetrating and critical eye. And like John O’Hara, another writer to whom she has been compared, she sees herself as a truth teller, and writes with a chip on her shoulder.
“There was something about the area that rubbed me the wrong way,” says the 45-year-old, who now lives in South Pasadena. “The entitlement, and everyone going to USC. If you’ve gone through high school here for those formative years, it’s really entrenched inside you, this Newport Beach thing. There are people (from Newport Beach) who I’ve bumped into over the years, who have that same sort of, ‘Oh, yeah, I was there. I remember.’ It’s a survivor’s thing.”
She set the tone in her first book, “Drift.” Published in 2009 during the heyday of Orange County’s reality-show fame, it turned the sparkle and cheek of the county’s TV image on its head. The collection’s 13 linked stories depict an insular community defined by its Boston Whalers and canary yellow Jaguars, and inhabited by cheerless restaurant workers, discarded spouses, and disaffected teenagers. There’s sex, drugs, and enough alcohol to float a pleasure boat.
She followed up in 2011 with a novel acidly titled “This Vacant Paradise.” Modeled on Wharton’s tragic masterpiece “House of Mirth,” it tracks the decline of an unmarried woman in 1990s Newport Beach. At 33, the woman feels pressure from her friends and family to use her beauty and sex appeal to attract a rich husband—or risk losing her social standing. She instead falls in love with a college professor, but he proves to be less resistant to the lure of wealth and prestige than he’d seemed.
The dark portraits of her hometown drew the attention of the literary establishment. “Patterson’s unflinching account of the seedy side of a real-life Xanadu is frightening, immersive, and wonderfully realized,” a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote about “Drift.” A critic for The New York Times called “This Vacant Paradise” a “memorable, penetrating, fully achieved novel.”
“What stands out to me is her courageousness,” says Michael Jaime-Becerra, one of Patterson’s professors at the University of California, Riverside. “She’s taking a critical view on Orange County, parts of Orange County that aren’t paid attention to or that people know but don’t speak about openly. That makes her work exciting for a lot of her readers.”
But her autobiographically grounded work got a different reception closer to home. Her parents hardly spoke to her after they read “Drift.” “They were devastated by it,” she says. “My mom said her husband (not Victoria’s father) would read it to her while they were driving to go golf and she would just be crying, bawling. My dad was so upset. I thought I was out.”
The freeze thawed after six months, but her brother has avoided reading anything she’s written, so it doesn’t come between them, she says.
Patterson compares the sensation of writing about Newport Beach to being a dog with a rag doll in its mouth, slamming it right and left. She bears down ever harder in her novel released this month, “The Little Brother.” It’s a fictionalized account of the infamous and sensational gang-rape case involving Gregory Haidl, the son of an Orange County assistant sheriff. Its characters are more than shallow and casually cruel, capable of savage, soul-crushing evil. “I knew right away that for a writer, this was the ultimate Newport Beach story.”
On the restaurant patio, her former boss stops by to ask about Patterson’s two teenage sons. The old friends trade stories about their children getting their driver’s licenses, hand-me-down first cars, and a former movie star who lives nearby. Patterson is relaxed and uninhibited. Her brown hair frames a heart-shaped face, and her green-brown eyes shine when she laughs, which she does often. Her warm personality seems at odds with her concession that she was driven to become a writer to get revenge on “this Newport Beach thing.”
Patterson had an unconventional childhood. Her father’s job with a steel company kept the family on the move in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Texas. She and her older brother were close, and their parents gave them free rein to roam together. “My brother would always take me with him and go out in the jungle,” she says. “We were out and about doing stuff. It was kind of fun and exciting and scary.”
The family settled closer to her maternal grandparents in Yorba Linda when she was in the second grade, and then they decamped to Newport Beach as she started seventh grade. Her parents’ marriage broke up about the same time, and she and her brother were split up. He went with their father to San Clemente while she stayed in Newport Beach with her mother and stepfather. To make matters worse, she was miserable at Corona del Mar Middle School and later the high school.
One incident is emblematic of those days. Patterson repurposed it in the story “Tijuana Burro Man” with a character named Rosie as her stand-in.
“Last year in seventh grade, Rosie had a bad perm. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, a photograph in her school yearbook (place the yearbook on a table, let it fall open, and it would land on the picture) had humiliated her. … In a classroom full of students it appeared as if the cameraman had yelled, Hey Rosie! Hers was the only face turned to the camera, startled, a whooshed fan of kinky hair, a glimmer of metal from the hardwire of her braces. She was pale, but appeared ghostlike because of the flash. The caption under the photograph: What planet are you from?”
A habitual journal-keeper who excelled in English classes, Patterson recorded everything she witnessed: conformity, chauvinism, materialism, competitiveness. “In high school, I said, ‘Someday I’m going to write about this. I’m going to get my revenge. I’m going to tell what I saw and what this place is like. And everyone’s going to kiss my ass.’ ”
Meanwhile, she explored beyond the “white, rich, Republican, country-club” atmosphere of the beach community, and would crash quinceanera parties in Santa Ana. Conversant in Spanish, she loved the warm feeling of welcome at those celebrations. Her sense of adventure and the need to escape also contributed to her teenage experiments with alcohol, drugs, and sex. By the time she graduated from Corona del Mar High School in 1988, she had a serious drinking problem.
After a couple of semesters of bad behavior at Chapman University and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she dropped out and returned to Orange County. She sought treatment for alcohol addiction and spent a year getting sober at New Directions for Women, a rehab facility in Costa Mesa, which she calls her “alma mater.” The program required patients to hold down a job, and that’s when she found work at the cafe. She was 20.
“That was my first job, my sober job. So they knew me when I was really, really raw. I would go to work, and someone would say, ‘How are you?’ and I’d just start crying. They were very sweet to me. I stayed for a long time.”
At 22, she was ready to return to school and enrolled at UC Riverside, where she majored in English literature. She married, had kids, continued working as a waitress, and began turning her trove of material into short stories. In UC Riverside’s MFA program, she studied with several writers who use Southern California as the backdrop in their fiction, including Susan Straight, who re-imagines Riverside as Rio Seco, and Jaime-Becerra, who writes about his hometown El Monte.
By the time she graduated in 2006, she had the stories that comprise “Drift.” The manuscript impressed Michael Carlisle, a literary agent. He agreed to represent her and sold it to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Eventually, her work came to the attention of Jack Shoemaker, editorial director of Counterpoint Press. An eminent West Coast literary figure, Shoemaker has worked with renowned writers, including Gary Snyder, and is also known for taking chances on younger writers with distinctive voices, such as novelist Kevin Jack McEnroe, the son of actress Tatum O’Neal and tennis star John McEnroe. Shoemaker took Patterson under his wing.
“He said, ‘I want to work with her long-term.’ They gave me a home. I’m so lucky, and I totally know it. They’re super-loyal to me, and I feel loyal to them. I feel like I have permission to go wherever I want.”
She took a detour from writing about Orange County with her third book, “The Peerless Four,” a novel about female athletes in the 1928 Olympics. But she inevitably circled back because of her fascination with the Haidl case. Gregory and two of his friends were convicted in the notorious 2002 sexual assault of an intoxicated 16-year-old on a pool table in the garage of his father’s Corona del Mar home. The teenage perpetrators videotaped the crime, and the tape was used as evidence in the two lengthy trials that followed. When the victim came forward on the 10th anniversary of the assault to identify herself, Patterson contacted her. The victim told her about plans to write a nonfiction account, and gave Patterson permission to go ahead with a novel. “She gave me her blessing to proceed, and we both agreed there was more than one book in the story.”
Patterson says she felt an immediate empathy with the girl. Not only had the assault taken place in a house within walking distance of the childhood home of Patterson’s good friend, but she realized that her own teenage rebellion might have placed her in a similarly vulnerable position. “I felt like, ‘Gosh, that could have happened to me.’ I just really, really related to her and that case.”
Despite her identification with the girl, Patterson decided to tell the story from a male point of view. She invented Even Hyde, the younger brother of the Gregory Haidl-based character, called Gabriel Hyde in the novel. Even comes into possession of the video the boys used to film the crime and must decide whether to turn over the incriminating evidence to the police, or destroy it and stay loyal to his family.
As the mother of two teenage sons, Patterson says she began to think about the motivations and circumstances that might lead young men to commit a violent sex crime. Her sons played football at the time, and “their teammates would come over and be eating all our food, and I’d be watching them and thinking, ‘This is the same age as the people who did this.’ I’d listen to how they talk. I was trying to connect the dots to find out how it could happen for men to think this was OK.”
She didn’t find a definitive answer. But she came away thinking that rape is “more about males and men’s relationships with men than it is even about women. Women are sort of nonentities in the whole thing, or less than human. It’s more about men and power, especially gang rape; it’s a coded thing between men.”
As she wrote, she found that the connection she instinctively felt for the real-life female victim extended to her male characters, including the father who tries to protect his son.
“I ended up having way more empathy for these people than I ever, ever expected, and still do. Which was a surprise to me. When you write, it’s surprising. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to learn. That, for me, was the biggest surprise.”
Patterson has been busy preparing for the launch of “The Little Brother.” She’s always curious to see how readers in Orange County will react to her work.
“I think there’s an appreciation that at least someone is taking the area seriously, and it’s not a Real-Wives-of-Newport-Beach-or-Orange-County type of gloss-over. It tries to assess the damage and the environment for everyone.
“I’ve gone to readers’ groups with ladies who could be in my book, and I’ve thought they would be mad at me, and it’s the opposite. I had one lady come up to me and say, ‘I feel like you’re telling my secrets.’ ”
Even her parents have come around. “It was difficult, especially at the beginning, but they’ve learned to roll with it,” Patterson says. “They’re super-proud and supportive. I know they are.”
Still, she seems nervous about the local response this time. “I feel like people might get upset and it might cause some problems. It’s timely, and it comes at it from a different angle. I wonder about that. I don’t know if (readers will finish) it with a little bit of empathy for the father and the other brother, Gabe. I would imagine that that’s what people might have problems with more than anything I say about the area.”
After lunch, we say goodbye in front of the cafe, and Patterson heads back in for more catch-up with her friends. She likes to keep tabs on Newport Beach news. She’s been reading with interest about the 2013 cheating scandal at Corona del Mar High and the ruckus there over a prom draft among male students. She might not be done with Newport Beach.
Click here to read an excerpt from “The Little Brother.”