The second book in ‘Homegrown,’ Valley Public Radio’s book club about the San Joaquin Valley, is ‘What You See in the Dark,’ by Dinuba native Manuel Muñoz.
The novel follows a director and actress who arrive in Bakersfield in the late 1950s to film a movie at a motel along the old Highway 99. Meanwhile, a love affair between the motel owner’s son and a Mexican-American woman becomes dramatic and deadly. The story is tied to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, ‘Pscyho,’ which includes brief scenes filmed along the 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno.
Manuel Muñoz spoke with FM 89’s Rebecca Plevin about the book, his love for movies, and how the region inspires his creative work. Below are some excerpts from the interview, which aired on Valley Edition.
Your novel, ‘What You See in the Dark,’ is based around the filming of the movie ‘Psycho’ in Bakersfield. Is it commonly known that a few scenes of the movie were shot here?
“The two scenes are backdrop scenes, when Janet Leigh is driving the car along the highway, and she’s going toward the Bates Motel. It’s just filler - it’s the old Highway 99. ‘Psycho’ was actually filmed on a Universal lot in Los Angeles, but the film’s geography is, I would argue, past Bakersfield, and into what people think of as ‘California’s Backwater.' If it’s not Los Angeles or San Francisco, it’s some other place that’s a big mystery to them. So no, I don’t think people think of the geography as being the Central Valley.”
How did you take that tidbit of knowledge, and weave it into a deeper story?
"If you haven’t seen the film, you should be on the lookout for the moment when Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane is leaving Phoenix and she gets stopped by a police officer. When the police officer is finished with his interrogation, she’s driving along the road and the camera cuts to a sign for Gorman."
"I’ve said often: People around the nation will just see it as another name, but everyone in the Valley knows that Gorman means you’re crossing that mountain pass either to or from Los Angeles. It places her geographically. And if you follow where that character is going, and the amount of time that she’s taking to get there, you’re thinking, ‘wait a minute, this might be Bakersfield, this might be Tulare, this might be Delano.’"
You’ve published two other collections of short stories, and both are set in the Central Valley. How does the region inspire your writing?
"I write really from memory and nostalgia. I never lived anywhere else – it was 18 years in Dinuba, in that little town, in the same house. So everything comes from memory."
"What I’ve learned to do over the time is to think of the Valley as a metaphor. It’s always been a place that provokes a reaction in people - for me it was always about leaving. I could look at the mountains and see the mountains as walls. It’s a sense of entrapment. As much as I love the Valley, it always provokes a feeling of needing to get out of it, and always roping me back in, because of family. I have lots of reasons to go back and be confronted by some of my old feelings, and that’s really good material for writing. "