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An Interview with Mary Camarillo, author of Those People Behind Us

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Mary Camarillo is the author of the award-winning novels Those People Behind Us and The Lockhart Women. Her awards include the 2022 Indie Author Project Award for California Adult Fiction, the 2022 Willa Literary Award Finalist in Multiform Fiction, and the 2021 First Place Award in the Next Generation Indies for First Fiction.

Those People Behind Us is set in the summer of 2017 in the fictional city of Wellington Beach, California, a suburban coastal town increasingly divided by politics, protests, and escalating housing prices. These divisions change the lives of five neighbors as they search for home and community in a neighborhood where no one can agree who belongs.

Mary’s poems and short fiction have appeared in publications such as Inlandia, 166 Palms, Sonora Review, and The Ear. She currently serves on the advisory boards of Citric Acid, An Orange County Literary Arts Quarterly, and LibroMobile, An Arts Cooperative and Bookstore in Santa Ana, California. Mary lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband, who plays ukulele, and their terrorist cat Riley, who makes frequent appearances on Instagram.

You can buy Those People Behind Us here!

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I’m a people watcher and an eavesdropper and I use what I observe and overhear in my fiction. I always start with characters and then give them lots of trouble and see how they resolve, or don’t resolve, their problems. I know I’m on to something when they start telling me what story they want to be in.

I’m definitely a “pantser” meaning that I don’t use an outline and don’t know how the story will end until very late in the process. It’s good for a writer like me who is always in search of a plot to set some parameters. It was helpful with my first novel The Lockhart Women to frame the story around the O.J. Simpson trials. Those People Behind Us takes place during the summer of 2017 and it is also framed around historical events—the solar eclipse and the Charlottesville Nazi march.

I am a huge fan of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I love reading and writing multiple point of view stories because it allows a broader perspective of all the characters. There were three points of view in The Lockhart Women. Those People has five rotating points of view, as well as many secondary characters. It was a challenge to keep the voices distinctive. I spent a lot of time in everyone’s heads, figuring out how they saw the world and what they really wanted.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

After high school, I worked a variety of jobs. I was a drapery maker, a pizza seller, a masseuse, and a piano teacher. When I’d saved enough money, I backpacked across Europe alone for three months, then came home and went to work for the post office. I never intended to make a career there but I stayed on for many reasons.

The benefits were generous. Five weeks of vacation and ten paid holidays meant I could keep traveling. I made lifelong friends and met my husband. There was a pension too. Douglas Aircraft had just laid off my engineer father right before he was entitled to his pension. I saw value in security.

At first I sorted mail and sold stamps but eventually I found my way into the accounting office, went back to school at night, got promoted into management, earned a degree and a CPA license, and finished my career as an audit manager for the Office of Inspector General.

My degree was in business administration, but I’ve been a voracious reader of novels my entire life. Writing and editing all those audit reports weirdly gave me the idea to try my hand at fiction. I noticed similarities. Audit reports concern a problem and are required to identify the cause and effect, as in why did the bad thing happen and who the heck cares?

Good fiction, in my opinion, helps us understand other people and their problems and teaches us to care. Audit reports are required to be truthful of course, but the best fiction also tells the truth, and is a lot more fun to write.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I knew early on I wanted to call this novel “Those People Behind Us.” This book is set in a neighborhood in a fictional suburban coastal town called Wellington Beach, based on a housing tract where I live in Huntington Beach, California. “Those people” is an expression I find myself using all too frequently about the people around me.

The characters in the novel also use this expression. One character is sure that “those people” in his neighborhood judge him for driving a 16-year-old Camry. One believes “those people” at his gym judge him because he’s living in his car. Another is concerned about “those people” her husband is determined to make friends with because she’s uncomfortable with their opinions.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

Thrilling! It never gets old. My covers were both designed by Julie Metz.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

My book has a Spotify list (listen here!) and music includes James McMurtry, the Monkees, Tom Waits, Jason Isbell, John Prine, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos.

I also wrote liner notes for Those People Behind Us on David Gutowski’s blog.

David is also known as the Large Hearted Boy and he is a music-loving man who lives in Brooklyn, though his heart is deep in the American South. His website, newsletter and blog, Largehearted Boy, is all about sharing his love for music, literature, and popular culture.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope my readers realize the importance of empathy. The neighborhood where my characters live is increasingly divided by politics, protests and escalating housing prices, as so many neighborhoods are these days. This is a town where everyone is searching for home and community and no one can agree who belongs. Some of the characters don’t even believe they belong where they live.

Keith, estranged from his family, is lonely. Ray is astonished at how much his neighbors’ cars cost, more than he ever earned in a year. Jeannette is so numbed by tragedy she doesn’t believe she belongs anywhere in the world. Josh is sure his neighborhood is the most boring place in the world and can’t wait to grow up and move away. Lisa, the real estate agent, is focused on ensuring property values continue to rise and is adamant that the beach lifestyle she cherishes doesn’t change. She’s sure she knows who “belongs” and who doesn’t.

All the characters make assumptions about the people around them, without knowing or trying to imagine what might be going on in their lives. In the end, when they allow themselves to find a small amount of empathy, they realize they have more in common than they expected.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

The best part is when readers seek me out and tell me how much they enjoyed my books. There are so many books published every year. For a reader to find and read mine, and then let me know that they liked it is wonderful.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I’m working on a third novel. I’m not ready to say much about it except that it’s about some people with some problems.

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