In person, as on the page, Mark Arax is a captivating storyteller with a rich tone to his voice. If you think you don’t care about water, listen anyway. Our live audience was mesmerized by what he had to say and how he said it.
To the East of Silicon Valley is another low-lying region that is just as innovative, although the product feeds our bodies rather than our minds. For more than 100 years, the Central Valley has reflected the world’s changing tastes in fruits, vegetables and nuts. Much of the Valley is naturally arid, and ranchers count on the relocation of water for their crop. Author Mark Arax traces the fascinating flow of water on its natural and unnatural paths in "The Dreamt Land."
You’re a resident, you’re also a native of the Valley. When did you first understand that what we do with water might be a little different than what everybody else does with water?
My grandparents, after we sold the last ranch along the San Joaquin River, moved to a suburb in Fresno called Fig Garden, and three houses down was this huge irrigation canal, and my grandmother made me promise I would never go near it. She said, “It’s got a magical power to it. It will lure you up and into the waters, and you will drown.” She said, “And no one will come to save your body.” I said, “Why not, Grandma?” She said, “Because the flow of one irrigation canal is much more important to the Valley than the body of one silly boy.” To recover would mean to shut down that flow. So I had a sense that something was strange but I never bothered to ask where that water was coming from, where it was going, and to whom and by what right. So that’s when I had a sense.
One of your influences was Saroyan, and you come from the land of Saroyan. What was it about his writing?
Saroyan was a very earthy writer. I knew him. He was a friend of my grandfather. He said, “I have 300 words in my vocabulary. Count them.” I never actually counted them, but I got what he was saying. You don’t need a thesaurus to write beautifully, and he took those 300 words and they were magic. So I learned from him.
You put into print the perfect description of a smell or the flow of water. Are you aware of how poetic it is?
If someone is writing, and they’re being honest with you, they’re writing from insecurity. You always think that thing is going to leave you. It visits, and then sometimes it doesn’t visit, and you can’t articulate anything. The work involved in capturing something like that takes a lot. Saroyan might have been a genius and just tossed off these incredible lines. That doesn’t happen for me. It’s going in and polishing and polishing and polishing. Sometimes something comes out full blossom, but mostly it’s work. Hard work.
CapRadio’s Donna Apidone interviewed Mark Arax on May 23, 2019.
Water Music; George Frideric Handel. Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin.