Ray A. March at Home: Built-in Social Distancing and Regional History

Ray A. March is an independent journalist whose articles and essays have appeared in Time, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. He is the author of several books, including Alabama Bound: Forty-Five Years inside a Prison System and A River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River (Nebraska, 2012). His next book, Mass Murder in California’s Empty Quarter (Bison Books, 2020), is available this Fall.

What has changed (or not changed) about your writing life at home?

We live on the RB9, ten acres of tree-lined irrigated horse pasture just outside of Cedarville, population 500 and dwindling each census. The region is a high desert stretch of playa in Northeastern California called Surprise Valley. It’s a valley where whites brag of being fourth and fifth generation and Natives say nothing of their 5,000 years on the same landscape. If you weren’t born here, and I was not, you are perpetually a newcomer. Because of its remoteness our county has escaped COVID-19—at this writing.

The years pass quickly here. There is no suspension of time like in Lost Horizon and unlike Shangri-la there is no affection for literature and the arts either. But there is a sphere of peacefulness in the daily ritual of going to the modest post office that rests between the little grocery and a tiny library that’s open one-half-day a week.

What affects have social distancing had on your writing?

Social distancing has never been a problem here. Other than ranchers waving to each other from their trucks—a gesture of going along to get along—there is an automatic spacing of people. The county has less than three folks per acre. It’s ideal for writers who don’t need to descend from their high rise apartment like Woody Allen to pick up a midnight snack at the corner deli.

What is one-non writing activity that helps you stay creative at your keyboard? What are you working on now?

We do have friends. Two artists and two disc golf fanatics. One of the artists keeps her iPhone blasting NPR news from her blouse pocket all day while she paints, while her partner, who is hard of hearing anyway, removes his hearing aids. The disc golf fanatics cut a swath through forty acres of sage and set up an 18-hole course. I am working on an experimental memoir in the third person while I recover from a groin injury suffered on the third hole in the middle of an obstinate growth of sage.

Ray A. March

Your book exposes a story of mass murder, a community’s racism, and tribal treachery. What do you hope readers will take away from it?

This is the last place anyone would expect a mass murder to occur, but in 2014 that’s exactly what happened over in Alturas. I don’t want to sound mercenary or a braggart but in my career as a journalist I have usually been in the right place at the right time. Barbara and I knew the killer of the four victims and two survivors. We knew nearly the entire cast involved in the killings: politicians, street talkers, sources who asked for anonymity and the bloody racist history of the county. 

Writing the story of the murders and subsequent two trials started routinely. However, what unfolded was a bizarre undercurrent of hostility from members of the Cedarville tribe and the undeniable depth of white racism against the Natives. There’s lots of irony. I’ll leave it there. When Mass Murder in California’s Empty Quarter comes out in October we may have to move.

Post script: I have located a safe house, just in case. You can find me at www.rayamarch.com. Or, check with the postmistress. Kendra knows almost everything about everybody. You can trust her.

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