With recent headlines such as: “Fresno Man Beats Wife, Abducts 2-Year-Old Over Instagram Selfies,” it’s no wonder Fresno is not affectionately thought of as California’s heartland. Although this Central Valley city has much to offer, like its Mediterranean climate, novelist Katherine Taylor, who grew up in Fresno and whose parents still reside there, has a complicated relationship with her hometown. “While other people speak of such fondness and affection for their hometown, I feel like I grew up in a world where I speak about my hometown a bit differently,” she says.
Taylor admits that she has become full-on obsessed with her Fresno complex. She just published her second novel to prominently feature Fresno, for better or worse, and two books in she’s still asking the questions: “Where did this hostility toward my hometown come from? How do I feel like my identity is all tied up in Fresno? How does the place you’re from define you and can you get away from that? And should you get away from that?”
Taylor’s first novel, Rules for Saying Goodbye, follows the journey of a young woman who leaves her family in Fresno in an aimless search for autonomy and purpose in New York, London, and Rome, to name a few stops. As a joke about how all first novels are autobiographical, she named her main character Katherine Taylor; her namesake could never quite shake Fresno’s grasp. In her deeply engrossing new follow-up, Valley Fever, Taylor hits less spot-on with her main character, Ingrid Palamede, yet the story traces a similar trajectory of a young woman finding her place in the world.
“Whole neighborhoods, whole cities, can be ruined by the reasons you left,” declares Ingrid, who finds herself a homeless transient and inconsolably gutted after a series of failed relationships. Despite having spent her adult life running away from home, Ingrid decides to seek refuge on her parents’ 20,000-acre Central Valley farm. On her soul-searching trip home, the reader gets an intimate view of life there: “Fresno smelled like dust and the start of rotting fruit.…The smell of the river and the dust in the vineyards always made me homesick, homesick while I was standing right there at home.” When Ingrid arrives back at the family farm, she soon discovers there are bigger problems beyond her own that she must confront.
Taylor faced many of her own demons while writing Valley Fever over the course of almost 10 painstaking years. Consumed by fear and dread of returning to the writing process after her highly publicized debut, she would sit paralyzed for eight hours at her desk as she tried to approach her second novel. The book she was supposed to be writing was about the New York art world and one of the characters was a girl who was raised on a peach farm in Fresno. After sharing 75 tortured pages with her editor, they both agreed the most interesting part was a single paragraph that described the girl on the farm. Taylor threw out the draft except for that one part and felt immediate relief. “So what had started as a New York-centric novel, what I wanted to write—I couldn’t help myself I had to write about Fresno, apparently.”
The idea for Valley Fever came from a story that happened to friends of Taylor’s parents when she was a child. “A common story of friendship and ruinous betrayal,” she says of this deception that haunted her ever since.Also,her own parents had bought a peach farm as a real estate investment in the ‘80s that went back to the bank and she remembers the great tragedy for her family. In Valley Fever, Ingrid’s father Ned farms with his heart and not his head and after he takes ill, he is nearly blindsided as a family friend takes advantage of his flailing grape business, which he has spent his life cultivating.
From talking to farmer friends of her parents, riding along for pickings, and interviewing people at wineries, Taylor researched the technical details to vividly complete the story that she was struggling to write all along. At its core, Valley Fever is about Ingrid’s tumultuous relationship to that place and how it shapes her own identity—and the book beautifully reaps the flourishing details of life on a vineyard as Ingrid works her way through the ruins, “…like driving through a vat of fresh juice. I drove past acres of dark orchards and vineyards, dark intersections with two-way stops, past closed gas stations and closed bait shops and boarded-up-for-the-night fruit stands. I drove past acre after acre after acre of fields left fallow for the drought, toward home.”
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her first book, What Is Not Missing Is Light, won Rescue Press’ Black Box Poetry Prize.