One theme that unites author Steven Mayfield’s fiction is his interest in small towns. “I grew up in [one], so maybe that’s why I’m fixated on them,” he says. Mayfield lives in Portland, Oregon, now, but his new book, Treasure of the Blue Whale, is set in Tesoro, a fictional town on the California coast. In its appreciative review of Mayfield’s novel, Kirkus specifically praises the depiction of Tesoro and its residents: “Readers looking for a slightly stylized yarn of small-town drama will find much to enjoy in this charming book.”
It’s a sure recipe for intriguing fiction. Start with a sleepy town where nothing happens, then assess the fallout when something finally does. Mayfield says he wanted an event that “threw everyone in the town into a dither.”
In Treasure of the Blue Whale, that event is an unexpected discovery: One morning in the summer of 1934, 10-year-old Connor O’Halloran finds a mysterious blob washed up on shore. The pungent mass turns out to be ambergris, whale discharge valued by the perfume industry. Soon the whole town knows of Connor’s discovery. He decides he’ll share the fortune with his fellow citizens, who are overwhelmed by the possibilities of their new wealth.
“I wanted to point out some of the things about money that make people ugly and small,” Mayfield says. “But I also wanted to say something about the world without making people feel wretched about it.”
With the townspeople banking on their new fortunes, Cyrus Dinkle, the town’s predatory miser, sees an opportunity. He opens lines of credit to help Tesoro’s residents get a head start on spending the money they don’t yet have. When it turns out that the blob might not actually be all that valuable, Connor and others have to devise a way to stop Dinkle’s scheming from bankrupting the entire town.
Although Connor is 10 years old when the blob washes up on shore, he’s narrating the story as a 91-year-old man reflecting on that fateful summer of his childhood. Tuning the voice to the right frequency—an old man’s reflections capturing a young boy’s excitement—was one of the main challenges Mayfield faced.
“It was very cumbersome,” Mayfield says. “I wanted the wisdom of the old man and the innocence of the child. Some of the stupid things we do when we’re kids, a kid wouldn’t appreciate in himself. So it had to be an old man reflecting.” After some tough love from his agent, and five or six drafts, Mayfield finally found the balance the book demanded.
Mayfield has been writing fiction since college, but his career as an author has hardly been a straight line. After college, where he studied English, history, and creative writing, he did a brief stint in Hollywood as a sketch comedy writer, but the work made him miserable. He decided to go to medical school. Thus began a fiction-writing hiatus of 20 years.
Yet Mayfield says that time was essential to his development as a writer. “It taught me discipline,” he says. Though he wasn’t writing fiction, he wrote and published scientific articles, abstracts, and reviews—over 40 in total. “That forced me to follow the rules,” he says. “I learned a lot about writing, composition, [and] how to write beginnings, middles, and endings. I learned to be a much more patient person.”
Mayfield credits his experience as a clinician, as well. For years, he was a neonatologist, an intensive care doctor for premature and extremely ill infants. His interactions with colleagues and with the parents of his patients had a lasting impact on his emotional and empathic faculties. “You become kinder,” he says. “We’re either products or victims of our experience. You become more cognizant of the well of courage and decency that’s in people when they’re put in certain situations.”
Mayfield is quick to credit his influences. He has a special affection for Charles Dickens, whose influence is revealed in the names of Tesoro’s townspeople, a colorful cast of characters: Cyrus Dinkle, Milton Garwood, Skitch Peterson, Fiona Littleleaf. Mayfield also mentions Sinclair Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Muriel Spark, and John Steinbeck as the writers who shaped 10% of the writer he is today.
“The other ninety% is pure smartass,” he jokes.
In Blue Whale, Dickens even gets a personal shoutout. Connor reflects that his and his brother’s upbringing “may seem the stuff of Dickens—a pair of orphans…a frail mother, and my family’s reliance upon neighbors.” But as Connor sees it, their childhood was full of good fortune thanks to the people of Tesoro:
The citizens of Tesoro embraced us, providing not one or two parents but nearly four hundred, all of whom made certain our bellies were full, our shoes sturdy, our homework completed before bedtime, and an occasional orange or piece of candy was discovered in our lunch pails. Folks were not shy to remind us about please and thank you; we were routinely subjected to unscheduled ear, teeth, and fingernail inspections….Most important, Alex and I were given moral compasses to discern philosophical north from south.
“In a small town, anybody’s business is everybody’s business,” Mayfield says. “When I was growing up, the bottom line was that if somebody in town needed help, we would pitch in. That’s the feeling I really wanted to have in this book.”
As if making up for the decades he wasn’t writing fiction, Mayfield is busier than ever. He has two books on deck, both about small towns. Like Blue Whale, his next novel spans decades and features a con man, an enchantress, the Oracle of Delphi, and the fulfillment of a destiny. The book after that is set in a small Idaho town during the Spanish flu of 1918.
“As with everything I write,” Mayfield says, “I’m focused on these people in small towns who gather together to pursue a common goal.” While it’s a hopeful vision, he admits it might not be the most realistic. “It may just be my little dream,” he says. For now, at least, he’ll keep dreaming—and writing.
Walker Rutter-Bowman is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York.