A CalArts Critical Studies Grad Constructs Stories on Top of Ruins

LilacMinesCover 10-23-08Cheryl Klein’s (Critical Studies MFA 02) latest novel Lilac Mines takes place in a small, one-time ghost town in Northern California. When the main character first arrives, she’s skeptical about its offerings (since she’d hoped for a summer in New York), but she turns her attention to investigating the town’s 100-year-old mystery: the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl in a mineshaft.

We turned over the blogging reins at 24700 to Klein today, who writes about how she became interested in using a fictional ghost town as both a setting for the novel and a metaphor for the various ways history is lost and rewritten.

First, an excerpt from Lilac Mines:

Lilac Mines erupts out of nothing. The skyline promises snowcapped mountains, but the town begins in yellow foothills, as if to get a running start before climbing the mountain, which it does, impressively. Felix studies her map, printed from the Internet. It seems funny that the Internet and Lilac Mines know about each other, but look, there between the Gold Rush Tavern and Nugget Gifts, a sign that says “Internet Café, Cappuccino.” As if there might be a cafe that does not have cappuccino on its menu. Felix quickly surmises that this is Lilac Mines: one foot in the Gold Rush and one in 1997.

The meandering, pixely lines on Felix’s print-out don’t match up with the roads unfolding in front of her. She’s supposed to be on North Main Street, but the signs say West Main Street, suggesting an entirely different orientation. Is this like Little Santa Monica and Big Santa Monica in L.A., something only locals know? Is the key to her map trapped in an oral history?


When I was a kid, anytime we had a break from school, my dad would pack the family in our 1979 Dodge Four Star motor home, and we’d set off for destinations with names like “Dead Horse State Park.” Or places that weren’t quite destinations at all, like “The Loneliest Highway in the U.S.”

At the time, I longed for the alleged normalcy of Disneyland, but our rustic vacations snagged something inside me, especially the trips to old mining towns like Bodie, Calif., and Jerome, Ariz. Studying writing at CalArts, where I received my MFA in 2002, I began to develop a critical and aesthetic vocabulary that helped me explain this fascination to myself.

What I love about ghost towns is that they’re about what’s there and what’s not there. They are ruins on which people build histories and ideas (and in the case of the fictional town of Lilac Mines, I got to build the ruins themselves). This slipperiness is something that Felix, the central character in Lilac Mines, discovers when she tries to investigate the town’s oldest mystery: the disappearance of 16-year-old Lilac Ambrose in one of the mine shafts that runs beneath the town. Because no one knows for sure what happened to her, everyone has a theory.

Ghost towns as sites of unknowable history appeal to me (and Felix) because they’re a perfect metaphor for queer history—the book’s other theme. When I came out shortly before starting school at CalArts, I wanted to soak up as many queer narratives as I could, making up for a lifetime and a culture that lacked them. But they’re not always easy to come by. Meaning that sometimes, you have to make them up. It’s a dirty job, but I’m happy to do it.

CherylHeadshot 05-07-08Cheryl Klein is the author of Lilac Mines (Manic D Press) and The Commuters (City Works Press). The latter was her thesis project when she was in the writing program at CalArts. She works for the California office of Poets & Writers, Inc. and lives in Los Angeles. She blogs about art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Check out her website on upcoming readings and events for Lilac Mines.

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  1. Rjindael // //

    I love those sort of towns too, there are a few old deserted mining in Wales where I live. They are very creepy places but very interesting to explore.