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Jane Vandenburgh, a fifth-generation Californian, has been in self-described “exile” in Washington for the past three years, ever since her husband took a new job here. The unintended benefit of that relocation is that it provided her enough distance to complete The Physics of Sunset, her second novel, in which the state of California and the city of Berkeley are as much characters as the story’s protagonists—Anna Bell-Shay, a self-effacing poet, and her extramarital love interest, Alec Baxter, an intense, intellectual architect. Both Anna and Alec are transplanted Easterners who are less than enthralled with Berkeley, their adopted home. Similarly, Vandenburgh herself admits to decidedly mixed feelings about her former place of residence.
On the one hand, Vandenburgh, 50, acknowledges a “homesickness” for California. “I’m not necessarily saying the whole place should fall into the ocean,” she says, rather magnanimously. “I want it there if I go back.” On the other hand, she reviles the state’s recent penchant for violent upheavals. Vandenburgh herself has survived several deadly earthquakes, plus the severe 1991 wildfires in Berkeley and Oakland, in which she lost a house she hadn’t even moved her possessions into yet—though the prior occupant lost most of his, because he hadn’t yet moved them out. Even the city of Berkeley has worn on her. “It’s been 30 years since its peak importance, and it has that sort of sad feeling about it,” she says. “It’s idealism settled into middle-aged reality. It used to be an honor to be a street person; now they’re just ‘the homeless.’”
Vandenburgh’s next book—this one nonfiction—will return to Southern California, the site of her first novel, Failure to Zigzag, which was published in 1989. Titled Nether Land, the new book will be a memoir of her family’s role in developing—or more precisely, overdeveloping—the Los Angeles suburbs. “My dad was an architect, one of the developers of the regional mall,” she says. “Each of my grandfathers was a banker in real estate. But my Dad felt unhappy about the changes he saw on the landscape.” So does Vandenburgh, in no uncertain terms. “I think L.A. is hell—unmitigated hell,” she says. “We swam a lot when I was a kid, and even years ago our lungs ached from the air pollution.”
Vandenburgh admits to toying with the idea of writing a Washington novel. She’s tentatively calling it The Floating Island, intending to conjure images of the swamp-encircled capital. The novel, she adds, would be set during the Clinton impeachment and populated by Washington arts bureaucrats. “Arts bureaucrats are the people we know,” she explains. “We don’t know the A-list.” —Louis Jacobson