Monte Schulz has a new novel out — and it’s either his third or his fifth depending on how you count it. His first, Down by the River, came out in 1990; a decade later came three novels published by the très-adventurous comic publisher Fantagraphics. The three originally began as one jazz-era “literary novel,” as Schulz described it, titled Crossing Eden, but he decided to split the 600-page multivoiced magnum opus into three books: This Side of Jordan, The Last Rose of Summer, and The Big Town.
Naughty, the brand-new book, has its own kind of split consciousness including a vivid ironic judicial debate on the meaning of schizophrenia. Launching in the mood of a California noir novel, Naughty swerves seamlessly with murderous climaxes into utter realism, the story being a mostly factual retelling of the lurid real-life murderers Iva and Ralph Kroeger. Schulz, who remembers following the crimes as a kid, is a bit divided over his steamy book, too. “I found a file the other day about [the crimes] dated 2003,” he told me, sitting in his book-filled office in his Mission Canyon home last week. “I didn’t think I had even been working that hard or long on the book, but there it was, 10 years.”
Monte is the son of famed cartoonist Charles Schulz, who gave us the un-noir world of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Linus. But Monte’s been a contributing Santa Barbaran since the late 1970s when he graduated from UCSB (occasionally teaching at the College of Creative Studies). Nowadays, he’s much better known as a writer and inheritor of Barnaby and Mary Conrad’s mantle, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which is where he first announced his three-in-one books sale back in 2008. “A long time ago, Gary Groth from Fantagraphics had invited me to attend a comics panel about my father,” explained Schulz. “Afterward, we were talking, and he told me they’d just published their first prose novel” — a first for a comic company, though Groth has long championed a very literary brand of comics publishing. “I told him I wrote a novel,” said Schulz. “He said he wanted to read it. Over the weekend, he called me up and said, ‘Let’s publish the bastard.’”
Groth promised to eventually publish it as separate books and then, Schulz said, as one originally planned book. Meanwhile, Schulz sent him the first third of his unfinished new book, Naughty, which Groth also grabbed. “I could announce at the conference I had sold five novels.”
All that was left was to finish Naughty, which Schulz said was easy, though the groundwork seems obsessively tortured. The style flowed, though the idioms were nearly archaic now, his noir forbears. “People say [I write like] James M. Cain. I like Cain, but truthfully the real influences are kind of weird.” A fan of Carson McCullers and the poet Carl Sandburg, whom his father introduced him to, Schulz long admired a certain American lyricism. “But truthfully, I got the pacing of the novel from Robert Bloch [who wrote Psycho], who wasn’t a great writer but knew how to stretch a story out.” Schulz also did exhaustive research, which was accidentally aided by a journalist he knew from college, Boniface “Boney” Saludes, who covered the 1960s case. (Saludes and the late Barnaby Conrad turn up in cameo roles. Conrad told Schulz to have the characters mock his name in a specific, politically incorrect slur. Schulz obliged.) Schulz also hired a private detective who found trial records and more. The novel’s title derives from the trial’s verbatim transcripts.
Now that it’s over, though, Schulz wants change. “I’ve had it with writing books,” he said; we spent the rest of the morning reviewing tunes he recorded with Santa Barbara’s musicians, including a lush ballad, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” which Schulz proudly compares with movie tunes of the 1960s.
He’s proud of his book and loves that people enjoy it, but music was a first love. Orchestrating pop songs may be more expensive — he’s hired musicians and producers — but is more immediately rewarding than the sullen art of novels. “It’s not hyperbole to say I’m happy to come full circle,” he said.
“At our Christmas party, I played my songs for about 65 friends. Now all of them have heard my songs. Only three of them have read my books.”
Monte Schulz’s Naughty can be purchased at area bookstores and online at amazon.com.