After more than 25 years of work in the publishing business as a book designer, copywriter, and packager, Santa Ynez Valley resident Robert Gerson recently released his debut novel, Life: part-time.
Originally from New York City, Gerson visited his sister here in the late 1970s, when she owned the Midnight Butterfly gift shop at 607 State Street. “I landed here on a picture-perfect Santa Barbara afternoon after leaving N.Y.C. on a sub-freezing-cold February morning,” recalled Gerson. “I still recall the final curving flight approach to the airport, seeing the breathtaking view of the ocean, Channel Islands, and the mountains for the first time. After a few days, there wasn’t much convincing needed to make Santa Barbara my home.” He moved to town in 1977 and lived all around town, from Donze Avenue to the Riviera to Mission Canyon, before settling in the valley 16 years ago.
He used all of those experiences to inform Life: part-time. Set in Santa Barbara during the summer of 1979, it’s a magical-realism romp involving young love, career dreams, and much more. Gerson shares more about the book below.
Why did you choose the Santa Barbara summer of 1979 as the setting for Life: part-time?
[It] felt like the perfect transition year after the culture-changing decades of the 1960 to 1970s, and just before the country’s transformation towards a different direction that began in the early 1980s. Late 1970s California was home to the early developments of the personal computer and the internet, some of which unfolded at UCSB.
One of the central themes of the novel is creativity and innovation. Back then, Santa Barbara was also home to start-ups and individuals involved in the early days of the environmental, sustainable living, alternative energy, and natural foods movement. That world view is central to the main character’s “lost and abandoned idea.” That era contained the initial seeds for so many ideas struggling to take root right now.
What is your novel about?
The novel follows two main characters as they get their lives up and running in their early twenties. Nicholas, a young author-illustrator (write what you know!) moves from Colorado to Santa Barbara to be closer to the ocean. He makes an impulsive choice and takes a job as an art director with a gifts and gadgets marketing company. The job consumes him. He abandons his career as a children’s book author-illustrator and puts on hold his idea for a nature-based currency that he was developing while writing a children’s book about plant ecology. He then struggles with the body-and-soul-threatening consequences from his career decision.
Paige, a California native, works at the Santa Barbara Travel Bureau and the Earthling Book Shop. She is also an aspiring songwriter. The two main characters’ lives quickly intertwine after a chance meeting where they discuss their favorite songs. The novel is written in the magical realism genre where everyday life is accented by the spiritual, creative, invisible energies surrounding us.
What are some familiar locations that Santa Barbara readers would enjoy seeing on the page?
The novel opens at Hendry’s Beach a few days after the Solstice Parade. The main characters continue their mysterious life-changing journeys at the Breakwater, East Beach, Butterfly Beach, Mission Canyon, and at a secluded organic farm in Gaviota. I loved writing many of the scenes and chapters that take place at The Arlington Theatre, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the main branch of the Santa Barbara Library on Anapamu.
Long-gone restaurants and food establishments also provide the backdrop for many scenes: The Santa Barbara Nutrition Center (now Jeannine’s Bakery directly across from the Independent’s office), the Sojourner Restaurant, the John Dory at the harbor, and J.K. Frimples.
Paige, the co-lead character, works two jobs. Her day job is at the Santa Barbara Travel Bureau, still there today at the State Street location in the book. Her evening and weekend job is at the Earthling Book Shop, which in 1979 was on the corner of State and Victoria Street before their final move across from the Art Museum at State and Anapamu.
Nicholas is a swimmer, so there are many scenes above and below the water in the channel. For those readers who like the always exciting world of office and business life, some of the story happens at the offices of a catalog company and ad agency at State and Cota streets.
One of my favorite chapters that I had so much fun writing begins in the Santa Barbara Art Museum. After a philosophical discussion about art, artists of the past, and the mystery of where their creative souls go, the two main characters continue next door to the library for an art-history-meets-romance moment before they end up at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens.
Why does Santa Barbara make such a great place for a novel?
Where do I start? I’m madly in love with everything about Santa Barbara. On any given day I can have the novel’s characters in the ocean, on the beach, wandering through our beautiful city, or hiking in the mountains, all before lunchtime.
Are there any familiar faces/characters that some people may recognize?
All of the characters in the novel are as every novel claims: A work of fiction. But the characters in Life: part-time all live in a historically accurate Santa Barbara that existed here in 1979. So I guess the most familiar character in the novel is probably: Santa Barbara.
How long was the book in the works?
Six years of writing, editorial conferences, rewriting, and daydreaming in 1979 Santa Barbara. Originally, I intended this to be a graphic novel. I am also an artist-illustrator and relished the idea of illustrating Santa Barbara. I have about 50 completed illustrations that included 12 graphic-novel-formatted pages. My writing style, realist illustration style, and the length of the story quickly overpowered the limited space of the graphic novel format.
Do you have plans for the next novel?
Currently, I’m working on a novel titled Tree Recordings. This novel’s setting is far from the serene, Mediterranean-flavored life we know here in Santa Barbara. Tree Recordings takes place on the crowded, noisy, chaotic streets of New York City in 1970. It’s the story of our relationship with our parents as they encounter life’s many struggles and challenges. Much of the novel is set in the creative culture of New York City. The teenage main characters are learning to navigate the urban decay around them. The magical realism element in this story involves some of the city’s oldest residents: the trees.
411 | Robert Gerson’s debut novel Life: part-time is available at The Book Den and Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito, and The Book Loft in Solvang. For people who prefer online shopping: Amazon, Apple Books, and BarnesandNoble.com.
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