Anne Belden is one of our Writers’ Program alum who has taken many courses with us. Anne points specifically to the Master Class in Novel Writing with Robert Eversz, an advanced courses that runs for nine-months as having the greatest impact on her writing. Over the years Anne has taken full advantage of what Extension has to offer including Writing the Young Adult Novel, numerous specialty courses and several photography courses through the Arts program (her “other love”). Anne is herself a professor and now runs the journalism program at Santa Rosa Junior College. Before she began teaching, she spent eighteen years as a journalist in the Bay Area .
This past year Anne had her first book published, a story about the Wine Country Fires that she wrote with her writing partner, Paul Gullixson. Inflamed: Abandonment, Heroism, and Outrage in Wine Country’s Deadliest Firestorm came out this past October.
Anne was kind enough to sit down with us to chat about what drew her to the story in Inflamed, the challenges of writing nonfiction, and how the journey of creating the book changed her trajectory as a teacher.
WP: Anne, can you tell us a bit about yourself? (background, upbringing, career)?
AB: I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana until age 11, when I moved with my single mother to Northern California. It was quite the culture shock for an innocent Hoosier girl wearing oversized jeans — room to grow — and a red and white checkered shirt embroidered with corn cobs to walk into an ultra-cool Mill Valley classroom. Took a while, but eventually I acclimated. I was the quintessential ‘80s latch-key kid, which in hindsight, helped me develop confidence, resilience and independence.
When I first went to college, I was pretty lost in terms of what I wanted to do with my life though I knew I wanted it to be exciting, and I’d always been a strong writer. I wandered through social science classes at UC Santa Cruz until a counselor told me I’d make a great communication studies major. So I transferred to UCLA, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications in 1988, and after a half-dozen years as a journalist, a master’s in media studies from Stanford University in 1995.
In 2003, I began teaching journalism at Santa Rosa and became a faculty member in 2006. I run the journalism program and advise the student news media, The Oak Leaf News.
WP: What brought you to writing? Why did you want to be a journalist?
AB: After exploring radio news at UCSC, I volunteered to write for the Daily Bruin at UCLA. One night, editors sent me to cover a reception for two actors, Henry Wrinkler and Richard Dreyfuss. I had grown up watching “Happy Days” and loved Dreyfuss in “Jaws” and “The Goodbye Girl,” so I was over-the-moon excited. I interviewed them both, and on the way home to my cockroach-infested apartment, I had an epiphany: I’m going to be a journalist.
At the end of my first year at the Daily Bruin, editors awarded me Staff Writer of the Year. That one award gave me the confidence to believe I could actually do this as a career.
My college newspaper clips helped me land my first reporting job at a small weekly newspaper that no one ever read in Sunnyvale, California. The perfect place to make every mistake known to journalism. Six months later, I took over my editor’s job and a couple years later I was promoted to a flagship weekly, The Los Altos Town Crier, which everyone in town read. This was before spellcheck, so we would get calls about every typo we missed. Soon, I was also managing editor for a half-dozen other weeklies in the chain, owned by Tribune Co.
Producing a 48- to 120-page newspaper every week was quite demanding, and nearly impossible once I had my first baby. Journalism jobs were not family friendly at that time. But one of the great things about journalism is that you can marry it with your current interests. So as I started raising kids, I wrote articles for monthly parenting publications and edited a baby magazine. I also began writing children’s book manuscripts and eventually a novel.
WP: What brought you to UCLA Extension?
AB: Initially, I was looking for classes to take above my master’s degree to move over a column at work and get a raise as I had kids nearing college age. UCLA Extension courses qualified, so I naturally began taking writing courses – at least a dozen of them. I took everything from writing the young adult novel to story development, crafting memorable characters, sojourns through memory, conquering your story and its superstructure and the four-part novel writing series. But the most impactful class was the Master Class in Novel Writing with novelist Robert Eversz. I workshopped my first novel through this year-long program with his expert instruction and a fantastic group of writers.
WP:As this is your first published book, Can you tell us why you chose to write about this story?
AB: The Wine Country fires devastated our region in October 2017. The Tubbs Fire, in particular, burned more than 5,000 homes and businesses and killed 22 people in northeast Santa Rosa. I knew a lot of people who lost homes – friends, colleagues and students — and I toured devastated neighborhoods with my journalism students, one of whom was also a filmmaker.
In the summer of 2018, she asked for my help in finding people to interview for a documentary she was making about the fires. The story that had stuck with me was about two women who had raced to an assisted living home called Villa Capri to get their family members but stayed to evacuate everyone else. At one point they got locked out, with two dozen residents still inside. I found one of the women, Melissa Langhals, and interviewed her while my student filmed it. I think we were all in tears as Melissa told her incredible story of risking her life after all the employees had left. Afterwards, she showed me a new website the assisted living home’s owners, Oakmont Senior Living, had launched that basically said their employees had evacuated the last residents with help from family members. I read it aloud to Melissa, and she said, “Yeah, that’s bullshit.” I quickly realized that the full story hadn’t been told and that the company was perpetuating mistruths.
WP: Was there a was the moment when you realized the story was going to be one of this scope?
AB: Early on we acquired legal depositions from a lawsuit before they were sealed. We were the only journalists to ever have access to these. We pored over more than 6000 pages of legal documents and investigative reports, reviewed hours of police body cam video and listened to hundreds of 911 calls. Most important were our interviews. One interview led to another and eventually 100 more, and many of them required multiple calls, texts, emails and Zoom sessions.
Many times I wished I had a team of reporters to send in a host of directions. It felt like we were trying to put together a 10,000-piece puzzle with an unknown number of pieces missing. It was overwhelming at times. I remember some days when I would just say, “What have I gotten myself into?” But there was only one way out, and that was through it, one word at a time.
WP: What made you so passionate about the story?
AB: The desire to tell the heroes’ stories and the impact the botched evacuation had on the elderly residents compelled me to keep digging. One person’s story would lead to more absolutely incredible stories, none of which had been heard before. And as dramatic as the story was at Villa Capri, the events that unfolded at its sister facility next door were equally dramatic.
I also wanted to clear up some misconceptions. For example, the Villa Capri caregivers, whom I interviewed, got a bad rap, accused of “abandonment.” But they didn’t deserve that. They each left with residents in their charge, in a shuttle or in their personal cars, and they suffered great trauma that night. They were abandoned before the ordeal with management’s lack of training and emergency planning, during the fire when the executive director and managers didn’t show up to help, and then after the fire as well. It was very important to me that these young women’s voices were heard.
WP: How did you marry your background of investigative journalism and narrative techniques?
AB: I loved the reporting parts: finding sources, looking for nuggets in depositions, interviewing, and trying to piece together what happened when. That, to me, was the easy part. Weaving it all together into a fast-paced narrative was more difficult. Fortunately, I could rely on the narrative techniques I learned in UCLA Writers Program classes.
WP: Were the two skills sometimes at odds?
AB: Definitely. Documenting the events was at times at odds with telling a good story, especially when trying to write about lawsuits and investigative reports that get very dry and technical. But they were important to the overall account.
For the more technical parts, my first drafts involved just getting the basic information down, and then going over it with a storytelling mindset.
WP: What were the unique challenges of telling this particular story? Anything that surprised you?
AB: Everyone’s sense of time was off. The fire knocked out cell phone towers and power poles. When sources said they knew what time certain things happened, we’d have to ask how they knew. “Did you look at an electric clock? A cell phone? A watch?” We had to try to find timestamps, such as cell phone calls or power outage times to figure out when certain events actually transpired.
Another challenge was a lot of people refused to talk to us, either because they didn’t want to relive the night’s trauma, or they were scared of retribution from the powerful owner of the care homes in question. For every interview we landed, four others refused to talk to us or didn’t return calls.
Third, in fiction, you can add or subtract characters as needed. But in non-fiction, you can’t. Our story was complex and dozens of people played vital roles in telling the whole story. We couldn’t leave them out. That added to the scale of information we needed to obtain and to the difficulty of weaving everyone into the story.
WP: You worked with a partner, how did the two of you decide to team up?
AB: Paul Gullixson and I had worked for the same newspaper chain on the San Francisco Peninsula in the early ‘90s. Both of us ended up in Sonoma County. I used to bring my journalism classes to The Press Democrat, where Paul would let students watch his editorial board meeting. During and after the Wine Country Fires in 2017, Paul wrote some columns about what happened at Villa Capri. He had since left the Press Democrat, and I thought he might be interested in helping me for an article or a series of articles. If only he had known what he was getting into!
As the story unfolded before us, we realized we had way too much material. I contacted my agent, who had been trying to sell my fiction manuscript. She encouraged us to write a book proposal, and then she sold that proposal to Permuted Press.
WP: Do you have any advice/ observations about collaborative writing?
AB: Early on, Paul and I had a strategy of writing “crappy first drafts.” We’d write something so awful we wouldn’t even let each other read it. The goal was to simply get words on a page. Then we’d go back and fill in more details, start smoothing it over. By the fifth or sixth revision, it would start shaping up. Then of course we’d edit each other’s work, and the end result was better than either of us could have done on our own.
When you work with a partner, you have to learn to compromise. I remember having to “kill some of my babies” so to speak, and at the time, I didn’t think the book could exist without them. I don’t even remember them now. In late 2021, when we were behind on our deadline, we brought in Lauren A. Spates to help us edit and smooth things out. Eventually she became a contributing author/editor. She then helped weigh in when we had disputes.
Another piece of advice would be to hold the goal of creating the best possible book above everything else. To do this, you can’t take suggested edits personally. Let go of your ego. This can be difficult because your writing is so connected to who you are. If a co-author has a different vision for part of the book, it doesn’t mean you are wrong or inferior. You have to respect each other’s opinions and focus on creating the best book.
WP: Any advice for writers wanting to tackle nonfiction stories?
AB: No matter how detailed your interviews, you can’t know everything you will need until you start weaving your story. I had to go back to sources time and again. “How were you wearing your hair on the night of the fire? Any jewelry? How were you carrying your baby? High or low?” You need to build good relationships with sources from the start so they will be willing to continue to talk, text and email you answers. They sort of become your partners in the project. Unlike fiction, you can’t make things up. This is why I can’t wait to return to fiction writing, so I don’t have to pester anyone.
WP: In your bio, it says that you’ve begun focusing more on wildfire reporting, can you tell us a bit more about that?
AB: In the 2017 fires, I had a team of eight to 10 student reporters who worked around the clock for two weeks. They learned that although they were college journalists, they could compete with national journalists because they had the home turf advantage. They placed their microphone next to CNN and ABC News and saw their content distributed worldwide. And they won state and national awards for their efforts.
Two years later, in 2019, much of the county had to evacuate from their homes during the Kincade Fire, and in 2020, two large wildfires burned out of control for weeks in Sonoma County. My students covered the fires, and along the way, I developed curriculum and purchased gear to keep them safe in the process. I have always been strong on promoting real-world reporting experiences. To be a journalist in California means you might have to cover fires; I’d rather they get trained early on so they can be prepared.
In September of 2020, I ventured out with a student during the Glass Fire’s biggest night. We watched as a block of houses burned in one neighborhood, drove down a highway with fire on both sides and shot photos of a tornado of fire spinning toward us. I was writing the fire chapters of “Inflamed” at the time, so being out there so close to it, seeing, hearing and feeling the fire, really helped me to better describe what our “Inflamed” characters had experienced at Villa Capri and Varenna in 2017.
WP: Tell me about your experience in the Writers’ Program please.
AB: The classes I took through the Writers’ Program greatly informed my writing in “Inflamed.” Even though they were fiction-oriented, fiction writing techniques apply to writing narrative nonfiction. It’s still storytelling. with characters and scenes, dialogue, foreshadowing and showing not telling. It’s just a lot harder to get all the information before you start writing.
The audio book for Inflamed: Abandonment, Heroism, and Outrage in Wine Country’s Deadliest Firestorm comes out this Thursday (Jan. 16) and readers can place a backorder on the book on Bookshop.org or purchase it on Amazon.