The Queen of Dangerous Research
by Mary Shipp Bartlett
Katie Arnoldi has eluded drug lords in the California foothills, explored the world of migrant workers in Tijuana and Ensenada, infiltrated an isolated polygamous compound in Arizona, and shot testosterone into the buttocks of 300-pound bodybuilders.
Katie Arnoldi likes to be challenged—and that often means putting herself at risk.
The novelist pushes herself to experience what her characters feel before giving them life on paper. “I am the queen of dangerous research,” she says.
In her most recent novel, Point Dume, Katie draws on her background as a Malibu native to tell the story of the death of surf culture, illegal pot farms on public lands, environmental devastation, human trafficking, and obsessive love.
While each subject could be grist for an entire novel, Katie weaves the themes together through strong characterization, authentic dialogue, fast-paced action, and—just as important—her own personal experience and first-hand research.
Sometimes such research is dicey. For Point Dume, she snuck into active cartel-run marijuana grow-sites in the Sierras to get a sense of the fear one of her characters would feel in such a place. Armed growers were hiding in the mountains she explored with a civilian team. “Things could have gone seriously wrong had we stumbled upon one of them,” she says.
She wasn’t scared at the time. She was looking at the world through migrant worker Felix Duarte’s eyes and trying to live the experience from his point of view. “It was only when I got home that I realized how dangerous the whole thing could have been,” she says.
To help develop one of her female characters in Point Dume, Katie traveled to Tijuana to talk to women whose lives had been affected by savage brutality at the hands of drug lords. Again, she entered territory where, had the perpetrators discovered her intentions to write about their human exploitation, she might have been in serious trouble.
While they may be risky, her efforts pay off in creating realism. “I find that through research I am able to leave Katie Arnoldi behind and enter the mind of my characters,” she says.
Point Dume follows two previous Arnoldi novels. The first, Chemical Pink, a national best-seller in 2001, explored the world of competitive bodybuilding. Vanity Fair called it “A modern gothic comedy of obsession.” She followed, in 2008, with The Wentworths, a witty and mocking portrait of an overprivileged Southern California family that David Mamet called “too funny, too sad, too true, and too short.” It was a best-seller in Los Angeles.
To create an authentic character in The Wentworths, Katie infiltrated a polygamous compound in Colorado City/Hildale, on the border of Arizona and Utah. She wanted to get a sense of what her character, 15-year-old Honey Belmont, had to overcome in order to escape from a polygamous enclave and a forced marriage to her step-father. Katie had just read Jon Krakauer’s revealing book Under the Banner of Heaven; this was in the early 2000s, before the media focused so much on the Colorado City/Hildale compound.
At the time, she says, everything was pretty wide open and there weren’t many fences around the houses. The community had recently closed all the schools, choosing to home-school their children. The only form of play for the kids she saw was trampolines.
“Yard after yard, I saw little children dressed in prairie dresses or slacks and button-down shirts bouncing on the trampolines—five, ten, 15 of them at a time. It was surreal.”
The young women seemed curious about Katie, but they were guarded and wouldn’t talk to her. Plus, there were no coffee shops or restaurants where she could make small talk with the locals. As she drove up and down the streets, she realized she was being followed.
Over the course of two years, she revisited the compound six times. But once the media focused on the story, fences went up and the community hid from view. In retrospect, she says, “That was the most evil place I’ve ever seen.”
Once Katie has immersed herself in place and knows who her characters are, she lets them take over. “All my work is character-driven,” she says. “It’s the people who inhabit this world I’m interested in. I want to know why people do what they do.”
She writes without a plot or an outline, which she says stops the action. The story drives itself, with the characters in the lead. Sometimes they take her to crazy places.
“When I was writing Chemical Pink, I remember walking around the gym looking at women bodybuilders from the point of view of that most perverted of my characters, Charles Worthington. He is one weird individual, and I was a little shocked how easily I was able to enter his head. The same is true of Norman Wentworth (The Wentworths). He’s a gay man and a little insane. That was a surprisingly easy place for me to go.”
One character whose mind she inhabits is Felix, the migrant worker in Point Dume. “I love that guy and I respect him. Everything that happened in Felix’s life was so damn unfair, which was the point, but I did find myself walking around in a state of outrage. I still feel it.”
“On the other hand,” she says, “killing [one of the Wentworths] was a delightful experience because he’s a horrible human being.” (When Katie talks about her characters, she uses the present tense; even when fictionally dead, they are alive in her mind.)
Dyslexic as a child and considered a slow learner, Katie developed a coping mechanism in high school for her learning disorder and discovered a passion for reading. She learned to process information more efficiently during these years and doesn’t remember struggling too much with the work load in college.
She came to Scripps as a dance major in 1976. However, in her sophomore year, she broke her foot in a sailing accident on her brother’s boat. “That pretty much put an end to my dance ambition,” she says. She ended up graduating with a joint degree in dance and art history.
She did not take any creative writing at Scripps, but wrote what she calls “strange little short stories—weird little slice of life things that were heavily influenced by the Surrealists.” She showed them to no one.
She continued writing as a young woman, quietly, with no self-confidence. “I wrote terrible stories about a woman trying to find her way. They were awful.”
Married at 23 to artist Charles Arnoldi (a painter she studied while at Scripps), she was dismayed to be an unpublished writer among so many successful, creative people in Los Angeles. She attempted a novel set in a community similar to Point Dume, but put it aside.
While continuing to write short stories, she worked out at the local YMCA each day and later started training at Gold’s Gym. “My stories weren’t very good, but my body kept getting stronger and better.”
Then, at 29, she had her first child. A year or so later, she was confined to three months’ bed rest with her second. Flat on her back, concerned about her flagging writing career and her unexercised body, she made a bold decision: After giving birth, she would regain control of her body as a competitive bodybuilder and empower her life—perhaps her writing as well.
She trained hard—without the use of steroids, she is quick to inform. Even so, Katie eventually earned the title of Southern California Bodybuilding Champion in 1992. Smallboned and lean to begin with, Katie said she was one step away from “the worst anorexia.” She quit when she realized that to go any further in the sport meant taking drugs. “It just wasn’t worth it to me.”
She turned to competitive surfing for a couple of years and finally felt ready to start writing again.
After a UCLA writing workshop, Katie sat down and wrote Chemical Pink straight through. What she had seen and experienced first-hand gave her enough material to work with—including administering steroid injections to other women in their quest for a perfect bodybuilding form. Although she says the main character is not her, nor is it based on how she would react to situations, the book is about what she saw: the chemical use rampant in the world of women’s bodybuilding and the excruciating excesses, as well as deprivations, the women endure.
“The book got a of lot media attention because I blew the lid off of steroid abuse in the world of female bodybuilding,” says Katie. “Deep voices, facial hair, elongated clitorises are but a few of the irreversible secondary male characteristics that women suffer when abusing physique-enhancing drugs.” The novel is also graphically sexual and often wickedly funny.
Katie’s daughter, now 21, once asked her, “Aren’t you afraid of what people will think of you when you write these crazy scenes?”
“No,” she said. “If you’re afraid of what people are going to think, you shouldn’t be a writer.”
Katie is as disciplined in her writing as she is in most aspects of her life—from being what she calls “an excellent wife and mother” to a committed athlete who surfs, hikes, and also goes to the gym three times a week. She has an unwavering writing routine, inspired by the example her husband sets as an artist. “I learned my work skills from him,” she says. “Waiting for the muse to hit is total b.s. A lot of writing is about showing up—time in the chair. Once I start a novel, I’m working on it all the time. I wrestle with it constantly even when I’m not sitting down at the desk.”
Each day when she is in town, Katie heads to The Office, a shared workspace in Santa Monica that she calls “excellent adult daycare, where I can drop myself off every morning and pick myself up at the end of the day.”
Rules at The Office are strictly enforced, as Katie explains in her blog: “Sign in and out, note the exact times. Take your seat and please don’t talk to your neighbor—people are trying to work! Don’t hit the space key on your computer with too much anger, it distracts. Put your cell phone on vibrate and keep the volume down on that video you’re watching because we can hear it, even through the noise reduction headphones….Every day knuckle crackers, door slammers, toe tappers, smelly food eaters, chronic sniffers, and persistent phone call receivers all come together in one 1,300 square-foot room and channel their collective energies towards WORK.”
Katie has written her last two novels at The Office and is now working on another. “I’ve also planned a bunch of vacations, read a hell of a lot of books, and written over 10,000 emails. All in just five short years.”
Katie still lives in Malibu, in a dramatically modern yet unpretentious house she and her husband built. With a stunning view, it sits on an acre of oceanfront property inherited from her father, who bought three acres on Point Dume in 1959 for $39,000—a figure to bring tears to the eyes of anyone currently eyeballing property in the area. Her two brothers each have homes on the remaining two acres. Katie and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter. Their son graduated this May from Pomona College with degrees in economics and psychology; her daughter is a senior at Stanford studying marine biology, with a special interest in sharks.
A surfer most of her life, Katie goes into the water as often as possible on one of her many boards. She likes big surf—likes the challenge of putting herself in “controlled scary” situations. The spot she calls “hers” in Malibu is the outer reef, the area known as Mystos. “It can get a little dangerous,” she says, but she knows it well, knows where the bottom of the ocean is, and how the water reacts.
The waves at Mystos rarely get above “double overhead.” In Hawaii, she has surfed triple overheads and admits to being scared to death once on Sunset Beach in Oahu when the waves turned treacherous in a matter of seconds. With adrenalin flowing and heart pounding, she caught a monster wave and rode it to shore, crying on the beach afterward. She was proud of herself.
Writing provides another type of challenge for Katie—one she describes as a “different kind of scary,” more an awareness of one’s own vulnerability.
“The rewards are so great when characters are speaking for themselves and you get to follow them—it makes it all worthwhile.”
The novel Katie is currently working on picks up the story of Violeta, the woman Felix Duarte left behind in Tijuana, in Point Dume. Stay tuned for where Violeta leads Katie. It will be someplace dangerous.
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