Six Riverside Places That Inspired Susan Straight in ‘Between Heaven and Here’

The novelist based fictional places in her eighth book on real locations around Riverside

Susan Straight

“Between Heaven and Here,” creative writing Professor Susan Straight’s eighth novel, is part of an ongoing story of a family from Rio Seco, a fictional Southern California town loosely based on Riverside.

“Everything I write is always inspired by either something I saw that’s very particular to our landscape, or it’s an overheard story. Like last week, I saw a homeless man parting the branches of a pepper tree … I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Straight says.

For example, Glorette — a woman who was discovered dead in a shopping cart in the book’s first few chapters — was based on someone Straight heard about 15 years ago. “This girl was 17 and pregnant. She was strangled. Her body was put into a shopping cart that was left on Martin Luther King Boulevard and Michael Street. My brother-in-law saw [the cart] and he thought it was just clothes. I drive by that corner everyday, on my way to UCR,” Straight explains.

Susan-Straight-book

“Between Heaven and Here” is Susan Straight’s eighth novel.

Making up stories has always been what Straight has done, ever since she was a little girl who loved reading. “I’d be walking down the street and going to the orange groves and while we were playing, my brother would be constructing massive forts. But I’d be like, ‘What if there was a fairy in the orange groves? Or a dead body?’ It’s just really weird — that’s the way that my brain works.”

Straight has used Riverside to set the scene for the Picard family in her last few novels, but “Between Heaven and Here” might be the last time we’ll see the Picards for a while. “After 15 years of writing about that family and everything about that place, my new book is further up the river — set in a place close to downtown.”

Straight’s next book is about what happens when the big earthquake comes, and is set for 2014. In the meantime, we can check out which parts of Riverside served as a visual peg in “Between Heaven and Here,”  which was excerpted in the Spring 2013 issue of UCR Magazine.

1. The Santa Ana River

Santa Ana River PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTINE FRENCH

Santa Ana River PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTINE FRENCH

“Glorette’s father Gustave works in an orange grove that’s right along the Santa Ana River, along with his brother, Enrique.

“The Santa Ana River part is [real] but the orange grove is a fictional construct. There’s a street [in the book called], La Reina. It’s not a real street, but it’s the classic orange grove street. It has the tall palm trees that let you know from a mile away that you’re going through an orange grove.”

2. Agua Mansa Cemetery

Agua Mansa Cemetary PHOTO COURTESY OF SBCOUNTY.GOV

Agua Mansa Cemetery PHOTO COURTESY OF SBCOUNTY.GOV

“There’s this tiny little cemetery that is mentioned where [Glorette’s family] is going to bury her in.

“That is completely made up, but I based it on a place like Agua Mansa, where you would actually have to get a priest to come if you were going to be buried. It wouldn’t be a cemetery that belonged to the city, it’s owned by a family.”

 

 3. El Ojo de Agua

El Ojo de Agua

El Ojo de Agua

“The two women that owned the taqueria El Ojo de Agua, [near where Glorette’s body was discovered], are Serafina and Elvia from my [previous] novel, ‘Highwire Moon.’ They showed up when I was writing this book; one of them comes out to dump water and there’s Glorette, dead in the shopping cart. Then I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Serafina!’

“She was the heroine of ‘Highwire Moon.’ So it’s just really weird. Those two women are from Oaxaca and now they’ve moved up and now they have this little taqueria this strip mall.”

4. Strip Mall Nail Salon

“There’s a nail salon [in the book] that would be just like any nail salon in a strip mall. Glorette calls the woman at the nail salon ‘Lynn Win.’ That’s because a lot of Vietnamese woman took American names during the ‘80s and ‘90s when they were working at nail salons; people would write them checks, and they thought that it’d be easier if they Americanized their names.

“So something like Lynn Win’s name would [really be] spelled ‘L-i-n-h N-g-u-y-e-n,’ but she changes her name to ‘L-y-n-n W-i-n.’ That was based on something [someone] actually told me in a [real] nail salon.”

5. Laundromat

“Back in the day, drug dealers would actually hang around certain laundromats and put their product inside a particular dryer. They would take [someone’s] money and they’d say ‘Number Three,’ [naming the dryer number].

“Then the person would just have to find it, and if the cops came, the [dealer] would be like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ — because [the drugs are] in a dryer, it doesn’t belong to anyone. They’re not holding it. That was definitely [a thing in] the late ‘90s, and the novel takes place in the 2000s.”

6. A parking lot near the Riverside Community College

“About 15 years ago when I started [‘Between Heaven and Here’], there was a vacant lot where a house had burned down, across the street from the Riverside Community College.

“It was a really flat, vacant lot; it had this little rock wall around it. People used to park their cars there, even though somebody owned it. Nobody knew who owned that little vacant lot. So one day somebody from the city came and said, ‘Well, people can’t just park here.’  They put a chain-link [fence] around it, so [no one] could park there. I always thought that that was hilarious.

“That’s when I came up with this story idea [for ‘Between Heaven and Here’] 15 years ago, where this kid, whose mom had been killed, was going to go to RCC. He was going to have this plot of land and charge people to park there.

“That was that big moment where I wrote this story called ‘La Reina,’ and it was [‘Between Heaven and Here’ protagonist] Victor, and it turned out to be the last chapter of the novel. I finished [the novel] 15 years after I started it.

“Somebody built a house on the vacant lot two years ago. When they started building it, I was like, ‘Aww, it’s not going to be empty.’ I would walk by it with my dog and I would vividly remember why I started this project. Just because people were randomly parking their cars there and some security guy goes, ‘What?'”

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