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Longtime Petaluma journalist debuts first novel

In a house on Petaluma’s Ellis Street, sometime in the mid-oughts, journalist, essayist and short fiction author Joy Lanzendorfer sat down to write the next great American novel.

Almost two decades later, after hurricanes, tragedy and industry changes, that book has finally arrived on shelves as the multi-generational family saga “Right Back Where We Started From.”

Lanzendorfer will celebrate the novel’s release with an online book launch and reading, hosted by Copperfield’s Books, on Thursday, May 6, at 7 p.m.

The book follows three generations of women from the Sanborn family. Sandra, an actor who can’t seem to land a part, is convinced that if misfortune hadn’t gotten in the way, she’d be rich and famous instead of broke, wearing a sandwich board in Hollywood and desperately hoping to be discovered.

According to family lore, Sandra’s grandmother Vira crossed the country in the 1800s to establish the Sanborns as one of San Francisco’s most prominent families. Sandra’s mother, Mabel, grew up in the family’s lavish mansion, and married into a powerful agricultural empire.

But things are not all that they seem, of course. When Sandra is contacted by a man who claims to be her father, she starts to question all of those stories about how her mother and grandmother made their fortunes, and then lost them.

As a full-time journalist, Lanzendorfer has had her writing appear in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post and on NPR. She is a recipient of the Discovered Award for Emerging Writers by Creative Sonoma. Local listeners to The Krush (KRSH 95.9 FM) will know Lanzendorfer as the voice behind the podcast “What’s the Story,” where she speaks with authors about their forthcoming books.

Now it’s her turn to talk about her new novel. She begins by addressing the issue of that nearly two-decade delay between writing and publishing.

“Originally the lead was named Sandy Sanborn,” Lanzendorfer explained. “The book was picked up by an agent in 2012 and was in the process of being shopped to various publishers.”

Then, in October, Hurricane Sandy came through, killing 233 people and causing over $70 billion in damage. Two months later, on Dec. 14, 2012, a lone gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people, including 20 children. Between those two tragedies, having a lead character named Sandy suddenly seemed inappropriate and the manuscript was sent back to Lanzendorfer for changes.

Then her agent quit.

“They left the industry entirely,” Lanzendorfer said.

It was not until 2018 that another agent looking for a literary saga remembered reading the book, and asked Lanzendorfer about it.

The novel begins in Hollywood during the Great Depression, but originates with Vira, who came to California during the Gold Rush. Lanzendorfer said themes of failure and ambition drew her to the bygone era.

“When is the American Dream, and American ambition, good?” Lanzendorfer asked. “When are they bad? What happens when you get to the Gold Rush late?”

Being a fourth generation Californian herself, it was natural for Lanzendorfer to set her novel in this state, with huge chunks of history based on the mythology of gold and the boom-bust cycles of American ambition.

Lanzendorfer said that, while the book does deal with large themes, at its core it’s “a juicy family saga.”

The novel spans over 100 years of California history, large parts of which take place in Healdsburg and Petaluma, as the author drew from her own family history in weaving a new narrative. Her own grandmother lived in Healdsburg and she herself has called Petaluma home since 2006.

Lanzendorfer, too, comes from a long line of storytellers. Her paternal grandfather spun so many amazing, charming, and mostly improbable yarns it was difficult to separate fact from fiction. She said the family is still not quite sure what country he was born in. In this void of hard facts, Lanzendorfer began to wonder how much the person we identify as comes from stories we have been told rather than fact.

When asked if it is based on her own family, Lanzendorfer grins for a moment before answering, “Not really. More inspired by family mythology.”

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