Local author Mary Camarillo’s story about an Orange County mother and her two teenage daughters begins with a moment of historic happenstance. The Lockhart family is traveling to a party in Torrance when pandemonium appears in the form of the infamous O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase. Crowds gather at freeway overpasses, some holding signs reading “Run! O.J.! Run!” The heavy hum of helicopters hovers above.
Ninety-five million viewers tune into the spectacle, but Brenda Lockhart exchanges a quick glance with Simpson up close and personal as his Bronco crawls past their car.
“I find these flashbulb moments really fascinating,” says Camarillo of the 1994 slow-speed pursuit that kicks off her debut novel. “It’s a super interesting moment in television history.”
For the Lockharts, that vivid snapshot would intertwine with the night their lives together began to unravel as a family. Brenda accuses her husband Frank, a postal worker, of infidelity at the party; he confirms her suspicions.
From that point on, Camarillo threads through the working-class lives of the Lockharts from their Huntington Beach home as it’s torn asunder by the emotional upheaval of divorce—all while the OJ murder trial buzzes in the background.
“I’m interested in mother, daughter and sister relationships,”says the author, a longtime Huntington Beach resident. “Once I dreamed up Brenda, she would not leave me alone. She was really fun to write and wouldn’t stay out of my head. She took over the story.”
Brenda is a blonde beauty rivaling the late Nicole Brown Simpson, herself. The sliver of beach town bliss she enjoys ends up crumbling, anyway. Frank leaves Brenda for a co-worker who’s not quite the looker and, by doing so, reneges on his marital arrangement to keep his wife at home away from work. Brenda develops an unhealthy attachment to the daily drama of the O.J. trial, annoying everyone along the way, as it takes over television stations.
Allison and Peggy, their two young daughters, come of age amid the acrimony. Allison isn’t sure of her future lot in life, but spends more and more time in the company of her Ocean View High School beau, a football star. Peggy’s more practical with dreams of being an accountant, but the financial realities of living in a divorced family push her to work at a post office in Santa Ana, where she’s exposed to a diverse group of colleagues.
Throughout The Lockhart Women, Camarillo’s engaging prose colors her characters with forgivable imperfections, but with purpose, giving readers more than enough reason to care about their arcs. As a period piece, the novel’s timestamps—from pagers to Kato Kaelin references—make it a believable portal back to OC in the 90s.
There’s even subtle politics at play every so often in the dialogue when Brenda, convinced of O.J.’s innocence at first, criticizes detective Mark Furhman’s racism with her estranged husband only to be later resentful of having to move to West Anaheim, where more Latinos call home than Surf City.
But the OJ trial isn’t merely in the backdrop, anchoring the story’s timeline. As the novel progresses, Kevin, Allison’s boyfriend, begins to take on some similarities to the star defendant keeping eyes glued to the television. And Brenda’s escapism through the trial serves as its own cautionary tale on media frenzies.
A welcomed contribution to OC literature, the arrival of The Lockhart Women testifies to the fact that it’s never too late to become a published author. Camarillo penned poetry in high school and edited a literary magazine, but a bad experience with a journalism teacher swayed her off the path of the written word—albeit, not entirely.
Like her characters, Camarillo worked in the post office. It’s where she began as a sorter and later turned to accounting—and even found her future husband. While there, she also discovered an unlikely creative outlet. “I started writing audit reports,” says Camarillo. “I know this sounds weird, but there’s a lot of relationships between writing an audit report and telling fiction because you’re telling a story, either way.”
She found inspiration, as well. “All those years I worked at the post office, I always thought that it would make a good novel because of all the different types of people that work there,”Camarillo adds. “Those relationships can be really dramatic, close and sometimes explosive. I think everybody knows somebody who works at the post office.”
After retiring, Camarillo began writing The Lockhart Women in earnest six years ago. When finished with the manuscript, she sent it to more than 100 agents and set upon a traditional publishing path. Camarillo got some good feedback about her writing and the characters in the novel, but some were hesitant about its marketability.
“It’s not really contemporary fiction and it’s not historical fiction,” she says of The Lockhart Women. “I’m on older writer. I don’t have a platform or anything. Publishers want to make money. I get that.” But then, Camarillo learned about She Writes Press from friends. It’s a hybrid publishing model, but one that offered traditional distribution, author input on creative decisions and best of all, a sisterhood.
Camarillo is already working on a second novel, but is definitely dedicating time to the roll out of her debut. With the pandemic receding, she has both online and in-person author events lined up this where people will have the chance to share their thoughts on Brenda, Peggy and Allison.
“I relate to all these women,” says Camarillo. “They’re all parts of me.”
The Lockhart Women by Mary Camarillo, published June 1, 2021, She Writes Press. $16.95 (paperback)
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Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.