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Finding Bliss in the Roads Less Traveled:
Interview with Sarah Burns

By Carin Chea

Author and historian Sarah Burns epitomizes the adage “home is where the heart is.”

An accomplished professor of history and cultural diversity, Burns (whose rich life experiences are enough material to inform at least a trilogy of books) has discovered that one doesn’t need to travel far to find intrigue, drama, and wild plotlines.

In Burns’ case, all that was right in her backyard, figuratively speaking. Using the oft-derided town of Bakersfield, California as her muse, the author has certainly set the record, that even in the most unassuming of cities lies a hotbed of excitement and controversy.

Cookesville, U.S.A. by Sarah C Burns

You’re a historian and academic by trade. How did you get started in this field?

It was a rather slow process because of people in my life that held me back from visualizing what I was meant to do – control of a parent, religious viewpoint, the wrong kind of marriage within that religion. I got married when I was 19, but he had graduated college and he wanted to take me with him.

But, eventually, the real me surfaced. I went back to college. It took a number of years, but I finished my degrees and when I did, I needed so many answers to life.

I double majored in English and History because both disciplines gave me answers for expressing myself by looking at historic patterns. I could understand religious viewpoints. I loved studying history, getting the answers I needed and becoming my own person.

This enabled me to lead my 3 children into a clearer, more liberal life path. We can teach them to be individuals, or we can put our stamp on them, which I learned not to do.

Have you always been a writer? How did you get started in fiction writing?

I was always a reader. As a child, I loved reading biographies before I read mysteries.

As an adult, I just joined one book club after another. I read all of Steinbeck, Jane Austen. I learned to love the stories and the methods and differences from author to author, according to genre.

When I went back to college, I had it in my mind that I was going to be a writer. It helped me clarify my majors once I went back. I had a deep need to tell stories that not only were exciting and fulfilling to me and the readers, but were cathartic as well. I could lose myself in these characters.

Author and Historian Sarah C Burns

Tell us about your newest book Cookesville, U.S.A. What inspired you to write this novel?

Part of my path was telling my fiancé and then-husband that I never wanted to live in Bakersfield. When we married, I was living in Orange County. His first engineering job took us to San Francisco, then British Columbia.

Then, his father was killed on one of his jobs and that brought us back to Bakersfield. I had to adjust. After 16 years, we separated, but my children were here, so I stayed.

I found a lot about the town that I enjoyed. Through the years I told myself I was getting out of Bakersfield. My kids graduated college and didn’t return to Bakersfield. Once I was divorced, I went through a 2nd marriage, then another divorce, and decided once again to leave.

Then, I met the love of my life, who was an attorney. He had roots here [in Bakersfield] and so I was stuck again. After so many decades of living here, I realized: I’m a historian. I’ve taught for 5 colleges now. Maybe I’m here in Bakersfield to tell a story.

You hear a lot about Bakersfield through TV shows and movies that don’t paint a flattering picture. I’ve had such a positive experience that I thought it was unfair. I saw the other side of the picture; there’s a lot of beauty and history here that people don’t know about. Between oil and agriculture, there’s a lot of wealth.

But, what sealed the deal for me in writing this was when I met the investigator who became the chief person in my book. He was a criminal investigator in the law firm my husband worked for.

He had already retired by the time I met him but he was so well known in town by attorneys and judges. They all knew this man. His name in the book is Lyndon Wethers. He lived a life of danger and excitement and criminal cover-up.

In real life, Lynnie (which is what I call him) was already around 90 years old when I met him. He could reflect through all his years and Steve [my husband] would remind him of all his trials. I learned about the way an attorney could cover up crime. For many, he was first on the scene to do the cover up.

Criminals in the know passed the word about the attorney Lynnie worked for; if you had $10,000, you could commit a murder and get away with it. I altered some of the names to fictionalize both the criminals and those who covered up. Lynnie was the “fixer.” This book is a fictionalized version of Bakersfield in all of its glory.

The Cooke family members are the stalwarts in this story. I had to create characters that the readers could count on to do the right thing.

In actuality, Bakersfield is a distinct town with borders and more and 1.5 centuries of history, with many of the families having strong roots here. As the communities have grown, so have the ethnicities.

It was founded by Colonel Baker, but also by Chinese people, Native Americans, and Hispanics from many regions. All of these people created vibrant communities and neighborhoods; and as the nation grew, so did Bakersfield.

The stories are unique. When I listened to Lynnie and Steve talk about all the crimes, I realized there was a side to this city that I had no idea existed. That was the final impetus.

COVID also helped out. I wasn’t driving to school to teach. I was teaching via Zoom at home and had more time.

The book has the same atmosphere of the Old West, combined with the modernizing west, combined with crime, combined with the affluence which brings out extramarital affairs and those types of covert activities as well. I played tennis and hob-knobbed in country clubs with enough people to know a lot about the undercover events going on.

What was most intriguing was when Lynnie talked about being a G-man [government man] after WWII. A lot of people were taking advantage of the new supplies; you had to scrounge during the war. A lot of metal went to the war efforts. It was time to make up for lost time.

Some of the large agricultural and oil companies got a little sloppy with their accounting practices. When the I.R.S. showed up to check the books, Lynnie was the enforcer, fully armed, to make sure no one was harmed. A “G” man is a government man. He was there to enforce and make sure the government could do their work.

After that, he was sent to Vegas to investigate the mob’s skimming practices. He got to know them and was on a first name basis with Bugsy Siegel and others, without them knowing what he was there for.

Then, he returned to Bakersfield. In Cookesville, Lynnie also returns to his town. I got every story from him that I could. I’m glad I got to know this woman magnet before he passed away in 2011.

Was Lynnie ever married?

He never married. He felt like he wasn’t the marrying kind. He found love, and he found it several times. He was a very sexual man and he didn’t hesitate to use the bordellos around town. There are so many stories.

The book is 718 pages and there is so much more to tell. Friends of mine who have gotten the book, who are familiar with the Bakersfield lifestyle, find this book a real page-turner.

For those who don’t know anything about Bakersfield, it’s an eye opener. For those who don’t care to learn about Bakersfield, they’ll find it to be an erotic crime thriller, covering a century and a half of “Cookesville” and U.S. history.

After so many years of living here, I’ve found my story to be deeply woven into the fabric of this community—whether I finally “escape” or not.

What do you hope your readers will gain from Cookesville, U.S.A.?

I hope they will enjoy a rip-roaring good story of crime, cover-up, successful criminal prosecution, love and life, in all of the colors that this community has to offer. I’m not trying to sell it, but it’s gritty and beautiful. That’s what life is all about.

Wherever you go, you’re going to find what you want to find. You can choose to say, “It’s just such a dusty hot town in the summer and nothing like southern California,” or you can turn around and meet people and build your life and find that you can be happy and thrilled wherever you are.

This is what Bakersfield taught me.

Do you have any upcoming works you’d like our readers to know about?

I’m going to add to [Cookesville, U.S.A.] but I’m also going to take my story and go back to my childhood roots. I’m going to create a fictional character based on my experiences.

There were some real roadblocks along the way, but also some great opportunities. I’m going to create that person and that family and bring them from Kentucky to Orange County, and ultimately to Cookesville.

For more information, please visit scburns.work.

Hollywood, CA

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