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Rex Pickett dives deep in ‘The Archivist,’ his new novel with a UC San Diego setting

"I had to figure out a way to sell this world to people,” author Rex Pickett says.
“I had to figure out a way to sell this world to people,” author Rex Pickett says. “They’re not librarians, but when people think of archivists, it doesn’t really sound exciting from the get-go.”
(Jock McDonald)

The ‘Sideways’ author and former UCSD student wrote and researched much of the new thriller at the La Jolla campus’s Geisel Library.

Rex Pickett doesn’t like to write about places he doesn’t know.

The highly accomplished author and two-time Academy Award winner is probably best known for writing the popular novel “Sideways,” which was adapted into an even more successful film by Alexander Payne. The novel has spawned two sequels and was even adapted into a musical by Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff.

Pickett, who lives in Del Mar, didn’t have to travel far to find the backdrop for his new novel, “The Archivist,” released last month by Blackstone Publishing. He wrote and researched much of it at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library, a setting he was already familiar with, having attended the La Jolla university in the mid-1970s.

“Of course, I have very strong memories of my time there, but I never thought to write a book about a guy sitting on the seventh floor of the library reading Kafka,” Pickett joked, recalling his time as a student. “I don’t think I really appreciated the architectural beauty of the library as much as I do today, but I did start to see the library as a character.”

As prolific as he is, Pickett says he always takes time to immerse himself in his characters and their world. Whether that means traveling to Chile’s wine country for 2014’s “Sideways 3 Chile” or returning to his college alma mater for “The Archivist,” Pickett says his attention to detail makes his plots more plausible and his characters more authentic.

“I want things to be credible. I like characters who do things because there’s a believable motivation behind it,” Pickett said.

A twist of fate

Most of “The Archivist” takes place at a fictional college in San Diego called Regents University, but local readers will recognize UCSD and the Geisel Library as the setting. The plot centers on Emily Snow, a young digital archivist who has gone to the library’s Special Collections department to organize and catalog the collected papers of one of the university’s most famous professors. She soon discovers that the professor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose wealthy wife is about to bestow the school with a multimillion-dollar donation, may have been carrying on an affair with Emily’s predecessor. That predecessor happens to have mysteriously drowned while swimming at Black’s Beach.

“It was exciting to me when I began writing it, because I thought I was onto something new,” said Pickett, who grew up in San Diego admiring mystery and crime novelists such as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Patricia Highsmith. “[Emily] ultimately does become something of a detective. For someone who’s loved detective fiction, I know you have to start small, build it and make it bigger.”

“The Archivist” is something of a departure for Pickett. The novel clocks in at 700 pages, and at age 65, he acknowledges it’s an interesting age to break away from the “Sideways” novels and write his first mystery novel.

Rex Pickett's "The Archivist" is 700 pages.
(Courtesy of Rex Pickett)

“It was originally written as a limited series for television,” said Pickett, who envisioned “The Archivist” as an eight-episode series. “The reader today, when you drop a novel of this size on them, it’s not like back in my youth, when that wouldn’t have been intimidating.”

The novel wouldn’t have happened, he says, if not for a simple twist of fate.

In 2012, Pickett donated his writings, films and memorabilia to the Geisel Library’s Special Collections and Archives. He says he dropped off about 50 boxes of materials and left feeling as though he’d “come full circle.”

“I went to UCSD and I left with five boxes and came back with 50,” Pickett joked.

A few months later, at a faculty dinner for “Sideways: The Play,” which was opening at the La Jolla Playhouse, Pickett was approached by Kate Saeed, who introduced herself as the person in charge of archiving all the materials he’d donated. The two hit it off and Saeed ended up inviting Pickett to tour the Special Collections and Archives.

“She almost didn’t come to that faculty dinner, and I can definitely say that had she not come, there would be no book,” Pickett said.

The subsequent tours of his own archived materials and Special Collections areas of the library was a lightbulb moment for Pickett. He says Saeed was “very instrumental” when he first began writing the scripts that would eventually become the novel. He credits her with teaching him about the intricate and meticulous nature of archival work.

“Yes, it was exciting for me when I found the idea, but at the same time, I had to figure out a way to sell this world to people,” Pickett said. “They’re not librarians, but when people think of archivists, it doesn’t really sound exciting from the get-go.”

‘Going after big themes’

Pickett says he fashioned “The Archivist” in the classic style of a noir thriller, something that, with patience, begins to simmer and eventually boils over.

“A project archivist ... comes in for a project, uncovers stuff that is sometimes uncomfortable, and she digs in deep,” Pickett said.

“There are good medical and legal dramas, but those also have immediate drama and conflict. With ‘The Archivist,’ it starts a little slow, but the drama comes when she discovers things and ends up opening a Pandora’s box and has to confront these deep ethical issues that ultimately becomes a murder mystery.”

Much like his characters in the “Sideways” novels, Pickett fashioned Emily to be something of an antihero, describing her as “aloof” and sometimes “off-putting.” However, her rigidity at her job helps readers make up their own minds about the deep ethical dilemmas she’s confronted with.

“This book is not just a mystery,” Pickett said. “I’m hunting bigger game in terms of themes. I’m going after big themes and taking those kinds of risks. What does it mean to preserve the historical record? What does it mean to take those kinds of chances with your profession and livelihood?”

Asked if he could see Emily becoming a recurring character, Pickett says “The Archivist” would have to do well before he or his publisher would consider that.

“Anywhere in the world where there are libraries with special collections and archives, she can go to any one of them. The stories are endless,” Pickett said.

For now, Pickett has been busy promoting “The Archivist” while negotiating to write another “Sideways” sequel (this time set in New Zealand) and working on a three-volume autobiography (“My Life on Spec”). He says he’d love to revisit the idea of a limited-series adaptation of “The Archivist,” but right now, he just hopes the novel gets in as many hands as possible.

“I kept thinking there really is a world here,” Pickett said. “The beauty of it is that I’m doing something right now in mysteries that probably hasn’t been done. I’ve staked out a place that no one has been before.” ◆