Fred Setterberg is no stranger to writing and publishing, with three nonfiction books and numerous articles under his pen, but his recently released fact-based fiction novel, "Lunch Box Paradise," proved to be an entirely new challenge.
"I spent 10 years with this book because I didn't really know how to write fiction," he said. "But it was really fun, and I loved doing it."
The Oakland author's efforts and enthusiasm for the story of suburban life in 1950s and '60s California is evident in the attention to period detail, richness of characters and humor that lead the reader through eight chapters and 20 years in a family's life.
Each chapter represents a period and theme that defined the times and the people who lived them, among washer and dryer combos, bug spray, frozen vegetables, neon-yellow cake mix and ultra-green lawns. Though not a straight memoir, the spirit of the story reflects the small town where Setterberg spent his childhood and the things that were important to his parents and their working-class community.
The idea for the book had been simmering for many years.
"For the last many decades I wanted to write about where I grew up, which represents an experiment in the process of our becoming a suburban nation," Setterberg said. "The other thing that was important to me was to write about class, and this was a working-class community."
Jefferson Manor, Setterberg's fictional town, represents the small town of San Leandro, where plumbers, electricians and people who made good union wages personalized their identical tract homes, dreamed the American dream and believed their children could use education to improve their lives. Though Setterberg lived through this period, he did considerable research in preparation for the book.
"I went back and read a lot of books abut the period, including what happened in the 1930s through World War II and the beginning of suburbia," he said.
Though now deceased, Setterberg interviewed both his parents for the book and based the character of Franklin, the father in the story, on his own dad, whose four-year stay in a sanatorium with tuberculosis gave him the opportunity to read.
"Twenty years later the way he lived through reading was passed down to me," Setterberg said. "It made me a reader and eventually a writer."
After months of research the author realized that there were no hidden treasures and the story was within his own mind.
"A time comes to cut off the research and just sit with what you feel and imagine," Setterberg said. "My task was to go into my own experience and feeling, and that's the harder job."
The catchy title came from Setterberg's wife, Ann Van Steenberg, and symbolizes the sense that the working class was now part of a world unimaginable to them in their previous lives, but it was a paradise where work was necessary. Setterberg urges readers to recognize that, in truth, there is no paradise. "There's a snake in every garden, and there's one here, too," he said. "You have to read the book to find out what it is."
Released in November, "Lunch Bucket Paradise" has garnered many positive reviews, and Setterberg is pleased with the response.
"I hope readers will have an authentic experience of a working-class town with individuals who are familiar and ordinary, extraordinary in their ordinariness," he said. "That readers feel that these are lives that they knew themselves."
Setterberg's experience with writing fiction has him ready to repeat the process. "It's made me want to write more books like this," he said. "I really, really enjoyed it."
"Lunch Bucket Paradise" is available from Heyday for $15.95.
Fred Setterberg will read from "Lunch Bucket Paradise" at 2 p.m. April 28 at the Dimond Branch Library, 3565 Fruitvale Ave. in Oakland and at 6:30 p.m. May 16 at the Alameda Public Library, 1550 Oak St. in Alameda.