ORINDA -- Family secrets cause a curious child to become even more curious.
Joel Fuetsch Pehanick knows this first hand. Several years later, she recounts a serious family matter she first heard about when she was a child, and has written about it in her first book, a fictionalized account of the lengths to which her parents went to do the right thing.
"As I child in California I sometimes caught the phrase 'the trials,' when my parents gathered with Nevada friends or family," the Reno-born Pehanick wrote in her book. "If they realized I was within earshot they instantly changed the subject. My curiosity grew when I discovered a box of yellowed newspaper clippings in a dark corner of my mother's closet. Though told to 'stay out of there,' I did sneak back for a quick reading or two but couldn't make much sense of the subject matter.
"It wasn't until I was college-bound that my parents told me what 'the trials' meant. They related a shocking series of events encompassing crooked law, con men and a mail fraud case. The case's star witness, my father's best friend, 'disappeared.' My father took his place."
So Pehanick chose two fictional characters, Lou and Kathaleen Hoffman, to narrate the most challenging years of her parents' lives -- 1934 to 1938 -- the first four years of her life.
While she started the novel "Porch Light Burning" 20 years ago, it was published only this year. It is the result of years of research using FBI records, national archives, news clippings and interviews with people who lived during that era.
"The story is very closely aligned with what my parents went through," said Pehanick, who will read and sign her books at 2 p.m. March 14 at Orinda Books. "It's a story based on what happened to my father."
Her parents, who met in 1930, grew up in Nevada. Her father worked at a bank.
"A lot of elements of the story had to be written," said Pehanick, who lives in Orinda. "When I started, I walked into a Rossmoor writing class thinking I could only write nonfiction. Then I came to realize I love writing scenes and creating characters. I realized I wanted to make it a novel."
While the story was primarily based on her father's story, Pehanick decided to have Lou and Kathaleen -- characters based on her parents -- narrate the story.
"Dad did the testimony but Mom kept getting into the story," she said. "Part of the experience was my mom's support, her input -- she was with him throughout the four years, through the trials and every single day of the testimony and traveled with him by train from Reno to New York City. The more I wrote, the more I realized what a horrific experience they went through."
Pehanick said that she got to know her parents more through writing her characters.
"My father could not have a job during that time," she said. "As I got into their heads and realized what they went through, I admired them even more."
The title of her "mostly true novel" comes from a mother character in the story who "kept her porch light on in honor of her son after he disappeared."
Writing always came naturally, said Pehanick, who coedited "Designated Heroes Remember," an anthology of World War II stories published in 2009. When she was 8 years old, she got a pencil box as payment for a story she wrote about her dog for the Oakland Tribune.
"The idea that it got printed was thrilling," she said.
She learned new writing techniques and received encouragement from her Rossmoor writing group.
Patricia Mills, who met Pehanick at a creative-writing class that still meets today, has known Pehanick for over 20 years.
"Watching her skills grow and seeing her determination to bring her parents' story to life and then publish the story so others can read it has been an inspiration to me and a lesson in the power of determination," Mills said.
Pehanick said she hopes readers will appreciate her novel as a tribute to her parents' commitment to what's right and their devotion to each other.
"I would describe the book as a story about an ordinary couple who chose to do very extraordinary things," she said.
ORINDA AUTHOR JOEL PEHANICK
WHAT: Reading and book signing
WHEN: 2 p.m. March 14
WHERE: Orinda Books, 276 Village Square, Orinda