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Bleeding, and coming, out 

An author with many names sets the literary record straight ... sort of

Lieutenant L.A. Franco flings open the door of an East L.A. apartment, moves determinedly past a table piled with crack cocaine and ignores a hysterical addict in pursuit of her prey—a thug named Tunnel with an arrest warrant. Her 9-mm drawn, she swings her 5’9” frame into the living room, and fires, splattering the right side of the criminal’s brain into the ceiling and liberating the tanned, surfer-girl detective he was holding hostage. Afterwards, Franco sweeps the blonde, named Kennedy, back to her house to recuperate, and perhaps more.

The character might not be real, but the alcoholic, workaholic, lesbian detective, based in East L.A., could be mistaken for local author and biologist Victoria Trautman’s alter-ego, or at least one significant piece of a very complicated puzzle.

click to enlarge VICKI TRAUTMAN: - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VICKI TRAUTMAN:
Trautman goes by several different handles. To fans of her gory lesbian detective series, she’s Baxter Clare. That’s “Baxter” because a bookstore owner once warned her that men generally don’t buy books they know were written by a woman. Plus, it was her grandmother’s maiden name. “Clare” comes from her father’s middle name. And for the audience that enjoys her gentle, peace-embracing natural history book, The Spirit of the Valley: Where the Light of Science Meets the Shadow of Myth, she’s Baxter Trautman.

She’s not on any bestseller lists under any of her pseudonyms, although most of her lesbian detective books hover in the range of top 40 books sold in Amazon’s lesbian mystery and thriller category.

Despite the many names, at home she’s just Vicki, a middle-aged lesbian who passionately follows football, marvels at nature, and chases sunshine through the North County with her trusty truck and dog. So, with six books under her belt and safely published, the question is, why isn’t the author of ass-kicking lesbian detective stories better known in her home locale?

It’s difficult to believe of the happy-go-lucky Trautman, who seems as straight shooting as Franco, her haunted and alcoholic heroine, but the answer to that question might simply fall somewhere in the range of a reluctance to rock the status quo boat and downright cowardice. She’s an admittedly private person who, left to her own devices, can happily amuse herself. Plus, Trautman’s initial lack of faith in herself as more than a hobby writer made her reluctant to broadcast the existence of her books to all and sundry. But there’s also the part of her that, when asked, simply identified herself as a mystery writer. The key missing word? Lesbian. No more. After recently watching Milk, Trautman became spooked by the ramifications, personally and socially, of failing to step forward.

“I don’t have any consequences. The worst I’m going to get is a dirty look or something,” she admitted. “I was so moved by [Harvey Milk’s] bravery. Yet I [wouldn’t] tell anyone I write lesbian mysteries. I felt very small.”

Fortunately for Trautman, she had led the sort of life that lends itself to storytelling. And—thanks to Harvey Milk—she developed the courage to finally tell it. She moved to SLO County in the late ’80s after her family decided to jointly purchase a house in San Miguel, an impulsive move that came about after a happenstance reunion between Trautman, her brother, and mother at the Madonna Inn. The experiment in familial bliss failed, but Trautman remained behind. In the next two decades she would live in Morro Bay, Pozo, and Santa Margarita, meet and marry (twice) her future wife, acquire a degree in biology, sober up, work at Hearst Castle and at the Unocal Oil Field in Guadalupe, get shot by a neighbor, write seven books, and publish two.

Trautman began the path toward published authorship—a goal few writers achieve—while obtaining her biology degree at Cal Poly. To escape the dreary Morro Bay fog which, she insists, disorients her, she used to pack boxes full of library tomes, alive with science and ancient religious theories, and drive to the North County where she would take notes based on what she read. At the recommendation of a friend, she passed the notes along to a crusty science professor, who took a liking to them. So, for her master’s thesis paper, she wrote a book that would simultaneously explain laymen’s myths about science to scientists and vice versa. Her book, contrasting myth with facts about nature, was picked up by the Sierra Club in 2000.

click to enlarge IMAGE COURTESY VICKI TRAUTMAN
  • IMAGE COURTESY VICKI TRAUTMAN
She tried to follow that book, The Spirit of the Valley, with another work about nature. Instead, her mind was invaded by a regimented workaholic, a character she describes as “Dirty Harry’s personality stuffed into Martina Navratilova’s body,” the commander of a homicide squad in south-central L.A., a woman who frequently occupies the gray territory between black and white. The writing process for Bleeding Out would take a year, and the character who emerged opposite Frank (Trautman’s protagonist) would terrorize the author. She began each chapter with a first-person narrative from her serial killer, detailing the childhood physical and sexual abuse that drove him to sodomize and kill young girls. Like her killer, Trautman’s writing is ruthless, sickening in its descriptions of violence and emotional turmoil.

“What is in me that I have this character in me?” she initially wondered. “It was fascinating. And Anne-Marie [Trautman’s wife] was initially scared. I was like, ‘Tell me about it. I’m living with this guy upstairs.’”

But Trautman’s serial killer couldn’t be just another bad guy any more than Frank could have been just another good guy. Life, according to Trautman, just isn’t that simple.

“I think we have the germ of everything inside of us,” she said. “I’m a lot like Frank. I used to be a lot like Frank. Frank can do whatever the situation demands but at her core she is psychopathic.”

While writing, her instincts as a biologist kicked in. Trautman would travel to south-central Los Angeles, her book’s setting, to observe the daily struggle for survival. She would absorb the gritty ambiance, the architecture, the fact that the presence of a corpse on the sidewalk could fail to elicit a response from passersby. She recognizes that, in nature, life is lived close to the bone. Animals live with two concerns: who’s trying to eat them, and who they’re trying to eat. But she acknowledged that many of her Spirit readers might not feel the same way. Hence the variety of pen names.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of life’s cruelty and barbarism—the publishing industry—was a hurdle that Trautman overcame without faltering. In fact, she refers to the process as “really easy.” After completing Bleeding Out, the intrepid author went to the library and found a copy of The Literary Marketplace. She wrote down every lesbian publishing company she could find, sent out 50 query letters, received a response from three publishing companies and sold the book to the first to ask for it. Firebrand Books published her first book; her current publisher, Bella (then called Naiad Press), called Trautman the day after Firebrand got to her. Eventually Trautman re-acquired the rights to her first book, and Bella is now publishing the entire series. Though she found a publisher without any great difficulty, Trautman has few favorable remarks about the challenge of writing a query letter.

In the middle of writing the second book of the series, Trautman sobered up, making for a “very traumatic” period of time. Her three heroes—Sinatra, Steinbeck, and Hemingway—all drank and she assumed it was an attribute of all creative people. Her first draft was rejected; “for a lesbian press to turn you down, that’s pretty bad,” she joked. But by her third book she had regained her confidence. And the fourth was emotionally wrenching, because she killed off one of the primary characters.

- READ ’EM AND…:  For more information about Vicki Trautman visit baxterclare.com and to purchase her books, visit bellabooks.com, amazon.com, or The Novel Experience in SLO. The five books in her mystery series cost $12.95 to $13.95. -
  • READ ’EM AND…: For more information about Vicki Trautman visit baxterclare.com and to purchase her books, visit bellabooks.com, amazon.com, or The Novel Experience in SLO. The five books in her mystery series cost $12.95 to $13.95.
Bella Books publishes more than 40 authors, but Trautman’s work doesn’t fall within the company’s more standard content; she is one of two writers whose work is considered high in its gore content, and her series is one of two that feature a law-enforcement officer. All of which makes her unique within the publisher’s catalog.

Over the course of her half-dozen books, Trautman’s writing process evolved from a rigid schedule worthy of the workaholic Frank, to a pace that reflected her belief that writing should be fun. Mornings are her favorite time of day, for everything. But rather than force herself to wake up at 5 a.m. and begin writing, Trautman has allowed the process to become more organic. She works three long days a week at her biology gig, spends two days writing, and then rewards herself with the standard two-day weekend. She has never been a victim of writer’s block, in part because she considers it “code for ‘I really don’t want to do this’” but mostly because she genuinely enjoys writing.

“We put too much pressure on ourselves as creative people to have it be perfect the first time out the gate,” she explained.

The challenge she has recently been facing is what to do with her manuscripts that don’t fall neatly within the category of lesbian fiction. Trautman took a break from writing for the past year to focus on shopping two homeless manuscripts to potential publishers. But with no publisher in sight, she’s getting restless and plans to begin writing again in the next couple of months. And what does the author who alternates between gentle expositions about nature and science and altercations between bloodthirsty serial killers and alcoholic cops have planned? A World War II novel. Naturally.

Whatever form or genre her future literary endeavors happen to take, one thing is certain: If you happen to cross paths with Trautman and ask what sort of books she writes, the word lesbian will enter the conversation from now on.

“Life is one big adventure and part of that’s just pushing yourself a little bit farther every day. And it’s a way to honor the work that Milk did,” she said. “I have a responsibility to be more out than I’ve been.”

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach wishes she had been at Stonewall. Send beer cans and spiked heels to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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