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Rex Pickett dives deep in ‘The Archivist’

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

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

Still, as prolific as he is, Pickett says he always takes the time to immerse himself in the world of his characters. Whether this means traveling to Chile’s wine country for 2014’s “Sideways 3 Chile” or returning to his alma mater to pen his new novel, “The Archivist,” Pickett says his attention to detail make his plots more plausible and his characters more authentic.

“I won’t name names, but there are books that are very popular that defy credulity, and I don’t like that,” Pickett says from his apartment in Del Mar. “I want things to be credible. I like characters who do things because there’s a believable motivation behind it.”

In the case of “The Archivist,” released this month by Blackstone Publishing, Pickett did not have to travel far to find the backdrop for the novel. He wrote and researched much of the novel at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library, a setting he was already familiar with, having attended the university in the mid-’70s.

“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,” jokes Pickett, 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.”

A twist of fate

Most of “The Archivist” takes place at a fictional college in San Diego called Regents University, but for local readers, UC San Diego and the Geisel Library are clearly the setting of the novel. The plot centers on Emily Snow, a young digital archivist who has come to the library’s Special Collections department in order to organize and catalogue the collected papers of one of the university’s most famous professors. She soon discovers that the professor, a Pulitzer-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 also 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,” says Pickett, who grew up in San Diego admiring mystery and crime novelists such as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Patricia Highsmith. “But it still works because (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 still something of a departure for Pickett. The novel is epic in both scope and length (it clocks in at nearly 700 pages), and at 65, he concedes that it’s an interesting age to break away from the “Sideways” novels and write his first mystery novel.

A book on a table

Rex Pickett’s “The Archivist” is nearly 700 pages.

(Courtesy of the author)

“Well, it was originally written as a limited series for television,” says 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.”

Still, the writing of the scripts and what would eventually become the novel never would have happened if not for a simple twist of fate.

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

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

A few months later, at a faculty dinner for “Sideways: The Musical,” which was opening at the La Jolla Playhouse, Pickett says he 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 says.

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 initial scripts which 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 says. “They’re not librarians, but when people think of archivists, it doesn’t really sound exciting from the get-go.”

A new formula

Having worked in television and film, Pickett says he’s often exacerbated with what he calls the “formula fiction” of shows that revolve around cops, lawyers or doctors. And while those shows work in the same parameters of thriller novels — a cop has to solve a crime, a doctor has to diagnose and treat, etc. — 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.

“There are good medical and legal dramas, but those also have immediate drama and conflict,” Pickett says. “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 also fashioned Emily to be something of an antihero, describing her as “aloof” and sometimes “off-putting.” However, her rigidity at her job only helps the reader make up their own minds about the deep ethical dilemmas she’s confronted with.

“This book is not just a mystery,” Pickett says. “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 is matter of fact when he points out that “The Archivist” would have to do well before he, or his publisher, would consider that.

“She’s a project archivist. A project archivist comes in for one gig and she’s out,” Pickett says. “She comes in for a project, uncovers stuff that is sometimes uncomfortable, and she digs in deep. 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.”

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

“I kept thinking there really is a world here,” Pickett says. “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.”

Mysterious Galaxy presents Rex Pickett

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Where: Virtual event through Mysterious Galaxy

Tickets: Free

Online: mystgalaxy.com

Combs is a freelance writer.