Ernest Brawley got his start as a published novelist as a columnist for the Scholar & Athlete, the Tracy High student newspaper.
That was in 1954 and 1955. Now, six decades later later, he is still writing, busy at work on a novel and screen play at his home in Granada Hills in Southern California.
Ernie, now 78, whose 1979 novel, “Serena,” is being republished and is available on Amazon.com, told me over the phone this week that he can spend up to eight hours a day putting words on his computer screen.
“Unlike some authors, writing is not a chore for me; I’ve always loved it and always will,” he said. “I can come across a character or a scene in the middle of the night, and I want to write it out the first thing the next morning.”
After reporting last week on the republishing of “Serena,” which is centered in a thinly disguised Tracy — a San Joaquin Valley town called Calmento — I called Ernie to find out more about his life, including his days in Tracy and his years of writing, teaching and traveling.
“Serena” tells the story of the struggles, successes and loves of a young Mexican woman who grew up in Calmento and became a United Farm Workers organizer. The juxtaposition of Mexican and European cultures in the book was first played out in the Brawley family history, Ernie told me.
His father, also Ernest, grew up in the Imperial Valley. His original name was Ernesto Robles, and he changed his name to Ernest Brawley by taking the name of the town where he lived, Brawley.
After becoming a correctional officer at Chino State Prison in Southern California, Ernest Brawley brought his family to Tracy in 1953, when Deuel Vocational Institution was opened, and he joined the staff as a lieutenant.
The family home was in the “flat-tops” on 22nd Street, and Ernie was starting his junior year in high school.
“I didn’t have any ambitions to become a writer until my English teacher, William Milheiser, told me I had a talent for writing.”
Ernie then joined the Scholar & Athlete staff as a columnist, and that experience solidified his interest in writing.
“I wasn’t considered the best writer in my class (Class of 1955). That was Pat McDermott Rhodes (who later became a historian for the U.S. Army.)”
He recalled names of other Tracy High friends, including Lon Marsh, Nick Kouretas, Pat Anastasio, Charlene Stille, Charlie Spatafore and the McDaniels sisters, Marge and Patty. And he still thanks the late Mary Hawley for getting him through algebra and geometry. He also remembers the dances “out in the islands” at the Roberts-Union Farm Center.
After graduating from Tracy High, Ernie attended Modesto Junior College for two years, where he took some English classes but didn’t do much writing, outside a few articles for the school newspaper.
It was at San FranciscoState several years later that a teacher, Leon Litwack, really turned him onto writing, encouraging him to write stories for “Contact” magazine. A story, “Lucerne,” was his first published piece.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in creating writing at SF State.
While attending college at Modesto and San Francisco, he worked summers hoeing tomatoes for Alvarez Brothers, working in the George Covert tomato-packing shed in Carbona (now Triple E Produce), and switching freight cars in the Southern Pacific yard in Tracy. He also worked as a night-shift correctional officer at San Quentin Prison near San Rafael while attending SF State during the day.
“San Quentin was a scary place,” he recalled. “I worked in different units, including death row, and saw a lot of violence — and learned a lot about life.”
His experiences at San Quentin were the basis for his first novel, “The Rap,” published in 1974. Before then and after college, he first taught at the University of Hawaii and then hitch-hiked his away around the world, beginning in Japan and ending up in England. In between, he had a number of jobs, including teaching English, and countless experiences in the Far East, Southeast Asia, South America and Europe.
He and his first wife, Chiara, whom he had met in graduate school, then spent a year living in a village south of Naples in Italy.
“A neighbor liked what I had written and connected me with a literary agent in Paris to write a screenplay,” he said. “We went to Paris, where I taught English at the Sorbonne and completed three chapters of ‘The Rap,’ all the time struggling to pay the rent.”
Those three chapters were forwarded to Anthem Publishing Co., a publisher in New York.
“They liked it and sent me an advance check for $179,000,” he said. “Wow, what a change from just getting by. We stayed in Paris for two years, mingled in the café life with artists and writers —and we blew it all — but we had the times of our lives.”
“The Rap” was published to mostly favorable reviews in 1974. The novel was later used as the basis for the movie “Fast Walking.”
Back in the U.S. and living in New York, Ernie began writing “Selena,” based on his well-remembered experiences in Tracy and other contacts with the fast-moving farm-labor scene, where he ran across the woman who served as a model for the novel’s main character.
As he wrote, he taught English and creative writing at Hunter College, beginning 22 years on the faculty of the college affiliated with City University of New York.
After retiring in 2007, the same year his first marriage ended in divorce, he took a motorcycle trip through the Far East. In Thailand, a motorcycle accident ended the trip. There, he met his present wife, Kanchana, a nurse in the hospital where he recovered from a broken leg.
They came to the U.S., settling in Southern California, where she works as a nurse and he continues his writing.
At present, Ernie is working on two projects. One is a historical novel, “Pleasant Valley,” recounting what amounted to a bloody war in the 1880s between cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers in Arizona. He said his family was involved.
A second project is working on a screenplay, “Streetlight,” which is centered in New York City in the 1970s.
“Yes, I’m still writing, and I suppose I’ll do it until I die,” he said. “I can’t live without it.”
And he hasn’t, since he was a student in William Milheiser’s English class at TracyHigh School.