Brian Hamilton: Catching up with Cottrell always a trip down memory lane
It’s been six years since Steve Cottrell stepped away from Nevada City, a place he called home for more than 30 years — and where he served on the city council for 16 of them.
Though he’s now nearly 3,000 miles away, Nevada City is never far from his mind.
“Thanks to the internet, I still pay close attention to all that’s going on there,” Cottrell said by phone from St. Augustine, Florida. “I can’t sit down at McGee’s and have a cold beer with you, but I’m still very focused on what’s going on in Nevada City.”
Cottrell’s connection to the city is evident in “Bartoli’s Burden,” a novel he published in February with Champlain Avenue Books. Nevada City — and McGee’s for that matter — serves as the setting of the book, which is his first novel. A former sports writer, columnist and editor, Cottrell said literary fiction was quite a departure from his previous work, including as a historian.
“This is the first time I ever tried it … so this was very different for me,” he said. “It took me two months to get started, but then two months later I was finished.
“I’d write three to four thousand words in a day; and then the next day it was ‘Wow! Where did that come from?’ Once the characters came together, things took off.”
The main character, Gino Bartoli, who had a cup of coffee as a Major League reserve infielder followed by a long career as a scout, is retired and living in Nevada City, where he meets each Thursday with his good pal Paddy Hannigan for a drink and a chat.
“Indeed, Bartoli is a charming braggadocio who never lets truth (or a box score) get in the way of a good yarn — but one day he slips and mentions a teenage pitcher he discovered in Alaska in 1963,” according to the book’s description at Amazon.com. “When Paddy hounds him for more information, a lifetime of lies — some harmless, some not — begin to squeeze in on Gino, and he decides to record the truth of his life. For Paddy’s eyes only. But secrets as dark as Bartoli’s force Paddy into the unavoidable dilemma of protecting or exposing his good friend.”
His own baseball background — a former prospect who signed with the Boston Red Sox at 17, and a free-agent invitee to San Francisco Giants spring training at 19 — aside, Cottrell said the Bartoli character is not largely based on himself. Sure, like Bartoli, he enjoys a conversation over a cold one as much as the next guy. But the book’s not about him — or anyone else he knows — in particular.
“That’s the beauty of the literary fiction genre,” he said. “Combining real people with fictional people can really be a lot of fun. Some names of some of my friends are worked into the story as baseball players, some of them people I played with in high school or Little League. With the exception of two names, they’ve all passed away. So it’s a way to honor them, too.
“Certainly some of the incidences are real, when I’m writing about Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson and the Red Sox’s racist attitude back then … that’s all real. That’s all baseball history. Growing up in the ’50s, all I ever wanted to do was play baseball. … But really, I’d say less than 5 percent of (Bartoli) is me. He was really created out of whole cloth as I wrote.”
Cottrell said he chose Nevada City as the setting for the book mainly because of his familiarity of the area, allowing him to visualize the scenes as they played out in his mind and on his keyboard.
“I can see McGee’s. I can see the National (Hotel) and the Pine Street bridge,” Cottrell said. “All of those are so clear in my mind.”
He said he once read somewhere that first-time novelists should “go ahead and write it — some 60,000 to 70,000 words” — but should throw it in the closet when it’s done, “because you’re never going to sell that first one.”
“And there’s a lot of truth to that,” he said. “But when I finished, I figured at my age I can’t wait for the next one.”
Soon to turn 74 this summer, Cottrell said although he often misses Nevada City and Nevada County, life in Florida — despite the humidity — is good. He said love is what led him to leave Nevada City, and it’s what kept him away. Although, he does enjoy learning about the rich 450-year history of St. Augustine.
While working at the National nearly seven years ago, he said a young lady walked in who was the “spitting image” of a woman to whom he had been engaged in the late ’60s. He had met Susi Killian in Arcata in 1967, shortly after his service in the Army. She was attending Humboldt State and he was managing a college “beer and pizza joint” near the campus.
As it happens, he said, they eventually drifted apart. But when her young doppelgänger walked into the hotel something stirred inside him.
“I remember just staring at her,” he said. “She blushed and said, ‘I’m 21’, but that wasn’t the issue. … It was just that she looked so much like Susi. After my shift, I wondered if I could locate her. And, through the wonders of Google, in about five minutes I’d found her. I sent her a card. She responded. And, in a way, we’ve been together since.”
“Prior to reconnecting with her in early 2009, leaving Nevada City had never entered my mind,” he continued. “I figured The Union would eventually report that, ‘Steve Cottrell, former mayor of Nevada City, died yesterday.’ But life can sometimes surprise you when you least expect it.”
Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. Contact him at email@example.com or 530-477-4249.
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