Sandro Meallet, 36, says his German mother, Sigrun, likes unusual names. His first name is Italian and his last name is French. This melodic name belongs to a large, tall man who might appear intimidating at first glance. He is, after all, 6-foot-8.
But Meallet is neither a longshoreman nor a football player. He is a writer. He and his wife, Melissa, live in Sonoma. They just had their first child, a son named Alonzo.
"As in Alonzo Mourning," says Meallet. It's also entirely apropos that Meallet should name his son after a basketball player since he too played basketball, attending UC Santa Cruz on a sports scholarship.
Unusual and melodic names and words are found throughout his first novel, "Edgewater Angels" (Doubleday, 2001, $22.95).
Meallet, who grew up in the projects of San Pedro, has written a novel about those experiences, the good days and the bad days. He created a work of fiction that he plans to turn into a trilogy featuring narrator Sunny Toomer.
"Edgewater Angels" has received excellent critical reviews. But when Meallet left the housing project for Santa Cruz, and left Santa Cruz for New York City, he intended to become a historian or sociologist, not a writer, and earned an MFA from the New School for Social Research.
He was introduced to the woman who would become his wife ("the most interesting person I've ever met") at a party in New York in 1995. Since both he and she were from California, they ended up back in their home state after he earned another MFA, this one in creative writing, from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"The past was nipping at me," he said in a recent phone interview. "I had to answer to those experiences that were special and beautiful. These events asked me to do something with them. So it started as writing exercises and then short stories and then a novel."
The opening chapter of "Edgewater Angels" first appeared as the short story "Fish Heads" in the July 2000 issue of Atlantic Monthly.
"I was just trying to be true to my experiences," he said. "What came out and the way the book took shape was unexpected."
He is now finishing an untitled sequel to the first book. The sequel also takes place back in the neighborhood, which still retains a powerful hold on Meallet.
"When I'm back in L.A. hanging out with old friends it's a 'primary family' feeling. We think and laugh the same way and have the same community references that only we know. This primary human family risks my genetic family for togetherness," he added.
Meallet predicts that novel No. 2 will be a scandalous bombshell.
"I'm handling subject matter in a way that hasn't been done before. It's not about incest, it's worse," he says with a laugh.
But turning serious, Meallet gave some thought as to what he would like readers to take away from "Edgewater Angels."
"I want people to know that there are kids who grow up in these neighborhoods who have all the potential in the world and by the time they are 12 or 13 they are socially, economically and morally handicapped," he said.
"To me the narrator represents a kid who is just trying to become aware and not mess up," he added.
Meallet calls the people he grew up with in the Rancho San Pedro Housing Project "the most wonderful people I ever knew." These kids had to grow up in a constant state of cultural crisis, always reacting to the police, their messed up parents, and neighborhood gang leaders.
"It takes superhuman strength to get through it and be aware," he added.
In Meallet's case, what he calls awareness set in when he was at Santa Cruz.
"I am fundamentally a lot like those people I grew up with," he said. "But I was lucky enough to be 6-foot-8 and play basketball and so get out. And while I was at UC Santa Cruz a light went off in my head and I knew I had a chance I couldn't mess up."
He also credits his mother for instilling something in him that had to do with a love of learning.
His mother, who was born in the free nation of Danzig (now northern Poland), was fascinated by books and intelligence, however indirectly. She was a World War II refugee who became a naturalized German citizen in 1945 after the destruction of her homeland.
(Meallet was born in Germany on a U.S. Air Force Base. "I'm a product of NATO," he said. "Crazy, huh?")
"She read, read, read all the time," said Meallet. She also had nine children with five different men.
"We grew up on welfare and food stamps," he said. "She never mentioned the word 'college' to us."
Still, his mother's love of books, learning and reading crept into Meallet's very being. Now he is content to live the life of a writer.
"Making a living to me means not a luxurious life but having enough to eat and to pay the rent and being allowed to write full time," he said.
"We struggle but Melissa and I are both on economic diets and refuse to get nine-to-five jobs," he added. And now there's his son, Alonzo, to think of.
"That's better, more important, than any trilogy," he said.
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