“YEAH BABY!” read a text message that Mark Arax received from a friend on the evening of April 26. As a San Francisco Giants fan, Arax figured his friend was rubbing it in after the latest Los Angeles Dodgers win.
“It took another text to figure out that he was telling me I had won a Beard Award,” Arax said.
More specifically, he had earned the James Beard Media Award in the Best Feature Writing category for his 20,000-word story, “A Kingdom From Dust,” published in The California Sunday Magazine.
Widely considered the “Oscars” of the culinary world, Arax had been nominated in two categories; the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award being the other.
“It’s always nice when people in New York are reading a story about California — a complex story — one that doesn’t play to all the stereotypes that New Yorkers often have of California,” said Arax, a journalist and author. “It’s doubly nice when they read it, understand it and decide to honor it.”
For Arax, the article and his book, “The Dreamt Land — Chasing Water and Dust Across California,” are intertwined. He explained that the magazine piece is a chapter in the book that was released on May 21.
“Well, that story and the book are really about the creation of California,” Arax said. “When I embarked on ‘The Dreamt Land’ in 2013, it started off as a story about drought. Then it became a story about flood, and then it became a story about the system we built — the Central Valley Project and the [California] State Water Project together — that were designed to tame those forces of nature, the extremes of nature. And that necessarily became a book about the creation of California. So I go back to pre-gold rush, and the gold rush, and I follow the making of this system.”
In the months following the book release, The Dreamt Land has received acclaim from several national publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Rolling Stone. In early July, the it landed on the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller lists — cracking in the top five in the chronicle.
“A mesmerizing new book that examines the nation’s most populous state through the prism of its most valuable resource: water. Call author Mark Arax, an award-winning journalist, historian and native son of the Central Valley, a Steinbeck for the 21st century,” said Andy Kroll, Rolling Stone.
Arax has built his career around telling the stories of the Central Valley. The drive to chronicle this land began with a tragic, life-altering event when he was 15 years old.
“It started after my dad was murdered and no one, not my mom or uncles or the cops, could tell me why,” Arax said. “The first book, ‘In My Father’s Name,’ is really an exploration of Fresno. The second book, ‘The King of California,’ I’m exploring the Valley around it. The third book is all of California, the ‘West of the West’ in a series of essays. And then this fourth book goes beyond all of those; it just tells the whole story of how we created this state — what it was, what it is and where it’s headed.”
While his father’s unsolved murder was the catalyst which drove him to become a journalist, it was at Fresno State, in what is now the Media, Communications and Journalism Department, where he found direction and an extended family.
“We had these giants teaching us, led by Roger Tatarian. And Tatarian was not only a mentor; he was like a father figure to me,” Arax said. “He became a real presence in my life — not just during those years, but for years afterward.”
After graduating from Fresno State in 1980, the author and Los Angeles Times reporter returned 30 years later to teach the next generation of journalists. During that time, his class chose to cover the Fresno Unified School District, and The Bee agreed to run the stories if they were good enough.
The students performed beyond expectation and The Bee ended up running the whole series of stories on the front page — leading to reforms in the school district. “It just shows you what college students can do if they’re let loose, and guided of course,” Arax said. “That was quite an experience. I enjoyed it a lot.”
When asked what advice he had for aspiring journalists, Arax stressed the importance of talking and connecting with people directly.
“Get off your phone, get out of your seat, grab a notebook and go into the community and talk to people — just hang out. See what you see, find what you find. It’s a privilege to be able to be invited inside these lives and end up telling their stories.”
NOTE: This story, originally published on May 5, 2019, has been updated to include recent reviews and bestseller lists.