Growing up on the sun soaked beaches of Southern California, Katherine Nichols heard every iteration of the infamous story about the high school swimmers who orchestrated an elaborate drug smuggling operation in the ’70s.
A swimmer herself, Nichols was fascinated by the young men who swam in the dark of night from Mexico to California with bales of marijuana tied to their legs. So she wrote a fictionalized account of the epic tale, throwing in a female character for good measure, but it didn’t take off. Publishers said it was too improbable, just not believable.
Not long after, Nichols set out to write the real story, or as she says, as close to the real story as possible, and in the process discovered a common cliché to be true: real life really can be stranger than fiction.
Her new true crime book, Deep Water, was released to rave reviews just a few weeks ago. And while this latest work of Nichols is branded for young adult readers, the story’s squarely in the realm of well researched, journalistic nonfiction. The author is, after all, a journalist. But she says writing for a teenage audience allowed her to delve into the humanness of characters like Eddie, a water polo star turned smuggler.
Nichols will read from Deep Water at the South End branch of the Boston Public Library on Tuesday, June 27 at 6:30 pm. I caught up with her ahead of the event to talk about the innocence of a different time, and about people getting caught up in something much bigger than they realized.
What was it like to write this book and finally find out the true story?
You never really know what the real story is, I’ll say that. The things that I know as the real story are from the DEA’s perspective. Tracking down all the legal entities, law enforcement officials, those were key pieces in what I consider the true story. But then again, all the people that were involved might disagree.
Then, going around and interviewing all the different parties involved … there were a lot of different stories. There was a lot of love and loyalty between these guys. There was conflict. There was competition. There were different ideas and perspectives. They had West Coast operations and East Coast operations, and they ramped up operations on a very aggressive scale. So it was challenging to try to put all those pieces together and find a balance.
This story feels almost innocent or naive in a way, like they were all just caught up in it. Is that part of the time period, or do you think smart kids will always be able to get off track?
First, yes, smart kids can get off the track now, but in different ways. This could never happen today, I think. It was a function of its time. Understanding the historical perspective and socio political climate of the time is really important. The fact that Nixon was president and one of his big platforms was the war on drugs and tightening up the borders created an opportunity for guys who understood the ocean and could possibly do it differently. So that’s one piece.
And also, the late ’60s and early ’70s. People didn’t consider themselves criminals if they brought a little something back for their friends. You’re absolutely right, there was a sense of innocence, I believe with how they began. And then you bring in this person and this person …
So yeah, I don’t think it could happen again today. Because for one thing the surveillance methods are too sophisticated. This was back in the time when no one had cell phones. It’s a different time. They could never live as fugitives out in the open … But I think it started innocently. Nobody set out to be criminals. These were nice guys, varsity athletes, teachers.
So, how do you think these nice guys got so off track to begin with?
It’s not that difficult to make a poor choice and then make one more poor choice and think you have control over it at any given time to get out. And you know what? You get in deeper and deeper and deeper. It happens organically.
It wasn’t just money. I think that was one piece of it, but it’s also that they loved the adventure and the excitement and the thrill of it. And they were a team.
While the details and the technology and the drugs and the circumstances have changed, human beings have not changed that much. What’s the most fundamental need a human being has? Probably beyond food, love. These guys wanted to be loved.
What kind of response have you had from your hometown after having your book come out?
A lot! There will always be someone who was somewhere on the beach at some point who says, “Well that’s not how it happened exactly.” But you write representative pieces, and I had a lot of creative freedom to connect the dots.
It’s a challenging process to be creative within a very tight framework. But I enjoyed it and I felt like I could add that narrative piece. I feel this place. I didn’t just visit and write a report on it. It’s in my bones. I understand the ocean; I’m connected to it on a visceral level.
But yes, the response has been very good. The first day, I did a launch event in my hometown Coronado. It was standing room only, they had to turn people away. They sold 100 books in the first 10 or 15 minutes and they’re on their fourth order now. Everyone wants to know, to see if their name is in there, to compare with their recollections.
And of course it can’t possibly match exactly. I wasn’t there, I didn’t smuggle the drugs. But I think that actually helped me. Consequently, I recorded research with great diligence and humility. I understood the place and the people and the circumstances, but I was a step removed.
KATHERINE NICHOLS: DEEP WATER. TUES JUNE 27. 6:30PM/FREE/ALL AGES. SOUTH END BRANCH OF THE BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY. FRIENDSOFSOUTHENDLIBRARY.ORG.