Santa Cruz Stories: Former newspaperman James Irwin Kruger turns to fiction in his second career

James Irwin Kruger has written eight novels since 2001, and is working on his ninth. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Pete McCauley entered James Irwin Kruger’s life when he, James, really needed a friend. So did Theodora Cullen, Valerie Stearns, Stephen Shevley, Jack Pennington and many more.

The fact that his new friends were all fictional characters made them no less vivid, or helpful.

James has just lost his wife of close to 40 years, Patricia, to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease in the summer of 2001, just a couple of weeks before 9/11.

“Thank God she didn’t have to go through that,” he said.

Soon after, a friend suggested he do what he had done since college: write.

“I didn’t want to write,” he said. “But she told me, ‘Otherwise, you’re going to sit around and mope that your wife has died.’”

That was eight novels ago.

James, 84, lives alone in Capitola. A second marriage of 10 years has dissolved, and again he’s turning to writing, currently working on his ninth novel based on a relative of Patricia’s, a fighter pilot during World War I.

“I got a pretty good one, I think,” he said of his current project.

James knows his way around the written word, having worked as a newspaperman for more than 30 years, 10 of those as city editor for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. He worked the city desk when the University of California first arrived in Santa Cruz. Before that, he worked in San Francisco. After his Santa Cruz stint, he worked on the foreign desk at the San Jose Mercury News.

He likes to tell the story of the day Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Papers on the West Coast couldn’t get confirmation of Sadat’s death before deadline, but James had a gut feeling Sadat was dead and, risking a mistake of “Dewey Defeats Truman” magnitude, he prevailed upon his bosses to go with the story that Sadat was dead.

It was these kinds of experiences, he said, that sparked his interest in dramatic stories. Most of his novels have veered toward historical fiction, but he’s also written a well-received trilogy of spy thrillers featuring the hard-bitten but deeply competent anti-hero Pete McCauley. “I wanted to do the kind of stories that would sell well on TV,” he said of the McCauley novels.

These days, James does his best work in the evenings, sometimes into the wee hours. While many writers claim that they “have to write,” James means it a bit more literally. He’s convinced that writing is fighting the ravages of age upon his brain. “The idea is to keep the brain going.”

James said he’s not worried about longevity; his grandmother and mother both lived past 100. But to keep his mental capacities functioning, writing is vital. “Essentially, it keeps me alive.”

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