Thursday, June 25, 2009

Great Summer books about the Bay Area

It’s five days into summer and already I am dreary of the fog/sun/fog routine. Somehow I can bear the gloom in the winter, but detest it between June and August. One reason is because it dampens my sense of expectation: I love waking up on a warm sunny day and feeling that almost anything can happen.

I associate summer with long days full of reading, choosing any book I want, including light-hearted fare that generally doesn’t hold my interest. I suppose it’s just as easy to read when the sky is gray with fog as when it is blue with sun. So in the spirit of our only-in-the-Bay-Area-summer, I offer a list of Bay Area-themed books to read. All of these take place in the Bay Area. All of them offer wonderful tidbits of history and lore about the region.

Not all of these books are new. The oldest was published in 1937 and the most recent in 2008. I have read all of them and can recommend all of them. I am sure there are many other wonderful Bay Area-themed books out there (I never knew, for instance, that John Lescroart’s books took place in San Francisco until I poked around for this article.) Please share your recommendations.


The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. In this bestselling book, author Clayton writes about a group of women who meet in a playground in Palo Alto in the late 1960s and decide to form a writing group. The reader follows them as they grow older, have children, suffer from illness, marital problems, and death. Along the way they form a writing group which nourishes their creativity and friendship. It’s a great book about female friendships.

No One You Know by Michelle Richmond – In this follow up to her enormously successful The Year of Fog, (guess where it’s set) Richmond weaves a mystery story about a young Bay Area woman who is still haunted by the unsolved murder of her sister, a math genius studying at Stanford. The younger sister is a coffee buyer who unexpectedly runs into a friend of her sister’s in Central America, which sets off a renewed search to track down the killer.

Alive in Necropolis by Doug Durst – The numbers say it all. In Colma, a small town south of San Francisco, there are 1,600 living residents and 1.5 million dead ones scattered in 16 cemeteries. Durst uses this backdrop to tell the story of a rookie cop who not only chases live criminals but dead ghosts as well. The San Francisco Public Library has selected this novel as its One City, One Read for 2009.

Confessions of Max Tivoli – Andrew Sean Greer’s delightful story of a man who ages backwards is a wonderful glimpse into San Francisco’s past. Tivoli is born as a 70-year old man in 1871 and the book follows him well into the 20th century. In the backdrop is the Gilded Age, the San Franciso earthquake and fire, and meanderings through old San Francisco landmarks like Woodward’s Gardens.

Graphic Novels

The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner – This riveting and disturbing book tells the coming of age story of a young girl in a troubled family. It’s a pitch-perfect glimpse into the 1970s in San Francisco, with its easy acceptance of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Not for the faint-hearted or very young, but well-down and moving.


Berkeley: A City in History by Charles Wollenberg. Berkeley is not exactly a large city, but it has had an outsized influence on arts and politics in the United States. Wollenberg, a fourth generation Californian and the chair of social sciences at Berkeley City College, describes the city’s origins and the parallel development of the university. When I was a teenager I took a class on San Francisco history from Wollenberg and was fascinated by his tales of the region. Berkeley is written in an easy and absorbing way and reveals many fascinating tidbits of the city.

Boss Ruef’s San Francisco: The Story of the Union Party, Big Business and the Graft Prosecutions. This book was published in 1952 by historian Walton Bean and it tells the story of San Francisco’s notorious graft trials. I bet few Bay Area residents know the extent of the graft that flourished in the city at the turn of the 20th century. The mayor, Eugene Schmitz, and his entire Board of Supervisors routinely accepted bribes from major corporations. The money was funneled to politicians through Abe Ruef, a laywer and advisor to Schmitz and the mastermind behind the corruption. Bean does a wonderful job explaining how the graft system came into being and all the details of the three or four exhausting years when prosecutors tried to rein it in. It’s all here – the earthquake and fire, assassination attempts, jury rigging, kidnappings, mysterious suicides. Fact here is certainly stranger than fiction.

Good Life in Hard Times, San Francisco in the 20s and 30s. Jerry Flamm, a former Chronicle reporter and press agent, draws a loving portrait of San Francisco before there were bridges across the bay. He remembers swimming at Sutro Baths, going to see the Seals play baseball, and traveling on the ferries. The book is filled with great photos.

Gables and Fables: A portrait of San Francisco's Pacific Heights. Anne and Arthur Bloomfield have written a great book detailing the architecture and history of houses in this upscale neighborhood. In describing the area's homes, parks, and public spaces, they reveal the names of former occupants, gossipy details about architects and home builders, and much more. The book is illustrated with hand-drawn pictures of notable homes.

Narrative non-fiction

Disaster! The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 by Dan Kurzman – I thoroughly enjoyed this narrative by this former Washington Post reporter. He recounts the disaster from the viewpoint of numerous San Francisco residents, creating a sober portrait of a city in ruins.

House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler – This is an I-can’t-put-it-down tale of the Mondavi family, starting when young Cesare immigrated from Italy and ending when the family sells its world-famous winery to Constellation for $1 billion . It’s a great primer on how Robert Mondavi turned a Napa Valley industry that had struggled after Prohibition into one admired and copied around the world.


Swing by Rupert Holmes – Holmes, the author of The Pina Colada song, brings back to life the 1940 International Exposition on Treasure Island. The book centers around a traveling saxophonist who comes to San Francisco with his band to play some gigs. He meets a young female composer who wants him to orchestrate her composition, called Swing. While visiting the fair, a young women plunges to her death right in front of the musician, setting off a tale of murder and espionage and the days leading up to America’s entry into World War II.


920 O’Farrell Street by Harriet Lane Levy. Levy is an underappreciated San Francisco writer. (She wrote for the San Francisco Call and The Wave) She grew up in San Francisco and was a good friend and neighbor of Alice B Toklas. The pair was together in Paris when Toklas met Gertrude Stein. (The Steins were a San Francisco family) The memoir, first published in 1937 and kept in print by Heydey Books, focuses on Levy’s childhood in San Francisco in the 19th century, at a time when the Jewish world was prim, proper, and well-defined. (ie German and French Jews were socially superior than Jews who came from Poland or Posen) Levy looks back at her authoritarian father and strict mother with a pained, if fond remembrance. Her insights into San Francisco’s upper crust are delightful.

Under Mannie’s Hat – An amusing memoir by Ruth Bransten McDougall, whose family owned MJB Coffee. McDougall details her parents’ marriage – he was from old German-Jewish stock and she was from French stock – in this hilarious tale set against the background of the 1906 earthquake.(Full disclosure: I am also a Bransten descendant, although the woman I come from retained the original name, Brandenstein.)

The Haas Sisters of Franklin Street – Have you ever wondered what went on behind the doors of that spectacular mansion on Franklin and California? For generations its was owned by the Haas family, who arrived in California in the early 1850s. Frances Bransten Rothmann (yes, a descendant of the Branstens mentioned above) published a memoir full of family pictures and reminiscences. You can look at a digital narrative of the family done by the Judah L. Magnes Museum here.

Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples – By Ruth Reichl. These memoirs take place all over the world as Reichl, now the editor of Gourmet magazine, works in various restaurants and begins her career as a restaurant critic. Large parts of the books happen in Berkeley, where Reichl lives in a commune and works at the Swallow, a collectively-owned restaurant on the ground floor of the Berkeley Art Museum. Lots of food, sex, and 1970s atmosphere.


Gabriel Moulin’s San Francisco Peninsula Town & Country Homes 1910-1930 – Moulin was one of the premier photographers on the early 20th century. He was photographer to the stars, or at least to the rich. These photos are of magnificent summer homes and gardens on the Peninsula and wonderful weddings that took place there. You can also gawk at the homes of some of the city’s most powerful residents, like the M.H. De Youngs, who owned the Chronicle. They lived at 1919 California Street. One room, called the “Display Room,” was used solely to display their collectables. Moulin Studios still exists in San Francisco. Their archive must be spectacular, but alas, it is private, not public.

San Francisco's Golden Era -- In the 1960s Lucius Bebbe and Charles Clegg, life-time partners and newspaper men, created a series of history books about the west, including this illustrated history of the city before the 1906 fire. It's richly illustrated and a good, quick read.

San Francisco in Maps & Views. Sally Woodbridge scoured the archives for maps tracing the development of San Francisco. She has maps from a 1776 Spanish expedition drawn by Jose de Canizares to prints of the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park to imaginary views of a future San Francisco.

What have I missed?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dumpster Diving in Berkeley

Where are the best dumpsters in Berkeley?

According to Novella Carpenter, whose new memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, is getting rave reviews, the award goes hands down to Eccolo, the upscale restaurant on Fourth Street. Carpenter is in a position to know as she scavenged through East Bay dumpsters a few years ago to find food to feed her ravenous pigs. She recounted those adventures Thursday night at a Berkeley Arts and Letters lecture with author Michael Pollan.

Carpenter, whose urban farm is on 28th and Martin Luther King streets in Oakland, at first fed her pigs fish guts found from dumpsters in Chinatown. But the pigs rebelled, and refused to eat the fish carcasses, forcing Carpenter and her boyfriend, Bill, to travel to more rarified eateries.

They started going to the dumpster behind Semifreddi’s in Berkeley. That dumpster was locked, but Carpenter soon figured out that the combination was the same as the store’s address. One time she crawled in and was joined by a young man. He kept tossing out entire baguettes. When Carpenter asked him why those loaves weren’t good enough, the man replied that he was looking for Semifreddi’s famous cinnamon bread, which was wrapped in plastic. Sure enough, he found a few loaves.

Carpenter then trolled other dumpsters where she found huge chunks of gourmet cheeses, including brie, slightly-over-cooked pizza from one restaurant’s wood-burning oven, and a whole container of Spanish rice and beans. Her pigs loved the food.

But then Carpenter heard rumors of the fabulous food in Eccolo’s dumpster. She and Bill went there late one night. When she opened the lid, the smell of roasted chicken wafted through the air. It smelled so good that Carpenter was tempted to eat it. She climbed up and loaded two whole chickens, some roasted fennel, and other greens into her bucket. Suddenly a voice rose up: “Please explain what you are doing?” Carpenter turned around to see a man in a blue suit on the ground below her.

Interestingly enough, when Carpenter explained she was looking for food to feed her pigs, the man suggested she directly contact Chris Lee, the owner of Eccolo, as he might be willing to help her. Carpenter did that, and the two developed a close relationship. Lee gave Carpenter food for her pigs. When the time came to kill them, Lee helped arrange their slaughter, and then helped Carpenter make salami and prosciutto from the meat. Lee hosted Carpenter’s book release party at Eccolo as well.

Pollan has had his own adventures killing chickens as part of his research for The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He read a short segment about slicing chicken arteries and his inability to eat chicken for days afterward. Pollan also confessed he had raise a pig as a child. The pig’s name? Kosher.

The lecture with Carpenter and Pollan was the last of the spring season for Berkeley Arts and Letters. The speakers series was started in the fall of 2008 by Melissa Mytinger, who booked the author events at Cody’s for 26 years. After Cody’s closed in June 2008, Mytinger teamed up with Praveen Madan, the c0-owner of the Booksmith in San Francisco, to start the series.

While Berkeley Arts and Letters might seem like it was patterned after San Francisco’s well-regarded City Arts and Lectures, Mytinger said is it not. The artists and authors who come are a bit edgier than those in the city, reflecting Berkeley’s less mainstream views.

The fall line up already looks promising: Sherman Alexie, Orman Pamuk, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Karr, and Peter Richardson and Robert Scheer, who will talk about Richardson’s new book on Ramparts Magazine.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Andy Ross: How the former owner of Cody's has found a new life as a literary agent
Andy Ross at Cody's Books in the 1970s

Andy Ross is well-known in the publishing industry through his former ownership of Cody’s Books, one of the country’s most renowned independent bookstores. For 45 years, Cody’s flagship store on Telegraph Avenue hosted the world’s most accomplished writers and carried books written by well-known and obscure authors. It had a large selection of poetry, local history, literary fiction, history, and computer books. Its magazine section was enormous. When Ross shuttered Cody’s on Telegraph in 2006, book-lovers and publishing insiders shuddered; the closure turned out to be a precursor to a wave of closures of independent bookstores around the country. The last branch of Cody’s closed down in June 2008.

Ross leveraged his knowledge of authors and writing to become a literary agent. As he explains on his website, his involvement with Cody’s gave him “a unique understanding of the retail book market, of publishing trends and, most importantly and uniquely, the hand selling of books to book buyers.”

Ross opened Andy Ross Literary Agency in Oakland in 2008. His clients include many iconic figures from the 1960s and Vietnam War era, including Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Paul Krassner, the editor of The Realist, the 1960s political and satirical magazine, and Michael Parenti, the radical political scientist and historian. Ghost Word recently spoke with Ross to hear his thoughts on being a literary agent.

Why did you decide to become a literary agent?

When I left Cody's in December, 2007, I wasn't sure what I could do. I had been a bookseller for 35 years, all my adult life. I was thinking that my future might lie in sacking groceries at Safeway. I woke up one night in January. I decided that this would be a good job for me. It was a good decision. I love this job.

What is the best thing about being an agent? Hardest thing?

Everything about being an agent is great. I wish I had started 10 years ago. I love working with writers. I love being a part of the creative process. I suppose some agents just flip contracts. But most of the agents I know and respect do much more. Sometimes authors have something important to say, but they need to be told exactly what it is. That is my job, too.

Every day I seem to meet someone new and interesting from all over the world. I have worked with authors in New Zealand, Israel, England, and India. As well as my friends in the East Bay. I cannot tell you how fulfilling it is to find a good home for a great book. Whenever it happens, it brings tears to my eyes.

The hardest thing is actually getting an offer. Publishing is in the pits right now just like everything else. Publishers are extremely risk averse. They still seem to be paying big money for celebrity books. Word on the street is that Sarah Palin got a $7,000,000 advance. But most of the books I am working with are what they call "the midlist". Every book I have worked on would have found a major publisher several years ago and sold quite well (at least at Cody's). It is hard to get them published at all right now. The corollary to this is that an agent gets a lot of rejections. It is very painful for me and, of course, for my authors. Telling a writer that there is no interest for a book that the author has poured his heart into for several years is heartbreaking for me as well as for the author.

When someone sends you a query, what is the first thing you look for?

I need to find out in a very factual manner what the book really is. If I can't figure this out on the first paragraph, the chances of me taking it seriously go way down. Next I will look to see if the author has qualifications to write about the subject.

I can't tell you how many queries I have gotten where I have had to read 4 paragraphs before I could figure out if it was fiction or non-fiction. This is a very bad sign.

When the first line of the query is that the author has written "a non-fiction novel", this is also a very bad sign.

If the author tells me that millions of people will want to read this and that the author will be good on Oprah, I begin to see that the author has some very unrealistic expectations.

How possible is it for someone to get an agent through the slush pile? How many clients have you gotten through blind submissions compared to referrals from friends, clients, or writers?

Most of the time I work with people who have been referred to me by someone I respect, or who I have contacted. I receive about 20 queries a week over the transom. But I am proud of the fact that I have gotten contracts for 2 books by unknown first time writers who sent me unsolicited queries. Neither of them have impressive "platforms". One is a graduate student at Oxford, who wrote a memoir of his year in the Marshall Islands. Another was living in his brother's attic in Maine. He wrote about his experiences in the standardized testing industry. I'm very proud of these guys. When this happens, I feel like my work is making a difference.

When I think of agent-editor relationships, I always imagine them going out to lunch. Being based on the west coast, how do you permeate the east coast literary world? Do you fly back frequently? Can you establish a relationship by e-mail?

There seems to be a common misconception amongst writers that having a New York agent gives you an inside track with getting published. This isn't true. If anything, NY editors are interested in agents outside of New York who have access to different groups of people and bring different sensibilities. In New York, they have lunch with the same agents. It gets a little stale.
I have gone to NY a few times and visited lots of editors. I realized while I ran bookstores, I never really understood the life and work of editors. But I did understand (better than many agents) what imprints were publishing what books. Fortunately, most of the editors knew who I was because of the high regard for Cody's in publishing. And, if you look at my projects, you will see that they tend to be very "Cody's" sorts of books.

I don't believe that doing business through the old friend's networks is particularly effective any more. Publishing is big business. Editors are pretty gimlet eyed and selective. Friendships don't play much of a part. Although given the many books I have worked with that are political or scholarly, the editors who have an interest in these areas know what I'm doing.

I do most of my business through email. It is efficient and it is friendly. I think I have mastered the art of the charming email. When it comes to selecting the right editor, I am a fundamentalist. I have access to all the major deals that have come down in the last 5 years. I study them carefully. And I determine, based on this, what the editors are looking for. This works pretty well for me.
Andy Ross with Salman Rushdie. In 1989, someone threw a firebomb inside Cody's to protest the prominent display of The Satanic Verses.

Is there an East Coast bias against West Coast writers?

Quite the contrary. California is the largest market in the US. The Bay Area is a bellwether of future trends. Publishers are nothing but encouraging. (Even when they rejecting your proposal).

Which is easier to sell, fiction or nonfiction? Why?

Uhh—well---non-fiction is easier by a mile. Look, I don't want to rain on the parade, but look at the numbers. Publishers will only look at fiction that has been submitted by an agent. These submissions have been heavily vetted. I would imagine that out of 100 queries received by agents for novels, they might select 1 for submission (probably less). I have spoken with a number of fiction editors. They inform me that of the submissions they receive, they may decide to publish (again) 1 in 100. Just looking at the numbers, selling a novel is like winning the lottery. Of course, if you are a published author with a good track record, you are in pretty good shape. It isn't very hard to sell a new novel by Philip Roth. But if you are a published novelist whose last book bombed, it is extremely difficult. Publishers are making decisions by the numbers now. They have a data base that tells them the sales of every book on the market. Refined taste in literature plays a very small role.

What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?

I got an offer today from a major university press for a book by a renowned Orthodox Jewish scholar. It is not an academic book. It is a memoir of his relationship with his neighborhood synagogue. It is really a one of a kind book.

Considering the economic times, what is the mood of publishers? Are they offering smaller advances? Are there still auctions for books? Or are publishers being more particular about what they buy?

Things are pretty grim in publishing. A lot of the best editors in New York got laid off. Yes, they are giving smaller advances. Yes, they have become much more selective. Yes, they are becoming much more commercial. There are still big advances for celebrities. Millions of dollars. There are still auctions for these kinds of books.

Let me give you an example of the problem. Last month I was in New York. I visited with one of the most highly regarded editors of a highly regarded imprint. He specializes in books of history and current events by distinguished authors. He told me that books that might have sold 20,000 copies several years ago now might be selling 3000 copies. These numbers make me very apprehensive.

What do you miss most about owning Cody’s Books? What do you miss least? What skills did you learn as a bookstore owner that have been useful as an agent?

I spent my whole adult life as a bookseller. I owned Cody's for 30 years. The last 10 years were very difficult. The growth of the chains and Internet bookselling has been devastating for independent stores. In a sense, we were the victims of history.

I have spent a lot of time soul-searching and wondering what I could have done differently. I haven't found a satisfying answer to this. When I think about those 30 years, I still believe that we did some pretty good things. Cody's meant a lot to a lot of people. Sometimes it makes me sad that we couldn't keep Cody's going for another 50 years. Wasn't it Camus who said: "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart"? I'm just going to have to accept that and move on.

For a list of Ross' clients and recent sales, click here.

Cody's hosted more than 5,000 author events over the years, and Ross took photos of many writers and taped their lectures. Ross donated the author photos that used to decorate the stores to the Berkeley Public Library. He donated more than 760 audiocassetes of author talks and other materials to the Bancroft Library.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Great Summer Reads

Selecting books for a vacation is a very delicate thing. There’s the temptation to keep doing what has sent you on vacation, i.e. read all those dense, history books that are part of a job. There's also the opposite impulse, which is to chuck it all and delve into the frothy, fun books that help you escape.

The tension between continuing and escaping work usually means a stuffed book bag, for the best part of vacation is refusing to make hard choices.

I’ve been in the beautiful Carmel Valley for the last three days and besides two jaunts to spectacular Pt. Lobos to search for sea otters, I have spent most of my time reading. Here are the books that I read:

The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon—There is a lot of pre-publicity buzz about this memoir by Gideon, who lives in Oakland and is a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. Her publisher, Random House, flew her out to New York and hosted a luncheon for her with reps from many women’s magazines. It worked, as there are already lots of raves about the book, which will come out in August. Sara Nelson, the former editor of Publisher’s Weekly who now has a column in The Daily Beast, listed The Slippery Year as one of her top summer reads.

Gideon, 44, poses the question “Is this all there is to life?” Despite being married to a sweet, hard-working guy with only a few neuroses, living in a nice house in the hills and sending her son to an exclusive private school, Gideon isn’t sure she is happy. Should she settle for this middle-calss suburban life or strike out for more excitement? Will earthquakes or other natural calamaties hurt her family?

I have to say that I laughed out loud about 10 times while reading the first chapter of this book. It was a hoot. The rest of the book had fewer laugh out loud moments, but it was well-written and engrossing. It straddles the line between a beach read and serious literature, which in my view is perfect.

After finishing Gideon’s book, I picked up Gillian Flynn’s thriller Dark Places. Now I liked Flynn's previous book Sharp Objects a great deal, but I can already tell this is better. It tells the story of Libby Day, whose mother and two sisters were murdered by her brother. It’s twenty-five years later and Day is broke, so she agrees to talk to a “Kill Club” that is fascinated by old murders. Of course, visiting that group jolts Day out of her complacency and certainty that her brother was the actual killer. I can’t put it down.

If you doubt my opinion, consider that USA Today, Salon, New York Magazine, and NPR all selected Dark Places as a top summer read.

The history tome I brought was Harold Evans' The American Century. Evans is the British-born husband of Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and the current editor of The Daily Beast. Evans was the long-time editor of The Sunday Times in London and is an editor-at-large for This Week magazine.

This massive volume is a pictorial overview of the United States and it is incredibly well done. Evans touches on many social movements and the personalities behind them. I remember when this book came out 10 years ago. It was critically acclaimed. My copy is from the library but I think I want to buy my own copy. It’s the kind of coffee table book that will grab your attention and keep you turning the pages.

Stangely enough, it is also a perfect book for a vacation. While it is too big to lug to the pool, I like having one serious book to read and reflect on.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Cocktails with (Ethan) Canin

It might have been the margaritas, or the fact that Daniel Handler and Stephen Elliot were wandering around the room wearing t-shirts that read “Ethan Fukin Canin,” but Tuesday night’s benefit for Litquake was an evening of good cheer and fascinating discourse on literature.

The $55 ticket price meant the room wasn’t too crowded. Spotted mingling at the Broadway Building in San Francisco, in addition to Ethan Canin: Po Bronson, Ethan Watters, Mary Roach, David Duncan Ewing, Phil Bronstein, Jack Boulware, Kathryn Ma, Katherine Neilan, Ellen Sussman, and filmmakers Dayna Goldfne and Dan Geller.

The heart of the evening was a fascinating discussion between Canin, who spent his teenage years in San Francisco, and Oscar Villalon, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

Villalon wanted to know about the time Canin took an English class from Danielle Steele, now internationally known for her women’s novels. The implication was how did a romance novelist teach anything to a man who has become one of America’s most respected literary novelists. But Canin’s answer was a surprise and not at all snarky. When Steele taught Canin English teacher at University High School, she had written one book, Passion’s Promise, and was making ends meet by teaching. Canin thought she was a glamorous older woman (She was all of 24) who wore mink stoles to school. (Full disclosure: Steele’s first husband was my cousin Claude-Eric Lazard. My stepsister was in the same class at University as Canin and did not get along with Steele.)

But Steele taught her students valuable tips on how to be a writer, most notably the need to write every day. She backed up her advice by requiring her students to write something five times a week – which meant she had all those papers to correct. Canin, now a professor at the University of Iowa writing program, expressed admiration for Steele’s willingness to grade so many papers. That took dedication

“She was a phenomenal teacher,” he said.

Canin didn’t set out to become a writer. He was a mechanical engineering major at Stanford until he picked up a set of stories by John Cheever. He was captivated by his language, that certain syllables and stresses could produce emotion. Canin was so taken by Cheever’s writing that he typed out and parsed his paragraphs over and over again to understand how they were put together. Cheever’s words became to feel like Canin’s words and the experience sent him on a new path.

By the age of 27, Canin was a literary golden boy. His book of short stories, the Emperor of the Air, was critically acclaimed and he had won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Award.

But the harsh reality of the world is that one book is not enough. There’s always the expectation of another one. “It’s quite a tough life, it’s not an easy life,” Canin said. “But I probably wouldn’t switch it for anything … I get to wear jeans everyday.”

“Part of what you learn when you become a writer is that the field is always changing. They don’t tell you when you write your first book that you have to write more. You think you have gotten over this big hill, but you have to (do more) and learn to be a writer.”

The key is discipline. Writing regularly and within restraints, he said. Canin writes every week day in his office and never on weekends. And he spends a lot of time gardening and woodworking because those are activities that require a different kind of thinking.

He also thinks absolutely freedom in writing is harder than writing within constraints. “Freedom is the enemy of invention.” When he lets his students write about anything, many of them balk. When he sets specific parameters, like asking them to write about visiting their parents’ house right after their death, or going to Africa, the students are liberated to be more creative.

Canin said he is fascinated by class and power, and his novel America America is his attempt to explore how they play out in politics.

Canin has had four of his short stories made into films, and his involvement has been from selling the rights and never hearing anything more until the film came out (The Year of Getting to Know You) to writing the screenplay and spending every day on set. (Beautiful Ohio).

He decided he prefers to stay far away because “a lot of movie making is personality management. At least, while writing is torture, it’s your own torture.”

“The best experience is just to deposit the check and let them make the movie.”

Fifteen years ago when Canin was still living in San Francisco, he started the Writers Grotto with Po Bronson, Ethan Watters, Josh Kornbluth, and others. He still stays connected to those friends. Many of his former students as well as some of his classmates from University High, attended the Tuesday evening talk.