Friday, October 30, 2009

Andrew Sean Greer and the Art of Writing

Andrew Sean Greer (right) talking to 5 month nephew Arlo, who is sitting on the lap of Greer's identical twin brother, Mike. New York Times photo by Heidi Schumann

Earlier this week, the New York Times' new Bay Area section published a story I wrote on the Sunday routine of novelist Andrew Sean Greer.

The article touched on what Greer did on a typical Sunday. One thing he does not do is write. When he got together with his husband, David Ross, 13 years ago, he promised that he would avoid working on weekends.

Of course, I couldn’t interview Greer and just ask about when he drinks his first cup of coffee in the morning. I am a writer, too, albeit a nonfiction, writer, and I wanted to hear about Greer’s writing habits. So here are some tidbits from the conversation we had.

Greer spent much of the past year in New York, working as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Greer applied for the fellowship in order to work on his novel, which is a book about characters who time travel between 1918 and 1941. When he got to New York, the pieces of the novel he had written were set in San Francisco, much like two of his previous books, The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Story of a Marriage.

But Greer couldn’t resist the vast resources available to him at the library. He found himself captivated by the library’s books, newspapers, and other sources about New York. He walked the streets everyday, sat in cafes, and dined out with friends. Soon the atmosphere of New York had permeated his psyche and Greer tossed the 100 pages he had written and started afresh. He set the next draft in New York and added new characters.  He wrote about 150 pages in the following months.

“Ideally, your head is in your novel most of your waking life,” said Greer. “All of your spare moments, conversations you overhear, thoughts you have, all should be going to the novel. If I sort of let myself forget about the book, it’s hard to get back into it again.”

When Greer is writing intensely, he tends to read classic rather than contemporary literature. “I’m reading Colette right now. I will pick up Proust. I find old fiction helpful. It’s classic for a reason. It is really well done.”

Greer and Ross moved back to their home in San Francisco’s lower Haight at the end of the fellowship in May. Greer spent much of the next few months away from home. He traveled to Italy to read from his work at Letturatura, the Rome Literary Festival. It was an outdoor evening performance (video here)at the Basilica di Massenzio near the Forum. (“It was a warm Roman night. The Forum was all lit up. It was so beautiful it was amazing.”) He also spent six  weeks at a writer’s colony and visited Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman at their summer home in Maine.

So Greer didn’t start to look for a new writing office until September, a search that he Twittered about.

You might think that a writer as successful as Greer might go for a high end, modern office with a view of the city. But it seems that he prefers grunge. Or at least redone grunge. He described his previous office as a “crappy room in someone’s basement.”

He looked all around and almost took an office on a houseboat because he couldn’t find anything else. Then he found a spot in the Mission, with a few small rooms and a loft that lets in lots of light.

“”It’s really nice but it’s really crappy," said Greer. "It looked like a meth lab when I first rented it, so that’s why I had to paint the whole thing. The room was bright pink which is why I had to paint it white.”

Greer calls himself an Internet addict. When he gets up he goes straight to the computer, reads the New York Times online, reads various progressive blogs, but skips literary blogs because he dislikes it when bloggers write snarky comments about his friends. He is so addicted to surfing the web (and who isn’t?) that he uses the program Freedom to limit his Internet access. Before he leaves his home, he programs his Mac Air not to let him go on the web for at least 4 hours. Then he walks to the office,

“It’s a 15-minute walk. I love it because there is a transition. The mind kind of gets into the novel and the one thing I am thinking of on the way over is the first sentence of the next paragraph. Half the battle is getting the next sentence. At least it’s a way to start.”

Then Greer laughed and added: “And it’s usually followed by a nap, and then lunch, all the procrastination I can get in.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

James Baldwin visits San Francisco in 1963 to explore the lives of urban youth

In 1963, the author James Baldwin came to San Francisco to explore the increasing sense of bitterness and isolation felt by urban youths in America. He chose San Francisco in order to peer beneath its veneer of liberal acceptance. He found a city that he declared was no better than Birmingham, Alabama. Racism and discrimination were everywhere, if a little more genteelly hidden.

A KQED television crew followed Baldwin and produced a show called "Take This Hammer." You can see the video here on the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive website.

The video is interesting for its view of San Francisco and for the views expressed by African-Americans living here. The camera follows Baldwin on a road winding into the city and it looks like the road from the airport before it became the lovely highway we know today as 101. There are shots of the Bayview district and a housing project.

Baldwin goes to a community meeting in Bayview where he tries to assess the mood of the black community. In one amazing exchange, a mother declares "There will never be a Negro president in this country. If you can't get a job, how can there be a Negro president?"

Baldwin disagrees and predicts there will be a black president one day, but it will be in a country that looks very different than the United States in 1963.

It only took 45 years for Baldwin's prediction to come true.

(via Laila Lalimi and Maud Newton)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Surviving the Literay Death Match

This is a shot of me on the stage at Literary Death Match. I don't know why it's red, but all the photos posted on the website from that night are red. It's probably a way to convey the mood of the evening.

Because this certainly was an event like no other. More than 100 people crowded into the Verdi Club on Potrero Hill in San Francisco to hear four authors read a piece and to hear biting and hilarious pronouncements from three judges.

While I wasn't the oldest reader (I think Lynka Adams is older than me) I certainly was the most staid. I read a piece on my growing obsession with James the skunk man who deftly relieved my home from a colony of skunks.

My piece differed from the three others in part because there was no fucking, sucking, orgasmic recreations, or discussions of getting high. Marijuana did not waft through the room as I spoke. I was not dressed in a dominatrix outfit, nor did I bring three people clad in white onto the stage with me.

In short, I did not win.

Amber Tamblyn judged my performance, which she characterized as "nice." Talk about damning with faint praise.

But who could blame her? I elicited the fewest laughs of any of the contestants.

I did have my fans, though.

Here's what one tweeter said:

@frannydink got robbed tonight - just saying! #literarydeathmatch

Still, winning or losing was not really the point of the evening. It was having fun, with literature at the center. Oh, and throw in lots of booze, too.

Hats off to James Nestor who took home the prize. Tod Goldberg and Lynka Adams were also great. The other judges were David Wiegand from the Chronicle and Paul Madonna, who draws the comic strip All Over Coffee.

And thanks to Todd Zuniga and Sky Hornig of Opium Magazine for putting the entire thing together,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Literary Death Match -- May the most outrageous story win

Tonight is the day I get to humiliate myself.

For some unknown reason, I said yes when asked to participate in Literary Death Match.
For all those people out there over 40 (and I must include myself in this category) this is a series put on by Todd Zuniga’s Opium Magazine. It pits four writers against one another is a sort of literary battle.  I expect that the zaniest, funniest, most outlandish pieces will get the most applause.

I will do my best. I vacillated between pieces to read. My choices were an essay about the time I got mugged while in labor and how I fell hard for the man who rid my house of skunks.

You will have to show up at Literary Death Match to find out which story I chose.

My opponents are the novelist Tod Goldberg, writer Lynka Adams and James Nestor, author of Get High Now.

The judges include actress and poet Amber Tamblyn, SF Chronicle scribe David Wiegand, and artist Paul Madonna.

It’s at 9 pm at the Verdi Club, 2424 Mariposa Street, San Francisco. (map)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Death of One Historian Leads Another to Dorothea Lange 1932, the photographer Dorothea Lange and her husband, the famed Western illustrator Maynard Dixon, spent the summer on a two thousand acre ranch along the shores of Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe. It was an idyllic period, not only because the couple got to spend time with their children, who had been living in boarding schools, but because photographer Imogene Cunningham, her husband Roi Partridge, and their children were also there.

For months, the two families lived in a timbered hunting lodge that had been loaned to them by the daughter of E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who had made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines. They clambered on granite boulders, swam in the cold clear water, cooked and ate fish they had caught, and cleansed themselves in a sweat lodge that Dixon built. It was a magical interlude during the Great Depression, and a reflection of a particularly Western bohemian lifestyle.

On Monday, dozens of descendants of Lange, Dixon, Cunningham, Partridge, and Lange’s second husband, the UC Berkeley economics professor Paul Taylor, will gather in Berkeley to celebrate the publication of a major new biography of Lange. The book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, is the culmination of eight years of work by Linda Gordon, the Florence Kelley Professor of History at NYU and one of the country’s preeminent historians.
    But the celebration will be bittersweet. The party will be held at the home of the late Henry Mayer, who was working on a book about Lange when he died of a heart attack in July 2000. After Mayer’s untimely death at 59, his widow looked for someone to continue the project, and Gordon stepped in.

“Linda has fulfilled her own vision, but at the same time has written a definitive work on Dorothea Lange that would make Henry very happy,” said Robert Weil, an executive editor at WW Norton who worked with both writers on the biography.

Gordon will be reading from the book on Tuesday Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building and on Wednesday Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.
Dorothea Lange was born in New Jersey but settled in the Bay Area in 1918, living first in San Francisco and then in Berkeley. A documentary photographer who excelled at capturing the plight of the poor and downtrodden, she is best known for “Migrant Mother,” her 1936 haunting portrait of a down and out farm worker. Lange had been traveling around for the Resettlement Administration documenting the life of sharecroppers during the Depression when she spotted Florence Owens Thompson resting under the shelter of a canvas tent in Nipomo, California. Lange took six portraits, and the one of Thompson cradling her infant with another child nestling against her shoulder became an iconic image of the period.

Gordon, 69, has written extensively about women and women’s rights, including books on family violence, birth control, and the history of women’s work lives. Her 1999 book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, a narrative about a group of white vigilantes who in 1904 objected to Mexican American parents raising white foster children, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in history.

Gordon was wary at first of writing a biography since she is more interested in how social movements, rather than individuals, impact history. But the more she learned about Lange and her commitment to documenting the underside of American life, the more intrigued she became.

 “I am not a biographer,” said Gordon. “But as I got to know Lange, I realized she was a good subject for me. She was a complex person. She was not a perfect and I am not good at writing about celebrated heroes. She intersected so many important periods in the 20th century. “

 Gordon also realized that as a female photographer, Lange’s insights into the Depression and World War II told a different story than is usually told in history books. For example, many people conjure up images of long lines of men waiting to get into soup kitchens or other images of urban life when they think of the Depression. Lange, explored how the Depression affected rural inhabitants, a group that the New Deal did little to help, she said.

Lange was hired by the Army in July 1942 to document the roundup and internment of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. Anti-Japanese hysteria was so strong after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that few spoke out against the massive jailing, but Lange was opposed from the start, said Gordon. The Army told her to take pictures, but prohibited her from shooting photos of barbed wire fences, guard watchtowers, armed soldiers, or anyone resisting the round-up. Still, Lange managed to convey the indignity of the internments and the brutality of the camps in the 800 photos she took. Army officials, suspecting her sympathies lay with the Japanese-Americans, eventually fired her and impounded all the photographs.
Gordon’s book documents how Lange used her photography as a social tool, but it also focuses on the artistic, bohemian communities Lange created first in San Francisco and then in Berkeley. When Lange met and married Maynard Dixon in 1920, she entered into a world of artists who were exploring new modern techniques and who gathered socially at Coppa’s, an Italian restaurant in the Monkey Block building on Montgomery Street. (The Transamerica Pyramid now sits there.) Lange also took portraits of influential San Franciscans and linked up struggling artists with wealthy patrons, said Gordon. After her marriage to Paul Taylor in 1935, Lange created another circle in Berkeley, one made up of artists like Imogene Cunningham and her painter husband Roi Partridge, but also of progressive academics.

Henry Mayer had recently completed All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, when he decided to write a biography of Lange. The Garrison book, which won the 1999 J. Anthony Lukas Book prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, cemented Mayer’s reputation as a formidable independent scholar. He had taught history at The Urban School of San Francisco before turning his attention to biography, and he was intrigued by Lange’s passion for social justice, according to his editor, Weil.

“I listened to whatever Henry Mayer told me,” said Weil, who spent “thousands of hours” working with Mayer on the Garrison book. “His sensitivities were so acute. He understood human drama and was fascinated by Lange, of her ability to address the inequities of the world. He was so strongly compelled to do this book.”

Mayer had spent about two years collecting information on Lange (I was one of his research assistants) and had written an introduction and first chapter when he and his wife, Betsy Mayer, went on a bicycling trip to Glacier National Monument. Mayer and Betsy had trained for the trip by taking 35-mile rides across the Golden Gate Bridge and around other parts of the Bay Area. But during the trip, Mayer had a heart attack. He left behind Betsy and two children, Eleanor and Tom.

Mayer had received a significant advance for the Lange book, and after the funeral Betsy Mayer called up Weil and offered to return the money. “I figured it was done,” she said. “I called up the editor and asked what were the courtesies? Should I return the advance?” Weil told her no, and encouraged her to find another writer to continue the project.

“That was one of the most painful things about losing him,” said Betsy. “It was a catastrophe to lose him right at the point where the momentum (for the book) was building.”

Betsy wanted to find a writer who could do justice to both the seriousness of the material and the strength of the story. She didn’t want the book to be too academic in tone, but one that appealed to a broad audience. Through a friend, Betsy learned of Linda Gordon. At first, Gordon said she wasn’t interested.

“She’s a serious historian, a well-known writer and she had never done a biography and had serious doubts because it is a different form,” said Betsy.

But when Gordon was visiting family in Portland, she decided to stop by the Mayer house in Berkeley and examine the files. Gordon and Betsy developed an immediate respect for one another. Betsy read Gordon’s book on the Arizona orphan abduction and saw she was a graceful writer. Gordon began to ponder the possibility of using Mayer’s material. After a time, they both agreed that Gordon was the right person to continue the Lange biography.

In an unusual move, Gordon took over Mayer’s contract from Norton and began to work with Weil. From the start, it was clear that the new book would be Gordon’s rather than Mayer’s, and everyone agreed that was the way the project should be approached.

“It would have been inappropriate of me to shoehorn Henry’s vision onto Linda,” said Weil.

    While Mayer had collected a large amount of research material and had written the beginning of the book, Gordon the project all over again. She traveled frequently to Berkeley to look at oral histories and other archival materials at the Bancroft Library and interviewed the descendants of Lange, Dixon, Taylor, and Cunningham. Many of them will be at the celebration at the Mayers’ home on Monday.

Betsy got a copy of the book two weeks ago and thinks Gordon has written a compelling story, one that shows Lange’s strong sense of social justice as well as her passionate, human side. “It is lovely, and it is lovely for me,” she said.

And in a nice footnote, Weil has continued his relationship with the Mayer family as well. Mayer’s son, Tom, came to work for Weil as an editorial assistant a few years ago and has since risen to an editor position.

“The Mayer name lives on in Tom Meyer,” said Weil. “Tom has all of Henry’s social passions and convictions.”

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle Changes its Bestseller List:

For the last two weeks, readers of the San Francisco Chronicle list have been getting something new: a bestseller list not compiled by the newspaper but one put together by the trade association of independent bookstores.

It is a significant change, but one most people probably didn’t notice.

For dozens of years, the San Francisco Chronicle had compiled its own weekly list of local bestsellers. Every Monday, a staff person would call around a dozen or so bookstores to find out which books had sold the most copies the previous week.

Since the Bay Area has such an avid literary community, the Chronicle bestseller list often served as an earlier indicator for books that went on to capture spots on national lists. In addition, getting on the list was prestigious in itself. “A San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller” is a good thing to print on a paperback.

So why did John McMurtrie, the editor of the books section, give all that up?

Time, time, time, and a respect for independent bookstores.

The recent cutbacks in Chronicle staffing levels have affected the book section, and now there is only one editorial assistant for the department, according to McMurtrie. Compiling the list took up a good chunk of time.

But more importantly, McMurtrie came to realize that the regional bestseller list put together by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association was actually more comprehensive than the Chronicle’s list. The NCIBA polls around 55 independent bookstores in the nine-county Bay Area region for their bestsellers, providing a more accurate snapshot of sales.

“I’m all in favor of championing independent bookstores, of sending readers their way,” said McMurtrie. “They’re an important local resource in so many ways.”

Hut Landon, the executive director of NCIBA, is delighted by the switch because he thinks publishers will now have to pay more attention to independent bookstores rather than the big chains like Barnes and Noble or Borders Books.

“Literally, the only way to get your book on a bestseller list in the Bay Area and the Chronicle will be to get on the list in independent bookstores.”

So if an author comes to town and only does an event at Barnes and Noble, rather than at Book Passage or A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, he or she may not make the list.

“It’s going to be good for the independents,” said Kathleen Caldwell, owner of A Great Good Place for Books. “Publishers will take us much more seriously. They are going to want their books on the San Francisco Chronicle list and they’ll put their authors in an independent rather than Barnes and Noble because those sales won’t be reported on the list.”

If this switch had been done a year ago, it would have been bad news in some ways for local authors. That’s because it took a lot longer for a book to get on the NCIBA list than the Chronicle list. My book, Towers of Gold, is a case in point. It first made the San Francisco Chronicle list on Nov. 30, 2008 but didn’t show up on the NCIBA list until Jan. 25, 2009 – almost two months later.

The NCIBA has revamped the way it calculates bestsellers since then, according to Landon. The list is timelier, with information gathered on Monday for previous week’s sales and posted by Wednesday. The bestseller list is calculating using a point system and is not merely a reflection of the sheer number of books sold.

A book that sells 250 copies in one book store will get points, but not as many points as if that same book sells 25 copies in 10 different book stores, said Landon. Books also get points for being on an individual bookstore’s bestseller list. So the broader a book is selling, the more likely it will make the list. “You don’t have to have a huge book with a huge budget with big author events to make the list,” said Landon.

But the switch will probably make it harder to make the list. In the past, if a book came out locally and the author had multiple events at Bay Area bookstores as well as a book party, the chances of getting on the Chronicle list was high. It often only took sales of 100 books to get on that list. And getting on the list in the early days of a book’s release helped build that all-too-important momentum.

A comparison of the Sept 13 fiction bestseller list prepared by the Chronicle staff and the Sept. 13 NCIBA list shows they are different. There were 4 books on the Chronicle list that did not make the NCIBA list, including The Sower by Kemble Scott, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergese, ad 286 Bones by Kathy Reich.

The NCIBA list had some names the Chronicle did not, including Lisa See's Shanghai Girls, The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks, The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, and Homer &  Langley by E.L. Doctorow.

The two nonfiction lists had even more disparity: The Chronicle's list included Farm City by Novella Carpenter, The Healing of America by T.R. Reid, Born Round by Frank Bruni, and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. The NCIBA list had Shop Class As SoulCraft by Matthew Crawford, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal, and Official Book Club Selection by Kathy Griffin.

Interesting, huh? I don't know what it means, but it is interesting.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Towers of Gold Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 9

Towers of Gold Stage at HSB

Banner across top of stage

"Gold" coins with an image of Isaias Hellman

I already said my thanks to my cousin, Warren Hellman, for throwing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass #9 and for naming its 6th stage the Towers of Gold Stage after my book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.

My highest moment of joy came Sunday afternoon when Marianne Faithfull, one of my all-time favorite artists, sang at the Towers of Gold Stage. As I twittered at the time: "Pure bliss."