When people read my novel, the question they usually ask is, “How much of this really happened to you?” They work up the nerve after the second round of beers, when things are a little loose and they think I’m more likely to rat myself out—because the way they ask that question always implies that I’ve cheated somehow at writing fiction, because my 12th grade US Government teacher really did show us Roger & Me, and I really did once leave a sweatshirt in a Pennsylvania hotel room. For shame!
That line of thinking is silly, of course. It’s hard to write, whether what you’re writing is true or not, and combining your own experience with fiction can be downright brutal, since doing so requires defying the biases of your memory—if what really happened isn’t all that interesting, you have to replace it with something that is, no matter how attached you might be to the truth. So I’m unapologetic when I tell people that, yeah, I did borrow from my own life. There are compelling reasons to do so. One, the living world is interesting enough—what’s the point in fashioning idiosyncratic details when you’ve got a billion at the ready? And two, some writers are great inventors while others are great observers, and I happen to fall into the latter category.
But if I’m being honest, neither of those reasons fully account for why so much of me is in the book. The reason for that sounds weird, but it’s true: it’s because I’ve got a wicked case of homesickness.
I lived in the Bay Area from the time I was born until I was 24. As an undergrad in Oakland, I had a workshop professor who told me every fiction writer ought to live somewhere uncomfortable—comfort, she said, is the enemy of good work. So I figured I’d head for the most uncomfortable place imaginable. Months later, I found myself holed up in your typical New York cliché—a tiny, barely livable room—in an utterly charmless upper Manhattan neighborhood, working toward an MFA. I’ll spare you the other cliché stuff (awful roommate, bizarre jobs, major lack of fundage) and instead say that, as I plugged away on the novel, one thing became abundantly clear: I only wanted to write about the Bay Area.
Here’s what I’ve learned: If you want to write about a place in a way that gives it real depth, that makes it feel like another character in the story, you need to know it, then leave it, then miss it—and you have to do that last part often, and a lot. Before moving to New York, I’d set everything in a nondescript invented location I gave zero thought to (at best a missed opportunity; at worst a violation of a cardinal rule of fiction: “nothing happens nowhere”). But once I was 3,000 miles from home, all I wanted was to live in the version of the Bay Area that existed in my psyche. So I built it on paper, word by word, and furnished it with my memories. The book started with the place I loved, and then came to encompass the experiences I’d loved there, too.
Of course, there are tactical advantages to setting a novel in San Francisco, drama-wise: it’s a rare city that sits beneath such a heavy atmosphere. There’s the bridge, siren to the suicidal. There’s the fact that the populace can’t even count on the ground not to open up beneath them. There are those two terrifying acts of God in a single century. There’s the fog. But my motivation was rooted more in longing—which, not coincidentally, is the most pervasive theme of the book. I missed the place I loved. And being confronted by New York, a city that was too new to make sense of and that, by virtue of that newness, meant nothing to me personally, showed me how well I understood San Francisco and Berkeley and Oakland and Vallejo, which are the places that mean everything to me. I had enough distance to finally see each of those cities, and yet enough mental proximity, via two-plus decades of memories, to know how they worked and what they felt like from the inside.
So I wrote a novel in which the characters, in and amongst the many things they do that I never did, live many things I lived. I sent them to the Botanical Garden, where they trudged around in the rain, talking about nothing (which I did one marvelous day, with a marvelous friend), and to the Conservatory of Flowers, where they stuck their fingers in the flesh-eating plant (my friend really did that; nothing happened) and to Berkeley Aquatic Park (where another friend and I used to get drunk and play badminton). I made them hang out next to the odd, out-of-the-way stream at Mills College, where I went to school. I made them walk aimlessly around Fourth Street in Berkeley, where I was a data processor for a weird and wasted year after graduation (the characters get a cupcake at Bette’s, natch). I made my protagonist live in Vallejo, my hometown, which I hated while I was there; living far away from it has made me love even that dump. (In fact, it’s the setting of the book I’m writing now—amazing what a little distance can do.)
Part of me wonders if, once I leave New York—which I will, someday—I might be possessed by a burning desire to write about it, too. After all, in the last five years I’ve made plenty of memories and friends; I have a good life here. But then I think about how, whenever I land at Oakland Airport or SFO, my whole body relaxes, and I feel some internal switch flip, and then I get my luggage and go outside and find that the air smells familiar and right, and the world coheres and make sense. I look around and in every direction I’m confronted by some association—like I’m surrounded by my childhood and adolescence and early adulthood, like I’m literally standing inside my coming of age—and I know there’s no way I’d ever feel that way about anywhere else. New York is where I’ve made a life; the Bay Area is the place that gave me life. Consider this book my thank you note.