One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A San Francisco Landscape: Infinite City

In last week’s interview with Catherine Linka, she talked about how landscape is more than the physical and geographical aspects of an area—that it’s as much about the cultural and psychological make-up of a community. I couldn’t agree more.

This topic has lingered with me over the past week as I’ve pondered the cultural and psychological landscape of San Francisco’s unique, distinctive and diverse community. What is our cultural and psychological makeup?

Map by Paz De La Calzada
When people think of San Francisco, they think; liberal, left coast, tolerant, bohemian, weird, multicultural, QUILTBAG (thank you Catherine for introducing me to the correct term replacing LBGT) yuppie, old money, new money, fog, cold summers, steep hills, earthquakes, Victorian architecture, café society, high cost of living. We are home to the beat poets, topless clubs, Summer of Love, The Bohemian Club, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Those Darn Accordions,  The Flaming Groovies,  Twitter, Yelp, Pinterest, Mozella, Craigslist, Airbnb, Dashiell Hammett, Lemony Snicket, Mark Di Suvero, Richard Serra and Benny Bufano. (To name just a few.)

Thinking about all of this also brought to mind another writer and an atlas—a specific and interpretive atlas of San Francisco compiled and written by Rebecca Solnit, published in 2010 by University of California Press, called Infinite City—a San Francisco Atlas.

Listen to what Solnit has to say about the concept of geography and place in her prologue and introduction:

Places are leaky containers. They always refer beyond themselves, whether island or mainland, and can be imagined in various scales, from the drama of a back alley to transcontinental geopolitical forces and global climate. What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces that cannot be delineated either by fences on the ground or by boundaries in the imagination--or by the perimeter of a map. Something is always coming from elsewhere, whether it's wind, water, immigrants, trade goods or ideas. The local exists--an endemic species may evolve out of those circumstances, or the human equivalent--but it exists in relation, whether symbiotic with or sanctuary from the larger world...

Map by Ben Pease and Sunaura Taylor
Thinking like this, it seems a place is made up of many places, hard to define or pin down and constantly changing. It is fluid. There is so much about San Francisco that is fluid, liquid. We’re surrounded by water on three sides. Fog drifts in liquidy skeins of tiny droplets. There is a constant flow of visitors coming and going from all around the world. A constant influx of people, families, immigrating from all corners of the world with an equal out flux of those leaving to find more affordable living. Here, Solnit goes on to talk about urban space:

A city is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place; it compounds many versions without quite reconciling them, though some cross over to live in multiple worlds--in Chinatown or queer space, in a drug underworld or a university community, in a church's sphere or a hospital's intersections. An atlas is a collection of versions of a place, a compendium of perspectives, a snatching out of the infinite ether of potential versions a few that will be made concrete and visible...the place that is San Francisco has both a literal geography as the tip of the peninsula that juts upward like a hitchhiking thumb and another, cultural, geography as the most left part of the left coast, the un-American place where America invents itself.

Map by Ben Pease and Mona Caron

Every place is if not infinite then practically inexhaustible, and no quantity of maps will allow the distance to be completely traversed. Any single map can depict only an arbitrary selection of the facts on its two dimensional surface (and today's computer -driven Geographical Information System [GIS] cartography, with its ability to layer information, is only an elegantly maneuverable electronic equivalent of the transparent pages that were, in the age of paper, more common in anatomy books)...This city is, as all good cities are, a compilation of coexisting differences, of the Baptist church next to the dim sum dispensers, the homeless outside the Opera House.

I think Solnit’s comparison of books and libraries to people and the cities they live in is brilliant:

A book is an elegant technique for folding a lot of surface area into a compact, convenient volume; a library is likewise a compounding of such volumes, a temple of compression of many worlds. A city itself strikes me at times as a sort of library, folding many phenomena into one dense space--and San Francisco has the second densest concentration of people among American cities, trailing only New York, a folding together of cosmologies and riches and poverties and possibilities.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for more than 37 years and still gasp every time I leave and come back, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into the city. I often wonder what I would think of the city today if I could see it with completely fresh eyes. Here, Solnit talks about coming home to San Francisco after living for a while in a homogenous rural area:

Every building, every storefront seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all the variety of human life into a jumble of conjunctions. Just as a bookshelf can jam together wildly different books, each book a small box opening onto a different world, so seemed the buildings of my city: every row of houses and shops brought near many kinds of abundance, opened onto many mysteries: crack houses, Zen centers, gospel churches tattoo parlors, produce stores, movie palaces, dim sum shops.

Map by Shizue Seigel

This gorgeous and infinitely fascinating book is a collection of 22 essays by 11 different writers; each essay is accompanied by a full spread artist's map of a different aspect of San Francisco, including: The Names Before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area, 1769; Green Women: Open Spaces and Their Champions; Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces; Poison/Palate: The Bay Area In Your Body; The World In a Cup: Coffee Economics and Ecologies; and Treasure Map: The Forty Nine Jewels of San Francisco From the Giant Camera Obscura to The Bayview Opera House.

The book itself is a treasure and is available in bookstores and at the public library.

What is the cultural and psychological landscape where you live?

Take Good Care,


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Interview With Author Catherine Linka!

We’re so happy to have our fellow VCFA MFA graduate, author Catherine Linka, with us today! She’s here to talk about the importance of landscape in her newly released debut YA novel, A Girl Called Fearless. The novel, a romantic speculative political thriller, is set in a contemporary but historically altered Los Angles where teenage girls are a valued and restricted commodity.

Catherine: Thank you so much for inviting me to talk about landscape. People rarely ask about the setting of A Girl Called Fearless, but it was really important to me, so I love this chance to talk about it. 

Sharry: So, to start off, please tell us a little about the landscape in your novel.

Catherine: A Girl Called Fearless and the sequel, A Girl Undone, are set in present day Los Angeles, but as you mentioned, I’ve altered history. Ten years before the story begins, fifty million American women died from synthetic hormones in beef. So even though LA is the landscape, it’s altered from the LA we know. 

Sharry: Oh my gosh—what a chilling and intriguing premise. Could you describe the different aspects of the story’s landscape and how you used it?

Catherine: Everyone knows LA institutions like freeways, Hollywood, Malibu beach, gated communities, high end malls, paparazzi, entourages, cloudless blue skies, and the Rose Bowl. 

But to me, landscape isn’t just about physical features like mountains or freeways, it’s about the cultural and psychological makeup of a community as well. LA is very focused on image and celebrity power, which translates into an intense consumption of fashion, style, entertainment media, exclusive real estate, and prestige cars. 

At the same time, Los Angeles is multicultural and Pan Pacific with many Asians, South and Central Americans. Plus, it’s more gay friendly than some regions of the US and prides itself on being politically liberal. 

Sharry: I love that you think about the cultural and psychological components of a community as integral parts of a landscape. It’s so true and such a potent facet of the whole idea of landscape. Tell us how you put this to use in your story.

Catherine: Even though the story takes place in LA ten years after a disaster, the sun shines almost every day, so I loved contrasting dark themes like lack of freedom of choice for women against LA’s liberal, eternally sunny setting. 

Because LA is a melting pot, I felt that even though my main characters are white, the cast of characters had to be multicultural and include QUILTBAG characters.

Sharry: Okay, so I have to stop you for just a minute and ask you to explain to us what you mean by QUILTBAG characters?

Catherine: You may be more familiar with the term LGBT, but QUILTBAG expands LGBT to include other identities including Queer and Questioning, Unidentified, Intersex, and Asexual.  
Sharry: Good to know. Thank you. So as you were saying about how LA being a melting pot plays into the landscape of your story…

Catherine: I wanted to hint at the impact of the disaster on the poor versus the rich. Poor girls lacking extended families to care for them end up in state supported Orphan Ranches, while rich girls have fathers who can pay for private school and personal bodyguards.

LA’s consumerism helped reinforce the theme of society transforming girls into a high-end luxury good. We see Avie made over by a stylist in a chic mobile salon in a modified Airstream. We go with her to an upscale lingerie salon where the merchandise is designed to please the woman’s partner. These settings are beautiful and luxurious to reinforce the sense of the gilded cage which Avie is about to enter.

I used recognizable places or objects, and twisted how they are used to signify how the country had changed.  A freeway soundwall, something most people don’t even think about, is built with bricks from the ashes of women whose families couldn’t afford to bury them, and it becomes a memorial called the Million Mother Wall. In this reimagined landscape, the Beverly Center shopping mall, a place where teenage girls would normally enjoy a day without adult supervision, becomes a place where girls are checked in and out with wristbands, and released only to a father or bodyguard.

Sharry: Wow—a wall built from women’s ashes? That’s a very powerful image. As is the idea of setting these dark themes against a background of sunlight and beaches. You live in LA—I’m curious what your own relationship with it is?

Catherine: I love LA, because I love being outdoors most of the year and my backyard is my sanctuary with visits from hummingbirds and flyovers by flocks of wild parrots. While I’m fascinated by LA’s cult of consumerism and celebrity, it’s not something I embrace. But I do love that I can go eat pancakes at the beach and wear flip flops 9 months out of the year. 

Sharry: Catherine, thank you so much for visiting with us today!

Catherine Linka is an author, and a children’s and young adult book buyer for an independent bookstore in Southern California. She studied international politics at Georgetown University before getting a masters in business at the University of North Carolina. After years in sales, marketing and advertising, she reimagined her life and pursued a masters in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a member of SCBWI, and a recurring speaker at SCBWI-Central Cal Writer’s Day. She blogs about writing at Catherine is married and lives with her husband in the San Gabriel foothills. A GIRL NAMED FEARLESS is her debut novel.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Discovering Stories Out There and the Winner of SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS

I don't know about you, but my head is still spinning from taking in all that Jeannie Mobley offered us over the last two weeks.  Spinning in a good way!

I am particularly buzzing about this: I just needed to be in nature as part of the process.

And this:  Things like that [the cabin Jeannie and her sister found] have always sent stories singing through my blood--- me feel like I am not making up stories so much as discovering them, everywhere that people have been before me. That everyone's story is crying out to be told.

What do you think of those two ideas?  That there are all of these stories just out there in the world---entwined in tree roots, written on river rocks, tucked into mountainsides---and we need to find them.  Maybe listen for them. And the way to do that, of course, is to be out there.  We spend so much time at our desks, or in the coffee shops, heads down and writing, but we also, perhaps, need to spend just as 
much time out there...

I'm going to try to do that; to spend more time outside with the intention of just being there to listen.

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And remember Jeannie's book giveaway?  Kelly Bennett is the lucky winner!  Congratulations Kelly!  Jeannie will be in touch with you to send you your copy of SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Guest Interview: Jeannie Mobley on landscape and her new novel SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS Part 2

Jeannie Mobley is back for part 2 of her interview!  And it is is a real treat; a walk through some Colorado history via the most gorgeous landscape… Don't miss the last part of the interview, where Jeannie tells us a little about her childhood, ladies underwear ads, and why she feels like she discovers stories. I know her ideas will stay with me for a long time. First, though, a recap about her novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS:

Set in a small Colorado town at the dawn of World War I, the story centers around Pearl, who helps her mother run the family café. She entertains customers with the story of a legendary dancer name Silverheels who nursed miners through a smallpox epidemic. Her neighbor, Josie, makes fun of her though, and challenges Pearl to find proof that Silverheels was, indeed, such a saintly person or…help Josie pass out her suffragette pamphlets. As Pearl searches for the truth about Silverheels she discovers more about her town than she bargained for. History, romance and intrigue are woven together in this beautiful story!

Tam: The novel takes place during World War I, is that right?  Can you explain to us how this time period, plus the legend, are preserved within the landscape?  Can you walk us through some of the photos you have here?

Jeannie: Yes, my story is set in World War I. It's interesting that you ask how it is preserved in the landscape, because that's something I didn't really know until I started working on this book. I picked World War I as the time period because I wanted to emphasize women's issues and the home front during a war. The suffrage movement in that particular war really worked well to do that. However, I had no real idea what impact, if any, the war had on Colorado. What I learned was that there was a zinc boom – zinc was used in the shell casings for bullets and was in short supply. Mining in the Colorado mountains had fallen off in the late 1800s with the crash in silver prices, but there was a resurgence of mining, because there was zinc in the old tailings of silver and gold mines. So during World War I, miners flocked back to abandoned mines, to re-process the old tailings piles.

Tam: I didn't know that!

Jeannie: Of course, Colorado's other big industry, in addition to mining, has always been tourism, and tourism took a down turn during the war, much to the consternation of my main character Pearl, who makes her spending money off of tourists.

But I digress from your question. I'd love to take you on a tour of Como, Colorado, where Pearl lives.

Today Como is a town of only 200 residents, most of them only there for the summer. In Pearl's day it was larger, as a major hub for the railroad, with dividing branches that ran over Boreas Pass to Breckenridge, and the main branch that continued south to Fairplay. Several historic features associated with the railroad still stand in the town:

The old depot itself, currently being restored with State Historic Funds (this picture was taken in the summer of 2013, when restoration had just begun.)

The old railroad hotel, which has been purchased by a British expat, and partially restored to run as a small bed and breakfast. I highly recommend the bread pudding! My husband and I stayed there on the weekend of our 25th wedding anniversary, in a room that just happened to have a hint of Silverheels on the bedside table.

Many other old buildings are found in Como, including the historic roundhouse, for moving engines to and from different rail lines, and even this old building, across the street from the train station:

Today, it is a small store, but I learned on my visit to Como in 2013 that it served as a lunch counter in the 1920s, and served lunch to people from the train, much as Pearl's café does in my fictionalized version of the town. Somewhere between those two dates, it had yet another use, and the word "Saloon" is still just barely visible in paint above the windows.

Another series of scenes in SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS takes place in the Buckskin Joe cemetery, where rumor has it, the ghost of Silverheels has been seen in black veil and black dress, walking among the graves of the miners who died in the epidemic.

I cheated a little in my book, and actually moved the location of Buckskin Joe from the south side of Mount Silverheels, near the town of Alma, to the north side, near Como. I wanted Pearl to live in a town near Buckskin Joe (which would be Alma), but it was also important for the story that she be in the railroad town (which was Como). So in the end, I chose Como, and shifted Buckskin Joe to make it close enough for Pearl to visit in an afternoon.

However the cemetery still exists at Buckskin Joe. Marble and granite headstones mark many graves, but the oldest ones are marked by an outline of cobbles and a wooden cross, as I describe in the book.

Most of the crosses are unreadable, but some have had the name scratched back onto the wood when the graves have been tended, another detail I replicated in the story: 

I also drew on my explorations of the Como cemetery, with which I'm more familiar. Cemeteries, in general have an interesting, remembering quality to the air, a feeling of accumulated memory that seems to permeate them, and that I try to remember when I write those scenes. This view of the Como cemetery was clear in my mind when I wrote the overall description in the book: 

What I did not include in my book, were the many, many poignant markers, like this one, that show how hard life was in the early 20th century in the Colorado Rockies:

Finally, my tour of Pearl's world would not be complete without a visit to Mount Silverheels, Colorado's 99th tallest mountain at an elevation of 13,822 feet.

The summit of Mount Silverheels is not as visible from Como as I make it out to be in my book – another geographic liberty I took. A smaller mountain blocks the direct view of the peak, though the lower slopes of the mountain are right there. However, just a few miles out of Como, the view of the summit is stunning.

There is also supposedly a trail to hike the mountain, not far out of town, and in an ambitious moment last summer, my husband and I decided we would climb the peak. But though we found the sign directing us to the trail, we never quite managed to find the trail itself. It turns out our twenty-year-old forest service map was grossly inaccurate on the matter of trailheads and access roads.

On our random search for the trailhead, we did encounter this abandoned bit of mining equipment:

We also found a meadow filled with elephant's heads, one of my favorite Colorado wildflowers. They always remind me of my grandmother – I'm not sure why, though I suspect she must be the one who pointed out to me the little elephants all up and down the stalk.

In the end we attempted a cross country assault on the mountain, which we started much too late in the day, and was further slowed by a bad choice of route and some brutal scrambling through down timber.  We didn't get much past timberline before turning back (at about 12,000 feet above sea level, and still nearly 2,000 feet in elevation, and quite a few miles in hiking distance, below the summit) but we did take the opportunity to take a terrible, sweaty, selfie. Memo to self: do not use your camera while oxygen deprived.

And finally, on our way back down the mountain, we encountered a sage hen, who led us off into a forest away from her chicks and directly into a field full of these beauties – Rocky Mountain Columbine, the Colorado state flower, and another personal favorite. 

So despite our failure as mountain climbers, it was a lovely day all around.

Tam: Oh my gosh.  I really feel like you whisked me off on a tour!  While my whole body is buzzing with all of those details, let me ask you one final question.  What does the landscape in Searching for Siverheels mean to you, Jeannie?

Jeannie: Well, that's probably obvious for my "you asked for an inch, now here's a mile" response to your question above. This is a place near and dear to my heart, where everywhere you look, there is some glory to be discovered – simple small glories, of nature, or survival, or history.

 The landscape of this story is in the central part of Colorado, an area that I find exceptionally beautiful, but also a part of the state that holds many fond memories for me growing up. Memories I hope to keep building for years to come, too.

 My family camped and fished and played in this area from early in my childhood. I have one distinct memory of my sister and I hiking cross-country, only to come upon an old, falling-down miner's cabin, off on a remote ridge, far from anywhere. We poked around inside, and discovered, along with square-cut nails and broken glass in blue, green, and amber, that some lonely old miner had wallpapered the walls with the ladies underwear ads from the Sears and Roebuck catalog (circa 1920s or so). Things like that have always sent stories singing through my blood – made me feel like I am not making up stories so much as discovering them, everywhere that people have been before me. That everyone's story is crying out to be told. That people are colorful and quirky and funny and poignant, and that the world is a big, grand place of sweeping beauty – even when the beauty is in the form of old underwear ads on a cabin wall.

Tam: Thank you so much, Jeannie, for this rich exploration of central Colorado!  And for sharing so much of your time and you.

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Don't forget to post a comment for a chance to receive a copy of SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS!

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Jeannie Mobley writes both historical and contemporary middle grade fiction. Her debut novel, Katerina’s Wish (Aug 2012, Margaret K. McElderry Books (S&S)), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award in Juvenile Fiction. It is on the William Allen White Award Master List, and was selected by the Library of Congress to represent the state of Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival.  Her second novel,Searching For Silverheels, released September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and an anthropology professor at Front Range Community College, where she teaches a variety of classes on cultures past and present. Jeannie is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.