Marilyn, I wish I’d shown special talent or instinct for writing as a young girl. Sadly, I didn’t. My early talent was for reading. That’s how I came at this. My dad was the superintendent at a one-campus, country school district and he’d take me and my brother there on the weekends to get us out of our mother’s hair. While my brother played outside—tetherball, hitting tennis balls against a wall, riding his bike through the hallways, I’d go into the library and stay there all day, reading my way alphabetically through the collection. So, for me, writing started with reading, especially Louisa May Alcott. There’s more than a little Jo March in Copy Boy’s protagonist, Jane.
Although you have written many short stories, this is your first full book. What led you to move to writing a full novel? Why was now the right time?
Short stories were at first a way for me to learn how to write fiction (or creative nonfiction), a way to try new strategies and start over, try again. Then they offered the pleasure of more-immediate gratification, especially with flash fiction. I could focus on something for a relatively short period of time, send it out, and then maybe get it published online. That felt good, validating. But the big point to me was a novel. I’ve always loved reading a novel. I like to disappear into another world and stay there for a while, the way I prefer a long dinner conversation with friends to cocktail party conversation. I like a novel to take over my consciousness for a period, so that I always remember that I read this book on a long train ride away and back, or that one on Spring Break. The point for me was always to write a novel.
Where did the inspiration for your storyline in Copy Boy come from? For the main characters we follow? Are any based on people you know or even yourself?
There were so many inspirations for this novel, beginning with family stories. Both my father and my mother’s families immigrated to California in the great Dust Bowl exodus from Texas and Oklahoma to find work in the depression. I grew up surrounded by their stories of loss and challenge and surprising successes, stories of grit, of stretching everything to cover what they didn’t have. It was also inspired in part by the brilliant documentary photography of the iconic Dorothea Lange, who captured so many of these people living on the edges of fields and ditches, making sure readers of newspapers saw what was happening on the country roads of California. It was inspired by San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, who told a dazzling story of San Francisco to San Francisco for six decades, pretty nearly inventing San Francisco for itself. It was inspired by the strange friction of dust bowl depression rubbing up against high society wealth and night clubs and movies. All of this got in me to inspire this novel.
How does the writing process work for you? Do you schedule a time every day, work madly when inspiration hits or ?
I’ve been feeling guilty lately not to be “really writing” as I shepherd Copy Boy into a pandemic world. So I don’t want to be a poser as I describe my writing process right now, when I’m struggling to get back to writing. But before this time, I’ve had most success waking early, usually 5 a.m., to write in the near-dark, with my beagle warming my feet, snoring loudly, while I either write in my journal or type on my laptop on my office couch. It helps the whole day go well if I can devote at least an hour, maybe more, in the mornings before I begin to get ready for my teaching. In the late afternoon, I really long to work on my fiction, but I’m definitely less creative then. So that’s a good time for editing. My critical brain is on in the afternoons, quick to see flaws, my creative brain off. I absolutely never write or edit at night—I’m just too sleepy and food-focused after five.
As this story has a historical setting, what research did you need to do to accurately portray the people and places as well as the lives men and women led at that time? What helped you bring the story alive sensually (sights, sounds and smells) - the heat, the dust, the streets, the newsroom?
I started with family stories, conversations, memories. Then I was given a copy of a family history, written by a distant aunt. That was a great source of proper names and Okie dialect, as she included many family letters in her history. I checked out and bought so many books about that era. One of my favorites was San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay (WPA Guide), which gave me many details about the City in that period—the cost of a jitney ride, the address of a weird bar, the menu of a steak house, the system of phone numbers. And of course the internet is amazing. I found a documentary film on how a newspaper Linotype machine worked. The San Francisco Library holds the Herb Caen (columnist) scrapbooks, which were amazingly full of jazzy language and stories. All the research was so entertaining, it often pulled me out of my writing more than it should. But also, I have lived in Sacramento, lived in San Francisco, so descriptions of the weather, the landscape, come from personal experience.
|Short Story in this Anthology|
What would you most like readers to know about you as an author and as a person?I have thought some about why I write, what I want to have happen as a result of writing. Here’s what I think I’ve figured out. I want to experience investigating something I find interesting and arriving at a revelation about it—an idea, a point of view. And then I want to share that revelation. Of course that is about committing the idea, the story, to paper, and converting that to a book, and then to having actual readers of it. But also, conversations with people who have read my work—book clubs—satisfies something deep in me, the desire for communal discovery of revelation, yours and mine. (That’s also why I teach.)
What's next? Do you have any new books in the planning or writing stage?
I do. Although I’m thinking of a series of Copy Boy books, in which Jane ages, passing through different historic periods in San Francisco, I have another book to revise and publish first. This one deals with ambition and competition, specifically among women athletes. I’m feeling new inspiration to get back to this as I watch the articles coming fast and furious about the presumably objectionable ambition of certain women politicians.