On This Page
• The Berkeley Pit (2007) • Last Words •
• Ella Price's Journal (1972) •The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (1976) •
• Miss Giardino (1976) • The Garden of Eros (1979) •
• Prisoners (1980) • Killing Wonder (1981) •
• A Day in San Francisco (1983) • Confessions of Madame Psyche (1986) •
• The Test (1991) • Anita, Anita (1994)
To order any of these books, visit the Information page.
Clark City Press (now available from Mountain Press)
ISBN 978-0-944439 (cloth)
A title for a novel usually comes to me last, long after notes, outlines, rough drafts, and many rewrites. This novel began with a title.
Driving home from a trip to Glacier Park and Yellowstone, we made a detour through Butte, Montana hoping to locate the old Italian neighborhood where my family had lived. We drove uphill toward the old town, a barren moonscape dotted with a few obsolete, black metal head frames.
The street suddenly ended on the edge of a fenced-off, mile-wide, murky-blue, toxic lake—the remains of an abandoned pit mine. A sign above a viewing platform said BERKELEY PIT. We laughed at
these toxic remains of my family's former neighborhood, named (by whom? why?) for the California town we had lived in for 40 years. Bob said, "There's a title for a novel!"
Combining two parts of my history (my family in Butte, myself in the Bay Area) was impossible, or was it? I started with two questions: what if my family had never left Butte? What if two generations later, a descendent—say, a nephew of mine—was drawn toward the revolutionary ferment of the 1960s that brought so many idealistic young people to Berkeley from all over the country?
I gathered material from the Butte historical archives, interviewed many older Butte residents, and searched my memory for family stories about the pre-California days of my family. I prepared two time-lines: one listed early 20th century events in Butte; the other traced 1960–1980 events in Berkeley, California.
In the effort to bring these disparate elements together, I discovered parallel themes: the forgotten casualties during the hopeful immigrant days of my family, and the forgotten casualties in the volatile, highly mythologized Berkeley of the 1960s.
"Captures the deep personal and ethical undercurrents of the turbulent sixties more engagingly than any history book ever will."
—Theodore Roszak (The Making of a Counter-Culture)
Download for free from this website!
The eight stories in this book were inspired by my reading Oscar Wilde's De Profundis and wishing that his wife Constance (before her death following surgery) had written a similarly long letter, offering her version of the disaster that destroyed their family. In fact, such a letter would be credible; it was not unusual for 19th century women, facing childbirth or a possibly fatal medical crisis, to write a letter to their prospective survivors—usually their children.
So I wrote a letter about the Oscar Wilde mess in what I hoped might pass for Constance Wilde's voice, writing to their two sons.
Then I thought of other people in our recent history—little known, misunderstood, or forgotten villains, victims, frauds, heroes—who, near death and having no reason to cover the truth, might
feel free, or even compelled, to write a long letter to a special person: explaining, apologizing, justifying, damning, or correcting the general view of his or her role in a briefly famous era
I came up with a total of eight historic figures. As the introduction explains, you can download and read any or all of these stories in any order.
“These imaginary letters from real people evoke personal scandals
and crises selected from a century of often distorted, mythologized,
history from the short-lived headlines of English and American newspapers. Authentic and well-researched.”
—Bay Area Review
The Feminist Press ISBN 155861175-4
In 1965, I sat in my office at Contra Costa College with a student in her mid-thirties. She cried as she described conflict with her husband, children, neighbors, and friends, who disapproved of her attending a college class for the first time.
During the 1960s, only young middle-class rebels—flower children and Vietnam War protesters—attracted attention. The term "re-entry woman" did not yet exist. Here, I thought, is a hidden drama that no one has noticed, let alone written about.
I structured Ella Price's Journal as an informal journal like those I required of all my writing students—a "useless" assignment I had to defend at a meeting of the predominantly male English Department. Consistent with this reality, I cast Ella's teacher as a man—abrasive, challenging, ambivalent—a good teacher except for his, in those days common, sexual involvement with an occasional student.
Publication came in 1972, with the rise of the second-wave feminism movement.
The plot now seems dated—for both good and bad reasons. While few people today try to confine wives and mothers in a "housewife" role, the change seems less a new freedom than a new necessity for two salaries to support a working class or lower middle-class family.
What hasn't become dated, I think, is covered in the first 80 to 90 pages of Ella's journal—the exhilarating, often painful and frightening opening of a mind to independent thinking, which can occur at any age.
"Fresh and Engaging"
—New York Times
Random House ISBN 0-679-77843-8
Kin of Ata is often mistakenly labeled a "utopian" novel. The mythic island community of Ata is not a social/economic model for a perfect society; it is a psycho/spiritual metaphor drawn from many belief systems. The people on the island of Ata follow a non-materialistic, austere, and strenuous spiritual discipline, through which, moment by moment, they try to remain conscious of who we really are.
Lest the story turn into a lecture or a sermon, I made the protagonist and narrator an opportunistic, materialistic "success," blind to the values prized on Ata. His resistance creates some dramatic tension. Plummeted into the world of Ata by his own subconscious need, he is slowly and reluctantly pushed and dragged, step by step, insight by insight, to his own salvation. These steps resemble those of almost every spiritual tradition. (See The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley, 1944.)
Published by Random House in 1976, it remains my most popular book, selling by word of mouth. It has been used in high school classes for "troubled students with poor reading skills" and in seminars at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where professors recognize its veiled sources.
"A masterful novel . . . a beautiful, symbolic journey of the soul."
The Feminist Press ISBN 155861174-6
This novel was triggered by a friend's statement, "Thank God our kids don't have teachers like those hatchet-faced old maids we had in school."
To her and to my own surprise, I erupted: "If it hadn't been for some of those hatchet-faced old maids, I'd never have learned to write a sentence. You try teaching in high school and see if you don't get hatchet-faced!" I had been teaching long enough to experience the erosion of my energetic certainties, as well as my impatience with "stodgy" (read tired) old teachers.
To create the heroine behind the "hatchet face," I turned to some of my own family history—my mother's sad, abused childhood as a daughter of immigrants whose dreams and health were wrecked in American factories and mines. Resisting the pressure to escape into the confines of marriage, "Anna Giardino" struggles to continue her education and becomes a teacher—a giant step upward for a child of immigrants.
My problem was how to dramatize a life whose heroism consists of standing firmly for 40 years in shifting ideological winds, doing unglamorous, often boring, essential work.
To create dramatic tension, I cast Miss Giardino's story as a mystery: she awakens in a hospital bed suffering temporary amnesia caused by a blow on the head, suffered late at night, in front of the school where she used to teach. During a week of recovery, her memory returns in fragments like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, finally forming a clear picture that solves the mystery of her injury, and helps her to heal the wounds of her heroic life.
"Squarely confronts the question of individual and societal values
in a fast-changing world. A fine book."
A simple, redemptive story of two damaged people, Lonnie and Ken, told in free-association-interior-monologue by Lonnie during her hours of labor before the birth of their first child. This may be the only novella which uses the process of childbirth to frame a story of a heroic, second-chance love.
An interesting sidelight on one use of this form: during the 1980s, some midwives made the book required reading for their patients.
(This book is out of print; try your public library and used bookstores)
"A dazzling tour de force"
—Tillie Olsen (Tell me a Riddle)
“Amazingly, this works on both levels, both as a story of real love
and as an introduction to first-time childbirth, endorsed and
recommended by many mid-wives.”
—Back Bay Monthly
Ata Books ISBN 0-931688-04-3 (cloth)
Ata Books ISBN 0-931688-05-1 (paper)
In the early 1970s, a fiftyish, upper-middle-class activist and friend became involved in the newly fashionable "Prison Movement."
My friend began with Christmas cards to prisoners. One young man replied with long, grateful letters and many pages of his poetry. His letters described grim prison conditions and the lack of legal resources for poorly educated, non-violent men like him. She sent him books and letters, and began to advocate for his release.
When she told me that he had won parole, contingent on her providing a home for him, a chill ran through me. I had grown up among boys and girls who were chronically in and out of trouble with the law. Unlike my friend, I did not attribute their problems solely to poverty; most prisoners are poor, but not all poor men are chronically in and out of prison. My apprehensions were soon confirmed by my friend's experience.
Prisoners parallels that experience: the idealistic friendship woven in letters quickly unravels in the realities of daily life. (The ironic, fictional epilogue to my novel turned out to be prophetic.)
About the time I published Prisoners, high profile tragedy struck, with the attack on prisoner advocate Fay Stender (1978) and the murder committed by Jack Abbot, protégé-parolee of Norman Mailer (1981). Intellectual/radical advocates who had seen the problems of prisoners in oversimplified, romanticized political terms quickly withdrew, leaving the work again to traditional advocates like the Quakers.
But this novel is about more than the errors of people who briefly, naively, embrace a popular cause. It is about the mystery of self-destructive patterns of behavior, and
about the struggle to rescue others—and ourselves—from such patterns.
"A tremendously moving novel . . . sad, achingly acute view of compassion's other hurtful face . . . of love's fragile tenancy in words and dreams that fail."
ISBN 0-931688-06-X (cloth)
ISBN 0-931688-07-8 (paper)
In the late seventies I was invited to a party for women writers, at the home of a feminist literary icon who began the evening by introducing each woman with a double-edged commentary on her place in the literary scene. Glancing around the room, I watched each woman smile over clenched teeth at the "admiring" put-down inflicted on her. I thought of the old saying: "If looks could kill . . ."
That was the inspiration for my one and only murder mystery, told from the point of view of the young sleuth—intelligent, naive, aspiring writer, Jessamyn Posey. The motives of the suspects poke fun at the competitive envy that infects writers and artists of all kinds and both sexes.
Except for the opening party scene, the plot was fiction and the characters were invented "types." Nevertheless, many women writers, especially admirers of the "icon," imagined that she, they, or someone they knew had been defamed. The resulting tempest in a literary teapot, almost justified the male chauvinist slogan of the time: "Feminists have no sense of humor."
"As a mystery? Fair-to-middling.
As a send-up of the literary life? Good fun."
ISBN 0-931688-09-4 (cloth)
ISBN 0-931688-10-8 (paper)
The parade on Gay Freedom Day 1980 is witnessed by a middle-aged, politically liberal mother who, during one fateful day, confronts clear evidence that her son is caught up in a liberation movement going wrong. It is fair to call the book a "protest novel," with the urgent tone of the form drowning out what we might call more literary values. This story, presented in semi-documentary form, is a factual, historical picture of a largely forgotten decade in San Francisco's Castro District.
For a detailed description of its sources, its structure, and its publication, read the final chapter of Literary Lynching, which was inspired by the deeply hostile, long-term reaction against the novel and against me.
"Painful, probing novel of uncommon power."
The Feminist Press
ISBN 1-55861186-X (paper)
My first broadly historical novel was inspired by my impatience at fans of The Kin of Ata who didn't seem to "get" its theme of rigorous spiritual discipline—seeing the book as only an escapist fantasy.
I tried to correct this misunderstanding with another variation on my theme, a retelling of the spiritual/religious Greek myth of Psyche and Eros, recreated in very down-to-earth terms, and set in early 20th century Northern California.
I used the myth as an invisible framework on which I hung well-researched history. Visual details, like the Santa Clara Valley orchards—still thriving during my childhood—come from my own memory. Labor conditions were researched and verified through interviews and documents. The structure and functioning of the Napa State Hospital of the 1940s (analogous to the underworld where Psyche is sent by Aphrodite) are also based on documents and interviews.
I had such a good time researching this novel that writing it turned me toward historical subjects for most of my subsequent work.
"Fascinating and beautiful."
The Feminist Press
ISBN 1-1558 61274-2 (paper)
I began this novel at a time when grief at my mother's death and dismay at my father's growing dementia were sapping the strength I needed to remain strong for my son, as we faced the certainty that he would soon die of AIDS.
The title refers both to this metaphorical "test" and to the very real driving test around which the plot revolves: the familiar struggle of an old man fighting to keep his driver's license well past the point at which he has become a menace on the road. (Details of that fictional struggle and its resolution are the incredible facts of my father's case.)
"Clara" struggles to keep her balance by examining the memories that assault her, in the same way that she examines her father's senile confabulations, trying to separate reality from error and delusion, in order to discover, within each memory, What Really Happened.
Writing this book, I was reminded of Ring Lardner's comment: "Writing is easy—just sit down and open a vein."
Looking back from two decades' distance, some of the scenes in this book seem so absurd that The Test may be, in a dark way, my funniest book.
"Sharp, harsh recognitions . . . masterful."
ISBN 0-931688-17-5 (cloth)
ISBN 0-931688-18-3 (paper)
Friends and Italian-American writers kept asking me, "When are you going to do the big three-generation saga of your forbears?" Having visited my cousins near Turin (their historic town appears briefly in Confessions of Madame Psyche) I had a tangible base of family history, but I knew I needed to study the post-renaissance history of Italy, which had existed only as a cluster of feudal kingdoms until 1870.
As soon as I began to read, I got side-tracked by Giuseppe Garibaldi and by the great love of his youth, Anita, the teenaged, peasant Brazilian woman warrior who fought
beside him in Uruguay and then in Rome, while bearing him four children.
Having stumbled upon a forgotten episode in the life of a forgotten hero and an even more deeply forgotten heroine, I was hooked.
I read whatever I could find in English, then struggled through some readings in Italian and even in Portuguese. I studied descriptions of pre-1900 southern Brazil by writers like Charles Darwin and W. H. Hudson. I traveled, following the path of the two lovers through Brazil and Uruguay.
My novel relates their adventures in chapters which alternate between their two points of view: Garibaldi's voice imitates his memoirs in tone and content; Anita's chapters are told objectively, in third person, present tense. Why? I wasn't sure, except that she was most likely illiterate. Halfway through, I realized that these contrasting points of view reveal an intuited truth: these two devoted, intimate lovers (because of differing effects of class, culture, law, social mores, sex, and temperament) experienced the same events quite differently.
"Bits of folklore, colorful geographic details."