Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New review of WOIF

Kel Munger of the Sacramento News and Review wrote a short review of Woman of Ill Fame that you can read here. I'm always grateful and excited to see media coverage.

Remember, next week is my last reading for this novel.
7 p.m. Wednesday, April 4 at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, 510-486-0698.
Come see me in all my pregnant splendor as I talk about the closed-door activities that got me to this gravid state.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Reading at Black Oak Books

I'm delighted that I will be reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 4.

Black Oak is a venerable institution, and all of us indy bookstore lovers chewed our nails for a little bit on hearing that the store might close. Looks like things are back in order, and I'm thrilled to be booked with them.

This will probably be my last Woman of Ill Fame reading, so I hope I can give it a good send-off. Would love to see you there! Black Oak Books is at 1491 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, 510-486-0698.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Trying to make it all real

Historical accuracy is a tough thing to keep your eyes open about. When I first began writing Woman of Ill Fame, my intention was to make it absolutely true (while the characters were fictional)… so, for instance, I was going to situate Nora’s brothel at the same address that I would be able to locate one on a map of the time, any saloon she frequented would be an actual one from 1849, etc., etc.

However, right away (first page!) I ran into a sticky mess: the name of the ship Nora comes to San Francisco on. I knew I wanted Nora to arrive on November 11—a little bit of number superstition on my part—so I went to the UC Berkeley library microfilm room to look at the Alta California newspaper. That’s the actual newspaper that the Gold Rushers read—pretty astonishing that somehow copies existed long enough to be photographed and stowed on microfilm. The Alta California ran lists of the ships coming into harbor on any given day. And to my dismay, none of the November 11 ships had evocative names. I even loosened my superstition enough to look a few days after and before the 11th… nothing good. I always thought ships had very cool names!

So I decided to break my own self-imposed historical accuracy rule and just completely made up the name of the ship, The Lady’s Peril. And what a relief! This instantly freed me up to invent addresses and names of liveries and such. The historical background of the novel is still truthful: things like the Christmas Eve fire, the details surrounding contraception and prostitution…but I felt free to devise small details.

And then came… the final editing phase.

For a writer, few things are as scary as realizing the pages in front of you are your last chance to fix any errors. I was frantically googling and using my dictionary to determine whether things like isinglass windows, the penile appellation John Thomas, and Panama hats were in existence in 1849. And then, too, I was trying to go through garment history to see whether women wore bell sleeves at that point, because I really liked the consonant sound of them –and boy, if you try to google anything about clothing online, you get hundreds of hits for Renaissance Festival costumes and it’s hard to navigate around that stuff to get to solid historical clothing history…

And then you come up on bigger issues.

Here’s my little frustrated note to myself at the time:

Major sticking point. Shit. All along, I’ve had Nora on the ship called The Lady’s Peril, but also had her crossing the isthmus of Panama, canoeing the Chagres River… I did not think it through to realize that if she got off the ship, the ship couldn’t continue… so it would be a different ship that brought her the rest of the way. I got confused between the ships that go round Cape Horn and the ships that make the Panama cutoff.

Shit. So, now I have to restructure all the references to her ship and to the other prostitute on board… or should I make her a Cape Horn person as well and cut all the stuff about the canoe trip?

Damn. Exactly NOT what I need when I’m trying to finish my edits a mere 14 hours before I have to go to the airport for a two-week trip to Paris I haven’t even packed for yet.

Well, I got to Paris and I think/hope I caught all the glaring mistakes. Note to self: next time, write a novel set in the modern day!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Real life prostitutes

Rob Tocalino has posted this review of Woman of Ill Fame over at his very fun Egg Blog--and accompanying his text is a great oldtime photograph of some ladies of the evening.

Recently I've been trying to track down some 1800s brothels here in Oakland, where we once had a legalized prostitution zone (roughly 1870 to 1913). Click the links to read these Montclarion columns in order:

1. A brothel site in the midst of the redwood forest whose timbers built San Francisco. Pictured here is Dee Rosario of the East Bay Regional Park District, lifting fallen limbs to reveal the moss-covered staircase of Ruby's brothel. Nothing other than a second staircase remains of the structure.

2. A reputed house of prostitution in the middle of Oakland's Victorian Row. The photo at left shows the lavish double staircase that quite possibly allowed men to engage the services of higher-class prostitutes than the women who serviced the rough lumbermen in the redwoods. This is now an attorneys' office.

3. One possible brothel near the waterfront and nine confirmed in West Oakland. The photo of the rudimentary map seen here is West Oakland's Pacific Street as logged by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. See the lettering that reads "Female Boarding" and "Fem. Board'g?" If you click the link above, you'll learn that this was a euphemism for a brothel, which the fire insurance company took into account since such places were a low fire risk.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Could you do it?

Do you think you have what it takes to have been a Gold Rusher?

First of all, you need a lot of greed. You’ve got to want to race out there and fill your pockets with gold.

Secondly, you need a certain amount of arrogance/fearlessness. Think for a moment about whether you’d be willing to undertake a seven-months journey to a land very few people you know personally (or maybe none) have actually visited. On the way:

Overland: You face being attacked and possibly killed by Native Americans protecting their land. You may get lost and perish, like the Donners. You may fall prey to the diseases that stalked the wagon trains: diptheria, smallpox and the like. You may die of starvation or thirst as your supplies run out and you can’t replenish them. You may die of heatstroke. Or pure exhaustion, since most emigrants, to spare the cattle already pulling a very heavy load, walked the whole distance.

By ship: You face the perils of being vulnerable to the sea: shipwrecks, mutinies, rogue waves. Wooden ships, paired with open flame lighting, introduce the very real danger of a ship fire. Plus there’s scurvy, rats, nausea… Oh, and there’s no Panama Canal built yet, so when you arrive in Panama, you’re going to have to deboard and keep watch of your trunk and belongings as you are canoed across the isthmus and then ride a mule to reach open sea on the other side.

And once you get there, you’re not sure what it’s going to be like. Will it be safe? Is everyone so gold-blind that they’ll kill you as soon as look at you? Will there be things to eat? Will you regret coming? (And if you do, can you face doing that same horrible long voyage in reverse?) Will you think of all the folks you left behind in the East and weep?

Based on all of this, I admire the Gold Rushers for their fortitude and brassiness, even while I admit probably a fair number of them were depraved and unprincipled.

And then, when you think of unescorted women making their way to the West Coast… well, the admiration becomes a little stronger, because this was an era when women (at least high class women) were not supposed to even step outside by themselves without a chaperone. This was the Victorian age, with all its rules for “protecting” females. Certainly, many of the women who came to California during that time did not arrive under their own steam (my novel talks about the deplorable plight of Chinese prostitutes brought over in cages), but those who did make the journey willingly and under their own power earn my respect.

Prostitution in the 1800s was a different undertaking, at least psychologically, than today. Women had so few options for employment, and so many real possibilities for starving to death, that embarking on prostitution was more of a put-food-in-mouth situation than today. Supermarkets did not exist. Many people grew their own food, or bought it directly from those who did. Same with meat: the same guy who owned the animals was the one who butchered them and sold the meat, at least in the very early days of San Francisco. In many cases, reform had not yet hit charity houses, so women shied away from the prison-like institutions that might be able to help them.

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed, allowing faster and safer travel across the country. By 1900, 50 years after the Gold Rush, the Bay Area had significantly grown up. My city, Oakland, had a city hall built as a skyscraper. The landscape looked very different, with buildings galore and streetcars connecting the various neighborhoods. And while women were now permitted to gain employment in ways previously unheard of, they were still not making the wages that their male counterparts made (still the case today). In 1913, a prostitute told the Oakland Welfare Commission, “If working girls were paid living wages, there would be fewer prostitutes."

For more on Gold Rush prostitution--in fictional form--read my novel Woman of Ill Fame.