A Writing Life: Sailing Into the Future

Sailing past the Bay Bridge, across the San Francisco Bay.

Connect the Dots

At one point in my life I got lucky. A job I took at a Marin County architectural firm. It involved a commute across the Bay from San Francisco. At first I went by land. A few months in, my borrowed Fiero developed an intractable electrical short: the engine quit at random and would not restart for hours. No one could figure it out. As I drove home to San Francisco one evening, the engine cut out just after I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. By pure luck, I was far enough off the bridge to roll out of traffic to the side of the road. That was it! I’d had enough. My next option: the vexing commute by bus.

Not long after, I was in my local bike store to buy a bike. A friend of the clerk burst through the door. He was so elated after taking the ferry to Marin County and riding his bike around the trails, he had to tell someone.

Ferry? Marin County? I promptly looked into it. A week later, commuting to work by ferry became the best part of my day.

Imagine a sparkling morning on deck, air fresh from the Pacific, the Bay beautiful in every direction. Sometimes I just appreciated being on a boat crossing the Bay. Other times, I pretended we were underway to more distant lands. A favorite “voyage” was to imagine we were steaming between Greek islands.

The Golden Gate Bridge and sunset on the Bay.

But never doubt: sunrise, fog, storm or flashy sunset, the Bay is beguiling, all by itself.

Then I got laid off. Ferry rides ceased, I needed a new job. It just so happened that an architect I knew in my neighborhood was starting up an office. shortly, I started my new job. Working with someone I liked, a two-minute commute, I was lucky again. Nonetheless, I missed my early morning “Gladiator” bike ride to the Ferry Building, blasting down empty Market Street to my escape on the Bay.

Yet and still, life works out in ways we are powerless to foresee. Several months into this great job, my boss’s husband made a lousy remark to me. No one else was around. I made the usual mistake: I was embarrassed; I said nothing. Like many before me, I hoped it wouldn’t happen again. After he made the second comment, I recognized that it wasn’t going to stop. I spoke up. Over the next few weeks, my job proceeded to disintegrate in a small-time, pre-#metoo debacle.

This was toward the end of the dot-com bust and it is at the end of downturns that architectural offices begin to run out of work. Back scouring want ads, printing out resumes and writing cover letters, I was getting no response. After two months of this, I was a teensy bit sorry for myself.

Well, I thought, Give it a break. How about a ferry ride? You haven’t been for a ferry ride in over a year. A cruise on the water will cheer you up.

I checked my old ferry schedule, hopped on my bike, and made the familiar ride down Market Street to the Ferry Building, a bit more prudent in the mid-day traffic. Waiting to board the ferry, I inhaled that exhilarating air that exists only near large bodies of water. Thrilled to be on board, sailing majestically through the Bay on one of the single-hull boats, I walked around the forward cabin and gazed out. On a cool grey day, the Bay was as captivating as ever.

Onboard that day, I had a double-happy feeling as I nodded hello to the same crew I knew from my commute days: two men and a woman. As the woman walked past, I realized something: She’s older than me! (I was in my mid 40s at the time). If she can work on the ferries, I can work on the ferries!

In that instant, my future set sail. As we returned to the city, I asked the lady deckhand a few questions about work on the ferries. It was all very encouraging. At the Ferry Building, I chatted with a ticket agent I knew from my commute days (back then there were helpful ticket agents, not the cranky ticket machines in use now). She gave me directions to the Union Hall, which wasn’t far, and encouraged me to go ahead. I went straight to the Hall. On my way there, I reminded myself that I was only “looking into the ferries”. The fact is, I had committed to this overhaul of my life as soon as the scheme hove into view.

At the Hall, I got the do’s and don’ts of joining the union and signed up for the required introductory class. Six months later (spent sending out a weekly pile of resumes that secured no replies), I found myself up early of an April morning and at the Union Hall, waiting for class to begin.

The consequences of this abrupt course change continue to ripple through my life. Number one, as mentioned, the first dot com bust was underway, and interior design/AutoCAD drafting jobs were sparse. In the union, jobs may be sparse at first, but this improves as you gain seniority. Initially you take jobs to replace a deckhand out sick or on vacation. As you progress up the seniority list, work becomes more stable year by year. In the architectural and design world there is no stability, no secure work.

Number two, deckhanding is a good union job. Unions aren’t perfect, but the options are worse. Deckhanding includes decent pay (full-time work equaling the same pay I received sitting at a desk); in the Inlandboatmen’s Union, health care is provided if you work at least 80 hours a month (previously? No health care); a pension (previously? No pension); you can also start a 401K.

Number three, instead of sitting at a desk all day, you get some exercise and meet a broad range of interesting, international co-workers. And there’s a lot to learn.

Number four, work can be flexible. You can take a planned break, if you need or want it, and come back with your same seniority.

And right at the top is Number five: time to write. Looking back now, I realize my work on the ferries set the scene for Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir. From earliest days on the water, my working life contributed colorful ideas and detail to my writing.

Bunzini, the Noir Rabbit.

One earlier stroke of luck must be mentioned. Bunzini the rabbit, star of Murkey’s, entered my life shortly after I moved to San Francisco. Around Halloween of the same year, his pal Webster, the intellectual spider, joined us. This rabbit is the lively focus of his own universe. Starring in a story? ”Right up my alley, Bubb! Get to work!” By the time life as a deckhand began, several short stories starring Bunz were written.

Late in 2004 Bunz said, “Bubb, I’m the long-eared Edward G. Robinson, see? Short stories are alright, Bubb, but listen. Where’s my movie? Where’s my best-seller? Where’s my-y website?”

Where was his website, indeed. Personal websites were more common by then, and Bunz knew several artists and musicians with their own websites. Since we couldn’t afford to hire a designer, I resolved to teach myself CSS and HTML. When I wasn’t at work on the ferries, I learned basic HTML. But it was slow going. Bunzini was getting impatient.

In a great moment of forethought, my multi-talented friend and internet guru had registered bunzini.com several years back, preserving the name for a future website. Had I ever looked at the website where he had registered it? No. It turned out that the registration company had a ‘drag and drop’ website builder. Voila! In few months, the basic website was up. (Haha—putting your first website together is more frustrating than that sentence implies, but after a few websites, one starts to get the hang of it.)

Now I needed stuff: Content. Bunz said, “Star me in another story, Bubb. Make it noir this time.”

Okay!

I figured I could squeeze in enough time to write a chapter a month for the website. My rationalization: if Charles Dickens could publish a chapter a month (sometimes more!), why not me? Haha—I jumped right in with Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir, Chapter One.

The inspirational doodle.

At the left is my original inspiration: a little sketch of a donut floating above a cup of coffee, by my multi-talented friend. I fancied it into a doodle on a paper napkin from a diner named Murkey’s. Where should Murkey’s be located? On Pier 13 (which does not exist). Next, Bunz came walking along the San Francisco Bay waterfront on the foggiest night of the year, in his fedora and trench coat. Why was he out there? Where was his pal Webbs? Who were the mysterious moose asking suspicious questions about Murkey’s Diner? This was fun!

The story developed and plot lines interlaced. Three chapters in, it became quite clear that I was not Charles Dickens. Without a blueprint for the plot, writing the story straight through was a can of worms.

So it began. I wrote when I could. Twelve years flew by. My livelihood on the ferries got woven in to the story: morning commute runs across the Bay, through fog so thick it can bury the Bay Bridge as you sail beneath it. Currents so strong, boat engines struggle against their dominance. Daily tides receding, to reveal the dark forest of ancient pilings crowding the undersides of the piers along the city front; people rowing their tricky-to-see wooden boats, traversing the same waterways as speeding ferries and huge container ships, neither of which can stop on a dime. Without a sharp lookout, how easily that insignificant blip on the radar can be steamed right over—in the night, in the fog!

A captain I work with had grown up sailing the Bay. When I was looking for a hideout for the bad Guys, I asked him if he had an idea. He suggested “Sh*t’s Creek.” I laughed. “It’s called that because it used to be totally polluted,” he said. Perfect! Otherwise known as Channel Street or Mission Creek Channel, I adapted the nickname to Sipp’s Creek and dreamed up a prohibition story to go with it.

Another ferry Captain had lived a thousand stories while sailing all over the world. He told one about escaping through the tunnels under the city, to avoid the cops after he and a friend had pulled a stunt. Tunnels? Perfect. I asked what stunt, but he only laughed and wouldn’t tell. I made up a stunt in the tunnels for Webbs and his friend, Marilyn the Librarian.

This same captain also lent me two very useful books. Vanished Waters, by Nancy Olmstead, a local author he knew, describes the slow infill of Mission Bay. The other, Recollections of a Tule Sailor, was written by Captain John Leale. While still a boy, Captain Leale sailed into San Francisco and landed at Mission Bay, when it was still a bay. He grew up to sail ferries across the Bay, to places no longer accessible by anything larger than a small canoe.

Nosey Parker with his fork.

The seagulls who make their living at Pier 41 gave me the idea for another character, Nosey Parker. Like all seagulls, he pays aggressive attention to everything around him, and he is invariably hungry. He earns his bread and butter by flying around the Bay, picking up information to trade for snacks. He always carries his fork!

I met someone at work who had run her own fishing boat. Her story became woven in with Captain G.G.’s story—a sea dog down on her luck. The Coast Guard boat, the fire truck, so many story ideas began as events and people and birds I’ve seen along the waterfront or sailing around the Bay.

Early on in my new career I figured, if it didn’t work out, I could always get another desk job. Not a chance! I never looked back!

INTERVIEW WITH BRITISH AUTHOR JOY WODHAMS

Do you read-aloud to children and need some better books?

When you are an author, you are never alone!

Author Joy Wodhams with her character Cabbage Boy.

One tool everybody appreciates is a well-crafted children’s story, notably when reading aloud to children. Joy Wodhams’ adventure tales, The Mystery of Craven Manor and The Boy Who Could Fly, fit the bill. Author of books for youngsters as well as adults, Ms. Wodhams grew up in Liverpool, a sizeable port city built upon the River Mersey, on the west coast of Britain.

She began writing as a young girl, producing her first magazine at the age of seven. As an adult, she earned her living as a magazine editor, and sold short stories and feature articles to national magazines. In addition to her writing, she is an accomplished painter and art teacher.

Her lineage has noteworthy roots. As it says on her Amazon page, she comes from “five generations of theatre and circus gymnasts, trapeze artists, singers, musicians and songwriters.” Who wouldn’t want to be able to say that!

In an exchange of emails, Ms. Wodhams provided some insight into her writing life.

LC: Did you get encouragement for your writing when you were young:

JW: Not really. I remember lying on the floor, aged about 7, with pencil and an exercise book, and my mother complaining ‘You’ve always got your nose in a book or you’re scribbling. I’ve been calling you for ages!’

LC: What else interested you then, along with writing?

JW:Drawing. Particularly young ladies wearing the latest fashions. Painting came a little later, when I was 9 or 10, and I’ve always loved pencils, pens, paints, paper, inks and anything else connected with painting or writing. Even now I can’t go past a stationery store without diving in. The drawers of my desk bulge with multi-coloured folders and notebooks, waiting to be filled. As for books—they have been my main influence and my main obsession.

LC: Did these interests influence your writing subjects:

JW:Not particularly the drawing and painting—I’ve never created an artist as my main character, for example—but the books I read in childhood are still vivid in my memory and I think had a very profound effect on me. Now I write for children and adults, but my children’s books are the most successful. I’m told I’m very good at getting the ‘voice’ of a young child or young adult.

LC: How have these interests evolved, what interests you now, (or put another way: What pursuits do you follow when you are not writing):

JW:Over the years I’ve seesawed between writing and painting, both being major passions. I painted over 600 pictures in the l990s and sold most of them at my annual exhibitions. At the same time I was writing short stories for weekly and monthly magazines, but my market shrank when ‘800 word bites’ became popular (my stories usually ranged from 3000 to 5000 words).

Nowadays I usually have a part-finished painting on the easel, but I’m really focused on writing books. Once I get going, I write fairly quickly and I now have twelve novels, plus a manual on Creative Writing, in publication.

LC: Could you give some background of ‘800 work bites’:

JW: I think it started when everyone got involved with the internet, and life seemed to speed up.  Before then lots of the weekly and monthly magazines were publishing long short stories, often up to 5000 words, and I sold quite a few, but then they found that readers didn’t want to spend up to  an hour or more reading a long story, so the 800 bite story took its place. I wasn’t interested in writing those, and in any case it coincided with a new job as a magazine editor myself, so I stopped writing stories altogether.

LC: Have any of these stories been republished?

JW: I do have two short story collections. One is The Floater and the other is The Girl At Table Nine. Some are a bit dated now, I expect…short stories are supposed to be back in favour, mainly in specialist magazines.

The author’s work space.

LC: Was reading and writing encouraged and supported in your family:

JW: I don’t think anyone else took an interest really, until I married my second husband who was also an avid reader. We spent long hours with our noses buried deep in our books—which may sound anti-social but was actually quite lovely! He was very supportive when I started writing and even took over the cooking to give me more creative time. My two children, who live in the UK, also enjoy reading and often help to publicise my novels. Sadly, my stepchildren don’t read books at all!

LC: How do you suppose your unusually dynamic, creative family influenced you as a child, and now:

JW:I had two older brothers who were reasonably good at drawing, but I didn’t know about the earlier generations until I was around 11 years old! It was then that I first met my maternal grandmother—my father had caused a rift in the family when he eloped with my mother, and the rift wasn’t healed until after he (and the grandfather I never met) died.

My grandmother came to live with us, and brought with her the little brown case that later formed the basis for my novel The Boy Who Could Fly. The case, full of old faded photographs, in memoriam cards, and the poster which later triggered me to write that book, fascinated me. I used to visit it whenever my grandmother was away from the house, and those snapshots of the past still fascinate me.

As well as the family members who performed on stage and in the circus, I found a singer/composer (my great-great-great-grandfather) whose songs are still performed by well-known folk groups, several violinists (my two daughters both play violins and other instruments) and several artists. Genes! Aren’t they wonderful! I don’t think any of us can take sole credit for any creative successes we have!

LC: What are the songs still played that were written by your great-great-great-grandfather:

JW: Johnny, I hardly knew ye and Ten thousand miles from home were two of them that have been recorded in recent times. His name was Joseph Bryan Geoghegan and he was born in 1815.

LC: What are some of the books you enjoyed as a young reader, and which ones still hold up:

JW: Henrietta’s House (written by Elizabeth Goudge) was my favourite of all time. I read it when I was seven and obsessed with everything connected with painting and writing. When I read about Henrietta, who was given a whole house, a wardrobe full of beautiful dresses  and best of all, a desk whose drawers overflowed with paper, crayons, paints, inks, pens and pencils, that was me—incommunicado for the next two or three years! It’s out of print now, but still available through some of the secondhand book dealers. If you can find it, give it to any 7 to 10 year old you know (there’s a great adventure in it for boys, too).

I don’t remember the authors of others so well, but those I bought for my own children, and would 100% recommend, include Tom’s Midnight Garden [ed.: by Philippa Pearce], The Mouse and his Child [ed.: by Russell Hoban and Tamsin Oglesby], The Wolves of Willoughby Chase [ed.: by Joan Aiken] and Goodnight Mr. Tom [ed.: by Michelle Magorian].

LC: Those all look lovely! What books are you reading now, or have you read recently:

JW: I’ve just finished Big Sky, Kate Atkinson’s latest Jackson Brodie novel. I love Neil Gaiman and have just started The Graveyard Book. I often reread favourite books such as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, anything by Anne Tyler or Margaret Atwood—and  am planning to reread Melvin Burgess’s teenage book Doing It—very rude but hilarious! I thought I might also reread Anyone Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald, a biographical very funny novel set in the USA during the economic Depression of the late Twenties. Thought it might come in useful!

LC: Did you go to the library when you were growing up, do you still:

JW: From a very young age I used to visit the library twice a week, staggering home with as many books as they would allow me. Sadly, many of the public libraries in the UK have closed, or are being run part time by volunteers.

LC: There are similar problems in the US. What do you like about being a writer:

JW: Everything! My husband died three years ago. (Coincidentally my first husband died a few months previously. Oscar Wilde might have considered it carelessness to lose two in the same year!) So now I live alone, and of course I have also self-isolated.

But the greatest thing about living alone as a writer is that, in fact, you’re never alone! My head is permanently buzzing with the latest characters I’ve invented, who grow there and become a second family.  And I am never, never bored! Planning and plotting may be hard work but it’s so absorbing and so enjoyable.

I have to discipline myself to take time off to cook meals, clean the house and try to control the garden.

LC: Do you have any pets?

JW:Not now, but we used to keep chickens. I loved them, such individual characters. I’ve actually written a short book (from the first person chicken viewpoint) but I don’t know what to do with it.

LC: You mention a garden. Are you a gardener?

JW: I have a very large garden and love it but it’s too much work for one. I was always the garden designer and my husband did most of the hard slog.

LC: What interests you enough in an idea, character or setting to write a book:

JW: I don’t think any of my books started with a setting. It’s usually a particular character or a situation. The discovery of my amazing great-great-uncle, ‘Una The Human Fly’, triggered my circus book, The Boy Who Could Fly.

The idea for Cabbage Boy came when tractor drivers deposited a new kind of manure, processed from human waste, on the large field behind my house. It started me thinking about DNA and the next day I had my two main characters, a mutant cabbage and the nervous OCD teenage boy who protects him.

The Girl In the Attic started with the idea of a desperately lonely ghost, murdered 75 years ago but still too scared to leave the attic in which she was captive, even while the house falls to pieces around her.

LC: How have you adapted or changed as “writing implements” have evolved (paper and pencil, typewriter, desktop, laptop):

JW: Ah! Scraps of paper, pencils and pens, later progressing to a typewriter, which speeded things up. I’d been trained to type at 80 wpm! I left school long before the advent of computers, but later, much later, I bought a desktop computer and taught myself how to use it. Later still, I bought my first laptop.

By then I was writing full length novels, and I decided from the start to self-publish, so I downloaded a free graphics programme and had a go at designing my own covers. Some steep learning curves, but satisfying.

LC: Do you have anything to say for writers who don’t get encouragement, or are actively discouraged:

JW:Writing is a solitary activity, even for those who have supportive family and friends. In the end, we all write alone. And writing—the structure of writing—is a craft, something we all have to learn. Even when we’re skilled, writing a best seller is pie in the sky for most of us. Some of my books have done well, others languish unnoticed (including some I’m particularly proud of).

Write because you love it, because it absorbs and fulfills you. If it gets noticed, that’s a bonus. When you type THE END, ask yourself what those non-supportive friends have done that has given them as much satisfaction?

Self-portrait of the author

Thank you, Ms. Wodhams. This has been a pleasure. I have downloaded There’s A Lion In My Bed, and look forward to reading it soon. Maybe one day we’ll see that chicken story!

Library

Digital Isn’t Everything

Rare photo of Channel Street, San Francisco, formerly part of Mission Bay (when it was a real bay)

The library is like a candy store where everything is free.
Jamie Ford

When the San Francisco Public Library was recently padlocked as part of the city-wide shut-down, this disruption brought home the indiscriminate magnitude of the blight as it careens through society. The library — closed? I never imagined a time when there wouldn’t be a library, somewhere available. By pure luck, I went to the library before the shutdown.

I’ll be honest. I don’t go to the library nearly as often as I think about going to the library. At home, so many unread books are stacked up. It’s a short stroll to the local cafe, where paperbacks pile against the wall, free for borrowing or exchange, enticing my weak spot for serendipity and murder mysteries. That’s where I discovered two Nick Petrie books. Twenty-one blocks away is the library, a much longer hike. Nevertheless, once I get there, the same old thrill pops up: the library is better than free candy.

After hours spent online, I had not found what I was searching for. In fact, I found virtually nothing. There is a lot of information is online. Plenty of companies’ best interests lie in you believing that everything is online. And in these Virus Times, more is online than ever. But not everything; there is breadth online, but not depth.

I made my excursion ten days before they shut San Francisco down. Destination: the History Center. Real research was on the docket; I wanted more details and photos of “Sipp’s Creek” (as it is called in my book, Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir). Locally, Sipp’s Creek is a patch known as Mission Bay.

The History Center itself is another locale in Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir, where Marilyn the Librarian helps her friend Webbs, the intellectual spider, find answers to Murkey’s mystery. When she and Webbs get caught in the tunnels beneath the city, Marilyn manages to escape and bring back help. In a pinch, rely on a librarian.

After years of enjoying the District of Columbia Library in Washington, DC, I moved to San Francisco in 1995. Roommates had snagged a place to live (considered difficult then — in no way comparable to the difficulty today), but I had no job. Activities not directly linked to job hunting were deemed “having fun.” I held the (wrong-headed) idea that “having fun” would signal to the job gods that I was not serious in my job pursuit. At that time, my job search was in the field of commercial interior design.

Riding the bus down Divisadero Street, I spent my days at a copy shop. It sounds crazy now, but back then I didn’t own a computer. That took money. The nearest print/copy shop with public computers was at California and Fillmore. I wrote cover letters there. I printed up piles of resumes. I became familiar with the city, and with the offices I was applying at, by riding the bus around and hand-delivering my packets.

Peripherally, I was aware that the old Main Library was on its way out. I considered visiting, but that would have been “having fun.” Busy in my daily routine, I regret now that I never stopped by. Historic photographs show a grand old building; a visit to the Asian Art Museum, located in the building where the Main Library used to be, prove the building was a classic.

In contrast, the new library is an arty hodge-podge of stairways, misdirection and confusing circular floor plans. Signage is poor to non-existent. It’s worse than a trip to the downtown Macy’s Department Store. At least at Macy’s, each floor has a sign identifying your location.

The History Center is at the top, or sixth, floor. Previously, I took the elevator. The elevator goes to the sixth floor. This time, I took the public stair. Logically, I expected to exit on the sixth floor at the top of the stairs. Consequently, it did not occur to me to count each floor. Wrong! The stair ended, but what floor was I on? No signage. The main stair is in a completely different part of the floor than the elevator lobby. The circular nature of the building layout makes it impossible to relate where you are when you take the stair to where you were when you took that elevator last time.

I recognized the floor because I had spent time there on previous visits, making copies of sheet music. I didn’t remember what floor it was, but I knew one fact: it was not the floor with the History Center. How to get there? No indication.

Luckily, a music librarian was handy. They probably get this question on a regular basis. A friendly librarian told me we were on the fifth floor. The stair to the sixth floor? He pointed. Around the corner.

For inexplicable reasons, the route to the sixth floor incorporates two separate stairs. Picture a sixth floor, stuck on as an afterthought, with its own independent stair jammed over in a corner. In fact, I saw this adjunct stair as I exited the 1–5 stair. Of completely different design, it appeared to be private access to a staff area. No arrow, no sign advising, “This Way Be History” or, “Up to Sixth Floor.”

I took the stair. At the top, no clue as to which way to turn to reach the History Center. I turned the wrong way, my natural response to being lost. After a not quite complete circuit around the floor, through curious displays of artifacts, I chanced upon the History Center, tucked into a dark corner.

It is a small, unassuming room. There are five or six long rows of sturdy wooden tables and chairs, where patrons delve into their field of study. A mousy hobbit door is wedged in a corner behind the librarians’ counter. Through this door the librarians pop in and out, carrying forth documents from their sequestered trove. The imagination boggles when envisioning what all is stored behind their hobbit door.

To be assisted by thoughtful humans, whose eyes light up as they comprehend what you are looking for; to then be surrounded by the exact material you had spent empty hours not finding online — because these are documents found nowhere else —such are good times to be savored. And yes, it would have conserved time to walk to the library in the first place.

Now that the library is closed for the duration, I am relieved that I made it to the sixth floor before the lights flicked out and the locks clicked. It was another piece of luck that I took photos of everything that looked useful. Now I have plenty of the past to dig into as I study up on fun facts to use in my next book.

Despite the indefensible botheration of navigating the building, a trip to our library winds up being as satisfying as a trip to any better-planned public library. Settling deep into your curiosity, librarians nearby, loaded up with centuries of tools and knowledge, who can ask for anything more. There is one question that will persist indefinitely: when will libraries be able to open their doors again?