It’s a rare story that combines lyrical writing with a catastrophic earthquake, but Elizabeth Percer’s assured, soul-wrenching novel does just that, earning a high spot on our Best Books of the Month list for March.
Amazon Book Review: What propelled you to write this story of three people caught in an earthquake and then fire in San Francisco?
Elizabeth Percer: I’m not a huge fan of the classic writing advice to “write about what you know.” If I’m going to devote my energies to writing a novel, it had better feature a subject matter that I know will sustain my interest for a year or more. With that in mind, I much prefer to write about the mysteries in my life that refuse to go away, the questions that arise around fundamental curiosities. As a mom, a resident of the Bay Area, and a citizen of an increasingly volatile world, the paradox of wanting to keep myself and others safe and knowing that safety is, more often than not, simply an illusion is just the sort of tangle I care enough about to invest the time and energy it takes to start with a blank page and find my way to a novel. There are a handful of subject matters that could get me to the meat of this paradox, but I found a modern day earthquake disaster to have just the right mix of creative challenge, relevance, and excitement to cook up the kind of story I wanted to write.
Each character has his or her own complicated relationship with San Francisco—what the city represents to them, and how it affects others. What is your relationship with the city like?
I tend to think of places as entities in their own right, infused with the experiences of the people who’ve trodden their soils for however many years. As only one of the millions who’ve called San Francisco their home, I sometimes feel frustrated by my limited ability to truly understand a place I hold so dear. By the same token, one of the reasons why I find the city so fascinating is because it always seems to be throbbing with far more layers of experience than I can hope to understand, so that being in it is a bit like being in the ocean—I’m struck by nothing more than its unfathomable depth, and comforted and entranced by its ability to shelter so much more than any one of us could on our own. Its power is similarly terrifying, but the ocean drowns so fewer souls than it rocks to sleep.
One of your main characters, Vashti, spent a period in her childhood when she ate dirt while mourning her mother. Later, she becomes a master baker. What inspired those fascinating details about her?
I’ve found that the longer you spend with a character without imposing too much of your own agenda on her or him, the weirder and more wonderful she or he becomes. On some level, I tend to be like a mouthy puppy in a ball factory when it comes to micromanaging my characters, but I’ve learned over time that sometimes the best parts of them emerge when you just step out of the way.
In Vashti’s particular case, I knew right away that I wanted her to be sensual, and I personally love everything there is to love about food, so she was a baker almost as soon as she hatched. But those were things I wanted from her; I then had to do the hard work of figuring out what made her want them, too—what made this person, who was so inextricably tied up in this overall story, come upon her passions. With something as deep and primeval as food, I figured it must have started early. And with a character who began to speak about love in a tone of such sorrow, I figured the passion came from an experience that allowed for the gamut of her emotional capabilities. And then I just let her start wandering around, stood back as she showed me her mother and her sister and her father, the beautiful earth that supported them all in their grief, and she picked up some of that earth and put it into her mouth, in much the same way an unself-conscious child will do something so grotesque and stunning in the most casual manner possible. After she did that, it was a quick trip from dirt to her sister’s protectiveness to chocolate to baking, but it’s also true that the path we took to get to that dirt had many wrong turns and lots of really bad lighting. But who wants to write about what everyone can already see?
Do you have a go-bag or an emergency pack in case of disaster?
Um, now I do! I was actually pretty lax about it until I started doing research in earnest for the novel. I distinctly remember coming home from a meeting with Mary Lou Zoback, a Stanford geologist and expert on the San Andreas fault, and going online to purchase fully tripped out emergency packs for my home and car. And a renewed earthquake policy on our house. And if I’m going to be completely honest, I think it’s going to be a while before I can spend an extended time in the city of San Francisco without an exit plan at the forefront of my mind.
What’s on your bedside table right now, waiting to be read?
Way too much. I have a really hard time reading anything new when I’m writing, so I’ve got a tremendous backlog of titles I want to get to. I have this little pipe dream that I’m going to read at least one hundred books before I write another one of my own, but I’m pretty sure that’s going out the window the minute I read something I really love. Reading and writing exist on the same continuum, and I find that engaging in one will always lead to some kind of engagement with the other. So while this particular reading dream might be short-lived, I suppose worse things could happen!
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