By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Due to a common writing misstep, Gary Kamiya, a highly experienced writer and editor, found himself with only six months to write a 385-page book.
The San Francisco author and co-founder of Salon.com described his predicament earlier this month to a roomful of authors and author wannabes gathered in the writers room at the back of Book Passage, Marin county’s powerhouse independent bookstore.
It was the first day of Kamiya’s brand new job as executive editor of San Francisco magazine, but he had taken time out to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to read from his new book and to share writing tips with members of the Left Coast Writers salon.
The book was Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, which is selling very nicely in the San Francisco Bay Area, thank you, and has received a New York Times review that promises to make his book more than just a regional best-seller.
The book – he lifted the title from poet George Sterling’s description of San Francisco as a “cool gray city of love” – is a love song in 49 chapters to his home town.
(I caught Kamiya reading from the Tenderloin chapter on video).
He chose the number 49 in honor of the Forty Niners (that would be the Gold Rush seekers of 1849, I’m guessing, not the football team). Nor does the number allude to the notion that San Francisco is situated on a 49-square-mile peninsula. That’s a popular misconception, Kamiya told his audience. San Francisco occupies 46, not 49, square miles.
Kamiya should know. He’s in command of a lot of SF facts. Indeed, in the course of writing this book he found himself caught up in a writing process misadventure known among writers as research rapture.
He studied the city’s archives, he tracked down old newspapers, he sought out the experts. He walked the city’s streets, including the length of its southernmost – rather boring, he discovered – border.
So abundant and so fascinating was the San Francisco research process that the first draft of his book – sent off to his publisher just six months before its due date – was pretty much a historical account of the city and its neighborhoods.
When the manuscript arrived at Bloomsbury, his editor got worried: Kamiya had written a history. And, writer, editor and innovator though he was and is, Kamiya is not a historian.
Start over, he was told. Take a more personal, impressionistic approach. Tell stories.
That left Kamiya with just six months to write an entire book. Forty-nine chapters. Feverishly, he budgeted out his remaining time. Two days for this chapter, five for that one. Then he cut loose and shared his feelings about San Francisco (deep affection), his experiences, including the time he’d put in as an SF cab driver, as well as a good deal of that hard-earned historical research.
Being short on time actually helped lubricate the writing process, he told his book-writing audience. He had no choice but to say what was on his mind and to let the words flow.
Among his favorites of the resulting chapters is the one about the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s densely populated downtown neighborhood for the down-and-out.
Another favorite is the chapter – which he adroitly places alongside the Tenderloin chapter – about the Farallon Islands, located 28 miles off the San Francisco coast but still within its city limits, which are a genuine wilderness with a population, aside from a few scientists, of zero.
When asked whether there was some part of San Francisco that he really didn’t like, Gary said that, no, he had made up his mind at the outset to take an accepting, non-judgmental approach to every aspect of the city – embracing anything and everything, including that boring stretch of real estate at its southern border.
Still, truth be told, Kamiya said he prefers the city’s rough edges. He’d choose a disintegrating pier along the shoreline to pricey, cleaned-up neighborhoods like South of Market’s sleek Moscone Center.
In the end, writing about San Francisco with all its history and diverse neighborhoods worked for Kamiya as a writer. Having a real subject like a city and its history “lets you just write and do interesting things,” he said. It gave him a chronological through-line upon which to hang his personal stories and lyrical observations.
Born in Oakland in 1953, Kamiya grew up in Berkeley and has lived in San Francisco since 1971. He’s married to the novelist Kate Moses. Oddly enough, though he cofounded (and eventually departed) Salon.com, the news and entertainment website, Kamiya has neither a website nor a Facebook Page.
Right now he’s pretty busy. He’s got this new job at San Francisco magazine, a book to promote, and a regular column to write for the San Francisco Chronicle.
So, no, Kamiya told his audience. He doesn’t have time for one-on-one interviews with bloggers right now. Only the big media. But, yes, he’s looking for stories for San Francisco magazine – which announcement was take-away gold for the hungry writers in the audience.
If you’d like to read about other authors go to: “Heather Donahue and Me — How I Got Hooked on a Pothead.” Also “Lauren Winner — Seven Writing Tips” and “Anne Lamott Showed Up With a Bouquet of Bons Mots.”