Looking back at Santa Cruz’s incredible literary tradition
Over the years, Santa Cruz writers of every stripe have managed to weave our unique blend of natural beauty, progressive politics and rich history into ideas that play out on the page. Santa Cruz may not always be the subject of the written work it spurs, but it dwells in the margins like a seductive contradiction. Local literary maverick George Hitchcock, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 96, knew this well when he published the likes of Raymond Carver and Margaret Atwood back in the 1970s, in his widely respected one-man-band of a literary journal, Kayak. UCSC’s poet in residence during that same time period, William Everson—founder and fine printer of Lime Kiln Press—knew it, too. Together they embodied the fierce coastal freedom and creative eccentricity that defined Santa Cruz during a literary renaissance that spread from San Francisco to Big Sur.
Tellers of tales close to home like Geoffrey Dunn, Sandy Lydon, and the late great Morton Marcus dig deep into local history, sharing their passion for the past in books like “Chinatown Dreams” and “Santa Cruz is in the Heart.” The legendary Jim Houston, who cut quite a figure in his Hawaiian shirt, bomber jacket and Panama hat, uncovered wartime injustice when he co-wrote the now classic “Farewell to Manzanar” with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. He went on to explore the tragedy of the Donner Party in his novel “Snow Mountain Passage,” after he moved into a historic Santa Cruz home that turned out to have been previously owned by one of its youngest members.
Graceful subversives like acclaimed poet and feminist touchstone Adrienne Rich found the alchemy in pushing boundaries here. She wrote that a revolutionary poem reminds you “where and when and how you are living and might live. It is a wick of desire.” Such thoughts may have occurred to her while browsing at local bookstores, which she did quite often. She might have argued theory with bell hooks, the pivotal feminist writer who continues to advocate for racial equality. After graduating from UCSC, she went on to write her first major work, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
Writing blends into Santa Cruz daily life. Jonathan Franzen goes birding in Boulder Creek, where he lives part-time. Elizabeth McKenzie, author of “MacGregor Tells the World” and editor of a collection of Japanese writing called “My Post War Life,” serves as managing editor of the Tannery’s homage to Kayak, the Catamaran Literary Reader. Dan White remembers writing “The Cactus Eaters,” his book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, over coffee at the now defunct but much-loved Capitola Book Cafe.
It’s impossible to do justice here to the history and scope of writers with ties to Santa Cruz. They extend from the likes of visionary philosopher Robert Anton Wilson, whose ashes were scattered off the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, to Karen Joy Fowler, winner of the 2014 Pen/Faulkner award for her novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” But no matter how far they wander, those who have called this place home would probably agree, it has a way of calling you back.
Laurie Fox, Don Wallace, Reyna Grande, and Laurie King will all be heeding the call when they appear along with artist Tom Killion at Bookshop Santa Cruz as part of UCSC’s 50th anniversary alumni weekend, to read, sign their books and mingle with their audience. I asked them what effect Santa Cruz has had on their work.
Laurie Fox, author of three books, is still a literary agent after 28 years.
“Santa Cruz was truly a stunning time for me,” she says. “I was here in the heyday of interdisciplinary arts majors, when you could focus on two different art forms, like painting and playing the saxophone. We were all thrown together, and I think that’s how it should be. I was a theater rat who came into creative writing because I wanted to perform my own work, and this was a place where you were permitted to plunge headfirst into your ardor, wherever that might lead. Even now, I find myself going from one discipline to another throughout the day, and I prefer books that synthesize several disciplines at once. The richness of collaboration is what I’ve taken away.”
Author and journalist Don Wallace says of coming here from Long Beach at age 19, “The landscape and seascapes had an immediate and permanent impact. It was so green, and raw in places—the ocean smashing into cliffs, the fog rolling in and out, the community molded to the landscape. In Santa Cruz, I lived in my first ruin, which undoubtedly influenced my doing the crazy thing later, as chronicled in my book, “The French House,” of buying a ruin on an island in Brittany—an island of cliffs and smashing seas and fog rolling in, by the way.”
Santa Cruz was an ideal writing incubator then, he says, “as I’m sure it is now.”
“On Walk Circle, near the Lighthouse, I got a rude shed with a pot-bellied coal stove for $50 a month. It had an outdoor shower and leaked badly. But for someone from the flats of SoCal it was inspiring to be that close to the elements. I would write in the living room and walk to the little library that had a fireplace going in winter,” he remembers. “There was a writing community that let me hang around, learning by watching and then doing. At the University, we had dedicated teachers who were not academics—they championed a free writing life out in the world, which influenced me in terms of making a life living on my writing.”
It wasn’t all “warm and fuzzy,” Wallace says.
“I worked in menial jobs, played in a band, got arrested for protesting, fell in and out of love, and lived next door to a serial killer—all the kinds of experiences that feed into a writerly world-view. You can have these experiences anywhere, but in Santa Cruz they were more intense, I think. It was painful to leave, but I knew I needed to see the world. I love coming back. I have friends here, and in my island of Belle Ile, I have an alternative version of my life that might have been, had I stayed.”
Novelist Reyna Grande remembers working on her craft. “When I was taking creative writing classes at UCSC, I had the bad habit of killing off my characters in all my stories. My teacher actually told me one day that I needed to learn conflict resolution and that killing my characters was not the way to do it. That I was being lazy. She challenged me to write a story where I didn’t kill anyone. It was one of the most boring stories I’ve ever written! But thanks to that experience, I did learn how to rethink conflict resolution and eventually wrote a novel where hardly anyone dies, ‘Dancing with Butterflies.’ Keeping characters alive and having them solve their problems is much harder than it looks. Thanks to my classes at UCSC, I became a much better storyteller.”
No one is more elegant in describing her hometown of Santa Cruz than local author Laurie King.
“Santa Cruz is like a first draft: a shorthand sort of tale understood by, and comfortable to, a very limited audience. Explaining Santa Cruz to outsiders is like the rewrite process, when the writer considers how the story looks to the reader,” she says. “Living in an alternative universe, where banana slugs are school mascots and bakeries mull over gluten, lactose and animal products, is good practice for someone whose novels are based on the premise that Sherlock Holmes is not only real, but still alive.”
The thing is, we believe in Sherlock, and ruins on an island in Brittany. We believe in collaboration, and that painting and saxophones go together perfectly. We believe that banana slugs make great school mascots, butterflies make good dance partners, and gluten is problematic. We believe in conflict resolution. We believe that our living writers stand on the shoulders of giants, and we believe in the written word. That’s the beauty of inspiring, confounding, unexplainable Santa Cruz. We believe.
Top photo: Local author Laurie King