Former ‘Sentinel’ reporter Dan White pens riveting, hilarious memoir
While Dan White’s first book might be called, “The Cactus Eaters,” it’s no prickly read. Rather, it’s a smooth page-turner, leaving the reader ‘thirsty’ for more. Simply put: You can’t put it down.
Santa Cruzans may remember his name: Dan White, the guy who, years back, infused exceptional humor and color into his writing as a city reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. White worked there for about eight years and left his post in 2003. From there, the charismatic White went on to get his master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia University, and then moved to San Francisco with his wife, writer Amy Ettinger. Nowadays, he commutes from the city to his newest gig as a professor of English at San Jose State University. But somewhere in the middle of his recent history, White started seriously penning “The Cactus Eaters,” a memoir.
Actually, the idea came to him long ago. Perhaps even back on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) where his girlfriend at the time, Allison, and he decided to give up their reporting jobs at a newspaper in Connecticut when they were in the their late 20s, and embarked on a journey that would change their lives—and their relationship. For the worse? Or for the better? You, the reader, get to find out when you read the book.
It’s a beautifully written story, and reads like a novel, only it’s not. It’s pure non-fiction, which is what makes “The Cactus Eaters” quite hilarious and delightful at the same time. In addition, the writing is superb. White has a masterful way with crafting a story. From the first paragraph you’re hooked: “It’s 9:00 A.M. in the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada, eighty-five degrees and rising. The water in our bottles is almost gone, but I don’t panic. I suck my tongue. I lick my hot teeth.” At this point, White starts the reader off somewhere in the middle of his journey on the famous trail that goes across America from Mexico to Canada for 2,650 miles.
And then he follows with the beginning of the tale, as a cub reporter at the aforementioned paper in Connecticut, where he meets Allison, blond hair and all. He’s got the hots for her. Big time. Eventually, the two develop a romantic relationship and decide to ditch “the Man” (aka conventional jobs and such) to find freedom and whatever else they’re seeking on the PCT. Everyone around them thinks they’re batty, but the couple doesn’t care. From then on, we follow this goofy pair as they try their hand (and feet) at the legendary and unforgiving trail.
This isn’t just some travel or woodsy memoir. It’s a story about love and the great outdoors, all mashed into one. It’s like a romantic comedy and a documentary, thrown in the blender together. It’s a book that no doubt will start getting some delectable praise in no time.
GT recently caught up with White who was just about to go on an adventure (this time a short trip in Kentucky) for a travel piece he’s writing for the New York Times, and as he’s about to embark on his book tour.
An interesting tidbit about White is that he’s not like other writers when he attends his own book events. He won’t bore the audience with a humdrum, monotone-sounding reading of his work. Instead, White’s readings are more like performances, where he seeks to entertain his audience and hopefully thank them for the time they’ve taken out of their lives to spend with him.
“I’ve given about six performances of it so far,” he says. “The more I road test it the more I get a sense of what works and what doesn’t in a live venue. There are certain chapters that lend themselves to a monologue format.”
It was during one of these “road tests” during a Columbia “fancy gathering,” as White calls it, that he came to meet his future agent. During his stint at the renowned university, on one particular evening, White and other master of fine arts students were gathered to read their works. A woman from ICM, one of the leading talent and literary agencies in the United States, was attending the reading.
“I read a chunk of the work and she liked it,” White says. “Afterwards she invited me to send a sample and took it from there. I spent the summer after that (2007) really working hard on that representative sample.”
From there, the agent wooed the likes of Harper Collins publishers and one year later (now in near summer 2008) the book is coming out.
But it’s been a long time coming. In the beginning, White says it “started off as a box of musty and partially rain-soaked journals,” that he kept while on the PCT. “I’ve been working on this thing (the book) over the years, but I hadn’t made a serious concerted effort until three-and-a-half years ago when I went to grad school. I threw out 98.9 percent of the rough draft and started from scratch, shaping little chapters for a Santa Cruz writing group (that he was involved in when he lived here).”
Now fast-forwarding to 2008, White admits that he’s a little “tripped out” about seeing his face staring back at him on the back of the “The Cactus Eaters.” Harper Collins officially releases the book on June 1 in paperback form. Why the paperback route? White admits, “With first timers like me, the whole idea is to get my name out there and the book out there, without someone plunking down $57 for the book. … You can take it backpacking. It’s not very heavy. Having said that … an acquaintance of mine, an ultralight packer … did a hike with my book in his pack.” Now that just may be a “trip.”Dan White will ‘perform’ from his book, “The Cactus Eaters” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 19 at the Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola, 462-4415.