Posts Tagged 'Kathleen Knowles'

Portals of the Past

By Kathleen Knowles

Awake Unto Me 300 DPIIn his terrific book, Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, Gary Kamiya had this to say about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake:
“The ruins looked like the bombed-out wastelands of Dresden, Tokyo or Hamburg in World war
II. It was the closest thing to an urban apocalypse this country has ever seen.”
As my readers, family and friends know, I love history, especially San Francisco history. It’s only natural I would write a story set during the 1906 earthquake, a seminal event in the history of San Francisco. When I was writing my first novel, Awake Unto Me, I took part in a ‘backstage’ tour of the botany collections of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Our tour was led by two veteran docents who told us a remarkable story about a woman named Alice Eastwood. The Cal Academy was then housed in a Market Street building in 1906 and was burned in the fire that began immediately after the earthquake. Most of its holdings were destroyed but the most precious parts of the plant collection, the type specimens, were saved by Alice Eastwood, CAS curator of botany. I saw some of the material in storage at the Academy during that tour. When I heard how she accomplished that feat, I thought, “That has to go into a novel.”
I was already planning to carry the characters in Awake Unto Me through the earthquake. Part of that planning including situating their home west of Van Ness where the post-earthquake fire was finally stopped. I knew I would need some new characters though. So there was one of my main characters, Alice Eastwood, fictionalized under the name Abigail Elliot. Her character and background were quite easy to put together since the Cal Academy archives house her papers. I spent happy hours reading them. There’s nothing in Alice Eastwood’s background to suggest she was a lesbian but she never married and claimed she had no idea how she would combine marriage and her career. So I used the lack of evidence about her personal relationships to draw my own conclusions.
The other main character is, of course, one of the many medical people I seem drawn to write about: Norah Stratton, a friend of one of Esther Strauss from A Spark of Heavenly Fire and a recent transplant from New York. Welcome to San Francisco, now here’s an earthquake for you! Needless to say, it’s a shock to poor Norah.
The problem with writing about the 1906 earthquake was exactly what aspects of that very complicated event to use. There’s much to choose from because the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire was a extremely well documented disaster. You could say it was the first globally known disaster and the media coverage at the time was overwhelming. Even the early movie technology of the time got into the act. I watched some silent films of the smoking ruins from the Library of Congress.
My recurring character Kerry is an employee of the Palace Hotel so there was the tragic story of the demise of that building. Her lover Beth is a doctor as are their friends Esther and Addison so that gives all of them a concrete role after the earthquake. In a disaster, doctors are going to be on the frontlines taking care of the victims. I got to find out a lot about the experiences of the San Franciscans after the earthquake and I was able to incorporate a lot into the story. One my favorite factoids: the downtown post office evaded the destruction and was able to conduct business almost normally in the chaotic weeks after the earthquake. I learned about which parts of the City got their water back and when thanks to a website called The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco which incorporates the records of the City water department from 1906.
As calamities have a way of doing, the 1906 earthquake throws my human characters’ lives into complete disarray. Some are left with their home intact but with serious injury. Some lose their homes but everyone’s life is upended one way or another. To write about being in an earthquake and then adjusting to life in its aftermath, I drew on my own experience going through the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. That was a surrealistic experience to say the least for those who were present. For the loved ones of San Franciscans who were anxiously trying to get news, it was terrifying.
My wife, Jeanette was my girlfriend of just four months in October 1989. She was on a jet flying to Germany when the earthquake hit. She and her friend Michael watched scenes of destruction on CNN with narration in German, while she frantically tried to call me and Michael tried to reach his dad who lived on Nob Hill. After an earthquake, the phone lines are jammed because everyone calls their friends and family to ask, “Did you feel that? Are you okay?” In Two Souls, my characters are not able to phone but they still try to check in with one another and tell their stories just as we twenty first century folks do.Two souls
After the earthquake, my friends and I had a cook out and listened to the radio and watched the helicopters fly over the dark City all night. I still have a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle “Earthquake Special” newspaper. The newspeople put it together using a generator and then handed out free copies on street corners the morning after the earthquake.
People who don’t live in California often express abject fear of earthquakes. Honestly, give me an earthquake that happens every 30 to 100 years over tornados and hurricanes which happen EVERY year.
The framing columns on the Two Souls book cover are a stylized rendering of a monument called the Portals of the Past. Amongst the many photographs and stories I came across during my research was the photo Arnold Genthe took of the ruins of the Townsend mansion on Nob Hill. In the book, I have Abigail and Norah actually come upon him engaged in this activity while they are out exploring the ruins. The only surviving structures on Nob Hill were this doorway and the outer masonry walls of the James Flood mansion on California Street. The 8 marble columns of the entryway were given to the City by Mrs, Townsend and in 1909 were relocated to the shore of Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park. They were named the Portals of Past and are thought of as the symbol of San Francisco’s rebirth after the earthquake. They are also serve as a reminder of what happened in 1906. I visit them every so often and wonder what it was like for San Franciscans back then. Two Souls is the concrete result of my musings.

The Parameters of Experience


Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment

-Rita Mae Brown


We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

-Teilhard de Chardin


Warm November 300 DPIIn my latest novel, Warm November, “experience” is a central theme. The two protagonists, Hayley and Merle are ‘women of a certain age’, i.e. they’re both fifty somethings so each can lay claim to a having a learned a certain number of life lessons but that’s where their similarity ends.


As a newly out lesbian, Hayley finds her lack of experience with women problematical in several ways. She doesn’t think she knows how to be a lesbian. She thinks lesbians tend to shun her because she used to be heterosexual. Even her avowal of ‘been there, done that’ in regards to heterosexual marriage doesn’t help much.

Merle’s long-time partner has just left her and she’s predictably devastated and not eager to start up with someone new especially, someone like Hayley who was married to a man for over twenty years and just newly out, i.e. inexperienced. She is however drawn to helping Hayley because that’s her nature.


Like me, Merle’s been clean and sober and in AA for a long time. In fiction, AA usually takes the form of the protagonist’s journey from active alcoholism to becoming sober. I wanted to do something different and look at sobriety from the point of view of someone who’s been living the sober life for a relatively long time. As Merle discovers, she may think life has become stable and predictable but it hasn’t. No way.


In AA, the idea of experience plays a very large role.

Merle’s AA friend Clea says, “Everyone has opinions. Tell me your experience and I might listen.” This speaks to our all too human inclination to mouth off about our opinions instead of sticking to what we know, i.e., our experience. AAs share their ‘experience, strength, and hope’ with other alcoholics. The experience of AA members with longer sobriety is helpful for the nervous and newly sober. The accumulation of ‘sober’ experiences of life grounds and strengthens a person’s sobriety. The oft-related experience in AA meetings of the transition between alcoholic drinking to sobriety ,called sharing one’s story, serves to remind everyone of ‘what it was like’. Hearing it again and again reinforces our commitment to staying sober.


So experience in AA or in life is generally considered to be a good thing. The common wisdom has it that experience is the great teacher. It’s true that it’s enormously helpful   and tends to keeps us from repeating past mistakes. It can take the anxious edge off things like public speaking or flying where the more you do something, the less scary it seems.

But what’s the downside of experience if there is one?


How about the human tendency to assume all our all future experiences of a specific nature will be the same as a previous experience? One of the big examples of this is, of course, falling in love and being hurt and then being reluctant to fall in love again. This trope is the basis of much of romance fiction. Why are we convinced that falling in love with a new woman is going to end up the same way as falling in love with the previous ten or twenty or however many women there were? What do we learn from those experiences? Only that we’re the common denominator. Hello? What’s that tell us?


Then there’s the creeping know- it-all- ism that affects those who’ve been on the planet longer than others. I think another term for it is ‘jaded’. Or we become cynical and dismissive.

Approaching new things in life with a certain amount of caution is probably a good idea. Doing research is an excellent place to start before undertaking something new. Hayley’s good at this. She’s methodical about her search for love. Nothing is going to substitute for actual experience though, no matter how much you think you know. She still has to go through what she goes through. We all still have to do that.

I think it’s harder to be open minded as we get older.   You think you’ve seen it all, but likely you haven’t. You think you can predict with accuracy how you’re going to feel, how you’re going to think. I don’t want to be that way, I want to be surprised and I want to be teachable. Maybe I do know a little something about a lot of stuff. Maybe I’ve seen and done and thing or two. Good for me. But I think there’s a lot more out there waiting for me and a whole lot more to learn. That’s one of the big reason’s I’m a writer.Warm November 300 DPI













Love, Marriage, Commitment and Prop 8


My just- released novel, Forsaking All Others Forsaking All Others 300 DPIis a romance about marriage. Sort of. One of the protagonists is a marriage equality volunteer and the other is a polyamorist, commitment phobic, non -believer in marriage.  Well, I figure opposites are supposed to attract.

Given my obsession with the subject, it seemed inevitable that I would write a novel about marriage equality.  I didn’t want it to be another girl meets girl, love ensues and happily ever after, including marriage. So I picked the story of marriage equality coming briefly to California and then being yanked away by Proposition 8. The roller coaster ride of the spring, summer, and fall of 2008 is the time frame of Sylvia and Jules’s romance.

I also wanted to explore a few of the philosophical ideas around marriage equality.

In July, 2008, my partner and I married as did quite a few people we knew. One couple, our friends Kent and Joe married in October at San Francisco City Hall. At their wedding, we were the witnesses and I gave one of the toasts at their reception. Kent said he wanted their supportive but unknowledgeable relatives to hear just why their wedding was significant. So I gave a little history lesson to those assembled and at the end I talked about how important marriage is as concept and why we need the word ‘marriage’ and all that it signifies.

When you meet THE ONE and you start thinking about the future, you can now in some places think about marriage. Marriage was modeled by our parents and what we were taught, as presumed heterosexuals to expect.  Then when we turned out to be queer, marriage was supposedly off the table.

Not so fast.

In spite of being queer, many of us are conventional; I certainly am. Marriage is the epitome of conventionality.  You hear all the time, “I just want to be treated like other people.” It’s not usually” I want be like other people”. As a lesbian, I am not like a straight person but that doesn’t negate my desire to be treated with respect. Marriage is very much about respect for our relationships.

It’s remarkable that as much as the LGBT community argues and disagrees about so many things, we are relatively united on the idea of marriage. There are, naturally, dissenters but they are few and for the most part not vocal.  I wanted to air some of those opinions if only to try to counteract them. In one scene of the book, there is an argument about the need for marriage and the sexually liberated.  I don’t see marriage and sexual freedom, as embodied, for example, by polyamory as incompatible.

I ‘m not polyamorous but I wanted to treat the idea and practice of it seriously in the novel because as a lesbian, by some people’s definition, I’m a sexual  outlaw and I don’t want to judge other people in the same way.

It’s clear that marriage for gays and lesbians is both exactly like marriage for heterosexuals and completely different.  As I explained to the family members at Kent and Joe’s wedding, this isn’t something we take for granted.  We’ve longed for, thought about and fought for it like crazy for years.

In Forsaking  All Others,Forsaking All Others 300 DPI I look at the concept of choice and what that means.  To choose to commit to someone because you want to and not because it’s the expected thing is an entirely different psychological perspective. To  trust someone in spite of preconceived notions  and/or bad experiences is also a choice and it’s the one we all have to make when confronted with the possibility of love and intimacy.



She Left Her Heart

New Bold Strokes Books author, Kathleen Knowles talks about her love of San Francisco, both now and back in the 1900’s.

KK is Getting Published!

by Kathleen Knowles

It began with a photograph I saw in a museum in the mid 1990s. The photograph was dated 1900 or so and captioned, “Anita McGee with the first members of the Army Nurse Corps.” I remembered thinking, “There’s a story there.” Many years and many romance novel readings later, I started conceptualize the story.

I love San Francisco history so it was natural for me to want to tell a story with the backdrop of my hometown. There was a lot I didn’t know so I spent a lot of time in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area archives looking for information about the Presidio, the Spanish American war, and nurses. I read with books with titles like “The History of Nursing.” There is one thing an historic novelist does NOT want to do is get the details wrong. I am a bit obsessive and one of my long time obsessions is the Palace Hotel.  That gave me the idea to place my other character as a cook in the hotel.

My spouse Jeanette loves the fact that I am writer and I love San Francisco. She gave me books with old pictures of San Francisco, I found the visuals very helpful. One even gave me an idea for a pivotal location in the story- the Cobweb Palace. Yep, sometimes you don’t have to make stuff up; it’s already there.

Around the time I started to research and then to write Awake Unto Me, a couple of things happened in Jeanette’s and my life that greatly aided my writing. First, due to budget cuts, my employer, the state of California began furloughing employees. I was handed eighteen extra days off from 2009-2010. I didn’t have a choice: I had to take the pay cut and the days off. Therefore, those were my writing days. The second thing that happened was we decided to remodel our condo and ended up in a six month legal battle with the homeowners’ association. Writing was an excellent distraction from that mess. I could sit with my laptop in an arm chair in the tiny living room of the apartment where we lived, scatter my research materials around me, turn on classical music and just write for hours while Jeanette was at work. I found classical music a better background for writing than my more typical listening pleasure, rock and roll.

A challenge I found in writing an historical novel was trying to get into the characters’ heads and think as they would, i.e., in a nineteenth century fashion. You can say what you want about the universality of love and human emotions but how that would play out for two women in 1898 San Francisco would just not be the same. They are not hooking up online or even being introduced by mutual friends. They are not going to be going out on dates.  So finding the way to get my two characters in proximity was a puzzle.  I think my solution was simple but effective.

Writing is such a leap of faith, somewhat like falling in love.  You can do the footwork and then you have to just let it go forward in whatever fashion it’s going to go.  Sometimes the results are better than you ever imagined.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 626 other followers

%d bloggers like this: