At The Oaklandside’s most recent Culture Makers event on Sept. 21 at the New Parkway Theater, I had a chance to chat with three local authors whose works are influenced by their deep connection to Oakland.
Dorothy Lazard went from being head librarian of the Oakland Main Library’s History Center to the author of a new memoir; Oaklander Jenny Odell’s books have inspired readers to enjoy time away from their devices and the pressures of capitalism; and Mac Barnett drew inspiration from his childhood in Oakland to become an author of acclaimed children’s books.
Before the event, attendees at the sold-out show relaxed and mingled in the theater to the sounds of our Culture Makers playlist on Spotify, comprised only of Oakland artists. And throughout the evening, in between conversations with the panelists, they enjoyed a live set by our musical guest, the Evie Ladin Band. East Bay Booksellers were on hand selling books ahead of the post-event book signing.
Every Culture Makers event goes by faster than we would like, and we don’t always get to delve deeply into everything we’d like to, including questions submitted by audience members. But in the days since the event, our guests were gracious enough to answer those we couldn’t get to in person, and we’re presenting the below in a Q&A format.
Enjoy, and we hope to see you at our next Culture Makers on Thursday, Dec. 14. More details on that soon.
Questions for all panelists:
What are you reading right now?
Dorothy: Agrodulce (poems) by Luisa Maria Giulianetti; Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times by Azar Nafisi; Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead.
Jenny: I’m reading my dad’s very tattered copy of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (and finding it unexpectedly funny—enough to laugh out loud on the bus).
Mac: Daniel Clowes’s Monica.
What rituals/practices/disciplines/experiments do you engage in to help synthesize your ideas into more fully formed compositions?
Dorothy: I spend a lot of time thinking, taking notes, and gathering supportive details (e.g., quotes, stats, etc.) before writing. I do this throughout the writing process. Reading related works usually helps open me up to new ideas and perspectives. I write very slowly and find I can create much more coherent, interesting, and impactful pieces when I take my time and give myself time to ponder what it is I really want to say. Set my intentions.
I also find that reading my work aloud helps because hearing something that doesn’t ring true logically or that isn’t grammatically correct is much easier to spot when spoken. As far as a ritual goes, I don’t really observe any specific ritual outside of having good light and a bottle of water at my desk. The ritual is to sit your butt in a seat and write!
Jenny: I think of the writing process as being a lot like gardening: you plant the seeds, you water them, you wait, and then you harvest. For me, reading and experiencing art is the equivalent of planting the seeds; having conversations about what I’ve been reading is the watering, going on daily walks is the waiting, and finally, sitting down to write is the harvesting. All of these stages are tied up in one big ongoing ritual for me.
Mac: I’m a pretty undisciplined writer with no real rituals to speak of. For me, the whole process of writing is a mess. It’s embarrassing to experience, let alone talk about.
How do beginnings begin and keep the reader involved? How do you start? And what works for you?
Dorothy: How I start depends on what I’m writing and who I’m hoping to reach. If I’m writing fiction, I might begin with an introduction of a character doing something or saying something to someone that draws the reader in. Or I might begin with a setting if the setting will figure prominently in the story. I don’t worry so much about whether the reader is involved when I write; I am more concerned with whether I’m involved, whether I buy the story I’m telling because if I don’t, how will I get to the end, how will I craft a satisfying story?
How do I start?…by writing one sentence. It might not even be a good sentence. It might not end up being the first sentence, ultimately. But you have to begin somewhere. Then write another sentence, and then another one, and hundreds more after that. What works for me, or any other writer, might not work for you. But you have to be trusting enough in your vision, your voice, and your idea to bring it forward. You craft a process as you make writing a practice, a ritual. Do it every day. And on the days you don’t feel like writing or feel you have nothing to say, write about those feelings.
Jenny: I started Saving Time with the story of a moss that appeared in a planter on my windowsill, something that prompted a meditation on how moss troubles our everyday notions of time. I think it’s important to start with something concrete and relatable, especially if you’re going to move on to more abstract ideas. In this case, I also liked the idea that the moss, itself started by a spore that came in through my window, could function like a spore in the book – something very small that enters and grows into something new.
Mac: There’s no doubt that beginnings are important, but there’s a frenzy for flashy first sentences and “grabby” openings, and often, those things don’t serve the story. People can tell when somebody has something to say, and they listen.
Nostalgia aside, when you talk about loving Oakland, are you talking about all of Oakland? How about the underpasses, the hopelessness?
Dorothy: When I talk about loving Oakland, I’m talking about the Oakland I knew growing up and the Oakland I’ve enjoyed as an adult. I’ve been fortunate to have lived in deep East Oakland when it was thriving, in West Oakland, North Oakland, and the center of town. You can love a place even if it’s troubled, even if it’s struggling. Love can sustain us in troubled times. I think those people who are fighting to improve Oakland’s fortunes are not acting out of hopelessness but hopefulness, out of a belief, a certainty that it can get better. And for people like me who’ve been here for many decades, we know that to be true because that’s been our lived experiences.
Jenny: It is definitely difficult to witness the amount of suffering in Oakland that seems only to have increased in the past years. At the same time, I think it’s important to protect a sense of hope that we can make things better and a sense of responsibility for this place, over and against the narrative that everything is and will always be getting worse. I think that’s true of loving anything: you celebrate everything about it that is flourishing while at the same time feeling concern for everything about it that is at risk.
Mac: Jenny put it beautifully.
Questions for Dorothy Lazard
What is “gogglebox?”
Editor’s note: During the live discussion, Lazard revealed that she enjoys watching the TV show Gogglebox in her spare time, prompting much curiosity and laughter from the audience and her co-panelists.
Gogglebox is something I ran across earlier this year on Facebook. It’s a British program filmed during the height of the pandemic lockdown, where families, couples, and friends were filmed watching and commenting on television programs (game shows, cooking shows, daytime morning shows, mysteries, dance competitions). We’re viewing some of what they’re viewing. I see it as a strange anthropological experiment. Many of the people are from northern England, so I can barely make out what they’re saying sometimes because of their thick accents. You get to see their houses and their viewing rituals (drinks, pillows to hug, pets crawling on their laps). I find it fascinating what touches them, scares them, makes them howl with laughter, or curse at the TV. And every once in a while, I get surprised because I’ll see Tom Jones or Ed Sheeran in their homes with their significant others weighing in on a dance competition or a mystery! The videos (usually about 6 or 7 minutes long) feed my voyeuristic tendencies. When going to the movies was a regular thing for me, I loved watching people watch the movie I was supposed to be watching. It made me feel connected to them in a strange way, all of us enjoying the same thing. And I think that’s the appeal of Gogglebox for me: being apart together.
What was the old Parkway Theatre like? Do you have a favorite memory?
The original Parkway was a traditional 1930s movie palace located on Park Boulevard near East 18th Street. Small but just the right size for the community, I’d imagine. It was a bit worn when I was going there in the 1970s. They had split the theater into two screens, turning the balcony into a separate theater. Do you have a favorite memory? I remember when they were trying to revitalize the Parkway back in the early 2000s, and they converted the place into a lounge space with cozy (and marginally clean) sofas. A married couple, one of whom was a chef at the Faculty Club at Cal, bought the place and offered absolutely delicious bar food, which was quietly delivered to your seat. That service model was cutting-edge at the time, and we had a great time watching movies there. They had really fun game nights and interesting special screenings of documentaries and indie films.
Questions for Jenny Odell
Why are you drawn to the theme of repair?
As someone who has a background in art, I’m interested in repair as a creative process – it’s not quite making something from scratch, but it can involve intervening in something in a way that produces something surprising or new. On a more everyday level, my neighborhood has a lot of repair shops (shoe repair, watch repair, vacuum repair – all of which I have used). I’ve always been inspired by how the arts that they practice are so different from consumerist/throwaway culture. This especially struck me after my residency in 2015 at Recology SF (otherwise known as the dump) and my daily confrontation with the number of easily fixable things that are thrown out. I think there’s something very meaningful and instructive about the relationships we have with things that we’ve committed to maintaining, whether those are objects, places, other individuals, or communities.
What have you learned about yourself in developing your writing process? What would you recommend to those who also want to write a book in your genre?
The main things I have had to learn are trust and patience. When you’re waiting for associations to come together, you really can’t force or rush it; stress and runaway self-criticism only get in the way. For anyone wanting to write a book in this genre, I would recommend diligently keeping track of things that pique your interest, even if you’re not yet sure how it connects to your theme – and then revisiting that pile of references from time to time, since your perspective will change. I would also recommend reading widely and outside of the genre in order to create the biggest space of possibility for yourself.
Does the hyper-local nature of your books resonate with readers outside of Oakland?
Surprisingly, yes. After How to Do Nothing came out, I sometimes would hear from readers who hadn’t been familiar with the concept of bioregionalism and had started to learn about their own ecosystems, watersheds, local history, etc. (Some were even inspired to start walking tours!) Some of the tools I mention, like the app iNaturalist, can be used anywhere. More generally, I think there is an interesting paradox in writing: it’s actually by being very specific that you make something the most relatable. I suspect this is because we each inhabit a world of particulars, even if those particulars are different. In my writing, it’s through close, granular attention to local details that I model a certain type of attention; it’s been really gratifying to hear what readers have noticed once they apply this model to their own contexts.
Will “chronos” completely disappear once someone retires?
Editor’s note: In Jenny Oddell’s new book Saving Time, she examines the meaning of the Greek words “kairos” (timeliness) and “chronos”—the latter of which she describes as “capitalist time.”
Based on conversations I’ve had with retired folks, it does seem true that their time can feel very different and less obviously like money than before. The structure of their time, as well as the way they measure a “successful” use of it, obviously changes. But ultimately, I think it depends on what you do during retirement, especially whether you’re continuing to learn and be surprised (versus becoming very set in your ways and beliefs). For me, kairos is a time of encounter and aliveness, which is not necessarily the default for a lot of us, even if you’re no longer working a paid job. I’m fortunate to have some friends and mentors in their 70s, and I’m continually inspired by how actively engaged they stay with the world and younger people like me.
Questions for Mac Barnett
How did you get Jon Klassen to illustrate your book How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?
I work with Jon a bunch—it’s our eighth book together. Making picture books with him has been one of the great joys of my life.
How are you able to keep such a prolific creative practice? Where do you draw inspiration for your stories?
I don’t know! Every day, I just try to pay attention.
Tell folks about the book festival at Fairyland
It’s really great! Lots of local authors! Yet another reason to visit Fairyland!