Introducing Temporary Shelter: a collection of interwoven stories that I edited and wrote with ten writers in my seminar at the University of San Francisco's MFA in Writing Program.
Below is my introduction to the book, about the process of collectively writing our "story cycle": eleven writers each writing one story set in contemporary San Francisco, with characters and events appearing in multiple stories that crisscross and overlap in all kinds of surprising ways.
Introduction: In Need of Rescue
“…what seemed essential to San Francisco was the fog. The sense of this place where a curtain of fog is pulled over and pulled away and then pulled over...it brings with it a feeling that something different is happening. …It's a city where extreme inquiry has always had a place.”—Jennifer Egan
Tough times lead to tough stories. In 2011, as the writers of this collecton were hard at work, tales of turmoil reached us daily: around the world, protests in the street; in the headlines, further economic collapse. Little earthquakes shook the Bay Area all fall, the planet itself in a state of adjustment.
One night in November, trouble literally arrived at our door. In the middle of class at the University of San Francisco, we heard a bang, then a louder bang and then breaking glass. There on Fulton Street, in full view, a car was upside down, roof on the asphalt, carriage exposed, shattered glass everywhere. A reckless driver had hit a parked car, and the impact flipped his vehicle over. As we went outside to witness, firemen and paramedics arrived on the scene. A man staggered from the wreckage, spitting blood but belligerently refusing the help of responders. That he was intoxicated became clear; whatever else was going on with him, we could only guess.
Life imitates art. This accident came at the exact moment we were discussing our story cycle, the book now in your hands—a collection filled with car crashes and firemen, belligerent drunks and blood on the street. I’m sure I was not the only writer in our group who entertained the magical thought that we had willed this driver and his rescuers to our door—the real San Francisco endorsing our fictional version.
When we, the eleven writers included in Temporary Shelter, began to imagine this project, we found that many of us were drawn to tales of rescue. There were physical rescues—all those firemen, and also children pulled from harm, and drifters dragged in from the cold. There were those in need of emotional rescue—an accident victim in a state of post-traumatic stress, an awkward blind date attempting right itself, an elderly woman recuperating her dignity with an uncharacteristic act of boldness. And there were figures perhaps beyond rescue: a marriage marred by secrets, young men punched bloody, a bird with a broken wing.
Our goal was to create a story cycle, whose pieces could stand alone but were interconnected to suggest a greater whole. Story cycles are usually written by a single author, like Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, which charts the Haitian diaspora through disparate lives linked by one family’s brutal past, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its circle of characters linked to San Francisco’s punk-rock music scene in the late 1970s. We read both of these books, and more, and along the way we created one of our own.
Each story began as an idea—or image, character or event—set in contemporary San Francisco. Each went through multiple drafts, with much sharing of pages and many group discussions aimed at making our stories cohere. Some connections were planned from the start: a startling event in a bar told through the mind of its instigator in one story, appears in another from the point of view of a witness; the couple managing an apartment building near the Panhandle show up in the background of two other stories about the other people living there. Further connections came with revision: a narrator speeding down the freeway notes in passing a roadside accident, featured elsewhere as a central event; the lonely boy who plays his trumpet for money around San Francisco has an encounter with a lonely girl being ignored by her father in Golden Gate Park. What was remarkable to me, the collection’s nominal editor, was how our separate imaginations were drawn to the same themes. As the world shook around us, we seemed most drawn to trouble, to those causing it or those upended by it—characters in need of rescue and shelter.
Our story cycle seems to be asking, Who are we, in the midst of all this trouble, and what do we do about it? Jennifer Egan’s notion of “extreme inquiry” seems right for these tough times, and the authors of the stories in this collection are up to the task. Their renderings of characters in crisis suggest the varieties of action, denial and escape that we embrace when we have no choice but to consider making change. Like all serious fiction, these stories offer points of identification and entry instead of easy answers.
Meanwhile, the fog rolls over San Francisco, and the fog rolls out again, reminding us each time that in the end, all shelter is temporary.
—K.M. Soehnlein, December 2011