The World Most of Us Don’t See: A Conversation with Katherine Seligman




I FIRST MET KATHERINE SELIGMAN at The Writers Grotto in San Francisco, a co-working community of authors with a history stretching back 26 years. Her compassion and intelligence immediately impressed me. I knew her then as a veteran journalist who had been a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and whose work had been featured in Life, Redbook, and California Magazine. Several years went by before I learned she was also working on a novel. At the Edge of the Haight was recently released, winning widespread praise for its empathic depiction of one of the most urgent issues facing society today: the surge of homelessness amid rising urban wealth, privilege, and inequity.

Barbara Kingsolver selected Seligman’s debut as the winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, writing:

What a read this is, right from its startling opening scene. But even more than plot, it’s the richly layered details that drive home a lightning bolt of empathy. To read At the Edge of the Haight is to live inside the everyday terror and longings of a world that most of us manage not to see, even if we walk past it on sidewalks every day.

The novel is narrated by 20-year-old Maddy Donaldo, who has fled her chaotic life in Los Angeles and ends up living in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park with her makeshift family and her dog. She thinks she knows how to survive there until she unwittingly walks across the scene of a murder and her life is upended. Suddenly she has to face not only the killer, but also the police and the dead boy’s parents. Pressured to give up her secrets and reunite with her family in Los Angeles, she must decide if she wants to stay lost or be found. 

Though the pandemic forced our conversation to go virtual, I was happy to have the chance to talk with Seligman about her experience writing this novel and what it’s been like to live in Haight-Ashbury for more than two decades as displaced kids, seekers, and drifters have filtered through her neighborhood.

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LAURIE ANN DOYLE: Maddy Donaldo is a fascinating main character, someone who’s vulnerable, tough, and smart in a way that most people don’t notice. How were you able to find her voice? 

KATHERINE SELIGMAN: Over the years, I’ve talked to many kids who were on the street or living in the park. When I started to write this novel, I experimented with telling the story from various points of view, but it was Maddy’s voice that stood out. I wanted to know how she saw her world. Some of it was familiar because I had felt like an unseen kid, but I knew I had a lot of research to do in order to make her voice authentic. I spoke in depth to several young women who had lived in the park, and they generously answered questions about their lives. What stood out, apart from their tumultuous early lives, were the close bonds they formed with other kids. Living outside came with danger, but the kids seemed to see each other as family. These conversations — as well as ones with my own kids, now in their 20s, who offered suggestions on how kids would or would not speak — helped fill in what I imagined. That said, all the characters in the book, including Maddy, are fictional. I used real details from the street and the park, I but didn’t depict anyone’s actual life story.

Talk about the importance of place, especially Golden Gate Park, in this book.

I think of Golden Gate Park as being a character in the book. The park is an entire world. At more than 1,000 acres, it is bigger than New York’s Central Park, initially a sense of pride to the developers, and stretches from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood all the way to the ocean. It has lakes, fields, owls, coyotes, bison, a bowling lawn, windmills, playgrounds, a rose garden, groves of eucalyptus, pine and cypress, two museums, and, mostly hidden, people who live there. No one knows exactly how many, but several years ago, the estimate was more than 300. There are displaced young adults, people following bands or dreams, veterans, groups, and solitaries. I once met a published poet who had lived there 10 years, until he got financial help to move inside. The park can be at once lovely, mysterious, and scary. When the fog blows in from the ocean, you can suddenly feel lost. Is that a coyote, a phantom, or a bush?

What kinds of research did you do in writing this book?

Initially, most of what I knew about the Haight came from living here, reading about its history, and working as a journalist based in the neighborhood. Some also came from volunteering at a family shelter that used to be around the corner from my home and from writing essays and stories about homelessness here and other places, including Sudan, where Life magazine sent me with the remarkable photographer Mary Ellen Mark to write about kids who were living on the streets of Khartoum. But everything I thought I knew changed one night about 10 years ago, when my husband and I were driving through the park, and a man jumped in front of our car, pleading for help and saying someone was trying to kill him. The police arrived and shined a light onto the nearby grass, where we could see a young man taking his last breath. After a limited investigation, they let the killer go because there were no direct witnesses. But I could not get that night out of my mind. In an effort to understand it, I looked up court records and talked to police and to many people who lived on the street or worked with the homeless.

You’ve built quite a successful career as a journalist, reporting not only about homelessness, but also about mental health, education, and urban life. What made you choose to tell this story as fiction rather than nonfiction?

I had written fiction in college and afterward, including at an MFA program I left because I had no idea what I wanted to write. Journalism allowed me to figure that out as I shifted around to various topics and then became a magazine writer. The seed of what became At the Edge of the Haight came from witnessing that murder scene in the park, but I chose to render it as fiction because I wanted to explore the themes that most captivated me: How can we be in such close proximity to people and have no idea who they are? Why did the killer and the victim cross paths? How many people did I pass every day, including those in my own family, who had secret lives? How well can parents know their children? My background as a reporter was helpful. I was used to watching and trying to see things through others’ eyes, and I did much research for the book, interviewing people, digging into court records, spending time wandering the park, and sitting in court and the waiting area of the public hospital’s emergency room. But that only took me so far. I think we start a project, whether it is a novel or nonfiction, with questions we need to answer. I thought I could consider mine more closely as fiction.

What did you learn in writing this particular novel that surprised you?

It is so much work to be homeless. People I met talked about getting roused before 5:00 a.m. by park rangers, starting the day by waiting for sunrise, then working to figure out where to find breakfast, a bathroom, and any kind of respite. Later they would have to go and see if the things they’d stowed in the park were still there and if they could get food and a dry place to sleep. So why don’t they move into shelters or back inside with relatives, friends, or any program that will take them? It’s not that simple. Each person has a different constellation of reasons for being outside. For those who do want to be in shelters, there are long waiting lists. For those who want apartments, there are sky-high rents. Following the pandemic, the shelters closed or strictly limited their numbers, so the wait grew even longer for whatever was available — tent encampments, hotel rooms, or programs with counseling, drug, or mental health treatment.

What did writing a novel unexpectedly teach you about writing fiction in general?

Every step along the way involved a lot of choices. You can make a small decision that will lead the narrative in a different direction, which might work. Or it might lead to rethinking everything. And perhaps the hardest thing I learned is that there is a time to stop. I wanted to keep rewriting but had to accept that I would never get to the point where I felt I was really finished. It may be a universal problem, although I suspect it is worse with a first book. One author friend, who has written both fiction and nonfiction, said he once knew he was finished when he literally threw up on his manuscript. Fortunately, that did not happen to me.

You’ve lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco for more than 25 years now. How did that experience inform the novel?

San Francisco has a rich tapestry of neighborhoods, each with its own history and sense of identity. Haight-Ashbury is one of the best-known areas, a center of the hippie movement that brought a legacy of tolerance. It has been a magnet for drifters, seekers, and people with nowhere else to go. But times have changed. When I first moved in, there were more musicians, teachers, and people who worked in neighborhood shops. The building next door was a squat, occupied by a guy who fixed cars and walked around with his ancient chihuahua under one arm and his various friends, one of whom poured gas down the street and lit it on fire one foggy July 4th because he was upset that he couldn’t see fireworks. Now there are more tech and financial sector workers and young families. The inequality gap is bigger than ever. But what continues to surprise me is how much people get engaged in whatever happens. Three passionate neighborhood associations, all of which would be considered very liberal in just about any other city, argue over what to do. There are renters who resent owners, old hippies who are fed up with people camped out on the pavement in front of their homes, and those who drop off food on the street. There is a stew of feelings over what tolerance actually looks like. But the bottom line is that people care. Over the years, friends have asked why I didn’t move after having a family, and I told them I wanted to live here. This place has become a part of me in a way I could not have expected. 

I was interested to learn that you, like Maddy, grew up in Los Angeles. What role does the L.A. area play in the novel?

Growing up in Los Angeles, I had a sense of how vast it was and, correspondingly, how tiny I was. It seemed like no one was out on the streets in my suburban neighborhood, with its ranch-style houses and small but well-tended gardens. It was easy to feel alone in my family, and my memory of the neighborhood is tinged with that. I wanted to capture the feeling of being unseen for Maddy, as she ditches school and goes to the beach — which I admit to doing a few times. I also wanted to give a sense of how the climate feels, the light, warm dampness of the ocean air, as opposed to the chilling fog blanket that often covers San Francisco.

Many people have strong opinions about homelessness, particularly in California. How did that influence your writing? How has it affected the reception of the book? 

It’s hard to live in one of California’s urban centers and not notice homelessness. The United Nations, in a 2018 report, called the situation in San Francisco a violation of human rights, and that was before the pandemic, which pushed more people onto the street and into unstable housing. But there is a lot of disagreement about how to solve problems leading to homelessness. And I’m sure that affects how people react to the novel. Some feel that the city is throwing money at the problem and getting no results. There was, at one time, a city directive to give “care not cash” to the homeless and then a law forbidding sitting or lying on the sidewalk. Neither of those worked. I didn’t intend this primarily as a political novel but as a look at one character’s life as she tries to navigate life in the park. With San Francisco’s evolution as a place that is unaffordable and with the issue of homelessness at the forefront, it became a novel entrenched in a social justice issue. I’m deeply grateful to Barbara Kingsolver for creating the PEN/Bellwether prize, which has supported work like mine.

What is up next for you, writing-wise?

Like a lot of people, I’ve been distracted by the pandemic and political crisis of the last year. I want to continue writing as a journalist. And gradually, at a snail’s pace, I’ve been revising an earlier novel that takes place in Los Angeles and has different, though social issue–oriented, themes; I’ve written two earlier novels, proving that the first published is often not the first. I also want to work on a project that involves exploring some family history in the South, but I will have to wait until it’s safe to travel. Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, I see myself continuing to bring attention to underexplored stories and issues. I have written about everything from graffiti curators and anti-vaccination communities to people obsessed with choosing the gender of their unborn children. I have profiled writers, politicians, and a woman who lived for years in the restroom of the office building where I worked. What these stories have in common is a sense of discovery, which I hope will persist.

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Laurie Ann Doyle is the author of World Gone Missing, winner of the Nautilus Book Award in Fiction, and recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination for her story “Like Family.” Her latest article “The Hopis of Alcatraz” appears in Alta Journal.

 

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