Laurie Ann Doyle came to writing after she had already had an 18-year-long career as a health educator at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. About 11 years ago, Doyle, who lives in Berkeley, could no longer shut out her “closet poet.” So she left Kaiser while she was in her mid-40s to explore the love of words she had had since high school.
The result is World Gone Missing, a collection of linked stories that award-winning author Peter Orner called “a gorgeous debut.” Doyle will be talking about her work Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. Berkeleyside recently caught up with her.
Tell me about your family’s history in Berkeley. Why do you live here? What are favorite parts of the city? Least favorite parts?
My parents met at UC Berkeley when my grandmother and mother were living in a house on Webster Street that was later sold and pulled down to make way for the parking lot behind the Elmwood Post Office. My father’s job took our family to Southern California and Connecticut. But we returned to the Bay Area frequently and one of my earliest memories is visiting the Cal campus, toddling around the fountain in Sproul Plaza and oohing and aahing at the sparkly rocks on display in Hearst Mining Building, where my father had studied geology.
We’re a three-generation Cal family: my parents, my sister, myself, and a nephew all studied there. After graduating, I tried living in the Southwest and New England before I returned to Berkeley for good in 1988. This May will mark my 30th year as a Berkeley resident. In 1995, my husband and I bought a brown shingle in the Elmwood neighborhood, serendipitously located just blocks from where my mother and grandmother once lived.
I love Berkeley. It’s a place with a small-town feel, but one with all the resources a metropolis has to offer. We have the best food, libraries, and views around. An amazing group of writers and artists have settled here. I wrote much of World Gone Missing in the Doe Library, as well as in Espresso Roma on the corner of College and Ashby.
You had an unusual path to publication. Is it true that you fell in love with the short story form after you read Alice Munro’s The Moons of Juniper and decided to make writing your career? What happened?
Yes! I still have that copy of The Moons of Juniper, which my friend finally gave me after I failed to return it after so many years. Alice Munro was the first short-storyist who entranced me, but many came after her: Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, Grace Paley, to name just a few. I’d always been an avid reader, but at some point, I thought, why not try my hand at writing a short story myself?
I was then in my 40s, in the midst of a more-than-full-time career in healthcare, and a mother. But writing wouldn’t stop calling me; I’d been a closet poet since high school. I wondered, if I don’t become a serious writer now, then when would I? The thought of going to my grave without having at least tried began to haunt me. Finally, I threw caution to the wind, left my job at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, and sent myself to grad school to get an MFA. Immersing myself in the world of writing — a world that stretches back thousands of years to Aristotle and before — has been both exhilarating and terrifying. I still have much to learn. But becoming a writer was one of the best decisions I’ve made, and my husband has been nothing but supportive. I’m living proof that if you pursue your dreams, good things follow.
Can you describe the process of writing World Gone Missing? How long did it take you to write the 12 stories?
Writing World Gone Missing took me a decade. During that time, I was also transitioning out of healthcare, working part-time, and raising a son. As importantly, I was developing the intellectual and artistic autonomy that every writer needs to write the best words in the best way they can. The book formed slowly, like a Polaroid photograph coming into focus. Over that decade, I also started and put aside a novel, began a story collection based in the Arizona high desert, and penned several short memoir pieces and essays. But time and time again I kept returning to the fledging group of stories that ultimately became World Gone Missing. The book is a collection of 12 pieces all set in the Bay Area and linked by the overarching theme that people don’t become fully visible until they disappear. It’s an odd and interesting conundrum.
But I didn’t realize that I had a book-length work until I was about five or six stories in. The first story I wrote for the collection, “Voices,” was initially drafted in grad school. The last story, “Lilacs and Formaldehyde,” was finished this spring, after I’d decided the collection needed a bit of magical realism.
What drove much of World Gone Missing were memories of places in the Bay Area that rose in my brain when I least expected them: the historic carousel in Golden Gate Park where my grandmother loved to take us, the Victory Statue in the center of Union Square, the pastel-colored homes across from Highland Hospital, and the smashed shop windows on Telegraph Avenue that I saw one October morning after I first arrived at Cal. All these details showed up in World Gone Missing.
For me, setting is not merely ornamentation, but a critical part of shaping the narrative. The physical world of the story reveals character; of course, the individual who sees and smells and hears reveals much of who they are. But setting also helps me develop the characters. For example, in the World Gone Missing story “Like Family,” when the main character Casey first sees Mount Konocti across Clear Lake, the way she perceives the mountain’s massive bulk let me know how frightened and lost she feels at that moment. Creating the world of the story and the characters that inhabit it go hand in hand for me.
Your story “Ask for Hateman,” features a real-life person who abandoned a career at the New York Times and eventually was a leader in People’s Park. He died this year. The story shows his long-lost daughter coming from Ohio to find him. How did you get this idea? Did you spend time in the park watching Hate Man and others? Why did you want to write about this slice of Berkeley?
I arrived at Cal just six months after James Rector was shot in the struggle to create People’s Park and the place has always fascinated me. Those 2.8 acres started out as a socialist dream, a green oasis for anyone and everyone. The park’s character has shifted over the decades, but that’s equally fascinating. I’d often pass by, walking at first to classes at Cal, and later to teaching writing on campus. Sometimes I’d see Hate Man animatedly talking in his corner of the park, or strolling through Sproul Plaza. His eyes were bright and his gaze deliberate. He always wore one black shoe and one white shoe.
As articles about Hate Man appeared locally, and even The New York Times (written by a former Times colleague), my curiosity grew. I learned Hate Man had voluntarily chosen homelessness, and that he had a daughter from whom he was estranged. I began to imagine what might happen if she traveled across the country to meet him after decades had passed. What would have transpired between the two of them? This had never been touched on in any of the articles. As my ideas for the story grew, I did go to People’s Park to talk with Hate Man. I found him, as many had before me, amazingly likable, highly intelligent and very open. And yes, he wouldn’t let our conversation start until we exchanged “I hate you’s.”
HateMan was an excellent storyteller. Among other things, he regaled me with the tale of how he’d recently been kidnapped and driven to the edge of Land’s End by a woman who was certain the world was about to explode. (Hate Man later returned unharmed to the park.) Liking the man as much I did, it took an extra creative effort to realize that, while Hate Man may have been an important force in People’s Park, he wasn’t the best father. The story “Ask for Hateman” belongs to its main character and his daughter Toni, not me. My job was to tell her truth. After realizing that, the piece came more easily and I finished it a couple years before Hate Man passed away.
You are a member of the Writers Grotto in San Francisco. You teach writing at UC Extension. You co-founded a literary reading series called Babylon Salon. Why is having a writing community, and creating avenues for writers to showcase their work, important to you? People always assume writers are competitive and jealous. Have you found that to be the case?
Writing — creating a world for your story and the people who live within it — is necessarily done in isolation. But everything else about writing — publishing, publicizing your work, getting those initial sparks and ideas — is greatly facilitated when you have a writing community. After receiving my MFA from the University of San Francisco, four friends and I started Babylon Salon — a free, quarterly literary reading series now celebrating its tenth yea — to keep the community going that we’d built in grad school. Over the past decade, we’ve been lucky enough to feature some of the best writers from across the country, including Daniel Alarcon, Karen Joy Fowler, D.A. Powell and Ayelet Waldman. I’ve gotten so much pleasure and inspiration from hearing Babylon’s authors share their work, often well before it’s in print.
In 2014, I joined the San Francisco Writers Grotto. The Grotto has given me a quiet space to work, camaraderie, and support when I most needed them, and critical information about presses, agents, editors, and submission opportunities. Being a Grotto member made finishing and finding a publisher for World Gone Missing much easier than it might have been otherwise. After a morning of writing, many of us emerge from our offices to have lunch together in the central conference room. Some Grotto members have formed writing critique groups; a group of us just started a podcast called GrottoPod: Writers on Writing. The Grotto also boasts of having the best parties around. We recently celebrated six new books by Grotto authors, World Gone Missing among them.
I admit to sometimes feeling jealous about other writers’ accomplishments, but ultimately I believe “a rising tide lifts all boats.” One writer’s success is a success for us all. Our society allocates so few resources to artists. Rather than fighting over scraps, I believe we’re better served by advocating for a bigger, more vibrant share. Writing communities are the perfect place to make that happen.
What is it about missing people and missed connections that interest you?
The truth is I didn’t pick this theme as much as it picked me. Before I even had a thought of a book in my brain, a family member went missing. Twenty-one years later, sadly he still hasn’t reappeared. Though the opening story in World Gone Missing — “Bigger Than Life” — has a similar through-line, I completely fictionalized the characters and specific plot points. What remains true to life is the feeling you get when a loved one seems to vanish into thin air. The best way I can describe it is a sinking, helpless sensation, with no resolution in sight. As the years wore on, I began to see this relative in new ways. I appreciated his subtle kindnesses and sharp wit, along with his sometimes cloying, irrational nature. Though I’m not sure this would have changed anything, I wish I’d been more compassionate.
As I finished this story and embarked on others, I realized that losing a loved one can bring up many conflicted feelings, and conflict is at the heart of fiction. Sometimes a person’s absence can free up a character to do things they’d never done before, wonderful things. Sometimes they find it next to impossible to move on. This realization spurred me on; I saw both the loss and liberation that absence can trigger, though I had to get a chunk of stories written before that unifying theme floated up.
Do you think you will stick to writing short stories or will you write a novel?
I’ve started several flash-fiction pieces that I’m excited to finish up after the World Gone Missing book tour is over. I’ve also begun a novel, which takes place (of course) in Northern California. Though I don’t want to give too much away, it continues my emphasis on characters that are missing from the present action, as well as illuminates the intimate connection between people and place, whether it’s a shadowy forest, an immense lake, or simply a rain-dappled stretch of sidewalk. Details of the physical world in fiction always deliciously pull me forward.
Doyle will be in conversation with fellow author Alia Volz on Wednesday at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.