Noe Valley Voice May 1997

Hanging Out in the `Nabe' with Writer Cyra McFadden

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Like most writers, ever since she was old enough to put pen to paper, Cyra McFadden has been writing one thing or another -- from essays and freelance articles to short fiction and books. But unlike most writers, she's actually been able to make a living from her writing.

First there was The Serial, a wry look at life in Marin County during the 1970s -- fern bars, hot tubs, bed-hopping, and all. Published in 1977, the book not only put Marin on the map, but became a nationwide bestseller. Then in 1986 came Rain or Shine, a critically hailed memoir about her relationship with her larger-than-life parents, vaudeville dancer Pat Montgomery and the "Dean of Rodeo Announcers" Cy Taillon.

From 1985 to 1991, McFadden wrote a weekly column for the San Francisco Examiner, in which she tackled everything from gun control to jet lag to why the newspaper is wrapped in plastic only on days it doesn't rain. Since then, she has freelanced for the Nation, Newsweek, the New York Times, and other national publications.

Given the profusion of work and her great success, one can't help but be surprised when McFadden, between sips of a latt with low-fat milk, confesses that she hates to write.

"Writing is slow, laborious, and not as much fun as cleaning and plucking chickens," she laughs. "Or having a root canal."

It is midmorning on a warm St. Pat-rick's Day, and we have walked to 24th Street from McFadden's home at Church and 23rd in search of a quiet place to talk -- away from the pounding of hammers on a neighbor's roof and the high-pitched whistling that emanates from the new Breda streetcars which pass in front of McFadden's home. These "eighty-thousand-pound tea kettles," as she calls them, are her current pet peeve.

"It's just about the only thing that I find really difficult about living in Noe Valley these days," she says. "I was away in January and came back and could not believe the Muni was going to inflict these things on us despite the noise.... I really find the front part of my house unlivable when those cars are on the run."

McFadden is dressed writerly-casual in black leggings and a blue work shirt, her hair still as closely cropped as in the days when her picture graced the slot above her Examiner column. We take a table in the almost-empty patio at Savor, and as soon as we sit down, McFadden starts chatting away. There's an equal dose of humor and seriousness in most everything she says.

"I turned 59 in December, and I'm always looking at my middle-aged life and saying, Why did I ever embark on this profession when it's excruciatingly hard work for me and I don't really enjoy it? I'm one of those people who loves having written, but I have never written anything that I didn't want to go back and revise, and that I didn't think needed to be a whole lot better than it was before it went into print."

She admits that her perfectionist tendencies have driven more than one editor a little bit nuts. "I drive editors cra-a-a-zy. They're patient up to a point, and then they start mumbling about people named Nunzio who do kneecaps!"

McFadden has spent almost a decade working on a new novel, but it is still in draft form. A couple of years ago, she finished 200 pages, then decided to ditch them and start over.

"I think my writing group could recite my book word for word, because I'm constantly reworking and revising it. Every time we meet, they sigh heavily and listen to the latest version of the same two chapters."

Maybe that's why she calls this new novel her "work-in-no-progress." (Tremors was the working title, but she's planning to change it.) "Slow though I am, I write one book every 10 years whether the world is ready or not," she adds.

This one is supposed to be a comic nov- el, "at least I hope it is. It's set in San Francisco and is essentially about urban life."

Since she ran much too far behind deadline for Rain or Shine and "became desperate about being so slow," she has passed up publishers' offers of a contract for the new book.

"That may have been foolish," she acknowledges. "I keep reading how much tighter the book market is getting, and I have no reason to be absolutely sure that I can sell this book. But I became so paralyzed in the writing of Rain or Shine, I decided I never wanted to sell a book-in-progress again. I want to hand over a completed manuscript, even if I need to then rewrite and edit according to a publisher's specifications."

McFadden is also wary of writing "the same book over and over again" -- a problem that has plagued many other authors who have achieved bestsellerdom on their first attempt.

"I consider myself primarily a humorist, and I'm happy to have that designation," she says, "but I didn't want to be pigeonholed forever, and I didn't want to write son of The Serial and nephew of The Serial and grandson of The Serial and great-grandson of The Serial, although I probably would be a lot richer if I had. Still, I'd be bored to tears....

"I've had such a fluky writing career, because I sort of sidled accidentally into a [first] book that became a bestseller.... Let's just say that I skimmed the cream off the top at the beginning, and it's been back to reality since then."

When Rain or Shine came out in 1986, she notes, "I had all these wonderful reviews for which I'd like to hire a stone carver, but the book didn't really sell much. My joke about it was, `Oh, I want to be buried with these reviews,' and within about a month I was!

"Because I'd written The Serial, people lined up at readings and asked, `Is it as funny as the last one?' and I had to say, "No, it isn't. It's a different sort of book."

In a glowing review of Rain or Shine for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that "purged of sentimentality and self-justification, her reminiscence possesses all the immediacy of good journalism, all the nuances and emotional colors of fine fiction."

But literary memoirs weren't so fashionable then.

"With my usual exquisite sense of timing, I seem to have anticipated the wave of memoirs by several years," jokes McFad-den. "Suddenly, there are not only a spate of memoirs, but a great many books about the father-daughter relationship. I think my book would have received much more attention had it been published today."

Although currently out of print, Rain or Shine is still available in used bookstores. In addition, the University of Nebraska Press plans to reissue it sometime next year.

So what are her thoughts on the surge of memoirs being rushed to bookstores today?

"I think there are memoirs and then there are memoirs," she says. "Mary Karr's book The Liars' Club was an absolute delight. And the ones that are badly written, or only written to make a buck, they're in another category.

"But I think the critics' worrying that memoirs are somehow going to overtake novels is nonsense. They are very separate genres. I wanted to write Rain or Shine as a novel when I proposed it all those years ago, and the publisher pointed out to me, rightly I think, that my parents were such unlikely characters, and some of the events in the book were so flamboyant, that even though they were real, I would have had the problem of writing plausible fiction. Not all material lends itself to fiction."

In 1985, as Rain or Shine was about to go to press, McFadden moved to Noe Valley and into her new job as a columnist for the Examiner. At the time, the neighborhood -- or "nabe," as she calls it -- reminded her "of Mill Valley in the early '60s. There was a feeling of neighborhood here that I loved about Marin then....

"When I moved here, there were empty storefronts all up and down 24th Street, and it was a lot less prosperous and a lot funkier," she says. "I'm glad to see the street flourishing. On the other hand, of course, there's the traffic and congestion and no parking.

"There's also a little too much `we got ours,' particularly with the Sanchez Hilltop issue and the handicapped-access ramps [for the J-Church line]. That reminds me very much of Mill Valley.

"I was particularly concerned about the handicapped issue. My late husband was in a wheelchair, so I know from personal experience how incredibly difficult it is for anyone who's disabled to navigate in a major city. The not-in-my-back-yard stuff is understandable in the sense that the local merchants, with good reason, are worried about parking, which becomes more and more of a problem here. And yet if it comes down to whose interests absolutely have to be served, I'm obviously on the side of the handicapped."

But her biggest source of annoyance is still the new Breda streetcars. She has joined other neighbors in writing letters and attending Public Transportation Com- mission meetings to voice their concerns.

"Because acoustics are so peculiar, people a block away don't realize how invasive these things are. They look great, and the ride is so much smoother. But they're often followed by all the dogs howling because it hurts their ears. It's not so much the volume of the noise, but the piercing, high-pitched sound. It goes right down your spinal cord and into your molars."

That doesn't mean her allegiance to the neighborhood has waned. "It's a great `nabe'," she says. "What I like best is that I can do almost everything that I need to do in the normal course of a week on foot."

She doesn't need any coaxing to rattle off a litany of the Noe Valley shops and restaurants she patronizes.

"Jim Carroll's bookstore is just about my very favorite place," she says. "And I'm very fond of all the secondhand clothing stores, because I'm a scrounger. I'm a fan of the sidewalk sales as well. I virtually furnished my house from them over the years."

As for restaurants, Swatdee and Bacco are high on her list. But she doesn't eat out much these days.

"I wrote about food and wine for the Examiner, and I got to the point where the sight of a menu with five courses and six wines made me burst into tears. I knew I'd had enough. In fact, I wrote a column once about how all I wanted to eat in the entire world was one poached egg and a piece of whole wheat toast."

By now, an hour has passed, and it's time for one last question. McFadden, who is single and has two grown children -- a daughter who lives in Mill Valley and a son who lives in Montana -- turns 60 this year. Is this going to be one of those monumental birthdays?

"Oh-h-h yes," she says. "I keep thinking there's some mistake in the records bureau, that it's absolutely impossible. On the other hand, I've outlived enough friends--and one dearly loved husband-- to know that I don't mind getting older. Every birthday I remind myself to consider the alternative.

"And I like my life a great deal at this point. It's very satisfying. I like being autonomous and marginally self-supporting. It's just a nice time for me."