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Karen Allen in Control of Her First Novel
Her Protagonist Is a Noe Valley 20-Something
By Maire Farrington
As an undergraduate at Stanford University in the early 1980s, Noe Valley resident Karen Allen majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing. But it wasn't until seven years ago that she started writing seriously.
That's when she began her first novel, Pearl City Control Theory. Set in San Francisco, the novel features a young woman "who is an expert at statistical control at work and has great plans for revolutionizing the department she manages," Allen says. "But when it comes to her own life, the more she tries for control, the more things go awry."
Sara, the main character, is an avid walker. "One of her favorite things to do to clear her head is walk around San Francisco, especially the hilly blocks of Noe Valley where she lives." She is also the manager of the hand lotion division at a large product manufacturing firm.
Allen, 38, holds a master's degree in industrial engineering. She spent several years working for companies such as Kellogg's and Procter & Gamble (she managed the Crest Toothpaste department).
She clearly drew upon her work experience while developing her novel. "I had this manufacturing hierarchical corporate experience, and that was fun to write about in a satirical kind of way," she says.
Allen has also volunteered at a domestic violence shelter -- another vocation she shares with her lead character.
"One thing they talked about [at the shelter] is how men use power and control to dominate women in a variety of different ways -- they isolate them so they can't see any of their friends, they control their finances, and they make them feel worthless," Allen explains. "It's this whole control structure that [the staff] try to help the women understand."
Sara learns about this "control theory" at the shelter, and relates it to her own work and personal relationships. "Her training is to keep everything tight and structured," Allen says.
But Sara's world starts spinning when her husband decides to attend law school on the East Coast, her sister reveals she's having an affair, and she herself meets an intriguing new man.
Soon she discovers that "when human beings control each other, it's usually destructive -- you can't use the same ideas for control in human relationships," Allen says. "Sara learns that you have to let things go out of control in a way, in order to really experience life."
Allen's ties to Noe Valley go back to childhood, when she lived on Douglass Street and attended Alvarado School for kindergarten and first grade before her family moved to Seattle. In 1979, Allen returned to the Bay Area to attend Stanford University. At school, she met her future husband, Peter Stamats. The couple lived on Church Street near Hancock from 1985 to 1987, and then moved to Iowa City, Iowa, for 61/2 years. It was there that Allen began writing her novel.
"When I lived in Iowa City, I was so homesick," she says. "I would come back to Noe Valley, and I would just walk around the hills and see the light. I missed it, especially in the winter, because in Iowa it was very gray and cold. It felt so good to set the novel here because I could put my brain here."
Allen remembers the Noe Valley of her youth as being "very quiet, with not as many cars. Now it's much more bustling," she says. "You know you can walk down the street here and look at people and it's just fascinating. And you can walk up Castro and it's just extraordinary, it's wild."
In 1994 she returned to her beloved neighborhood, living for a short time on Liberty Street before she and Peter found their current home on Castro near Hill Street. Allen has since written a second novel and is at work on a third, to be called Spanish Lessons. "It's about a woman who also lives in Noe Valley or the Mission...in my mind I put her on Fair Oaks Street," she says. "This book is more of an adventure novel because the woman gets kidnapped."
Allen juggles her writing schedule with raising three children: Spencer, 9; Veronica, 6; and Abigail, 2 (a former "More Mouths" feature).
"When I first started writing, I set a goal of three hours a day," she says. "Then all of a sudden something clicked, and I was writing 10 hours a day. I was so into it. I fell in love with writing. That's why it got written so quickly. I was working at Procter & Gamble in a very structured job, and so this was like the floodgates let loose. I haven't been quite as prolific since then. With each child, as they're born, I get less and less time to write. So my writing is mostly in the morning now."
Allen self-published Pearl City Control Theory, which was released in July 1999. "I did the whole agent route and got a million rejections," Allen relates. "Mostly, agents said they liked my writing but they lacked sufficient enthusiasm for my project. I think it basically meant that they were never going to make a lot of money off my book. That's the driving force is these days. So I said, 'Well, I can have sufficient enthusiasm for my project.'"
Would she advise others to self-publish? "It's not easy," she admits. "It's certainly nice if someone else publishes the work. It's a lot of work, but it's very satisfying in a way to have a finished product. A goal is to have people read it, and it's certainly the easiest way, when it's in book form.
"But part of it was fun," she continues. "I could do the cover the way I wanted it, whereas most times you lose control over what the cover is going to look like if it goes off to a publisher." Allen did the cover sketch, and her sister-in-law Anne Stamats, a graphic artist, did the background art, layout, and design.
In the meantime, Allen is working on distribution and has done a book signing at Cover to Cover Booksellers on 24th Street. Her book is also available on Amazon.com, or you can check out a copy at the Noe Valley Library.
And Allen has kept ties with friends in Iowa City, where a local bookstore carries her novel. "It's a comic novel," she says. "It's fun to read. I had a lot of friends in Iowa City read it, and people who don't know California say, 'Oh, I really want to visit Noe Valley.'"
Excerpt from Karen Allen's
Pearl City Control Theory
I started walking, what I call City Buddha mind walking, the summer before Mark left for Georgetown. The day he left I woke up early, Mark's arm heavy across me. I rolled out from under it, quietly threw on some clothes and slipped outside into the fragile San Francisco dawn.
City Buddhamind walking always took a few blocks to get going, to drop into the rhythm, to absorb the mood of the light and weather. Stepping out the door, I would plan my course, visualize the terrain, then I'd head towards a good-sized hill to get my blood moving. Somewhere near the top of it, I would find my pace for the day, I'd hit my stride. And then I could think.
San Francisco has amazing light. Mark said he never thought my love affair with the city would last so long -- for someone who prided herself in being practical and logical, couldn't I see that a city is just concrete and asphalt and throngs of people hassled from living so close together? But on a clear day in San Francisco the sunlight dazzles, etching color and form with a clarity so keen it stings the retina. Then as afternoon darkens to evening, clouds roll in and tuck the city in under an opalescent blanket of pearl. For better or worse, I knew I belonged on this troubled tip of peninsula and nowhere else.
That summer before Mark left, our impending separation circled above our heads like a buzzard. In August it descended with a quick swoop and found me on the crest of Sanchez Street hugging my arms against the morning chill. The air was misty, the sky a lilac rose, the porcelain city spread in front of me. He's really going, I told myself. With a sharp stab the process of flesh eating and bone pecking had begun.
Reprinted from Pearl City Control Theory (Cabbages and Kings Press, San Francisco, 1999).