Article: The First and Last Lives of Jack London

Filed under: Articles,Nonfiction — Administrator at 3:43 pm on Thursday, April 25, 2019


For the fabulous new magazine The Journal of Alta California, I wrote about the mysterious fire that took down Jack London’s mansion in California wine country. Here’s an excerpt of the article:

In 1898, Jack London was trapped in an Alaskan cabin while, outside, winter froze everything to icy stillness. “Nothing stirred,” he wrote later. “The Yukon slept under a coat of ice three feet thick.” London, then 22, had come to Alaska to make his fortune in the gold rush, but all he’d found was a small amount of dust worth $4.50. A diet of bacon, beans, and bread had given him scurvy. His gums bled, his joints ached, and his teeth were loose. London decided that, if he lived, he would no longer try to rise above poverty through physical labor. Instead, he would become a writer. So he carved into the cabin wall the words “Jack London Miner Author Jan 27, 1898.”

In the 1960s, that bit of graffiti helped verify the cabin, and it was divided in two. Half of the cabin remains in the Klondike, and the rest was moved to Jack London Square on the Oakland waterfront, where London grew up. The day I visited the Oakland cabin, the farmers market was going on, and smoke from cooking sausages wafted through the air. The cabin stands in the center of the square, surrounded by palm trees. Drought-resistant grasses cover the living roof like fur—something London, a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, might have appreciated.

Read The First and Last Lives of Jack London.

I’ll also be speaking about Jack London on May 19th in Book Passage in Corte Madera with Jack London scholar Iris Jamahl. I hope you can come!

Essay In Slate: Spotting Liars in YouTube Clips

Filed under: Essays,Nonfiction — Administrator at 3:32 pm on Thursday, April 25, 2019


For Slate, I wrote an essay about how I waste time by spotting liars in clips on YouTube.

It all started with a click on a YouTube talk by former CIA Officer Susan Carnicero. As I watched, riveted, Carnicero went over how to tell whether someone is lying. When asked a question, she explained, a person’s behavior will betray their dishonesty within five seconds. They shake their heads no when making a positive statement or nod yes when denying something. They get angry or display inappropriate levels of concern. They repeat questions or avoid direct answers. They smirk or avert their gaze. Taken alone, these behaviors may indicate other emotions, like anxiety or shyness, but if two or more appear—a cluster, Carnicero called it—then you may have a liar on your hands.

“When you finish this 45 minutes with me, you’re going to know just enough to be dangerous,” Carnicero said. She was right. I gleefully applied my newfound knowledge to dozens of online clips of politicians, murder suspects, and celebrities.

Red The Rest Here.

Article: Ethnic Cleansing in America’s West

Filed under: Articles,Nonfiction — Administrator at 2:22 pm on Friday, February 22, 2019


For Longreads, I uncovered a shocking part of America’s history. In the 1880s, thousands of Chinese-Americans were driven from towns up and down the West Coast. Their neighborhoods were destroyed, their belongings stolen, and their lives threatened. The first incident of anti-Chinese violence started in Eureka, near where I grew up:

… That night, the mob looted Chinatown. Teams went into the countryside to inform Chinese people living there that they too had to leave. When some 60 men fled into the forests, they were tracked down and dragged back to the dock. By morning, gallows had been erected with an effigy hanging from it. A sign read: “Any Chinese Seen on the Street After Three O’clock Today Will Be Hung to This Gallows.”

Read the article here.

The image depicting the Seattle riot against the Chinese, discussed in my article, is from here.

Article: Stephen Bishop Made Mammoth Cave the Must-See Destination It Is Today

Filed under: Articles,Nonfiction — Administrator at 2:14 pm on Friday, February 22, 2019


I have a new article up at the Smithsonian. It’s about Stephen Bishop, a slave who was also one of America’s first cave explorers. He discovered much of Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world.

… Using ropes and a flickering lantern, Bishop traversed the unknown caverns, discovering tunnels, crossing black pits, and sailing on Mammoth’s underground rivers. It was dangerous work. While today much of the cave is lit by electrical lights and cleared of rubble, Bishop faced a complex honeycomb filled with sinkholes, cracks, fissures, boulders, domes and underwater springs. A blown-out lantern meant isolation in profound darkness and silence. With no sensory impute, the threat of becoming permanently lost was very real. Yet it’s hard to overstate Bishop’s influence; some of the branches he explored weren’t found again until modern equipment was invented and the map he made by memory of the cave was used for decades.

Read the rest here.

Essay: The Talking Walls of Angel Island

Filed under: Essays,Nonfiction — Administrator at 11:02 am on Friday, December 21, 2018


I wrote an essay for La Review of Books. It’s about the Chinese poems on the walls of Angel Island Detention Center.

From 1910 to 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station processed 175,000 Chinese immigrants. It was called the “Ellis Island of the West,” but its aims were different. When Ellis Island was operating, only two percent of applicants were turned away. Angel Island was created as part of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and as such, 18 percent of applications were rejected and five percent were deported outright. All were detained on the island for weeks, months, and even years. The longest detention was 756 days.

This spring, when the Trump administration began separating families on the US-Mexico border, Angel Island popped into my mind. The apparent racial bias underlying this policy made me think of this older, racially motivated detainment of immigrants. As in the current crisis, the Chinese immigrants had no control over their situation. Separated by gender and race, they slept in bunkers on thin canvas mats. They were imprisoned for no other reason than they wanted to come to the United States.

While at Angel Island, the Chinese wrote poems on the walls of the detainment center about their situation. I’d been hearing about them for years. There are 200 poems, each a unique documentation of life at the center. In August, I took my six-year-old son on the ferry to see the poems myself.

Read The Talking Walls of Angel Island.

LitHub: My Year of Smoke

Filed under: Essays,Nonfiction — Administrator at 10:48 am on Friday, December 21, 2018


I wrote an essay for Literary Hub. It’s about the California wildfires, Climate Change, and the writing of Frankenstein. Excerpt:

The campground in Oregon is foggy in the morning. The air is soft and clean. I walk out of my van and scrutinize the white feathers of cloud blurring into the branches of fir trees, looking for undertones of brown. My fear is that the smoke has followed us here.

The day before, we drove eight hours to escape the wildfire smoke smothering California. All week I’d been suffering from a strange sickness. First, a wild sore throat fading to congestion. Then I coughed up something green. When I tried to sing, I found myself gasping for air, my ability to modulate sound compromised by weakness in my chest. I walked my son to school and came back with an itching spot in my throat, like a low-level ember that couldn’t be put out, no matter how much water I poured on it.

More here.

Article In The New York Times

Filed under: Articles,Nonfiction — Administrator at 3:55 pm on Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I’m so happy to have my first piece in The New York Times. I retraced Eugene O’Neill’s footsteps around San Francisco, where he raced to complete his best works before he lost his ability to write.

It ran in the travel section, but you can also read it here.



Essay in Ploughshares: Student Debt and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Filed under: Essays,Nonfiction — Administrator at 10:13 am on Friday, October 19, 2018

Betty Smith

I wrote an essay for Ploughshares on Student Debt and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the novel written by Betty Smith. It looks at the difficulty of paying for school, both now, and in Smith’s time. Things have changed, but not enough.

Article in Longreads: Ghost Writer: The Story of Patience Worth, the Posthumous Writer

Filed under: Articles,Nonfiction — Administrator at 10:06 am on Friday, October 19, 2018


I wrote an article for Longreads. Check out Ghost Writer: The Story of Patience Worth, the Posthumous Writer.

One day in 1913, a housewife named Pearl Curran sat down with her friend Emily Grant Hutchings at a Ouija board. Curran’s father had died the year before, and Hutchings was hoping to contact him. While they’d had some success with earlier sessions, Curran had grown tired of the game and had to be coaxed to play. This time, a message came over the board. It said: “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come — Patience Worth my name.”

This moment was the start of a national phenomenon that would turn Curran into a celebrity. Patience Worth, the ghost who’d contacted them, said she was a Puritan who immigrated to America in the late 1600s. Through Curran, she would dictate an astounding 4 million words between 1913 and 1937, including six novels, two poetry collections, several plays, and volumes of witty repartee.

Essay In The Washington Post

Filed under: Essays,Nonfiction — Administrator at 8:18 am on Tuesday, March 20, 2018


I wrote an essay for The Washington Post! It’s about how becoming a mother has made me a better writer. A sample:

Throughout my pregnancy, I weathered comments about how difficult writing would soon become, all while obsessing about how I would juggle caring for a baby and finding time to write.

I shouldn’t have worried. In the five years since my son’s birth, I’ve written two novels, won grants and residencies and broken into many national publications. Before becoming a mother, it took me 10 years to write a novel. I never won grants or residencies pre-birth, because I rarely applied for them and, despite my skills and experience, I was intimidated to approach national magazines. Now I don’t have time for any of that angst because the babysitter is leaving in an hour.

Read I thought having a baby would hurt my career. I was wrong.

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