For nearly four years, starting in July 2009, I snuck away whenever I could and worked at writing my first novel. Sometimes I'd take my lunch hour, park my city van, sit in the driver's seat, and handwrite a few pages. Or, I'd stop on the way home and park on the side of the street. I tried to write an hour a day, every day. On weekends, I'd go out to the van, shut myself in, and work. The van afforded me privacy. I barely told anyone I was working on a book. The van was my refuge.
At the time I was working as an investigator for the San Francisco Public Defender's office. Our job, as investigators, was to find witnesses and evidence that helped prove that our clients (people who couldn't afford an attorney) were innocent of whatever crime they'd been charged with; if we couldn't find that, we looked for mitigating facts; if we couldn't find that, we'd tell the attorney they were in trouble. We worked on all kinds of crimes: murders, rapes, robberies, kidnappings, gang cases, domestic violence, DUIs, shoplifting. Everything.
The investigators in our unit — there were 12 of us — were given city cars to drive. We had about seven vehicles to share, so we split use of them. There was one van that nobody ever wanted. It was a 1994 Chevy; it was white, rusted, dented, and graffitied; it had probably visited nearly a hundred murder scenes over its lifetime. It became my writing room.
I'd wanted to be a writer since I was a teenager, but always had a hard time finishing what I started. Anytime I'd begin writing, I'd feel good, but then after a few days that feeling would die and be overcome with a feeling of nauseous; then I'd quit. The night before I started working on my book a friend of mine explained to me that those bad feelings were a good sign, and I had to keep working through them. It's a simple lesson, but nobody had ever taught it to me.
I was working on a lot of murder cases in those days: not only shootings, stabbings, stranglings, and stompings — but also skateboard attacks, car attacks, and, in one case, murder by intimidation (our client allegedly chased his girlfriend out of a second floor window). It was an intense job; bodies were burnt, tied up, dumped, covered, and, most often, left on the street. I felt like dealing with murder every day — opening files, looking at pictures, watching videos — was starting to affect my consciousness. Before I fell asleep, I'd see autopsy photos in my mind — dead eyes and naked bodies. I started flinching when people moved fast on the street. People say we read books about murder because we want to bring some kind of order to all the chaos around us: that is certainly why I wrote about it.
I don't want to give the wrong impression, it wasn't all doom and gloom — my colleagues and I spent an inordinate amount of time joking around; you had to practice a kind of gallows humor to survive. We also won a lot of cases — and it feels good to win a case. It feels good to exercise someone's constitutional rights.
I spent hundreds of hours in small interview rooms at the San Francisco County Jail, talking with our clients. The place had grimy walls, it smelled like bad cafeteria food; the lights were bright and fluorescent. The inmates dressed in orange. When they were pulled out to the room, they seemed either amped up, or tired. I was fond of almost all of them. One of my favorite murder defendants — a big-shouldered guy with wide-set eyes — was charged with killing his lover. He enunciated his words like a Shakespearian actor. His mother had worked as a guard in the very jail we were sitting in. Another client looked like Chet Baker. He had gnarled, knobby hands (he was missing a finger or two). He was a little guy, but he had a big jaw. He was covered in tattoos, a Playboy bunny on his neck. He would draw us beautiful pictures of birds and angels. He was also charged with strangling his girlfriend. In my heart of hearts I believe this man was innocent, that the medical examiner screwed up the autopsy. I know we would have won in court, but we never got to find out because right before the preliminary hearing, while he was still in custody, our client died from medical complications.
Finding people was the main thing we did. We drove around and knocked on doors. I say "we," but we did it alone. No partners. On bad days it felt like my job was to go from empty house to empty house, ringing doorbells at each stop. On good days, everybody would be home. I became an expert at interpreting entrée ways, deciphering cobwebs on mailboxes, reading the way the blinds hung. A lawyer in one case asked me to find a man named "John" (not his actual name, but it was an equally common one). John was a homeless black man whose hustle was waving cars into parking spots in the South of Market neighborhood and then hitting the driver up for a tip. That's all the information we had on him, a black man named John, who parks cars in the South of Market. I used to drive around at night — sometimes as late as 2 in the morning — looking for him. I'd see someone waving cars in with a flashlight and I'd walk up to them and explain who I was, and who I was looking for. I must have approached 20 different men. I'd see the same guys over and over. I became friendly with one of them, and he'd jump in the van and help me search. I'd give him $20, here and there, for his time. Eventually, that guy brought me to John.
I chose to write a crime thriller rather than attempt some kind of literary fiction because it felt more like making a punk rock album than chamber music; it seemed more forgiving of technical shortcomings. But I also love thrillers. I think feeling scared reading a book is one of the best feelings you can have. If you get scared enough, you forget your own fears.
Sometimes I found the witnesses I was looking for in hospitals. One man was dying from AIDS and cancer when we met (he died shortly after I spoke with him). I can picture him perfectly. He was lying there in the hospital bed. He had a tracheotomy, and a tube ran into his throat. After introducing myself, I explained why I was there: I wanted to know about our client's relationship with the victim. The man pulled the tube from his throat, plugged the hole with his finger, and in a raspy whisper, said, "It was a Tenderloin relationship."
Most of our cases came from the Tenderloin; in San Francisco, that's where the drugs are. Back then, just a few years ago, before the most recent tech boom, you could walk down Ellis Street on a hot day and see as many as 20 people on a stretch of pavement smoking crack. The place was filled with drugs, filled with mentally ill people, filled with SRO's, liquor stores, porn shops, sex workers — it was filled with hardworking people, immigrants, children, senior citizens, social service centers. The Tenderloin is the heart of the city. It was also my favorite spot to take my lunch hour and write. I'd park on Leavenworth and spend an hour filling three pages. I wanted to imbue the atmosphere. I liked the streets that ran north-south more than east-west — the slant of the hill gave better views. Sometimes the writing came easily, but usually it felt horrible. The self-doubt was a constant struggle, but I learned to write through the nausea. I also learned that even when it feels bad to write for an hour, it feels good to finish — and it certainly feels better than not writing.
The novel I ended up with isn't about public defenders, courts, or investigators; in fact, when my girlfriend finished reading it, she admitted to feeling relief at not finding an aggrandized version of myself in the book. The main character is a drug-addicted woman from the Tenderloin. She's an amalgamation of the numerous people I met. The people I worked with. I also included a pair of dirty cops, because if there was one thing I saw in the nearly 10 years of working in the San Francisco criminal defense world, it was dirty cops. I didn't set out to write a novel with any political or social messages, I just wanted to write a thriller that was set in the Tenderloin. My favorite neighborhood in my favorite city. The place where I learned to park my white van and write.