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The City and the Writer: In San Francisco with Laura Fraser

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of San Francisco as you feel/see it?

It feels like earthquake weather. Those are the suspiciously still, sunny days that come before a big, devastating quake. There’s a lot of optimism and money and talk about new apps and shares and gluten-free pizza. Everything’s shiny on the surface, with pressure building up beneath. Seniors and disabled people are resorting to facing down Google busses when their protests about evictions fall on millennial deaf ears. Artists, teachers, and people working for nonprofits have fled, claiming they like the sun in Oakland better anyway. When people say what San Francisco needs right now is a big earthquake, they aren’t entirely kidding.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Eighteen years ago, my husband had just left me, and I was in Italian class reading a fairy tale in which someone says “Mi hai spaccato il cuore,” which basically means, “you’ve broken my heart.” At the time, I couldn’t imagine going through anything worse. Today, I often pass a homeless woman in my neighborhood who is clearly deranged, from some all-too-common combination of substance abuse, mental illness, and bad circumstances. One day I realized that she had been in that same Italian class with me, learning the subjunctive/conditional—i.e. “If I were homeless, I would . . .” I sometimes say “Buon giorno” to her and give her money, but it doesn’t register. That’s heartbreaking.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

When I walk in Buena Vista Park I like to notice letters and numbers etched into the marble rain gutters. They’re from tombstones that were left behind when San Francisco relocated the cemeteries to the nearby town of Colma after outlawing burials here in 1901. Old tombstones were also used to construct the sea walls at Aquatic Park, in the Marina, and at Ocean Beach. So I’m always looking for pieces of tombstones. It reminds me how permanently impermanent everything is.

Another detail nobody talks about is that for such a diverse and liberal city, San Francisco is incredibly racially segregated.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Peter Orner, Katie Crouch, Molly Antopol, Dave Eggers . . . there’s an incredibly vibrant literary community here, as shown by the huge Litquake festival, which has now been reproduced in other cities.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I walk to the botanical gardens in Golden Gate Park at least twice a week. Something is always in bloom there, including crazy Dr. Seuss plants.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

That would have to be the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a collective of professional freelancers that was started as a place to work if you were a writer but not necessarily a hermit. Ethan Canin, Ethan Watters, and Po Bronson founded the place in an old Victorian house, and it is now in its fourth location. We are celebrating our twenty-second anniversary this year; I’ve been with the Grotto for about eighteen of those years. It’s an incredibly lively place to eat lunch, or take a class.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own charms and stereotypes. It’s amazing how culturally different, say, the Marina is from the Lower Haight; it’s Lululemon vs. thrift store. You can see it in the demographics of the different bus lines. I live in the Haight-Ashbury. If I take the Haight Street bus downtown, it will be filled with crazy people—benign, but crazy. If I take the N-Judah train three blocks up the street, it’s all professionals and techies going to work. Wendy MacNaughton’s Meanwhile in San Francisco is a wonderful work of graphic journalism about the diversity of neighborhoods in San Francisco.


Where does passion live here?

At a literary reading in an old mattress factory. At a Latin Grooves dance class in the Mission. In the bottarga spaghetti at a restaurant I won’t name because it’s already too hard to get in. At the farmers’ market. At a supervisor’s meeting over Airbnb. Wherever people are struggling to express themselves in a city that is making it more and more difficult to do anything but make money.


What is the title of one of your works about San Francisco and what inspired it exactly?

In An Italian Affair, I wrote a chapter about being fed up with San Francisco during the first dot-com boom. My French lover came to visit me in San Francisco and I saw it again through his eyes, and fell in love with it again.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside San Francisco does an outside exist?”

Quite literally, one of the most amazing things about San Francisco is that I can ride my bicycle over the Golden Gate Bridge to a place that is so remote I can see a bobcat. The proximity of the outdoors is one of the things that makes it so hard to imagine living anywhere but San Francisco. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. If I get evicted from my rent-controlled apartment, as is happening to so many people, I will have to develop more imagination, fast.


Laura Fraser is the New York Times-bestselling author of the memoirs An Italian Affair and All Over the Map, as well as Losing It, an exposé of the diet industry. She has written for many publications, including the New York Times,, Afar, Mother Jones, Gourmet, Vogue, and O, The Oprah Magazine

Published Jan 23, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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