Locally-based author Martha Conway at the Woman’s National Book Association panel which presented three other authors that evening at Bookshop West Portal: Carole Bumpus, Lisa Alpine and moderator for the evening, Elise Frances Miller. Photo: Jay Miller

Local Author Martha Conway

Fall has been an exciting time for local author Martha Conway. This past Oct. 29, she appeared at BookShop West Portal in a panel sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association. She read an excerpt from her novel Thieving Forest which now has gone to audio format. “It was pretty nice,” she said. “After the audiobook company contacted me; the whole process was very easy, from negotiation to production. They move fast!”

Thieving Forest is her second novel, and so far it has sold 13,000 copies and counting. “That’s including ebook, paperback, and hardcover combined; and I am happy about that,” she said. Her first novel 12 Bliss Street was a contemporary satirical crime mystery, set in San Francisco. “It barely sold 2,000 copies,” she said. But despite the modest amount of book sales, 12 Bliss Streetreceived accolades and recognition. When Conway wrote her first novel over a decade ago, she was experiencing life in the work-a-day world of one of the most popular cities in America. San Francisco at that time was going through the beginnings of a major transition, the dot-com boom. Now married with children and very ‘settled down’ so to speak, Thieving Forest emerged from the depths of her imagination and is set in the place where she grew up - Ohio.“I wanted to write something with a broader scope than 12 Bliss Street, she said. As she made steps to explore and research she stumbled upon references to the ‘Great Black Swamp’ in Ohio. This intrigued her because as she said, “I grew up in Ohio and I never even heard of it before. So, I was hooked, I had to find out.”

I was fascinated about what people must have done to survive. A lot of very different cultures lived side by side in that part of Ohio. It was truly multi-cultural.”

Her research lead to the almost forgotten early history of the Ohio territory when native tribes and white settlers often clashed. The Great Black Swamp covered over 1,500 square miles stretching across three states from Indiana, through Ohio to Lake Erie in Michigan. It is hard to think of the Ohio of today with cities like Toledo and Bowling Green. Those were constructed out of a vast wetland. Portions of it still exist but, as to what it had been, is literally all covered up by modern life. As Conway jotted down ideas she knew she was on to something. “I did not want to get caught up with the Civil War era, that would have lead me down a very complicated path.” Yet, as I began to ponder those earlier pioneer days, I was fascinated about what people must have done to survive. A lot of very different cultures lived side by side in that part of Ohio. It was truly multi-cultural.”

Thieving Forest has recognizable elements that many readers would know, such as The Little House On The Prairie aspect. But unlike the Laura Ingall’s story of a family of sisters growing up together in a rural setting, Thieving Forest is very gutsy and heart-wrenching. It’s realism is very much a novel for grown ups. The novel has received several honors, among them the North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. As the book continues to gain fans, a movie might not be too far off. Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based author is busy promoting her books, leading workshops, such as one of the workshops in Stanford University’s “One Day M.F.A,” program, and raising a family.

Jonathan Farrell is a local free lance reporter. Feedback: jonathan@westsideobserver.com

December 2015


Dr. David Watts: A New SF Based Mystery!

It isn’t often that you get a page turner that will tempt you to keep reading even while sitting in traffic—not since Shogun first came out.

If you like to read mysteries (and who doesn’t?), local writer Dr. David Watts has so succeeded in his first venture in the medical mystery genre, it makes you want him to write a sequel right now and get them both on screen as soon as possible. The Lucifer Connection is set in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love. And suddenly there’s a murder so ingenious it just looks like an unfortunate outcome of a common malady. And that’s how Jack Barnasone, an unsuspecting doctor, gets caught in a web of evil that threatens to take him down before he can solve the mystery.

I moved from poetry (which I still consider my epicenter in the writing world) to radio commentary, to short stories, to essays (which I never in this world thought I would write), and then finally to a novel.”

Protagonist Barnasone makes use of Watts’ own medical background with all the truth and wisdom of that experience. The Lucifer Connection is not just historically accurate, but rich in poetic detail that takes the reader back to the era without sticky nostalgia as it twists and turns like the best scenes in a great noir film. It’s such a blast to know the streets Watts describes in rich visceral detail, and walk down them with the variety of strongly drawn characters that you are hoping and wondering will escape their dangerous challenges. In the interview below Dr. Watts talks about the writing of the novel and other life experiences.

LAF: What inspired you to write this novel?

David Watts: I had a little chunk of time in an impossible schedule one August and I decided if I ever was going to write a novel it would be now. I asked myself what would excite me most and came up with 1. A mystery novel, 2. San Francisco, 3. The Summer of Love and 4. an outside the box, renegade doctor who gets caught up in a web of evil and has to work his way out. It had all the elements I love most and, I thought, might be appealing to a wide audience. I pictured it mentally as a visual experience filled with images that would be suitable for the big screen just in case it was successful enough. After I finished the first draft in a six-week all-out effort, I just couldn’t stop tinkering. I knew there was a pretty good story hidden in there somewhere and I had to tease it out, had to get it to the point where I, myself, would want sit down and read it. That’s the acid test right there.

LAF: What do you love most about writing?

DW: Discovery. You learn so, so, much. Here’s the deal. You pick a setting and a time you love and put characters into it that are quirky, interesting, full of surprises, have strengths and weaknesses and then. . . you throw something really awful at them. Only by forcing them out of their comfort zone do you learn what makes them tick, what makes humans in general tick. That’s when you learn about human nature, its resourcefulness, its flexibility, its ability to fail and start over to innovate something that works for the situation at hand.

I got to know my characters really, really well. I even felt I could ask them what they would do in this situation they were facing and get a pretty good answer.

LAF: When did you first begin writing?

DW: Writing seriously? In the mid-eighties. I was going through some tough times and instinctively thought that writing would teach me what was affecting me so. It was poetry I started with and although I wrote mostly schlock that no one would dare publish, the process worked to give me more insight, more understanding. I was hooked. I moved from poetry (which I still consider my epicenter in the writing world) to radio commentary, to short stories, to essays (which I never in this world thought I would write), and then finally to a novel. The writing eventually did get better. Sharon Olds says if you love poetry long enough it will love you back.

LAF: What do you consider to be your strengths as a writer?

DW: Insight. I’ve done the dues work: writing courses at San Francisco State, attendance at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Teaching poetry to students at the Fromm Institute. Etc. Etc. When I first started writing I thought I could just sit down and spew out a good piece of literature. How naïve. I was missing the tools. So I went back and got some. What the craft allows (if I’m right about this) is not to think so much about that aspect of the process but to concentrate on peeling away the disguise, the cloaking we all wear and revealing the mysterious movements of the human spirit. It’s all about people. Getting into what makes them so interesting and getting it on the page.

LAF: What of your professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

DW: Balance. Maybe it’s a bit bizarre but I feel so centered being able to have a really great practice of medicine and at the same time play music in a first-rate orchestra, teach poetry to an enthusiastic audience, invent a medical instrument for gastroenterologists, and raise a really wonderful family. Upon that wide base of experience I am able to see more clearly into the kinds of interesting personalities that make for good literature. As you may suspect, this knowledge also works well in the efforts to help patients find their personal path to health and healing.

LAF: What have been the most challenging experiences you’ve had in your career?

DW: Trusting my instincts. Being able to move my career from straight academic medicine to clinical medicine where my talents were better suited. Being unafraid to be a television and radio host while I kept my practice going, all things which raised a few eyebrows but by then I knew that to “follow your bliss” meant having the courage to take a few chances.

LAF: When you run out of ideas, if ever, where do you seek inspiration?

DW: Never run out. Stafford said he never got writer’s block, he just lowered his standards. What that means to me is to shut down the “editor,” the internal, critical voice that says, “you can’t do that.” We are all creative but most of us keep it under wraps. For me, if things get slow I just move into a nonlinear zone in my head and let surface whatever will. That’s when creativity of the kind that seems wild but strangely authentic comes to the page. That’s the best stuff.

LAF: Who would you say has helped you the most professionally? Personally?

DW: My wife, Joan. Without her unflinching support I would be confined as a clam.

LAF: Who are your heroes?

DW: The ones who keep writing good work without much recognition.

LAF: If you were to give advice to someone wanting to be a writer today what words of encouragement and/or warning would you offer him/her?

DW: Get your craft in place. Then reach deep into yourself for the hard truths. Have the courage to say what you think and keep pushing when the resistance to your work inevitably comes up.

LAF: If there were one thing you would want to be remembered for, what would that be?

DW: Adding a human touch to this complicated life we lead.

LAF: If you weren’t a writer/physician, what do you think you would have enjoyed doing?

DW: Most anything. It’s all terrifying and wonderful.

LAF: How would you say your medical practice has aided you in your writing and vice versa?

DW: The more experiences you have the deeper the well of your strengths. Everything I do, the writing, the music, the media hosting and producing, the raising of children in a balanced environment. . . all of that makes me a better doctor. Medicine is not just the application of science to the life situation, it is shaping science to fit the personalities and prejudices and anxieties of the patients. Not all scientific truths will be seen as true by someone with pneumonia or cancer. You have to make them truths within their own way of thinking, their own personalities, their very individual and special life. As for medicine helping writing, many of the same skills are required. A keen sense of observation. A no-nonsense attitude about discovering truth. The courage to be different. And, of course, a love of people.

LAF: What’s up next?

DW: The sequel. I already have a mental sketch in place. It’s going to be a wild one.

LAF: Thanks so much for talking with us and for your fabulous writing!

DW: You’re very welcome!

The Lucifer Connection is available —ask for it at your local bookstore!

Linda Ayres-Frederick

November 2015

Book Review

Local Writer’s “Survival In Paradise”

Part of the magic in a literary work can sometimes be ingested from what is between the lines. This is true of the autobiographical book, Survival in Paradise, subtitled Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curaçao, by Manfred Wolf, a long-time San Francisco Sunset District resident. The author, who in the beginning of the narrative is seven years old, sees his happy life in an affluent warm family in Germany turn into a horrific flight from internment and possible death.

What has been walled off in a dark corner of his mind is suddenly released in a torrent of argument when a middle-aged Jewish woman at a party lectures him on how hard World War II was for Americans as well as Europeans—since they couldn’t buy sugar or decent underwear with elastic waistbands. To his puzzlement, in America even the Jews seem oblivious to the real depths of the Holocaust story and its full ramifications.”

Along the circuitous escape route from Germany to Holland to Southern France, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal and eventually South America, there are many close calls and experiences, even to the extent of watching fellow travelers caught and shipped out for Auschwitz—and desperate refugees reaching the end of their money or planned escape routes and doing away with themselves. The family finally makes it to a tropical place of safety in Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, where the author manages to focus on the colorful, carnival-like, engagingly chaotic cultural environment, putting the darkness behind him.

Later, as a seventeen year-old, thinking that he has excised the mass of dark memories, the author goes on to Brandeis University in New England.

There he is immersed into an environment of fellow-students and faculty who are mostly Jewish, but something is bottled up inside him. Compared with the easy-going, wisecracking American students, the author, although endeavoring to put on a casual, happy face, is a brooding, enigmatic presence. What has been walled off in a dark corner of his mind is suddenly released in a torrent of argument when a middle-aged Jewish woman at a party lectures him on how hard World War II was for Americans as well as Europeans—since they couldn’t buy sugar or decent underwear with elastic waistbands. To his puzzlement, in America even the Jews seem oblivious to the real depths of the Holocaust story and its full ramifications.

Although the ostensible purpose of the author is to describe his own coming to terms with his family’s horrific near-unsuccessful escape from a hellish end, he seems to, almost inadvertently, chronicle a history of the entire range of varied reactions by many of the cohort of fleeing Jews to the danger and impending demise. As Wolf tells it, many of them apparently well knew the fate that awaited them if caught. One can imagine an effective European Jewish grapevine transmitting data back and forth across the continent. 

And down below that adult data stream is the author, looking up and being exposed to adult conversations, which were, due to their dire subject matter, sadly unfit for tender ears—but which his precocious mind was storing, and partially repressing.

Among the people in this odyssey is Max, Wolf’s father, formerly an affluent, dynamic factory owner, who is often seen during the family’s flight as distracted, almost unbelieving of where he is finding himself, though—as the story relates—resourceful when it counted. There is Bertha, the mother, gregarious, assertive, using her personality to directly engage the officials who hold the key to their ability to escape from Europe. There is the couple who, after failing several times to run the border between France and Spain, throw themselves under a train in their desperate reaction to the terror of impending arrest and imprisonment. And there is the man who, losing his hope for escape at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, hangs himself.

The author’s turning point, a kind of epiphany, comes at Brandeis when one cold, New England night an unstable fellow-student dons a Nazi Army uniform and stands at attention on a precipice, outside a dorm window several stories above the campus, possibly poised to do away with his own life and perhaps the whole repository of dark memories along with it. The student returns to his room and, in a beautifully rendered scene, the author shows how this affects his own thinking and feeling, and how he then committed himself to his own future, irrespective of the awful facts of his, and the world’s, undeniable history.

This book is recommended reading for several audiences. For youth, because it is a classic coming-of-age story, for adults because it provides understanding of the ripples of evil that can emanate from dark places in the human soul and spread throughout the world, and that should never be forgotten but acknowledged and used as a catalyst to somehow yield some improvement to all of our collective souls.

October 2014

Stories In The Sand: Lorri Ungaretti

A New History of the Sunset from 1847-1964

Let’s face it. The Sunset is not San Francisco’s most glamorous district.

It lacks the panache of Telegraph Hill, Union Square, Nob Hill, or the Embarcadero. As a tourist destination it’s hardly in the same league with Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Russian Hill, Chinatown, or even the newly transformed South of Market.

Yet the Sunset is a solid, substantial family neighborhood with its own history, traditions, institutions, and landmarks. Before moving here, I had lived in Pacific Heights, Telegraph Hill, and the Haight-Ashbury, and like many people I chose the Sunset to settle down and raise a family.

After 50 years in the Sunset, I thought I knew everything there was to know about it. I was wrong. Lorri Ungaretti, who grew up here, has done a years-long job of intensive research, pored over innumerable documents, interviewed dozens of old-time residents, and written what must be the Sunset’s definitive history.

the original settlers who nevertheless braved wind, fog, and sandstorms to “homestead” in the dunes. It was then federal land that was considered to be “out west” from San Francisco. The effort of the city to claim these “Outside Lands” was a decades-long legal battle with the federal government before the boundaries of the city were finally extended to the ocean.”

You will learn here, for example, about how the area was originally thought to be a desert of uninhabitable sand dunes and about the original settlers who nevertheless braved wind, fog, and sandstorms to “homestead” in the dunes. It was then federal land that was considered to be “out west” from San Francisco. The effort of the city to claim these “Outside Lands” was a decades-long legal battle with the federal government before the boundaries of the city were finally extended to the ocean.

It was Mike de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, who envisioned the possibilities of the Sunset and promoted the idea of a world’s fair in the new Golden Gate Park, at the Sunset’s northern boundary. The fair drew millions of people in 1894 and encouraged commercial and residential building in the adjacent district. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that the subdivisions were extended westward to Ocean Beach by such builders as Henry Doelger, who specialized in standard-design homes affordable to young families. Doelger showed his high opinion of the Sunset by building a home there for his own family.

Book CoverA few sand dunes remained, however, through the 1950s, and Ungaretti remembers trudging through one of them as a child living across the street from Lincoln High School. Long-time residents told her that in the early days the roar of the lions at the San Francisco Zoo could be heard at night across the district. Some of them remembered how the kids used to play in the “mountains of sand” and frequented swimming holes at places where creeks from inland were dammed by the highest dunes en route to the ocean.

Like most histories, this one is not all sweetness and light. Ungaretti describes how restrictions on who could rent or buy in the neighborhood were written into original house deeds and discusses a statewide battle over whether racial minorities could legally be excluded from residential areas such as the Sunset. The practice involved a statewide election and ultimately became a test case in the courts.

Ungaretti profiles some of the people who lived in the Sunset years ago. For example, the award-winning tennis player Alice Marble grew up in the Inner Sunset and had an adventurous life. We also learn about the neighborhood’s registered landmarks and other fascinating buildings, including St. Anne of the Sunset, the large church that can be seen for miles and features a frieze conceived and created by a Bay Area Dominican nun.

If you’re a resident of the Sunset, I would recommend an observation by writer Wendell Berry: “You don’t know who you are, until you know where you are.” Read this book and find out who and where you are.

Harold Gilliam is a San Francisco based writer, newspaperman and environmentalist,, book author and former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner newspapers. The “Harold Gilliam Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting”, given by the Bay Institute of San Francisco, is named in his honor.

May 2012

West Portal Writer Celebrates Publishing DebutEthel Rohan photo

"I have to write, it's what I am meant to do. I have always had this preoccupation of being 'incomplete' in various ways, not physically incomplete, but looking at the incompleteness of the spirit. That's what guided the stories in this collection."

Sitting with West Portal writer Ethel Rohan, I am struck by her intensity and dedication to the craft of writing. An accomplished and prolific magazine and short story author, she has recently celebrated the publishing of her first novel. In the debut, Cut Through the Bone, she has given us a set of 30 stories, most spanning only 3-4 pages, but in those pages we are teased with prose in which there are no pat endings and where every word and phrase counts. We have to "guess" what happens next, a little unsettling for those of us that "want to know."

bookcover: Through the BoneRecently, the writer celebrated the launch of the book with 200 friends and family at the United Irish Cultural Center, a logical place for the Dublin-born wordsmith. "It was one of the most special nights of my life," she said. "The release of the book is every writer's dream, and it has helped me to put aside the angst and self-doubt that all writers share. I've spent three years in my office/dungeon asking myself, am I delusional? Is my writing any good?"

When I ask her where she draws the stories from, she explains that she "honors the stories that come out. The stories center on the fears that each character has and somewhere in there are my own fears. Fear is universal and we all know suffering. Fear keeps us from moving forward. Through my fiction it is a safe place to see and explore these places and feelings that drive us."

In reading the stories, the elements of uncertainty and fear are everywhere and yet the reader is drawn to the characters and wants some sort of resolution, but is denied, left to ponder "what if?" She explains that the ideas are very family- centered, often times focusing on historical ideas of family function and dysfunction and the emotions that are involved.

The writer is currently completing her next project, a first novel, which she is busy shopping to agents. "Set in Ireland, it's the story of a 47 year old Dublin bus driver. I've been working on it for nine years. It's tentatively titled, "Kisses with Teeth."

Born in Dublin, Rohan came to San Francisco 18 years ago for a three-month vacation, and decided to stay, eventually graduating from Mills College with a Master's Degree in Fine Art. She jokes that she had to come all the way to San Francisco to find her Irish-born husband. The couple lives in West Portal, raising two daughters.

The literary world is also taking notice of her work. She has been invited to give a reading at the Frank O'Connor Literary Festival in Cork (Ireland) during September, and the novel was long listed as a finalist for the Story Prize Award in 2010.

In closing I asked her what she wants to leave her readers with when they are reading her work. "I would like readers to appreciate the power of imagination and story telling. The words can transport us, and make us ask 'what if?' I hope the readers also are able to think and be empathetic towards the characters, by disengaging judgment to look beyond the superficial."

Cut Through the Bone is available at BookShop West Portal, from Amazon.com and other literary outlets. For more information about the book and the author visit her website at ethelrohan.com; or go to the website for the book, www.darkskybooks.com.

June 2011