K.M. Soehnlein’s first novel, The World of Normal Boys (2000, Kensington Books), a best-seller, was awarded the Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction. His latest novel, You Can Say You Knew Me When, takes place in San Francisco during both the end of the Beat era and the end of the dot-com boom. Soehnlein teaches creative writing in the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of San Francisco.
You’re an East-coaster who has adopted San Francisco as home, and this is very much a book about San Francisco, and the cultural flashpoints of the early ’60s and the late ’90s. What was interesting about the dot-com years is that it seemed like suddenly the artistic counterculture of San Francisco that had been here forever was under siege, and artists were losing studio spaces and rehearsal spaces and rents were going up and everyone was moving to Oakland. What’s interesting about the bubble bursting is that it feels like there is a consistency in this counterculture, a continuity of people coming here for that that reaches back past the Beats to the anarchists in the ’30s and all the way back to the Gold Rush, and it isn’t going away.
What you’re calling counterculture is almost a dominant culture in San Francisco. But there’s also this world of opera gala openings and incredibly wealthy people who make money off these industries that also have a long history in San Francisco, going back to the Gold Rush–the banking and commerce and shipping–so it’s almost like there are two dominant cultures here.
What do you think are the biggest differences between the early ’60s and the late ’90s? I interviewed a lot of people for this book who lived in San Francisco in the Beat era and there was this sense of discovery, wonderment at the kind of freedom they found here, and I don’t think that was the same for the people who came here during the boom. There was wonder in the ’90s about what technology could do, but it was mostly just about how much money could be made.
One character says, “We’re all a little bit adolescent aren’t we? That’s part of the thrill of being gay.” Do you agree with that? Yes. When you don’t take on traditional responsibilities and you’re in a city that offers so much amusement and distraction, you can extend your adolescence for many, many years.
Another character, an older man, says that the era of the Beats was a reaction to the tragedy of World War II, not wanting to buy the “happy story” of the 1950s. The usual story we hear is that after World War II there was the Baby Boom and the Eisenhower era and everyone had their prosperity and their consumer goods, but World War II really tore at the fabric of what America was. Ten years later, more people began to learn about the atom bomb and the horror of the concentration camps, because those stories didn’t really come out until years after the war.
We’re living in a decade that’s definitely going to be remembered as a gruesome one, more disillusioning than the ’70s, certainly. But there’s something John Dos Passos said about fighting in France in World War I. He said it was hell, “but hell is a stimulus.” There’s part of me that’s very idealistic and thinks that a moment like this leads to a sort of blooming of the idealism of the next generation, because a youth component of the culture decides it wants to shake off this repressive yoke. I also have this pessimistic side that thinks we’re really fucked . . . and all we’re waiting for now is the earthquake.
Soehnlein will be reading at the Village Barnes & Noble on September 16th at 7:30 pm, and on Monday September 19th at 7:30 at Rainbows and Triangles in Chelsea.