Author Q&A: Jasmin Darznik

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Bestselling author Jasmin Darznik’s third novel, The Bohemians, is a captivating read. Its 333 pages bring to life the heyday of 1920’s San Francisco bohemia as seen through the eyes of legendary photographer Dorothea Lange. Darznik focuses on Lange’s early life and friendships before she was famous.

“When I first arrived in May of 1918, the city belonged to the bohemians, which is to say to the artists, poets and writers – and the vast varied company they attracted. You saw them everywhere, but the cafés, bakeries, restaurants and pubs of North Beach, the small Italian village on Telegraph Hill, were bursting with them. They’d all come from somewhere else, and they all had a story to tell.”

Dorothea Lange was made famous in the 1930’s with her Depression-era photographs, “Migrant Mother“ being one of her most famous. Yet your novel begins a good decade earlier when Lange was an unknown, destitute, 22-year- old photographer from Hoboken, New Jersey. What sparked your curiosity to learn more about the young Lange?

I knew and admired her work for years, but learning that she’d been robbed of all her money when she came to San Francisco in 1918 got me wondering about how she’d gone about building her portrait studio with so few resources and connections. We know Dorothea Lange, the icon, but who was she before that? And what role did the city play in her artistic and personal development?

The Bohemians is full of great stories, including where the term “sugar daddy” comes from. Can you tell us the story behind Monkey Block, a building that features highly in your novel?

Montgomery Block was a massive four-story structure built in the mid-1800s to serve San Francisco’s burgeoning business class. When the address became less fashionable, artists and writers took up residence and turned it into the hub of the city’s own Latin Quarter. That’s when it became known as “Monkey Block.” Some 800 Bohemians, including Mark Twain, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera, lived and/or worked into the building until it was torn down in 1959, but despite that history many San Franciscans don’t know such a place existed.

Lange had never planned to stay long in SF – it was supposed to be a short stop on her way to Mexico – but she got robbed shortly after she arrived and was marooned in the city that would become her home. Soon after arriving, she met many artists, including Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, photojournalist Consuelo Kanaga, Frido Khalo and Lange’s future husband, the dashing but troubled artist Maynard Dixon. Why do you think so many creative people were drawn to San Francisco? What did the city offer that other American cities lacked?

There’s long been this feeling that San Francisco isn’t bound by the same rules as the rest of the county. Part of that’s geographic. For a young Dorothea Lange San Francisco was as far as she could go without falling off the edge of the continent. In the novel there’s a line about the City being a place you could disappear into. She often talked about how vital it is for artists to get lost—in their own world, but also in the actual world. San Francisco was a great place for that.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

First off, you have to read—a lot! There’s just no way you become a writer without reading. And you have to read with an eye toward discerning how writers do what they do. That’s your apprenticeship. After that, joining some kind of community is essential. That can be a writing workshop or a formal MFA program—you will be much less lonely, and you’ll grow far more quickly than you ever could on your own.

The Bohemians is not just about Dorothea Lange’s blossoming career and volatile first marriage, but also about her close friendship with her Chinese American assistant, Caroline Lee, a beautiful, straightforward dressmaker who helped launch Lange as a portrait photographer. You have said that Lee is “one-part fiction, one-part fact”. Can you explain?

When Dorothea Lange opened her first studio in San Francisco, she hired a Chinese woman to assist her. That woman is given the briefest of mentions in accounts of Lange’s life, but I became obsessed with who she might have been and how she might have affected Lange. Caroline Lee is “real” in that she’s based on that assistant and fleshed out through extensive research into the lives of Chinese Americans in San Francisco at that time. She’s fictional in that I could only fully bring her to life by enlisting my imagination.

You spend a lot of time in your book giving the reader a real sense of San Francisco, what people ate, drank (pisco punch) and wore. Can you explain how what women wore in the twenties reflected the times?

Beginning in World War I, women were working outside the home in unprecedented numbers. For the first time in history, young women had money to spend and places to go. The fussy fashions of the last decade just wouldn’t do for the lives they were choosing to live. Bustles and bonnets were out. Skirt lengths inched up to the knees. Hair was bobbed. All this had a practical element, but it was also a source of pleasure and tremendous fun. 

If you were to give a tour of old SF, the sites that still exist from its 1920s bohemian heyday, what places would be on your list of must-sees?

Jackson Square, which was adjacent to Monkey Block, is one of the very few parts of the city that survived the 1906 earthquake and fires. Stepping into Hotaling Place makes me feel like I’ve travelled back in time. The building that housed Maynard Dixon’s studio is on that block of Montgomery Street. North Beach, which is just a few streets up on Columbus, still has the look and some of the Bohemian vibe, so I’d definitely spend time exploring that part of town.

The city has changed so much over the last several decades – for better and worse. If you were mayor of San Francisco what would be top on your list to help support artists and writers?

The soul of San Francisco is its artistic community. Since the biggest obstacle for artists and writers is finding affordable housing, I’d love to create a modern-day version of Monkey Block, a place of refuge and bustling creative enterprise.

I understand from your highly readable website that Isabel Allende, Paula McLain and Sarah Waters are some of your favourite authors. What are you reading now? Any new books on your shelves?

The best book I read last year was C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, which is set during the California Gold Rush. More recently, I loved Patricia Engel’s new novel Infinite Country about a family of Colombian immigrants.

I listened to a podcast where you revealed that your next book focuses on 1930/1940s Hollywood. Can you tell us more about that project?

It’s biographical fiction, which satisfies my love of wedding research and invention. I can’t reveal the subject yet, but like my other books it’s a story about a woman’s creative coming-of-age under near-impossible circumstances.

Your writing process – can you explain how your local bookstore Book Passage helped you to become a published writer, and the importance of having a writing community?

About 15 years ago I enrolled in a ten-week writing workshop at Book Passage. I took two years’ worth of those ten-week classes. Each week we had five minutes to read what we’d written over the course of the week. The steady deadlines and encouragement of my teacher and classmates transformed me from being someone who wanted to write into somebody who was actually doing it.

Last but not least, please tell us something surprising about yourself.

For one brief but miserable year I was a lawyer. It wasn’t just my immigrant parents’ dream, but their mandate. Thankfully I hightailed it out of the law pretty quickly and got myself into a PhD program in English, which I loved.

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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