I wrote this novel in the early 1990s, mostly in Santa Cruz. The first part written was about the scene in Goa, as a largely autobiographical short story, many paragraphs of which survive in the final version, not necessarily in their original sequence. I knew I was onto something when the woman I was there with told me, with a baffled look, that she couldn't remember Klaus (whose appearance in Chapter 39 is almost verbatim from that draft) at all; which was, of course, because I had invented him. But if she believed in him, hey, I had something right.
I had already, some years before, written Borders, and I think I was planning a whole novel about traveling freaks. I have some fragments set in Turkey and elsewhere, but I don't think there was any clear direction.
Then Iraq invaded Kuwait. Within days, it was obvious that President Bush was heading for war, over the objections of the Arab states (I still believe the crisis could have been resolved peacefully), and that such a war would be horrible; and also that the build-up to the war would take several months, so there was some time available to organize against it. That is where my energy went, for the second half of 1990 and the first half of 1991 before, during and after the Gulf War. In the event, of course, we the peace movement lost, but at the time it was close; the resolution in favor of the war barely squeaked past the Senate, and if only ... Anyway, the novel went on hold.
But I thought about it. And it struck me that there was indeed something eerily similar between Bush's America and Nixon's; I wasn't sure exactly what it was, but I noticed that my non-political, ex-hippie friends were also solidly against the Gulf War, even when that was a minority view, and so were a number of the musicians who survived from the sixties, even, perhaps especially, ones who seemed to have settled into a semi-respectable middle age. Neil Young set "Blowing in the Wind" to the sound of an air raid, and Dylan himself (generally far less overtly political than his reputation) rocked the Grammies with an astounding version of "Masters of War" as the bombs dropped on Baghdad. There was a connection here, I was sure.
I went traveling for the second half of 1991, in East Africa and Nepal, and when I came back I resolved to weave these feelings, and some of my peace movement experiences, into a novel. I wasn't sure how to tie them together, until I got a wonderful birthday present, on January 29th, 1992. I went for a run, and somewhere in the middle of it, what became the first sentence of Chapter 3 popped into my head, completely unannounced: Blackie and Whitey hung around Kabul in the days of the weasel king. They just arrived, fully formed, and I knew them immediately. For a fleeting moment, I thought they were a vignette, another short-short, but I wrote about 30,000 words of their story in the next couple of months, and I knew it would fit.
From then on, it was matter of building the novel. The peace movement memories were fresh, and I mined them shamelessly for background the campus discussion of Berkeley in the Sixties (particularly Chapter 9), meetings in the back of a church (Chapter 18), the Blockade of the Military Recruitment Center itself (Chapters 49, 52, 56 and others, though in history, as best I recall, it did not go on all night, to the disappointment of some participants). I took parts of the Goa story, moved them back three years for convenience of plot (I was there in December, 1974, and as presented the scene, as in Chapter 61 for example, is probably slightly anachronistic) and handed the experience over to Annie and Cedar; the crazed electrician in Chapter 75 is essentially straight from memory, though the way the interaction played out is certainly not.
I'm not sure when the earthquake came into the concept. The house I was renting in the late eighties had been destroyed by it, so obviously that was on my mind things were being shaken up all over. I clearly remember writing the title (complete with parentheses) on the sand near Rio del Mar, but when exactly escapes me. Out of that came, eventually, the idea of including both some Santa Cruz history (such as Chapter 6, among others) and some playful explorations of persona (for example, Chapters 69 and 86 it gets a little weirder, and I think better, as it goes along) &/or minor mindfucks (the recipe, the mini-play) as a way of not only breaking up the narrative but encouraging in the reading the kind of non-logical approach that, in some ways, the novel advocates. Sounds far too formal, put like that. I specifically remember enjoying Chapter 88 of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, in which he riffed upon the 88 keys of the piano; hence the sub-title of Chapter 47.
Finally came the weaving together of the various strands, which was an absolute joy to do. It worked. Not only did the various pieces turn into logical sections, or scenes, of generally similar or at least appropriate length, but there were (at least in my mind) resonances between them eating, for example, being featured in consecutive chapters set twenty years apart, or movement, or introspection; very little had to be rewritten to fit. (Even the little pastiche that had to be a prime-numbered chapter  slotted in delightfully.) It was as though I had known what I was doing all along. Maybe I did.
I completed it (but for minor edits) in Guernsey in 1993, where I was spending time with my aging father, and first submitted proposals to a wide variety of British publishers and agents, since I was there. The initial reaction was overall quite encouraging; there were several requests for the full manuscript, along with the expected form-letters. (My favorite rejection explained that it was "not my cup of chamomile tea" which amused me greatly until I met another writer who had had the identical response, which incidentally amused him not at all.) The readers for two major publishers recommended acceptance. I was thrilled. Their bosses turned it down. I was crushed.
Not entirely daunted, I went through the process again in America, with similar results, except that I was dealing almost entirely with agents. One reader who recommended it actually told me (after her boss had rejected it and she had quit for other reasons), "I liked your book as much as I've liked anything in the last few years." Which, coming from a professional, meant even more than the kind words from various friends who enjoyed it. But still it remained unpublished.
The feedback I got was not much help. One agent wanted me to eliminate all the sixties stuff, which said to me she didn't understand the concept, though she liked some of it. Someone said the characters were slow to develop, but then he had found the first six or seven chapters intriguing enough to ask for the rest. One publisher promised a full evaluation and never sent it; another lost the manuscript in the chaos that followed an editor's suicide and showed no interest in having a replacement; yet another fired my contact for not generating enough profits, though that was after he had finally turned this one down (not that it would have saved his job, surely). I developed a suspicion that the attitude to illegal substances (neither glorifying nor condemning them) had something to do with it, but mostly they simply implied there wasn't enough money in it.
I accept that (Searching for) Solid Ground is a minority taste. So is the Grateful Dead (see Chapter 86 for the particular relevance of that), and we all know what a huge tribe they attracted; they're still, in 2000, putting out new CDs of old performances, so I guess they're still selling enough to cover the costs. Unfortunately, that's not the criterion for mainstream publishing, which seems reluctant to accept anything that doesn't seem to have much of a shot at the big brass ring, defined as multi-million grosses.
I probably gave up too soon, and I never really canvassed the small independents, but my next instinct was to self-publish. Hey, it worked for a lot of rock bands, not to mention an impressive list of famous literary figures (Whitman, Thoreau, Twain) and several members of National Writers Union Local 7, to which I belong. And the sense of personal involvement is undeniably appealing. Self-publishing takes a lot of work, in promotion and distribution, and it's much more likely to cost money than to make it, but that wasn't the main problem.
My chronic instability was certainly the excuse. I have rarely stayed at the same address for more than two years, though I seem to be slowing down a bit, and there certainly wasn't going to be the money to hire anyone, even part-time, to check the mail while I was away, which was and is a given. It happens that I have now been in the same flat for almost four years, without leaving for more than a month at a time (I'll be moving soon), and in retrospect I should have taken the plunge in 1997 I could also have done then what I am doing now (someone actually told me to), but I didn't.
What really held me back, I think, was fear. Fear of rejection, fear of visibility, fear of shame.
Rejection? What if no one liked it? So fucking what? I like it. Anyway, I already knew that some people liked it. Besides, those that don't probably like some things I don't, and nothing wrong with that. Not a good reason to bury the book.
Visibility? Oh, sure, I've had an intricate and generally dysfunctional relationship with the idea of celebrity (on any level) for years. As a writer I've always admired Pynchon's publicity skills having it both ways, right? The work and the name (definitely the name), are famous but the person could be sitting next to you and you wouldn't know it. Which also means, incidentally, that you can imagine him as your kind of guy, whether you're a stoned-out hippie, a professor, an affluent urban professional ... But I'm shying away again. And actually I'm quite a good public performer; I've had some successful poetry readings (especially to audiences who didn't think they liked poetry), I do sorrowful moral indignation rather well, I've even done political debates. And you know what? Public appearances are good for me, they force me to be honest and make me a better person.
So it's down to fear of shame. What if I screw it up? Well, I don't want to sabotage it, that's for sure. And I do want it to look good and be readable. I have quite a lot of experience at that, and given enough work I know I can do it ...
But what fear of shame leads you to can be a debilitating kind of perfectionism. If you're going to be a publisher, you should ... get a four-color cover, get an ISBN, get into bookstores and libraries, file copies with the Library of Congress ... aaargh. It all seems like a lot of tedium and expense, and all I really want is for people who would like the book to read it.
Well, maybe the first step can be a kind of compromise. I can put it out on the web, tell my friends, and see if I can spread the word. Just give it away. Feels right to me.
But what if people want a printed book? I would, as long as the price is reasonable. Well, thanks to modern technology, the cost of short-run printing has dropped dramatically. Since I can do the pre-press work myself, I can produce a limited edition of as little as 100 copies, signed and numbered, price them at $15 each, sell them only through the website (or face to face) and eliminate most of the hassle.
The next phase will be publicizing the website (feel free to help!); after that, it all depends on the response. If enough people like it, I can go straight, get the ISBN and all that stuff, and do it "properly" (or even sell out to a real publisher) but for now, why not go halfway? I can always print more ...
If I'm going to take money, the law says I have to have a business licence and collect sales tax, so I guess I'd better do that. They probably wouldn't bother hassling me, but who needs the aggravation if they did? It rather takes away from the under-the-radar appeal of Samizdat publication, but what the hell.
And that's enough avoidance for this morning ... It's time to put this baby out there. Hope you like it.