Quills & Queues: Father's life, funeral and writings fuel son's memoir
Josh Gross is a writer on a mission. The Ashland resident's latest book, "Funeral Papers," recently published by San Francisco's El Balazo Press, is a memoir about the author's estranged father, Arnie. Gross has used a series of memoir and fiction pieces written by his now deceased father as a mechanism to investigate a complicated relationship. Quills & Queues caught up with Gross on the eve of his book launch to talk a little more about the process.
JG: Why did you decide to write a book about your estranged father, Arnie?
Gross: My friend Myron once said that a writer's relationship with their father is the great American novel. So in that sense, I always knew I was going to have to write about him sooner or later. I'd even started a play once that was centered around a letter he'd sent me. But this book started on the train ride home from his funeral. It had almost been a piece of surrealist theater, complete with technical difficulties, a lot of very strange, very false stories about his life, people trying to give me moonstones, and a pair of gate-crashing accordionists. So I started typing it out like a journal entry, just to get it out of my head. Halfway through that opening chapter, I had the idea to extend it to a full book, using the pieces of his writing that I'd inherited at the funeral as a framing device to look at our shared history, and to try to figure out why the guy described at his funeral was so different than the one I knew.
JG: Speak to us a little about your father and the period in which the book is set?
Gross: It's set in multiple time periods and changes from chapter to chapter, depending on who's writing, Arnie or myself. Most of Arnie's work was centered on the late '60s and '70s, when he lived in a boat on the San Francisco Bay, and was trying to be a writer. He was somewhat obsessed with the cast of oddballs that lived around him on the houseboats, and wrote about them and their doings obsessively for the local paper. But the book goes all the way back to his father's escape from Nazis, and his illegal — and thrilling — immigration to America. My chapters cover everything from the early '80s to now. So that's a full three generations (of coverage).
JG: What were the "Sausalito Houseboat Wars" and how did they involve your father?
Gross: In the '60s and '70s, young people looking to live off the grid — including my dad — started scavenging spare parts from a WWII boatyard, and building their own houseboats to moor in the San Francisco Bay. Eventually there were hundreds of boats. Though the community included some world class-architecture, and celebrities like Shel Silverstein, the total effect was somewhere between an anarchist shanty-town and a floating hipster trailer park. And the well-to-do folks living on the land weren't having it. So for the better part of a decade, the pirates and the landlubbers fought it out in the courts, at the ballot box, and on the water. There were multiple armed standoffs with the police, hundreds of arrests, some very dramatic protests and guerrilla pranks, and people nearly died multiple times from the county's ham-fisted removal efforts. For a lot of people, my dad included, it was sort of the defining event in their life. For me, it's both a fascinating story, and a pretty big historical mirror about gentrification that gave another dimension to an already complex book. I actually wanted to include a lot more than a single chapter about the houseboat wars, but my editor at El Balazo Press very smartly suggested that rather than make the narrative lopsided, that subject might be deserving of its own dedicated book, which because of the wealth of material I have, I am considering writing. I will also be showing some documentary footage of a navy of fishing skiffs fighting off the police at the book release party at Bloomsbury as part of the book presentation.
JG: How do you feel this book has brought you closer to your father, or changed your life?
Gross: Nice try, Slick, but you're going to have to read it to find out. (Laughter)
Josh Gross will celebrate the release of "The Funeral Papers" with a reading and presentation at Bloomsbury Books at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.