Beach noir: Michelle Richmond’s The Year of Fog

michellerichmond_sm.jpgSan Francisco novelist Michelle Richmond’s new novel The Year of Fog has just been released, and she’ll read from it Wednesday night at 7:00 PM at Books Inc. in Opera Plaza. I caught up with her online and asked her about the book.

Tell me about your new book.

The Year of Fog is about San Francisco, and about memory, and about the family we make for ourselves. It begins on Ocean Beach, where the narrator, a photographer named Abby Mason, is walking with her fiance’s six-year-old daughter on a cold, foggy day. She looks away to take a picture of a seal pup, and when she looks back, the child is gone.

So the book is about how the couple deals with the child’s disappearance?

In large part, yes. In some ways, it attempts to answer the question of how much a really strong relationship can take before it begins to self-destruct.

San Francisco was a natural setting for me to come to in my third book. I’ve lived here for almost eight years and had long imagined I would one day write a book set here. It just took me a while to get around to it. But San Francisco really is home for me now. The book is kind of a love letter to my adopted city — a creepy love letter, to be sure.

Ocean Beach really is a strange place — it is so different from what people in the rest of the world might envision when you say “a beach in California.”

To me, there’s a kind of dangerous beauty to that stretch of urban beach, with the grafitti-spattered sea wall and the ash-strewn sand, and always, that fog.

There are those signs reading “People die annually” in the surf.

yearoffog.jpgYes, those signs! They’re so dramatic: “Warning: People swimming and wading here have been swept to their deaths.”

Your last novel, Dream of the Blue Room, was set largely on a boat in China, I believe. It was haunted by the presence of death — the impending death of the one the characters and the impending death of a relationship. So in your new book, we have another relationship under extreme stress.

It’s true, this is a subject I come back to frequently in my writing. It’s interesting material to me, because it is both psychological and emotional in nature. And I think that a relationship under extreme stress is something many readers can relate to; it’s a universal experience. There’s the sense that something terrible might happen at any moment.

Is that a feeling you have generally — something terrible might happen? Where does that come from?

I guess maybe this is a sense I’ve lived with most of my life. Not a fear, exactly. As an adult, I think I’ve managed to mostly get over it. But I did grow up in an extremely religious Baptist family in Alabama, and I did watch those Left Behind movies as a kid. I mean, I spent the first ten years of my life dreading the Rapture. Maybe some of the dread stuck. Ultimately, though, I think what drives Abby in The Year of Fog is the opposite of dread — hope. She really believes she will find the child and begin to right the terrible wrong she committed on the beach when she looked away.

I wonder if lots of people don’t have a sort of heightened sense of vigilance these days.

I think this is true. When my father was a kid in Mississippi, he had the freedom to wander off into the woods and swim in the creek. In Alabama in the 70s, my sister and I had bikes which we rode up and down our street. We had free rein to visit all the kids on the block and go in their houses. Obviously, parents are less willing to let their kids do that these days.

Much of this is just a rational reaction to our times. And of course there’s the vigilance that is forced upon us rather irrationally. I flew to and from North Dakota last week. In the airports, I kept hearing these announcements about the Homeland Security Threat Level. It was orange. I thought, “What does orange mean?” I really didn’t know whether it was good or bad. But that whole system that has been imposed on the nation to make us fear and “invisible enemy” has surely taken its toll, consciously or not.

I heard your book mentioned in a promo on NPR and thought, the publisher must be really getting behind it.

The publisher has been good to me. And the reps have been tremendous, in particular a woman named Liz Willner who has gone out and personally placed The Year of Fog in the hands of many booksellers, who are in turn talking it up to readers. Nancy Salmon at Kepler’s has been handselling it so vigorously that it was Kepler’s #2 bestseller this week. It’s my third time around the publishing block, and this is definitely a new experience for me.

That must feel good!

One works on a book in relative silence for years. To finally see it making it into the hands of readers is a wonderful feeling. You think, “ah, there’s a reason I do this! And it’s not just to provide reading material for my mother.”

A reception for Michelle will start at 6:00 PM at Books Inc. in Opera Plaza, and she will read from A Year of Fog at 7:00.

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