Lavinia Ludlow’s debut novel alt.punk (Casperian Books 2011) immersed us in a world of music, ambition, sex, drugs, and life on the margins of music and the mainstream, so much so that we were left gasping for air. Now Ludlow is back with her second novel, Single Stroke Seven (Casperian Books, March 2016). Her spunky prose packs in so much raw rich detail that I burned through an advanced-review copy. Ludlow describes a San Francisco Bay shadow world of drummers and scroungers I know little about, and her punchy prose kept me engaged in the lives of characters trying to sustain their dreams and themselves under our “new normal” of extreme income inequality, contract work, and a winner-take-all music industry. Single Stroke Seven is the stuff you read in one sitting or return to as soon as work or family allows.
In the following interview, I first asked Lavinia about surviving as a writer/artist on the margins in the increasingly unaffordable San Francisco.
Alex Kudera: You encourage people to read (or re-read) your debut novel, alt.punk, before reading Single Stroke Seven. Why?
Lavinia Ludlow: Single Stroke Seven departs from alt.punk’s extreme narrative voice and content. Polar opposites in style, subject matter, down to the book jackets, the novels are meant to complement each other in a yin and yang sense. Both protagonists begin their journeys on polar ends of the spectrum and meet somewhere in the middle. There are also references in Single Stroke Seven that will be more impactful if a reader has high-level knowledge of alt.punk’s characters and conflict.
AK: What have you learned about writing since the publication of alt.punk?
LL: One must find balance and responsibility in the pursuit of personal calling. “Yeah, suffer for your art, but what happens when it’s killing you?” – Lilith, Single Stroke Seven
In alt.punk, Hazel abandons her job, family, and social responsibilities to pursue her art.
In Single Stroke Seven, Lilith pursues her art at the expense of her health and identity.
I haven’t personally figured out what the balance is for myself but I’ve learned the hard way that it should never be “all or nothing.”
AK: Would you describe getting the second book, Single Stroke Seven, ready for publishing as a struggle? If so, please elaborate?
LL: Life took a few unexpected turns while I was editing the book, and many of the struggles I underwent parallel those of the main characters in Single Stroke Seven, such as trying to find meaningful work in a flailing economy, trying to care for others while battling an uproar of my own demons, and a slew of health issues that took me out of commission. In the midst of all that, I struggled (and still do) to stay sober long enough to be productive. On the flip side, it’s hard to be productive when I’m sober. Ultimately, my physical health plummeted because I failed to tend to the basics.
It’s also nearly impossible to live life and understand it at the same time. While trying to complete Single Stroke Seven, I was struggling with a lot of the same issues the main characters were struggling to overcome. The last thing I wanted to do at the end of a miserable day was dive headfirst into a world of similar strife and endure the painstaking process of analyzing and editing when I couldn’t even get my own shit together enough to analyze and edit my own life. It’s like trying to do surgery on your own body, fully awake and without painkillers. I had to remove my emotional connection to the story in order to approach the novel with a critical eye.
AK: Some would describe your path to publication as “off the beaten track”? Are you ever longing for more formal literary education?
LL: I am occasionally embarrassed by my lack of knowledge and the standard literary grooming one would get with a BFA and MFA, but I want to preserve the free-formed innocence of something that has always been an outlet. With a pressured set of rules, I may find my narrative voice and direction mutating into something I don’t recognize.
I am so thankful there are people who take leaps of faith with unknown writers. It was Lily Richards who published my first novel, alt.punk, and it was Nathan Holic who acted as the book’s editor, guide, coach, conscience, and all the things Thomas McCormack has stated an editor must be in his book The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist. With a whip-smart and dedicated publisher, and a highly intelligent, crafty, and persistent editor, I was able to bring the novel to life.
AK: What do like the most about the writing life? The least?
LL: What I like the most are the mental and emotional revelations that emerge. I can’t tell you how many epiphanies I’ve reached when drafting and editing alt.punk and Single Stroke Seven. The characters all began as black and white literary tools, but they became forces greater than the story, greater than my voice. They move the plot in directions I could have never imagined on my own, and although they’re mere figments of imagination, they’ve taught me so much. Like most writers, I incorporate past trials and challenges into the content of my writing. Doing this provides a clear retrospective view of the past, which has enabled me to analyze what was happening in my life, the temporary and also permanent effects it had on me, and how it all went into crafting me into what I am today. I hope in some way the content shifts people for a moment, whether helping them gain a better sense of people or their interactions with the world.
What I like least is pitching myself in third person bios. The self-indulgence makes me cringe.
AK: What advice do you have for urban dwellers experiencing the same stressors as your protagonist in Single Stroke Seven: struggling to make ends meet, enduring a miserable commute, and working killer hours at a thankless job?
LL: Your physical health should be your utmost priority. This is something I still struggle to do but I know if I eat junk, pull all-nighters, and let my chest infections go unchecked, I am no good for any person or any cause. Your physical health also directly feeds your emotional and mental health, which feeds psychological well-being and overall quality of life.
There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why it’s often financially unaffordable to access healthy food, a safe place to sleep, and health care (in all regions of the world, not just the United States, and not just the San Francisco Bay Area). The San Francisco Tenderloin for example has over 70 liquor stores within a square mile, but only recently saw its first fresh produce store infiltrate its borders because Fadhl Radman made the push to open one with the guidance of the Tenderloin Healthy Corner Store Coalition. Finding a safe and affordable place to live is often a struggle in its own (see below for numbers). Health care, well, we all have had long-standing strife with that.
But to reiterate, we are no good for our families, friends, jobs, and other obligations if we allow our health to plummet. Caring for your physical health should be your top priority whatever the cost or sacrifice.
AK: From your perspective, does it seem like things are getting better or worse for Bay-area workers?
LL: It really depends who you ask. The tech industry is booming so entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and developers are mostly flourishing, but even they find themselves in tough waters. Recently, major companies like HP, Oracle, Adobe have scrapped thousands of employees. Even mid-sized unicorns like Twitter hit the headlines for nixing over 350 software engineers from its ranks.
Many of my friends, even those who work in tech, have been forced to leave the region and their parents and move to other states like Oregon, Washington, and Nevada for affordable housing and less saturated and competitive job markets. I hear insane stories of them finding their dream homes that are five-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, three-car garage, with a pool for the ridiculously low prices ranging between $350k-$500k. It sounds like some magical fairy tale land, and I don’t believe them until the social media pics start rolling in.
And then I take a look around the Bay Area: This shack in the Mission District recently sold for $408k, which is a steal because it includes so much square footage. Rarely will anyone ever find a two-bedroom condo for that little.This one went for $1.2 million. The peninsula isn’t any better. This 180-square foot place in Palo Alto was listed for over $2 million, and although one would assume minimum wage must be through the roof, it’s still only $11 an hour in that city.
The biggest conundrum brought on by the Bay Area’s cost of living—not forgetting to mention the exorbitant gas, food, and state taxes rates—no one can get ahead if they’re shelling out day-to-day for a motel room or month-to-month for a San Francisco apartment. Even if you find a cheap hostel for $55-$65 bucks a night, you’ll never be able to save for a security deposit plus first and last month’s rent, and if you’re paying month-to-month to live in even the rattiest abodes, a studio (think 200-300sqft) in the heart of the SF Tenderloin could run you easily on the cheap end $1900-$2200 a month, you’ll never scrape together enough for a down payment on a house.
AK: Does it seem like the affluent in the Bay area are cognizant of what surrounds them, as far as the pay and living conditions of the rest of the population?
LL: It isn’t fair to point fingers. Everyone’s doing what they can to survive. Most are aware or are struggling themselves–I’ve heard tech workers say they still can’t afford to support a family in a two-bedroom apartment on a $200k salary). This article (and there are other sources that confirm), as of August 2015, states the median studio is $2,722, and the median one-bedroom is $3,452. A two-bedroom now rents for $4,400 month and three-bedroom goes for $5,125. I’ve heard rumors of software engineers, the ones being blamed for the housing crisis, living in tents in Golden Gate Park or living in the Google parking lot, simply to pay off their student loans and save for a down payment. Stressing again, no one gets ahead when you’re forking over your entire paycheck for rent.
The larger economic changes have to occur higher up the chain, and I hate to sound corny but I am a strong advocate of local voting. People can make the most impact at their local polls.
AK: Do you have any opinions about people who go to the Google buses and protest?
LL: They’re here to stay, so, I’d say: time is precious, focus on your personal and immediate ship-sinking struggles right now. Start with the day-to-day issues: if it’s paying the bills, find work; if you don’t have work, hit the streets and internet looking for some—make this a full-time job. If you have all that tied up in a pretty package, look to giving back to the community whether it’s raising funds for a food bank, free clinic, or an organization like Dress For Success, which helps people get on their feet with professional clothes and also equips them with interview basics, skills, etc. We must work together as a community and leverage the tools we have. Pointing fingers at the big businesses isn’t going to do much—in my experience.
AK: What was the worst job you’ve ever had and why?
LL: Doing trash for a chain megastore. And it wasn’t just the dry-heave-inducing stench, the see-through and cob-web thin plastic bags that inevitably broke on the flatbed before I reached the incinerator, or even the exposure to hazardous chemicals and waste like sanitary napkin disposal rubbish, and it wasn’t even the humiliation of having to do a job like that. What made it the worst job I’ve ever had was knowing that I wanted to do more with my time, ambitions, and physical and mental capabilities than sell it for just above minimum wage.
AK: What else should we know about Lavinia Ludlow, surviving in San Francisco, or her future plans for fiction?
LL: I travel a lot and spend a significant amount of time in London but yes, San Francisco is home for now. I just wish I’d planned strategically and escaped the Super Bowl chaos. Live and learn.
I’ve really taken a liking to writing non-fiction pieces like culture essays. Up until I took the plunge, I never thought my writing style would translate in the “real world” but I’ve found quite the opposite, and lately I’ve had some fun with it. However, fiction will always be my core driver, my default state of mind. I have a project or two in mind out in the unforeseeable distance, but I’m all about the literary journey. Isn’t that what writing is really about?
Alex Kudera has sold books, waited tables, taught school, tutored English, walked dogs, bussed dishes, and rented apartments. Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books), his first novel, was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea and consequently won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. Kudera’s other publications include the e-singles Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press), The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity (Gone Dog Press), and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks). In 2016, look for his forthcoming paperback novels, Auggie’s Revenge (Beating Windward Press) and a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day (Hard Ball Press). Alex currently teaches literature and writing at Clemson University in South Carolina.