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Set at sea, but born on Fillmore


When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a mermaid pendant on a silver chain, told me I’d always be a fish out of water, and sent me out into the world. I’d never been much of a swimmer, but somehow that made the totem even more apt.

Anne Gross

Continuing in that same stream, six years ago my husband and I decided to leave our large home in a remote Colorado mountain town and move into a miniscule apartment in a massive building in the Fillmore neighborhood. The move, although exciting for my husband, who was joining a flood of engineers entering the city, left me gasping for breath. I’d decided to leave my nursing career and start writing, but hadn’t anticipated how isolated that choice would leave me in a new city. For months, fear and insecurity circled like sharks, and were my only companions.

The new apartment quickly became oppressive as I pounded on my keyboard, so I took to pounding the sidewalk on and around Fillmore Street. I explored narrow Orben, Perine and Wilmot alleys with plot twists and quirky characters whirling in my brain. I became that annoying person in the back pew of St. Dom’s who came in from the fog just to eat candy bought at Mollie Stone’s. I watched the dogs wrestle in Alta Plaza, tongues lolling happily, while distant sailboats on the bay drifted between the mansions. My hope was to find the best library chair, the perfect cafe, the softest tuft of grass in the park where I could comfortably write. Instead I became Elkin’s flaneuse, aimlessly wandering.

The book incubated slowly. In my head, I was in 19th century France, dealing tarot cards for Josephine Bonaparte, I was a witch in a forest glen on the outskirts of London, I was a bartender throwing punches.

But in real life, I was a new resident of San Francisco, and it all threaded into a wondrous tapestry that turned my reality into magical fiction and my fiction into specific descriptions of the things I experienced. When introduced to people by my very grounded husband, I gave distracted smiles with a faraway gaze. When I wrote, the scents of urine under the Steiner Street bridge over Geary, of pastries wafting from the Fillmore Bakeshop, the magic of the sun breaking through wet fog, the oppression of row homes smashed together, the constant clamor of traffic — it all floated through the developing story.

I’m certainly not unique. A wiki page exists just to list all the writers in alphabetical order who have made this city home. San Francisco is a seven-mile wide distraction for those who set their own schedule, so how is it possible that so many writers have wandered our sidewalks and, at the same time, been so successful?

Recently, I’ve taken to walking to the top of Lafayette Park to look out over the Spreckels Mansion. Wrapped with an enormous hedge, and tied with a blue ribbon of sky, the mansion houses the most prolific writer of them all — 167 books published, 650 million copies sold, touts Danielle Steel’s webpage. I raise my hand in salute to Her Honorable Prodigiousness and whisper: “Someday, I’ll be you.” They say that giving voice to your desires will help manifest them, and furtive whispers are much easier for me than adopting Steel’s discipline.

Remarkably, I ended up living on a thumb of land perilously surrounded by water. Somehow my mother knew, all those years ago in Minnesota, that I’d become a landed mermaid. Six years after moving here, I’m now breathing easily, swimming strong, perfectly comfortable with the rhythm of the city — a city, it turns out, full of other mermaids and mermen. It seems fashionable these days to denigrate San Francisco, but I’m too thankful to join that frog chorus.

My second novel, The Brazen Woman, has just been released, and it might come as no surprise that the character I created is the ultimate fish out of water.