I’m aware and concerned that very few men will want to read a book entitled “The Berkeley Girl.” And why should they? How can you, who are my female readers from three generations, place it into the hands of the men you know without enduring derisive comments in return? And more to the point, what’s in this novel for them?
In writing a novel set in the late 1960s, I had to include at least one male protagonist, and several other strong male characters. Janet Magill suffered, okay, but wasn’t it the guys who had to battle their demons and the demons in power? They were the ones who feared and fled the draft, or succumbed to it and went to fight in that bloody war. They were the ones who returned with nightmares or injuries, or not at all.
So, when I wrote The Berkeley Girl, a novel about a college-aged couple struggling with issues of growing up and forming their values in an atmosphere of war, politics and contention, the guys and their plight were front and center. My first priority was to counter the stereotype of hippie radicals. The character of Aaron Becker stands against the assumption today that most Berkeley students in 1968 had ragged, dirty hair and hurled themselves in front of the campus police on a regular basis.
The vast majority of Cal students did not fit that hippie stereotype, not the close friends nor even the politically involved acquaintances I recall from my Berkeley days – incidentally, 1965-1969. Then as now, I saw this mythical Cal 60s student-rebel-hippie as the invention of the media seeking a titillating enemy.
My character Aaron Becker focused on his studies. His appearance was neat and clean, as was his little cottage, especially when his girlfriend Janet was due for a visit. He had impressed his science professors enough to garner a laboratory job and graduate school recommendations, and he looked forward to a career in scientific research, in which he had every confidence.
In fact, confidence is how one might describe him most generally – smart, acerbic, cynical and somewhat self-interested. However, Aaron’s self-interest faded away when he was trying to care for and protect Janet. Janet was not radical in the beginning either. But one objective in writing this novel was to reveal a transformation in the character of Janet Magill, contrasting her with Aaron.
Joe (not his real name, but a real person nonetheless), was a stranger to me when I received his email with his thanks for this novel about Janet and Aaron. Joe graduated from Cal and served in Vietnam as an officer. He then returned to live in Berkeley. Joe was not like Senator John Kerry, one of many Vietnam vets who openly opposed the war. Inner conflicts had dogged Joe ever since his service, until he found his way to my book through Cal connections. His email let me know that it was specifically through the character of Aaron Becker that he began to understand his untenable situation. The fictional Aaron, bright, contemplative and conflicted about the war, helped Joe come to terms with his indecisiveness and inertia.
I first called my novel about Janet and Aaron A Time to Cast Away Stones (2012, Sand Hill Review Press) from the Pete Seeger lyric. The cover was an archival photo taken during the French student rebellion in May 1968, the event which captures Janet’s loyalty in the story. This historical revolution began with students, but eventually involved many sectors of French society. But looking at the photo, most people under 50 thought it was taken during World War II! Like in Berkeley, those European rebels were complicated people, and not easily stereotyped as “60s.”
For less confusion about the topic and setting, and to attract younger readers, my publisher re-imagined my title and cover in 2016 as The Berkeley Girl, in Paris, 1968. A clear path to the plot, but not to the characters, nor to the lived-through and historically accurate, well-researched nature of the novel.
The result was predictable: it did bring in younger generations interested in learning about the “real” era, but my audience of men had vanished.
My follow-up book, The Berkeley Girl: Rendezvous in London, A Novella and Other Stories of the ‘60s, contains a sequel to The Berkeley Girl, in Paris 1968, along with three other stories. Not surprisingly, there are as many male protagonists as female in this trio of tales, all set in the late 1960s. These three shorter pieces contain a variety of settings, situations and characters. You can turn to “Why I wrote The Berkeley Girl…,” my blog from Sept. 22, for more about these stories.
Any reader of literary fiction should find value in the four separate pieces, which together bring to life the full spectrum of people coping with generational, artistic, economic, and political conflicts during the late sixties.
Please place this collection in the hands of the men you know, maybe as gift, and see if they don’t thank you. If you are a guy on my email blast list, especially if you have already read and enjoyed A Time to Cast Away Stones (aka The Berkeley Girl, In Paris, 1968), get your copy of Rendezvous on Amazon, also available at Barnes & Noble. You can always take it to your favorite coffee place with a brown paper cover on it – well, on second thought, please don’t.