Noe Valley Voice June 2000

'False Alarm' May Ring True for Many Local Moms

By Maire Farrington

Noe Valley author Heather Drohan's debut novel, False Alarm, is a comic novel about a woman trying to do it all.

Like the author, the novel's protagonist lives in Noe Valley with her husband and two small children, while working downtown for a sports management firm. However, "none of the chicanery, foolishness, or dubious behavior in which [my] characters indulge should be construed as anything other than the product of [my] imagination," Drohan writes in the preface to Chapter One.

The novel centers around the chaotic life of Kate McCabe, a woman who is competing in the "man's world" of professional sports while nursing her second child, entertaining her zany mother and her mother's latest fiancé, and toying with the idea of having an affair. Meanwhile, her husband has given up his position as a junior partner in a law firm to become a San Francisco firefighter.

"It's a story that relates to a lot of things I've gone through," admits Drohan, 35, "like being a woman trying to juggle a career and a family and keep the house together. It's hard because there is so much expected of women these days -- you really are expected to do it all."

Drohan works as a CPA for a company that manages the financial affairs of star athletes, and her insider's view of the business was a rich source of inspiration for her novel. "I've been working for this firm for five or six years, and I've had a couple of children while I've been there, so I've nursed and done the pumping at work and the whole thing," she laughs.

And like her heroine, she finds herself jumping through hoops to satisfy the often ridiculous requirements of her job. "There are so many funny things that happen in this industry," says Drohan. There was the time when she needed to wire money to an athlete's mother in Las Vegas. The federal wires were closed for the afternoon, and Drohan found herself trekking through the Tenderloin in search of a Western Union office. "I was six months' pregnant, and I had my boss's cell phone, and I thought, this is just absurd."

Still, she hopes she's less driven than her lead character. "Kate is an over-the-top Type A: She's ultraorganized. She tries to manage it all, and she tends to overdo it. She is a little on the neurotic side. Of course, we all have tendencies like that. I think she's a likable character. She's really human."

Kate's husband's career crisis seriously challenges her expectation of what their life together should be. "She sees this as abandonment," says Drohan. "He's going to be living in the firehouse, she's got these two little kids, and she's going to have to pull in most of the money. So it puts a real nick in her world."

Drohan believes her book, published this month by Creative Arts Book Company, will appeal to a wide audience. Not only does it portray contemporary women's issues, but "there's also the husband who wants to be a firefighter. I think some men do feel trapped in a career," she says. "There's some of the Jerry Maguire sports world, too. It gets into the motivation of the athletes."

Male readers, including sports analyst Rod Gilmore of ESPN, have given it a thumbs-up. "He loved the book and gave me a blurb for it, and said it was absolutely dead-on for the sports world," Drohan says.

While much of the action takes place in San Francisco's Mission and Financial districts, Drohan decided to have her characters reside in Noe Valley for much the same reasons she does. "We live here because we find it such a fascinating place," says Drohan. She lives on Castro Street with her husband Gray Drohan, son Ethan, age 5 (a former More Mouths feature), and daughter Carmine, 21/2.

"Noe Valley is like a little Cannery Row. There's so much to look at and the people are really interesting. It's just so colorful. I think people should know about this place -- it's sunny, it's great. I haven't seen much written about it, and it's just so unique."

Though she's lived in the neighborhood for nearly nine years, Drohan hails from Washington State, where she began dabbling in creative writing during high school. At the University of Washington in Seattle, she rounded out her major in accounting with as many electives in creative writing as she could handle.

"I always wanted to be a writer," she relates. "I just didn't know how I was going to support myself doing it. I didn't see myself teaching because I sort of had this shy streak. So I ended up doing something really practical." This included getting her CPA license and wearing many hats in the world of finance. She's held positions as an accounting manager in an investment banking firm, an investment analyst, and a controller.

About eight years ago, "I started really hitting it -- writing every day," Drohan says. At first, that meant rising at 5 a.m. to put in a couple of hours before heading to the office. "I wrote this mystery I never did anything with -- it's under my bed. It's set in Spokane where I grew up. It was a good way to practice."

Drohan then published a short story in the literary journal Zyzzyva. Editor Howard Junker asked to see more of her work and commissioned her to write her novel False Alarm. "I about fell out my chair," says Drohan. "I just kept thinking, this can't be true, where's the catch?

"So then there was all this pressure to write it, so I just hunkered down," she says.

These days, Drohan works outside the home two to three days per week, an arrangement she's made in order to have more time to spend with her children. As for the writing?

"I just do it whenever I can," she says. "The writing is such a love, though, it's a pleasure to do. I accomplish a lot more now than when I didn't have kids, because there's this desperation element where you have a babysitter for three hours and you're paying them and you know you've got to write. Someday, when I have a regular schedule, it should be easier, but now things are just so crazy in our household with all the activities."

Drohan's busy life has raised some eyebrows, but she says staying connected to the career track has added balance to her creative life.

"People say, 'I can't believe you're trying to juggle all this stuff.' They think it's just so nutty that I'm a CPA. But it really does give me material," she explains, "and there's a certain side of me that likes that there are no gray areas [in accounting]. It makes you feel as if you have some control -- like, this is done, you can put it away--whereas writing is never finished."

As for what she hopes her novel will convey: "I wanted Kate to realize she's looking for perfection in her life, and to look around and appreciate what she has. I think her expectations are so high, she really needs to have some faith in what she has -- in her husband and family. She is just too suspicious of people, and she worries a lot. And she needs to let go of some things. I think she learns that." M

Cover to Cover Booksellers on 24th Street will host a book-signing party for Heather Drohan on June 29 at 7 p.m. You can also catch the author at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books on July 20. For more information, visit Heather Drohan's web site at

Excerpt from Heather Drohan's

False Alarm

Kate decided to surprise Sandy with his mother's Jell-O salad on Christmas Eve. At Bell Market, she bought a box of lime Jell-O, a can of pineapple tidbits ("not chunks"; her mother-in-law had been very specific), a jar of mara-schino cherries, two pints of whipping cream, whole-milk cottage cheese, a bag of mini-marshmallows, and eight rolls of toilet paper. Kate hoped that she wouldn't screw up: making Jell-O was not a skill passed down in her family.

As she lugged the two bags of groceries up Castro Street, a bike and two strollers rolled past her. She liked that Noe Valley was full of children -- Fertile Valley, it was nicknamed. The day was cool and windless. The fog had settled in the eaves of Twin Peaks, the two mountains that swelled above Noe Valley, the breasts of Mother Earth, her nipples to the sky.

San Francisco was festive during the holidays. The row houses that had once seemed so impossibly mashed together -- "You couldn't even floss them," Kate had complained when she and Sandy moved there from Seattle -- were decked out in wreaths and bows. The front-porch pillars of 19th-century Victorians were wrapped to look like candy canes. On 21st Street two gay men decorated the front of their house with a 30-foot tree and giant gift boxes and stuffed animals. They took turns every night in December (unless they were attending dinner parties) dressing up as Santa and passing out candy canes to the startled children. It was such a fantastic spectacle that people tried giving them money. The Noe Valley Voice printed their request just to donate to a favorite charity: "We're a couple of wealthy fags and don't want to take candy from a baby. This is our present to you. Use it as an example of doing good."

The house next door to them boasted so many red lights -- the owner kept them up year-round -- that sometimes the power flickered and the television zapped off when Kate and Sandy were watching The X-Files. Kate had grown up with white Christmases in Spokane and believed that Christmas lights were supposed to glisten through snow. But the city's efforts were inspiring, and Kate sighed deeply when she saw that the weather vane on top of the turret of the Victorian across the street had been changed from a rooster to an angel.

Reprinted from False Alarm, published as a "Zyzzyva first book" by Creative Arts Book Company (Berkeley: 2000).