Noe Valley Voice April 2003

Michael Castleman Treasures His First Novel: The Lost Gold of San Francisco

By Betsy Bannerman

After more than 30 years as a medical journalist, health crusader, and sex guru, Noe Valley resident Michael Castleman is embarking on a new adventure. In early April, he will publish his first novel, a mystery called The Lost Gold of San Francisco (21st-Century Publishing: $24.95). Castleman will be signing the book this month at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore on 24th Street and at several other literary venues around the Bay Area. And he is thrilled.

"It's the most fun I've had as a writer," says the best-selling author of a dozen books and more than a thousand health care articles. "In medical writing, you spend all your time explaining things. With fiction, you get to create a whole new world. Writing this book was like a sabbatical for me professionally."

The Lost Gold of San Francisco is an action-packed tale full of local color, true-to-life characters, and historical detail, spanning the 83 years between the devastating 1906 earthquake and the "pretty big" one that jolted the World Series in 1989. The "lost gold" refers to a (fictional) shipment of $20 gold pieces, which disappeared from the San Francisco Mint in the days following the Great Quake. But the murders take place in contemporary San Francisco--well, almost contemporary: the pre-dot-com days of the late '80s. Castleman's protagonist is a hard-nosed reporter, working for a daily newspaper much like the Chron/Ex. (See excerpt from the novel, starting at right.)

Like his main character, Castleman has done his share of investigative reporting. In fact, he won an award for his Mother Jones series on "Toxic Breasts," exploring the chemical links to breast cancer.

But writing of all sorts has been in the cards since childhood. The son of a college professor and a librarian who adored fiction, the New York­born Castleman says he knew from the age of 12 he wanted to be a novelist. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in English from the University of Michigan, he became an administrator at a free health clinic in Ann Arbor.

"It was very apparent that many people coming in to the clinic could have avoided their medical problems if they'd just had a little more information," he remembers.

He started writing a health column in the local underground newspaper, which was soon syndicated. By the time he moved to California in 1975, "people had actually read my stuff. The Berkeley Barb said, 'Oh, yeah, we know you!'"

Over the next two decades, Castleman racked up a string of journalistic successes. He wrote 10 consumer health books, including Sexual Solutions: For Men and the Women Who Love Them (1980), Nature's Cures: 33 Natural Therapies to Improve Your Health and Well-Being (1996), and There's Still a Person in There: The Complete Guide to Preventing, Treating, and Coping with Alzheimer's Disease (2000). He also took over editorship of the health magazine Medical Self-Care.

Along the way, he continued freelancing for a wide spectrum of magazines--from Playboy and Men's Health to Redbook and The Ladies' Home Journal. "[Health writing] has given me a good living," he says. "It serves a social purpose, and I enjoy it."

But through it all, the fiction bug was still biting. He started two novels but discarded them ("A novel is defined as an extended piece of prose, with several things wrong with it," he chuckles).

Then in 1987, he saw a blurb in Herb Caen's column in the San Francisco Chronicle, about an Hispanic laborer who found a rare gold coin while digging the foundation for a downtown highrise. Castleman had been a coin collector as a kid, and he is also a San Francisco history buff. He was intrigued. He wrote a 250-page first draft of the "Lost Gold" story, but then, "life intruded." He kept tinkering with the plot and characters, though, and as a 50th birthday present to himself, decided to tackle the tale again.

"I pulled out my file of notes, and of course had no idea what half of them meant. But by then the story had been rattling around in my head for 12 years."

Two years later, he had a book. Castleman says he was best at plotting the action--"It's a book of verbs more than adjectives or nouns"--and that he worked hard to make his characters three-dimensional. He did lots of research: he owns all five books that have been published on the '06 earthquake. And he read the Chronicle and the old Examiner on microfilm to get a deeper sense of what life was like during 1989--the movies, restaurants, songs on the radio, and day-to-day baseball statistics.

"Writing is difficult," says this writer of at least one book that sold over a million copies (The Healing Herbs: Complete Guide to Nature's Medicines, 1991). "Good writing is clear, elegant, and insightful. That's tough."

One thing that he says helped him in writing Lost Gold was the structure. It opens with a novella, jumps ahead to a novel, and ends with a short story. "When I got frustrated with one form," he says, "I could refocus on another section and still feel like I was making progress."

He had only one "dark night of the soul," when he got stuck and actually quit writing for a few weeks. But during a long hike up to Douglass Playground, he suddenly realized, "Oh, this is the problem. I can fix it this way." He did many rewrites after that, but met no more roadblocks. He even came up with a "surprise" ending.

"What I like about mysteries is that they are morality plays," he says. "They open with something out of joint with the world, and by the end, things are set right and the world is more comprehensible."

When not writing, Castleman finds pleasure in daily life. He does yoga several times a week, figure-skates at Yerba Buena Ice Rink, and takes ski trips with his family--doctor wife Anne, and kids Jeff and Maya.

He loves living in Noe Valley (seven years on Elizabeth, 15 on Alvarado). He likes the weather, the Noe Valley Music Series, and the "villageness" of the neighborhood. "You have all the advantages of a big city right out your front door, but at the same time there's a small-town feeling."

One of his book's characters lives on the 22nd Street hill, and several others live nearby.

Castleman has some ideas for a next novel, and is also in the midst of finishing another medical book. Mostly, though, he is enjoying shepherding his "dream come true" into print.

"I love getting up in the morning and knowing I'm a novelist and going to bed at night and I'm still a novelist. It's great!" h

Michael Castleman will sign copies of The Lost Gold of San Francisco on Saturday, April 5, 2 p.m., at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, 4175 24th Street near Diamond. His other dates include April 7, 7:30 p.m., at M is for Mystery in San Mateo; April 27, 5 p.m., at Book Passage in Corte Madera; and May 20, 7 p.m., at Barnes and Noble in Berkeley.

Excerpts from Lost Gold

Here are a few nuggets from The Lost Gold of San Francisco, by Noe Valley writer Michael Castleman (©2003, 21st-Century Publishing).

Background: It's April 18, 1906, the day of the Big One. In the chaos of the earthquake and fire, the San Francisco Mint loses $130,000 in $20 gold pieces, each containing a telltale error. Instead of the usual "S" mint mark, the coins have a double mark, "SS." In the ensuing years, only two are ever found. The rest become the "lost gold" of San Francisco.

Fast-forward to 1989: Chester Worthington Gilchrist III, billionaire publisher of San Francisco's leading newspaper, the Foghorn, donates his priceless coin collection to the California Museum. It contains one of the two known "SS" gold pieces. Reporter Ed Rosenberg is sent to cover the story. Then the museum director turns up murdered.

While chasing the bigger story, Ed learns that Tim Huang is also covering it. Years earlier, they'd both studied karate at the same dojo. Tim has just landed a job at San Francisco's alternative weekly, the Defender. Ed started out there, too, but got fired by the paper's brilliant but irascible owner, Jocko McKenzie. Ed warns Tim not to tell Jocko about their friendship.

* * *

"Too late," Tim explained as Ed maneuvered his beat-up Mustang through the midmorning traffic up Ninth Street. "Jocko knows."

The 'Stang had started out fire-engine red, but a decade of San Francisco sun, rain, and salty fog had turned it odious orange. Then a tourist plowed into the car's right side, necessitating replacement of the door. Ed didn't have collision, so his mechanic scrounged a door from a junkyard near Candlestick. Only it was green. On Dolores Terrace, the alley where Ed lived near Mission Dolores, the neighbors called the car "Behind the Green Door," after the porno film by the city's bad-boy filmmakers, the Mitchell Brothers.

Ed turned down the radio to merely loud as KFOG played the Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line."

"Did Jocko throw anything?" Ed zipped through Civic Center. Homeless men in filthy coats lounged on the plaza grass. Ed ran up Leavenworth past the hulking Main Library and into Little Saigon, where Vietnamese restaurants and markets were crowding out the previous wave of Chinese immigrants and the old-time poor, black and white, who had inhabited the area's cheap hotels since the 1950s.

Tim laughed. Ed headed out Geary for the crosstown trek to Seacliff, where some of San Francisco's priciest real estate perched on the rocky bluffs just west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was a glorious day, sunny, clear, and bracing, the kind of day Easterners love in January and hate in July, the kind San Franciscans call "normal." They passed Japantown, whose creation had wrenched the heart out of the Fillmore, until the late 1950s the city's main black neighborhood. The old jazz clubs were long gone now, supplanted by more stately places like the Chinese consulate and the Miyako Hotel, where rock bands liked to stay because of the sunken tubs in the bathrooms.

"Melissa says hi," Tim said.

The Defender's masthead listed Melissa Rubin as Publisher's Assistant, but actually, she ran the paper. Jocko assigned the stories, wrote the editorials, and made sure that coverage always glorified the city's neighborhoods and vilified City Hall and the downtown corporations, especially PG&E. But Melissa did everything else, including occasionally restraining Jocko from slugging the politicians who trooped in around election time looking for endorsements. Without her, the paper would have collapsed under the weight of its owner's insufferability--and even Jocko knew it.

"Tell her hi back."

They cruised past the Fillmore Auditorium, a tomb in midmorning. The marquee proclaimed, Tonight: Fine Young Cannibals. Ed liked them. He might have caught the show, but ever since he'd turned 30, he couldn't deal with weeknight concerts whose headliner came on at midnight.

"Why'd Jocko fire you?"

"Long story."

They fell silent as they passed Kaiser and shot through the tunnel. Sex, Lies, and Videotape was at the Bridge. Farther west, the Coronet had The Abyss. West of Arguello, the businesses became more polyglot, with signage in Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Russian. KFOG played Springsteen's "Born to Run."

Ed's firing was actually a short story. The reason was insubordination, his refusal to attend the weekly taste tests, one of the Defender's most popular features. Every week, it was something else: burgers, burritos, cappuccino, whatever. Readers nominated their favorites, then the staff sampled and voted. Winners were awarded "Best of San Francisco" certificates, which they displayed prominently. At first, Ed dutifully showed up every Tuesday afternoon. It was fun being in the know, conferring "Best of" awards. But the process became tedious and then oppressive. He stopped caring about who made the best falafel, and the arguments for or against some contestant began sounding pathetic. He realized why Jocko was always uncharacteristically quiet at the weekly ritual. Taste tests were one of the silly ingredients he had to stir into the mix to keep enough people reading his paper so that advertisers would keep it afloat. Ed began ducking taste tests. Eventually, Jocko cornered him and demanded to know why.

"Watching my weight," Ed lied.

Jocko replied that weight control shouldn't be a problem without an income, then fired him just as Melissa was setting up a dozen steaming plates of Pad Thai for the weekly go-round.

Three days later, the Foghorn's night police reporter dropped dead of a heart attack. Ed knew some reporters on the Horn and got the job.

Jocko didn't speak to Ed for a year. Then, one Sunday afternoon, with the 49ers in the playoffs, Ed answered his doorbell to find a smiling Jocko holding a six-pack of Anchor Steam and Chinese in boxes.

Ed wondered how long Tim would last in Jockoland. He also wondered if his former employer knew that Tim could easily break his neck with one well-placed side kick.

THEY CROSSED THE ESPLANADE that framed Park Presidio Boulevard. The temperature dropped 10 degrees, and the ocean breeze grew stiff and salty. At the gilded minarets of the Russian Orthodox Church, Ed turned right toward Seacliff.

"You must have made black belt years ago," Ed ventured, trying not to sound too impressed.

"Yeah," Tim replied modestly. "Remember what Master Chen always said?"

"A black belt is a beginner."

Tim smiled. "You remember."

"How is he?" Ed's voice softened, and carried wisps of longing and remorse.

"Good. Healthy. He's 67 now. He's stopped teaching students below brown, but he still coaches the advanced group."

The boxy, three-flat, bay-windowed places pressed together shoulder to shoulder gave way to single-family homes, then larger ones. Across Camino del Mar, past stone pillars chiseled with SEACLIFF, they entered a world of enormous mansions and dramatic landscaping. Off to the right and very close, the Golden Gate Bridge was framed against an azure sky and cobalt water dotted with whitecaps. Sailboats frolicked in the breeze, and a huge Suzuki container ship chugged out to sea.

"He misses you," Tim said.

"I miss him, too," Ed admitted wistfully. "Tell him, would you?"

"Tell him yourself," Tim replied, with an edge of bitterness.

"I will." But Ed knew he wouldn't. He felt guilty about it. Master Chen had always been good to him, a mentor. But Ed's study of karate coincided with his years in graduate school. Afterward, it was hard to get to the dojo. He kept meaning to stop by, but never quite made it.

"Why didn't you go on after--what was it?--brown belt?" Tim asked.

"Green. I don't know. My life changed. And I realized I was there for the wrong reason."

"What reason?"

"To learn how to fight."

"Ah, yes," Tim reflected, "every time some new kung fu movie comes out, we get an influx of new students dying to learn flying spin kicks. Master Chen tells them: 'Karate is not about fighting--'"

Ed completed his old teacher's saying: "'--karate is about serenity.'"

They looked at each other and smiled. Tim said, "It's funny. When I was coming up, I never understood what he meant by that. Now that I'm teaching, I'm beginning to get it."

Ed turned into Seacliff Court, the classiest address in the neighborhood. Two police cars were in the driveway of a sprawling four-story Spanish hacienda with a tile roof and enough beveled glass to make Ed reach for his sunglasses. An ambulance was parked at the curb, flanked by TV vans with dishes pointed skyward. Ed pulled up at a rarity for San Francisco, a big open stretch of curb, and the two reporters sauntered up the brick walk as paramedics eased out the front door wheeling a gurney topped by a black body bag.

"Maybe that's why I quit," Ed mused. "I'm incapable of serenity." h

* * *

"NOE VALLEY" is a misnomer. The neighborhood is actually a hilly plateau carved out of the broad shoulders of Twin Peaks and Diamond Heights, supported by the strong back of the Mission. Along 24th, the commercial heart of the neighborhood, Noe Valley slides gently down to the Mission. Elsewhere, the border between the two neighborhoods is marked by 200-foot bluffs. The steepest section is 22nd Street between Church and Vicksburg, where the sidewalk is a concrete staircase and the street is one-way, down. The drive is a black diamond ski run. Years ago, at the upper lip of the precipice, the Department of Public Works erected a sign with the understated warning: HILL. Soon after, a graffiti artist crossed it out and spray-painted: CLIFF.

From The Lost Gold of San Francisco by Michael Castleman, ©2003 by 21st-Century Publishing, Henderson, Nevada