"Everyone you meet here in San Francisco has some anecdote about 'the wild night I ended up in SoMa,'" author Kemble Scott said back in 2007. Sure, the neighborhood has experienced a gentrified taming since then. The outdoor orgies of yesteryear have been replaced by outdoor patio furniture stores, but luckily the gritty South of Market spirit -- a cornucopia of illicit drugs and sexcapades -- has been cleverly captured by Scott, pen name of journalist provocateur Scott James, who now writes a local column for The New York Times.
SoMa follows the intertwined path of three young people struggling in San Francisco immediately after the first dot-com bust. Unemployed and desensitized, they push their limits and their luck to try to regain a sense of fulfillment. SoMa is now an artifact of the oftentimes-surreal turn-of-the-century subcultures that were embedded in the neighborhood.
Kemble Scott is the second author invited to participate in the Magnet Book Club. The gay men's health center in the Castro will host Scott on Feb. 28 at 7:30pm for an intimate, wine-induced discussion of SoMa. To lead up to that event, we spoke to the author.
Why did you agree to do this book club?
Book clubs bring out that relationship that usually happens in the reader's lap. You're not there when they're reading it, you can't hear what they're thinking or experience their reaction. It's great hearing what readers have to say, and not in an anonymous way, which is what you get on Amazon.
What are some of the reactions the book has gotten since publication?
When the book first came out, we had a book club at the LGBT Center. The crowd was a mix of older gay men and younger guys, and it turned into a debate about "post-gay." One older man said he was sickened when he read about straight people in SoMa. He thought that because I was gay and I wrote a novel that I should write exclusively about the gay experience. When I wrote it I didn't envision it solely for gay readers.
I don't think there's one character in SoMa who is either completely gay or completely straight.
The characters fall all over the rainbow of sexuality, it's more complicated and similar to what we really have here in San Francisco. But I understand where he was coming from. We have this older generation who literally had to fight for their rights. It was a very polarizing conversation. When you open a book for interpretation, you're also opening it up to misinterpretation.
SoMa started as a short story. Why did you decide to turn it into a full-fledged novel?
At that time I was writing the SoMa Literary Review, a kind of new Tales of the City, and an editor at Alyson Books approached me and asked me if I had ever thought about turning it into a book. I said, sure! So I printed out several stories, stapled them together and sent them. But they didn't want just a print out of the website. So I had to work to tie them all together.
How did you go about connection all the stories?
That's where my journalism background came in. Reading about all these separate instances and digging to find that there are commonalities. In SoMa it's this desensitizing, this information overload, everyone always on their phones, playing video games nonstop and applying it to sexual exploration. You hear about a 22-year-old who is into fisting and wonder, how did this happen at such a young age? This extreme push to feel anything at all.
How has SoMa changed since the time in which the book takes place?
I moved there in 1997. There was no ballpark then. It's become more expensive, more residential. It was such a free-for-all, I'm talking whole alleys devoted to outdoor orgies, because there were no lights, no one cared, no one lived there. The Powerhouse was an all-out orgy.
Isn't it still?
I'm not saying they don't have their racy moments, but back then it was the one reason you'd go there. Now, you're lucky if it happens. All that stuff is now happening online. There are whole websites dedicated to setting up an orgy.
My friend set up an orgy on Facebook. But that's not as cool as trekking down to SoMa.
Some say SoMa has lost its flavor. A part of it is that it's no longer a feasible neighborhood for young people. That was its adolescence, now SoMa is closer to middle age. We are still exporting that fantasy. They were playing hardcore porn at a bear bar I went to in Madrid, and it was set in San Francisco! One of the guys I recognized. He goes to my gym.
Kemble Scott will be Magnet Book Club's guest of honor on Tuesday, February 28 at 7:30pm. Book club is open to the public and copies of SoMa are available at Books, Inc. in the Castro for 15% off. Magnet is located at 4122 18th Street (between Castro and Collingwood).
A version of this post originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.