Writer Elaine Beal Connects With Place
The Oakland author plumbs her past and present surroundings to fuel her fiction and nonfiction.
Photo courtesy Elaine Beale
Author Elaine Beale has lived in the Bay Area since 1989 — and in Oakland’s Upper Laurel neighborhood for more than 20 years — but her latest novel took her back to her upbringing in the flat, agricultural landscape of East Yorkshire, England.
Her semi-autobiographical novel, Another Life Altogether, was published in 2010 after Beale won the Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange Award, which allowed her to meet editors and agents in New York. In New York, the book was picked up by the Spiegel and Grau imprint at Penguin Random House. Set during the 1970s, the novel centers on a 13-year-old girl who is just discovering her sexuality while coping with a mother who has bipolar disorder.
Beale herself grew up in a difficult home that she left when she attended college in London. She then moved on to British Columbia for her MFA before finding her way to Northern California.
But years after she extricated herself from East Yorkshire, Beale found herself revisiting the landscape and history of her childhood home. The church down the street was completed in the 16th century; when her family members dug in the back garden, they discovered Roman pottery.
“I grew up in a small, quite historic town and I found it really connected me to the place,” she said. “California doesn’t have that sense of the deep history. … But the town I grew up in, there were streets called Baxtergate and Coppergate — the coppersmiths had been there in the Middle Ages.” (Baxter meant baker in Middle English.)
“My home life wasn’t particularly pleasant,” she said. “But being outside and being in nature and being in this environment where there was so much history” gave her a deep and abiding connection to place.
“Where you grow up is sort of where you’re rooted,” Beale said. “I think a lot of writers end up writing about the place they grew up.”
But the Bay Area has also proved inspiring in its own way for Beale. Beale’s first novel, which was published in 2007, was a mystery set in the Castro District. She was working for a neighborhood nonprofit and was inspired to fictionalize some of what she saw in the area after struggling with writing about her childhood.
“I love thrillers and I love mysteries and I wanted to see if I could write one,” Beale said. “I thought I would get it done in three months, and it took me 18 months, and it was just a lot of fun. And when I wrote my second book, I went back to exploring the autobiographical stuff from my childhood.”
In addition to being a novelist, Beale is a part-time development director at Berkeley’s Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program, teaches writing at Berkeley’s Writing Salon, coaches and edits aspiring authors, and offers workshops that use creative writing for wellness and healing. Her recently self-published nonfiction book, Write for Wellness, synthesizes what she’s learned from her workshop presentations.
But despite her paying gigs, she prioritizes her creative writing, writing for three or four hours first thing in the morning in the home she shares with her wife. “I always work at home because I need absolute silence. I always work in the mornings and try to arrange my schedule so I can have time in the morning to write. If I don’t do it in the morning, it doesn’t get done.”
And, true to her chosen home, she’s currently working on a thriller set in contemporary Oakland, with a street photographer protagonist.
“I love photography because it’s such a different part of the brain that you use than when you write,” she said. ”It’s like putting that language part of your brain to rest and using another part of your brain. But it’s people, characters … observing what’s going on in the environment.”
To learn more about Elaine Beale’s editing services, visit ElaineBeale.com.