pleased to bring you My Favorite City, an article that was written
by Phyllis A. Whitney in 1956 to accompany the book club publication of
The Trembling Hills. The article originally appeared in "The
Peoples Choice"—a publication of the Sears Peoples Book Club.
San Francisco was my first American city. I was born in Yokohama, Japan, and until I reached fifteen had lived in the Orient with my parents. When my father died in China my mother brought me home to the United States for the first time. I shall never forget my excitement the day our ship steamed through the Golden Gate and I had my first glimpse of the city that stood for America in my eyes.
Though we did not settle in San Francisco proper, but in Berkeley across the bay, my affection for "the City" began at that time. We later moved to San Antonio and then Chicago, and I now live on Staten Island in New York, but I have always wanted to return and often wished I could write about my favorite city. Two years ago this urge crystallized.
Before I started the book, however, there was a long period of research and planning, since I wanted to know the city more thoroughly than I had known it when I lived close by. I absorbed volumes of its dramatic history, reading everything I could find written by those who knew and loved San Francisco. Only then was I able to narrow the field of history until I found the exact period about which I wanted to write.
At first I dismissed the year 1906 in which the earthquake and fire occurred. So many people had written about it; what could I contribute? But as I read I found a recurring refrain which attracted me. After one of the most devastating disasters in history, the people of San Francisco had gone to work on ruins still hot and smoldering, and had achieved a recovery so rapid and astonishing as to bring them the praise of the world. Dramatic as is the disaster itself for a writer, the recovery was the part of the story which most caught my interest and emotion. Much of the fiction I had read used the fire as a climax and had little to say about what happened afterward.
In fact, I became intrigued by the before-and-after contrasts. The fire marked the end of a period of glamour that still had the Victorian stamp upon it. Great mansions had flourished on Nob Hill. Diamond tiaras had glittered as they have never done since. The fire brought a leveling of classes that made it impossible to return in full to the old ways.
Before long I knew I wanted to write about both periods. The Trembling Hills begins in January of the fateful year of 1906 and brings my heroine to a Nob Hill mansion in the months before the earthquake. On April 18 it seemed to San Francisco that the whole world had shattered and was afire. My characters would go through the entire experience from beginning to end, and on into the time of recovery afterwards.
But before the book could be written, I must return to San Francisco. In the San Francisco Public Library were hundreds of photographs taken during the fire and afterwards. When I had studied them I could walk the streets, climb the hills of modern San Francisco, and yet see in my minds eye as it had been in those days when the fire roared at the end of every street, and when it had been turned into a city of rubble and broken brick. West of Van Ness Avenue where the fire did not reach, many of the old houses still stand and I haunted that section too, snapping pictures for my records, sometimes walking up to a door and ringing the bell. More than once I was invited in and permitted to look at interiors which had not changed very much in the last fifty years. And of course there were people to interview, some of whom still remembered the time of the fire.
Background and dramatic history, however, are not everything in a story. Much as these interest me, I am even more interested in the interplay and growth of character, in story itself. Since I meant to write a novel of suspense and use a strong mystery element, I could not have found a better background than San Francisco. Its colorful citizens have always made it a dramatic city, a city in which almost anything could happen. True accounts abound in events more fantastic than the fiction writer would dare attempt. People like my Hester Varaday fit reasonably into such a background and become more believable than they might be set elsewhere. Of course, Sara's affection for the city is my own, and I have enjoyed enormously telling her story and making the reacquaintance of the city by the Golden Gate.
Phyllis A. Whitney
Read about my visit to locations featured in Phyllis A. Whitney's The Trembling Hills, along with some corresponding excerpts from her book!
Set during the time of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, The Trembling Hills is a "best-selling novel of ghosts, forbidden love, ambition and redemption from the Queen of American Gothic Romance." Order your copy from Amazon.co.uk today!