One evening several years ago, I sat down at my desk and wrote a short, isolated scene for no reason, with no sense whatever of what it was supposed to be or where it was meant to go. This has happened to me only twice in my writing career. Usually, I don’t begin something until I have some idea where it’s headed, and invariably I start at the beginning and work my way through in orderly, consecutive fashion. But not this time. Instead, I’d produced a fractured shard that clearly should have begun somewhere else and that didn’t obviously lead anywhere in particular. The scene consisted of an internal monologue by a psychotherapist during a session with one of his clients; it tracked his wandering attention while she talked about her life. I liked it enough to save it, but had no idea what to do with it, and promptly forgot about it.
My wife and I were living in London at the time. She was there for a job, the Deanship of the London Business School. I had no reason for relocating other than conjugal loyalty; I didn’t much want to go, but since my profession is portable, I had no grounds for refusing. Besides, I’d spent my adolescence in England, so I wasn’t a stranger to the place, and I still had a number of very good friends in the city. Nevertheless, all things considered, I felt at loose ends for the first year or two, and would have much preferred to be in Berkeley.
At some point in our second year abroad, homesickness got the better of me, and I began composing a novel that was in many ways an evocation of the town we’d left, the only place where I’ve ever chosen to live. It was a pleasure to write; every morning I looked forward to going to my study and taking an imaginative journey home, experiencing Berkeley in detail, the houses, the shops, the climate, the topography. I wandered familiar streets and ate at familiar restaurants and greeted familiar figures, panhandlers and store clerks and waiters and waitresses and such. I smelled eucalyptus trees in the hills and felt the moist air coming off San Francisco Bay. And after writing five or ten pages, it suddenly hit me that that odd scene I’d scribbled so many months before fit perfectly into the narrative scheme I was devising. I was able to transplant it, more or less verbatim, into my book. It can be found there now, beginning on page 24.
The novel, of course, developed a life of its own. The germination point becomes increasingly irrelevant as work proceeds. Although I completed a draft while still living in London, I worked on it, revising and editing and refining, in the years after moving back to Berkeley. The finished novel, All Our Yesterdays, is no longer an expression of nostalgia; it’s an artifact that exists independent of my emotional state when I first conceived of it. But it remains a sort of love letter to the place I’ve always come back to.