Please welcome author Michael McGranahan whose new novel tells the story of a man and his city.
Q: How would you describe this book?
A: Silver Kings & Sons of Bitches can be described many ways, but I think of it as an epic romance based on historical events and characters. Epic because it spans two decades and the characters are striving for larger-than-life goals. And romance because the book has both traditional romantic elements, boy meets girl, but also grand-scale romantic characters and conflict. The main protagonist, William Ralston, is a Don Quixote-like figure who is obsessed with the idea of transforming dirty and crude San Francisco, following the demise of the Gold Rush, into the most beautiful city in the world. And his motivation for this quixotic goal is the memory of his great, lost love, Louisa Thorn. Louisa, the grand-daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, died just before she was to marry Ralston, and he never got over her. Even after he was later married and had a family, he kept Louisa’s picture on his desk, and he even named his daughter Louisa (when his poor wife protested, they compromised on Edna Louisa). Ralston’s obsession with San Francisco was born of his obsession with Louisa Thorn, and he was determined that the city would be her legacy.
Q: How did Ralston think he could single-handedly transform an entire city?
A: He didn’t know, but everything fell into place for him when the Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada. Ralston, a banker, moved quickly to take control of the Comstock silver mines and to funnel their wealth into San Francisco. Then along comes Adolph Sutro, a big Prussian with a thick German accent, who is just a shop owner but fancies himself an engineer. Sutro becomes a self-appointed “expert” on the Comstock and soon decides that what is needed to make the mining more efficient is a four mile tunnel beneath the mines, which would aid in the removal of the ore and excess water. Ralston realizes that Sutro’s tunnel would jeopardize his control of the mines. This is the beginning of a decade-long battle between Sutro and Ralston: Sutro is determined to build his tunnel, and Ralston is determined to stop him. In the end, the battle, and the fickle nature of the Comstock, is Ralston’s undoing.
Q: Tell us about the “boy meets girl.”
A: The boy is Finnian Gillespie, an Irish carpenter and street fighter; the girl is Jessalyn Ohhlson, a young prostitute. These are the two principal fictional characters of the novel. Ralston discovers Jessie on the streets of San Francisco and what attracts his attention is that she looks just like his deceased fiancée, Louisa Thorn. He thinks he’s seen a ghost and, of course, he can’t resist her since he is still infatuated with the memory of Louisa. Finn sees Jessie and is smitten with her, but she is an elusive creature that he can’t find (he doesn’t realize that she doesn’t want to be found), until he moves to Virginia City (the Comstock) and discovers her there. Jessalyn, or Jessie, is a beautiful but mysterious girl who keeps her background behind a veil, to both Ralston and Finn. She’s intelligent and literate, and this enables her to eventually get a teaching job in Virginia City, where, as I say, she meets Finn. Finn is illiterate and she agrees to teach him to read. So, a love-triangle develops, with Ralston and Jessie having an affair, and Finn pursuing her, unaware of her former profession, or that she is seeing Ralston. She resists Finn’s overtures because she’s afraid of revealing her past, and breaking with Ralston, but Finn doesn’t know this and is vexed by her refusals. Jessie is a mystery, a fey creature whose surprising identity and history will only be revealed at the end of the story.
Q: So, is this also a tale of two cities, in a way? San Francisco and Virginia City?
A: Yes. Their fates during this time were inextricably linked. San Francisco is the rough stone that Ralston will transform into beautiful jewel, and he’ll do it by funneling the wealth flowing out of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. The key to the story is the plan Ralston and Louisa Thorn had to move to San Francisco together; this was their romantic vision of the future as a young couple. They were going to the great wide-open West where anything was possible, and when she died prematurely, Ralston was crushed. He could only go to California on his own and fulfill their dream on her behalf, in her memory. San Francisco then becomes a character of sorts, and her raw beauty is always on display, and it becomes Ralston’s quest to reveal that beauty to the world.
Q: Sutro seems like an interesting character, very romantic in his own way, fighting the powerful bank to do something pretty far-fetched, build a four-mile tunnel. A fight that lasts ten years, and he wins!
A: Absolutely. My initial concept for the book was that Sutro would be the principle protagonist. When I first read the story (in Irving Stone’s Men to Match My Mountains), I was completely taken with Sutro, the whole David v. Goliath thing, and thought he, and his story, would make a great novel. But, when I began doing the research, what became clear was that Sutro was an over-bearing, obnoxious man who had absolutely no sense of humor. There’s an anecdote that speaks volumes: Mark Twain, who was working on the newspaper in Virginia City (during the time he wrote Roughing It), got a ride from Sutro up the hill, and after crossing a bridge, Twain made a funny quip about the bridge. Not only did Sutro not laugh, he proceeded to give Twain a lecture on bridge building. Twain made great fun of Sutro, and I decided, ultimately, that I would do the same. I realized that the Don Quixote-like, and tragic Ralston made a much more compelling protagonist, and that Sutro could add some humor to the story being portrayed with some droll, sardonic wit.
Q: What led you to write this book?
A: The story itself and the fact that it was actual history, one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" stories. This is what compelled me to turn this into a novel—it was just too good to pass up. And as I did the research, I became more and more enthusiastic about it, learning that Ralston had this obsession with both his deceased fiancée and San Francisco, and that he met with such a tragic ending, it was like bells going off – this has to be a novel!
Q: Would you show this book to descendants of Ralston?
A: Absolutely. They may not like some of it, or agree with my premise that Louisa Thorn was the driving force behind Ralston’s obsession with San Francisco, but everything in the book is supportable. Ralston really did keep Louisa’s miniature portrait on his desk throughout his life, and he really did name his daughters after her and her mother. I think I paint a pretty sympathetic picture of Ralston, all in all. As for his interaction with Jessalyn, this is artistic license done for a specific purpose: to allow Ralston to express his deepest thoughts, to confide in someone, and to reinforce for the reader his constant longing for Louisa. That he had an affair with her (fictional), his descendants might find offensive, however, we must keep in mind that in the Victorian era, women were expected to be chaste and motherly, while men’s sexual peccadillos were overlooked and ignored. To have a prominent man like Ralston engage in an affair is well within acceptable boundaries for that day and age. I also believe that if Ralston himself saw the book, he’d say I captured his essence, his pathos, and his motivation very well.
Q: Is this your first book, and when did you start writing?
A: This is my first novel, but my first book was a non-fiction book on bankruptcy, a humorous, self-help book based on my experience as a bankruptcy trustee. I much prefer writing fiction, but when I began this novel (Silver Kings & …) I knew nothing about writing fiction, and it was a steep learning curve. I joined an internet-based critique group, I went to workshops and conferences, studied, read and read and read, and, of course, I wrote constantly.
Q: Are there other books in your future?
A: I’m two-thirds through my second historical novel, working title Abbey of London, set in Shakespearean England. This is more fictional than Silver Kings, but does have many historical characters including Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth. The idea behind the story is the question of who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Abbey is a fourteen-year-old girl who is in love with a boy, thinks she needs a dowry (she’s an orphan) if she is to marry, and works as a seamstress for the theaters in London. Her dead (murdered?) father was a bookseller. Abbey is offered money to find certain manuscripts by the very creepy Groom of the Wardrobe at the Curtain Theater, including Romeo & Juliet, King Henry VI, etc. And so she embarks on this quest, which turns out to involve many nefarious characters and puts her in a lot of danger. It’s sort of Nancy Drew meets William Shakespeare. And while it sounds Young-Adult, it will be sophisticated enough for adults.
I’ve also just begun another novel, Sutter’s Creek, a purely fictional story about a small town, a very “homogenous” small town, that undergoes a very painful transformation when an Arab family moves into town.
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MEET THE AUTHOR:
Michael McGranahan was born and raised in San Diego. He holds degrees in geology and geophysics (San Diego State and Stanford), and worked for 10 years in oil and gas exploration; six of those years were in San Francisco (where he fell in love with the City by the Bay). He is married and has two children, and currently resides in Modesto, California, where he works as a bankruptcy trustee and receiver. Living in the Central Valley provides a great jumping-off point (so to speak) for his rock climbing in Yosemite, surfing in Santa Cruz, and frequent trips to San Francisco. His unusual career path, combined with a love of history and training in the sciences, has perhaps given him the ideal background for this story about a banker, an engineer, and the silver mines of the Comstock Lode. Silver Kings & Sons of Bitches is his first novel, but he also writes short stories and is at work on his second historical novel, set in Shakespearian England.