Part 98: A Conversation with Eric Pitsenbarger, Writer, Memoirist
I've been writing away on shorter pieces about Riley, putting this blog aside for the past several months. In the meantime, my friend Eric Pitsenbarger recently published a book about his father, Gerald, and the restaurant his family owned in Mendocino called Cafe Beaujolais, which became a local landmark––and this blog is part conversation, part author interview. The book is called "Beaujolais in My Blood."
Here's the conversation we had about writing about a difficult parent, guilt, and where you can buy Eric's book, plus photographs.
Handsome, longhaired Eric, below:
Stacya: Eric, congratulations on your book, “Beaujolais in My Blood.” I've witnessed your writing journey from the very beginning, when it was just an idea, and it's been a pleasure. Remembering back, at the start of it all, when the book was a kernel in your mind, you admitted to intense feelings of guilt writing about your father, Gerald. This is something I’ve also struggled with, writing about my own dad. I still feel at times a deep sense that I’ve betrayed my father by discussing and writing about his life, even though his life obviously impacted and intertwined with mine. How have you navigated those feelings in this process, and how are you doing with those feeling now?
Eric: Stacya, it’s a great first question. Going right for the meat! Guilt around my father…well, it’s a good part of the whole story. Now, I’m fine. But back then, it became a shit show! I should say also, there is a happy ending. Against the backdrop of a family restaurant and unique locale of Mendocino in the 1970s, even with all the gay stuff, my coming out, the through line is about me and my father, Gerald and the guilt that impacted both of us.
In the beginning as I wrote first drafts, accumulating stories, memories resurfacing, tying everything together, it became evident, then obvious that I’d been carrying around so much guilt in connection with Gerald. Let me also quickly say, my story is not narcissistic complain porn! Like, oh poor me, and awful dad.
Stacya: Oh, I totally hear you on that last point. That type of personal writing, poor me—hard to read. You have a wonderful sense of humor, which is crucial with this kind of story.
Eric: First drafts were more a blame game, but that was just boring. I did my therapeutic teeth gnashing, then opened it up. The onion skins revealed other, better stuff. I’ve since unraveled my own role, making myself a character, finding plenty of humor. I had to make some fun of myself, of course. I mean, I was a stupid adolescent muddling through. But everything did sprout from a few key points of guilt, in particular. The guilt of not being a good student, of not jumping for joy when we moved to Mendocino, or enthusiasm about becoming a part of a restaurant family, of picking up the mantle of chef and becoming what Gerald had envisioned for me.
Stacya: Sometimes I think parents with a narcissistic tendency project qualities onto their own children, which is tough going for kids, who are supposed to be finding their own way; their likes, dislikes, what they excel at, what they are drawn to.
Eric: When I realized that Gerald was grooming me to “inherit” his legacy and become a restauranteur, I rebelled even further. I couldn’t and I didn’t want to do that at all! Then,I perceived my guilt for losing the restaurant. It was all my fault. It wasn’t really, but I certainly played a part.
Stacya: My parents didn’t drink much. I only saw my father drunk once, and he was sweet and funny, wobbly, a bit unsteady on his feet. My parents couldn’t afford boozing it up. My parent’s problems stemmed from trauma and untreated mental illness. Tell me about how your father’s alcoholism played a part in your life.
Eric: Gerald began drinking heavily and became a petty tyrant. He lay down the law, yet also became irrational, contradictory and vindictive. He became someone his own family hated––even feared and pitied. We were guilty for doubting him, guilty of doubting ourselves. There was guilt for perhaps not having acted sooner, of not being more willing, attentive, or responsible. I was guilty for not being perfect. Remember, I was a kid.
There was guilt for abandoning him (even though we’d tried every measure to help him). He rejected all our attempts, becoming a monster. Intransigent, surly, dismissive, a bully. His behavior ruined everything. I feel guilty just for saying that. My book became an underlying recognition and reckoning of how much guilt has impacted our world. I was a troubled teenager with a giant chip on my shoulder. Second guessing, projecting scenarios onto the situation, then reacting to an unrealistic expectation. Around and around. My father’s alcoholism made me (and my sisters) quick change artists, walking on coals to survive. I used this dynamic to craft a story from the trenches (as it were). Drama is colorful. The many dramatic episodes demanded to be told!
Our father’s love was contingent upon a task performed, if we’d successfully avoided a crisis, or on how many glasses of wine he’d had. It became a crap shoot. One perceived slight, and we would be in the deep freeze, questioning our motivations. There was guilt for being ourselves.
But, through all that confusing guilt, sprung my very own irreverent ability to reframe my experience. Guilt goaded and challenged me, but ultimately (I could see) it was a dead end. I was a young man with many gifts and I rejected the nihilism of guilt. Life was way too interesting. There was a better way. Guilt has been with me longer than I’ve known. A hereditary legacy. I’ve since learned that this is quite common.
Guilt has provided markers and roadblocks, but also, now in hindsight some wisdom. This has been my story to tell and now, guilt takes a back seat as I lift past and confirm the many huge efforts my parents and family made to create something amazing. Who knows if I would have acted differently if I knew then, what I know now?
Guilt is certainly an element of the story, but also, there is so much pride and joy. A really long answer, but you knew it could be!
Stacya: I love this long answer on guilt, I can relate.
On another topic, my mother was a Beatnik for a time, as a young artist in New York. She held some views from those days, that children were like “little adults” and should be given freedoms to run around unsupervised. I know your parents were also swirling around in that world in the 50s and 60s. Tell me more about that. I love the drawing of the Beatnik couple, by the way.
Eric: That drawing is from a memory I had as a toddler, of sitting on the rug, a poster of Picasso’s one eyed woman somewhere, with my two unspeakably cool parents, all in black (they always only wore black) sitting like statues on the piano bench.
Eric:(con't) I worshiped them. Ellen was a model for the fancy San Francisco department store I Magnin, and danced with an acolyte of Martha Graham. She cut her own hair short with a flat razor! She’d come home wearing Dior, Channel and Gucci, whisk me up and we’d go shopping. I’d watch her from the stroller as she picked through produce. She always looked like some elegant, dark angel against the mob of other people.
Eric's mom, Ellen, below.
Eric: Gerald was an opera singer, composer and actor. He looked like Errol Flynn, and was part of a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. He would take me to shows, plopping me in the front row. He’d swing down from the crow’s nest as Frederick in the "Pirates if Penzance" and I’d think, my dad is a super hero!
Eric: The first story in the book is about my very first, cognizant memory as a three year old. A Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading of his just published “Coney Island of the Mind”. First memory, first existential dilemma. North Beach in the late nineteen fifties. Vesuvios bar and restaurant. The parents dragged me along to all kinds of happenings. Yes, they treated me as if I were already a small adult, insisting that I call them by their first names. They weren’t mom and dad, but Gerald and Ellen. My two most important friends in the world. And ironically, it’s what saved me from spiraling later, in what my young parents first instilled in me…to be an independent and creative thinker. It’s all their fault!
Stacya: Yes, I called my mother Jan and my father Riley and so did my older sister, Lisa.
Eric: They were rebels themselves when they were young. It’s by their example that I gobbled up experiences.
Stacya: Writing about my father and learning about his traumatic past gave me great compassion for him. Did you experience that yourself, digging into Gerald’s history?
Eric: Oh absolutely! I was broken hearted hearing about some of his childhood stories. Gerald came from the generation of the great depression, schooled in the suppression of his own feelings. Denying certain personal attributes, a religious farm boy with a sensitive nature, he was often punished just for being himself. Failure meant weakness and weakness was death. I hated hearing about that. I didn’t much like failure either, but in trying again, things got better. I guess back then the stakes were much higher.
Suffering was a measure of a man, and when Gerald started drinking, he really enjoyed his suffering. He looked for it, courted it. The addiction to suffering became his precious pain. The legacy of toxic masculinity. I loved him and hated him at the same time.
I came along and flipped the script, rejecting all that bullshit––challenging Gerald’s ingrained ‘show no weakness’ mindset. I was also, a very sensitive boy, but from a very different time. I cried often and wore my heart on my sleeve. I showed him that it was OK to have feelings, and to express them. I did also, however, repress a lot of anger.
Just being myself was difficult for Gerald to comprehend. The one thing I really wanted was the exact thing he was most afraid of– being gay.
Stacya: How did you choose where to begin the story, and what years to center on?
Eric: The original motivation was to write a history, to give credit to the parents (as they never really received much in their lifetime), but I quickly realized that this needed to be a memoir, told from my perspective; and the device of writing as my former disgruntled teenage self has helped open so many doors in my mind, bringing guilt and redemption into the light.
I began with hordes of notes scrabbled together over many years. Familial fables, favorite anecdotes, journals, photos, and ephemera marshaled together. Sporadic interviews of the parents and sisters. This long process also convinced me that it was my story to tell, as nobody else wanted much to do with it. There was too much bitterness associated. I was the only one who’d retained much of the joy.
Stacya: This interview is such perfect timing! Earlier this year, I was on a road trip, driving from Seattle down the 101 to the land where your story takes place, Northern California. On the way down we stopped in Arcata, spent time in your childhood town of Berkeley. On the way back, we drove up highway 1, spent New Year’s Eve in Gualala, then the winding roads you describe so well in Mendocino. Reading the descriptions in your story made me wish I’d read your book before we took off, but reading it after makes me appreciate your descriptions more, even through the lens of a disgruntled teen, homesick for Berkeley.
Eric: Ha! And yes, I’m still that eccentric, persnickety adolescent, judging everything! Albeit with a bit more refinement, hopefully. It’s the first real story I wrote, that father/son road trip along those tiny corkscrew roadways. It became the fourth chapter in the book. My impressions of driving from 1960’s Berkeley to Mendocino. This analogy of a road trip allowed for a lot of information and introspection, the transitions from city to country. It was like passing through a portal. It’s almost my favorite story, because thankfully it’s still like that.
Stacya: Now that the book is finished, after having spent so much time with this story, the writing, the editing process and rereading, what has this whole process meant for you?
Eric: Holding a physical book in my hand has changed the dynamics of the manuscript. I’m seeing things differently. But the story reads like butter. This whole adventure, of researching, writing, hiring an editing team and publicist, to spending a year trying to entice literary agents, (with no luck) to then self-publish and now begin to “market” the effort, has been hugely impactful on my life. I’m different than when I started.
To say that this process has been cathartic is an understatement. Transformative is more like it. I’d recommend it for everybody with a story to tell…and we’ve all got stories to tell! I’ve became a better person. I’ve exorcised a familial beast, gathered the will and chutzpah and innate storytelling abilities to create a tapestry. I became a writer! Sharing my feelings and insights as elder (speaking through my younger self) has been so much fun. This is a love letter.
On the other side of this seminal experience, I see why my young family all did what we did, and why Gerald was so conflicted. With no coping strategies (other than common sense) we muddled through. But we could only take so much abuse. My elegant, handsome, and charismatic father, Gerald, had been troubled from the start, and it’s through the crucible of this demanding period of supporting a family, beginning a new business, that other, deeper secrets were then exposed.
Stacya: I love all the photographs you sent, and reading all your lush descriptions of Mendocino. Driving on highway 1 on New Year’s Day, we passed a young woman in a full length fur stole, walking down the highway barefoot. It was so wacky and out of place. Later we learned there was a 5.4 earthquake in Northern California, which we didn’t feel in the car, so maybe she was just getting outside? I loved the mystery of her, and it reminded me of all the stories unfolding in these quiet places. Tell me about the photograph of the house at the end of the dirt road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere…
Eric: Isn’t that a great photo! Yeah, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. That’s exactly how I felt living in Mendocino in the ‘70s! This is a photo of our house, the Beaujolais as seen from atop School Street, looking down onto Ukiah Street. Pan slightly left, and there’s Evergreen Cemetery. This photo is typical of the desolate, lonely melancholy that permeates the town. It’s beautiful.
And yup, also typical to see someone wandering barefoot, dressed in a mink stole. I’d hitchhike barefoot sometimes just to meet friends at the river, or to go to a hippy school up one of the ridge roads. You live close to nature over there. In the 1970s, it was completely normal.
Stacya: Tell us where your book readings will be with links, and where readers can make a purchase. Shamelessly plug your new book!
Eric: The book drops April 25. Available through my author site, Bookshop.org, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, or anywhere you like to buy books. Even the library! There will be several readings, one at Third Place Books / Seward park in Seattle. Here's a link.
In Mendocino, I'll give an interactive slideshow presentation at the Kelley House museum on Thursday May 18th, then the Beaujolais will host a reception for me afterwards in their adjacent bakery "The Waiting Room" (which happens to be the garage I used to live in!). On Saturday May 20th, Gallery Bookshop will give me a table to sign books. A historical curation of all things Mendocino. Here's a link.
And Eric's author page: Ericneilpitsenbarger.com
Best of all, Eric's been featured by a Northwest favorite, Nancy Guppy. Nancy is a treasure because she's easy to talk to, artists are drawn to her, (she's an artist, too) and understands the art of the interview. It's a rare skill, not everyone has the talent. Here's the Nancy Guppy interview.