Janjigian Delves into Wine, Women, Beat Writers and JFK in San Francisco

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WASHINGTON — Author Ken Janjigian puts a lot of himself into his work. In fact, in his latest novel, A Cerebral Offer (Livingston Press, University of West Alabama, 2020), he combines several of his interests: San Francisco, old bookstores, the Beat writers and even the fear of bridges.

In a recent interview from his home in the Washington suburbs, Janjigian spoke about some of the topics close to his heart and his methods for writing.

“It is a love affair between Harry and the city and I guess off that, the changes that have happened in San Francisco since the turn of the century,” Janjigian explained.

He added, “With this book, one thing I decided to do was to pour in the things I am most passionate about. Wine, Kerouac, San Francisco, the JFK conspiracy. Let me put all these things in there.”

And something else for readers to take away from it is “the love of movies and of course the changes with the movie theaters.”

As the proprietor of a failing movie theater in San Francisco, Harry Gnostopolos navigates his way out of a failing relationship and into another unstable one, as he  tries to save his beloved theater, and falls into the orbit of his eccentric writer friend, Jackson Halifax.

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[FYI: This week, it was reported that A Cerebral Offer won an Independent Publisher Book Award for Urban Fiction (bronze medal in that category).]

The San Francisco of the past, which at one time was synonymous with free love and hippies, is now rife with seven-figure real estate and internet moguls.

Janjigian said that for him the bohemian history of San Francisco is an inspiration, and that he enjoyed living in the city in the 1990s before its complete gentrification.

Janjigian moved to the Bay Area after he finished graduate school and found work at the Depot Café and Bookstore in Marin County.

“I moved to San Francisco and worked in a bookstore and my coworker who became a great friend and still is, admired the poets and increased my appreciation of the Beats,” Janjigian explained.

“If I had my way, I would have continued doing that. I lack the courage to be irresponsible in real life,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to do that.”

“I am there [in San Francisco] almost every year. I would like to retire there,” he said, adding with a laugh, “retiring in the most expensive city.”

The Cabrillo, the theater Harry owns, in the foggy Richmond district of the city, has seen better days and his girlfriend, the practical Dana, wants him to sell it and for them to leave the city and head elsewhere. However, Harry well and truly has left his heart in the city.

He explained, “Harry is a pretty nostalgic guy and doesn’t want to let go of the past. For better or worse. Those things seem to tie in with his  reluctance to go forward with a lot of things.”

At the core of the book is an “inconsistent up and down romance,” he explained.

Janjigian draws vivid characters who are stuck in the midst of some serious choices. When asked where his characters come from, he referred to another writer, Jhumpa Lahiri, who had said in an interview that “she had no idea how this process worked and it just happened.”

He went on, “I would agree with that. At least for this novel, it started when I lived in San Francisco and I really, really loved this movie theater and neighborhood in San Francisco. That movie theater still exists today in the Richmond district.”

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In fact, the Cabrillo, in the Richmond district, seems to draw inspiration from the Balboa theater in the same district, showing quirky movies in a beautiful setting.

It is not the just the lead character and his circle that are enamored of the Beat writers; consider Janjigian a fan. “I got turned on to the Beats by a film professor and turned on to some Avant Garde film classes at Clark [University in Worcester]. The whole environment was quirky. I had not read any Beats or [Jack] Kerouac until he had us read On the Road in connection with a film called ‘Heartbeat,’ based on the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady,” the wife of Beat writer Neal Cassady.

(“Heart Beat”  explores the love triangle of real-life characters Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Carolyn Cassady in the late 1950s and the 1960s. It chronicles Kerouac writing his seminal novel On the Road, and its effect on their lives.)

Since then, he said, he has “tried to look at the flaws of the Beats, including the lack of women.”

Still, through writing, he can still be close to that ideal. “Writing allows me to explore those lives,” he noted.

“I admire that bohemian life but I like a little bit of comfort,” he said with a chuckle. “They tend to have a lot more interesting lives.”

Janjigian has put in another piece of himself in the book: Gephyrophobia, the fear of bridges. It is one that has been a part of Janjigian’s life for years.

“Like a lot of writers I utilize that anxiety and fear,” he said. And did he think if he wrote about it, he would be able to master it? “That would have been the ultimate goal, to exorcise it.”

“Interestingly, when I lived in the city and worked in Marin County at the Depot Bookstore. I commuted back and forth over the [Golden Gate] bridge five days a week for over two years and had no issues. I didn’t have the phobia,” he recalled. Slowly, “I had a little nervousness starting to develop over some high bridges.”

In time, when he and his wife moved to Maryland, the phobia came on with a vengeance. “When my wife and I moved to Maryland, my wife and I went over  the Chesapeake Bay Bridge  and I had a full-blown fear kicked in,” he recalled.

Now, “I just avoid really, really high bridges,” he added.

Life During the Pandemic

The pandemic made a huge difference in Janjigian’s life. First, a small book tour with stops in Boston and San Francisco was scrapped, and second, because of all the free time, Janjigian was able to write a screenplay about Kerouac, like his protagonist, Harry, “in a case of write imitating art,” as well as a novel.

He explained, “I started that right after the novel was published in November. In December I started writing and I am just going through the final draft. It’s called ‘Kerouac.’ We will see what is next with that.”

He added, “I wrote a novel, Confluence at Café Zurich, and it involves the character Jackson, and a previous theft. which is alluded to in A Cerebral Offer.”

Janjigian had some advice for aspiring writers. “I subscribe to the simple Hemingway advice: travel. It forces you to meet other people and experience different things. It’s the greatest thing a writer can have .”

The other piece of the puzzle is to write every day. “I never don’t write. When I sit down to write, I always write something. It’s whether or not it’s a keeper or not. Even if it’s just a half an hour, it’s important to keep that rhythm going.”

Janjigian was born and raised in Massachusetts. He lived in Watertown with his family, before moving to Belmont and graduating from Belmont High School. He attended Clark University in Worcester and later got his master’s degree at Leslie University in Cambridge.

“I was finishing grad school at Leslie University and teaching full time while,” he said. The life of the expat tickled his fancy. Therefore, he decided to take some of the courses to finish his degree at St. John University in Rome.

Of his year living outside Rome near the beach, he recalled, “I loved it. It was fantastic. I would have stayed longer if I had the ability to.”

“I met my wife in 2005 and we moved down here [to Washington, DC] in 2009 for her job. She is a scientist working for the National Cancer Institute,” he said.

They tried moving to San Francisco but it did not happen and therefore they decided to go where the jobs were.

Now, Janjigian is the assistant dean at American University. He supervised the creation and launch of the English Language and Training Academy (ELTA). Prior to joining AU in 2012, he taught at UMBC, Northeastern, and Harvard University’s Institute for English Language. At Brandeis University he helped launch their ESL pathway program.

He has had two other books published, Gone West (collection of novellas), Defending Infinity (novel), in addition to A Cerebral Offer.

He and his wife live with their three cats.

To  purchase A Cerebral Offer, go to Amazon or visit https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781604892581/a-cerebral-offer.aspx

 

 

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