Emil DeAndreis’ fictional book is ‘a love letter to the San Francisco that I knew,’ but also a recognition of how tech’s influence has changed the Bay Area.
Emil DeAndreis, a born-and-raised San Franciscan, isn’t a typical writer. For starters, he says he does a lot of writing during his day job as a substitute teacher in San Francisco public schools (he’s also an English professor at College of San Mateo). He began teaching and writing after seeing his dreams of becoming a professional pitcher fall apart following a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis — the subject of his previous book, a memoir called “Hard to Grip.”
His latest novel, “Tell Us When To Go,” follows two friends and Fresno State baseball teammates — Cole Gallegos and Isaac Moss — as they navigate San Francisco and Silicon Valley in 2010 and 2011. Gallegos, a top-ranked pitcher from San Francisco, gets the yips (a sudden inability to throw the ball accurately) and drops out, while Moss, a benchwarmer, has already graduated. The two move together to San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood and land their first post-college jobs: Moss as a contract worker at a tech company called “GO,” similar to Google Maps, and Gallegos as an aide in a special education classroom in the San Francisco Unified School District. The novel follows their character arcs as Moss looks to snag a full-time tech job and Gallegos works to support Dizzy, a struggling student he’s been assigned to work with.
We spoke with DeAndreis about witnessing how the tech boom has changed the Bay Area as a San Francisco native, how his teaching career influences his writing and the writing lessons he tries to pass on to his students. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kate Bradshaw: Do you want to start by telling me a little bit about yourself and how this book came together?
Emil DeAndreis: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I went to Lakeshore, Giannini and Lowell, which are all schools on the west side of San Francisco. After that, I went to college. I played baseball for the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and majored in creative writing.
When I graduated after my fourth year, I was offered a contract to go pitch overseas in Europe. In the same month I was given that contract, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune condition where your body attacks itself and mistakes its own tissues and joints as enemies. I became kind of debilitated rather quickly, and that ended my pro career before it started.
I moved home, back to the Sunset, got into an MFA program at SF State for creative writing, and was there while also substitute teaching in the San Francisco Unified School District. Once I graduated from the MFA program, I applied to teach at College of San Mateo, where I got hired there. I’ve been substitute teaching in San Francisco for 15 years; I’ve been at CSM for seven years now.
In that time, I wrote a book called “Beyond Folly,” a farce about a fictional substitute teacher in San Francisco Unified. His day is destroyed variously by different students in different schools.
Kate Bradshaw: I imagine that draws on some of your own experiences?
Emil DeAndreis: Yeah, someone recently asked where my information comes from, for the public school element of this book, and I told them there’s no way I would’ve even become a writer at all if it wasn’t for substitute teaching, because it allows me this time to write. Oftentimes when I’m subbing, I’m at a high school where the students are self-sufficient and doing whatever it is they’re supposed to do, and I’m on my computer writing. It’s a weird ecosystem that sustains itself, where it gives me material that I use in my writing, and it also gives me the space to write.
So, the first book was more absurd…like a cartoon. My second book was a memoir about my baseball experience and getting used to having a disease that is usually had by menopausal women, (when) I was a 23-year-old guy.
Kate Bradshaw: You mentioned this ecosystem, in which you’re teaching and you’re writing and you’re teaching about writing – how does one inform the other as you’ve been working on this novel?
Emil DeAndreis: How does being in a public education space inform the writing of it? It’s hard to do both. It’s hard to be totally engaged with every class and get to know (the students), and then at the same time be writing. At my College of San Mateo job, there’s a bigger opportunity to cultivate and engage in relationships that are deeper and more meaningful, and I can have the impact that I want to have – the reason I got into education in the first place. Subbing…you have this quirky experience… it fosters the possibilities of pretty hilarious moments. But also, being a sub subjects me to all different kinds of students, of all different kinds of age ranges, of all different kinds of backgrounds, of all different kinds of experiences and realities, from all different parts of the city. And that all makes a difference.
That has given me a unique lens that I feel like…a full-timer in SFUSD doesn’t get. Having been subbing for 15 years, I have spent a lot of time in many different classes. That has afforded me a very comprehensive perspective of San Francisco’s student body, and that’s how the climate and the realities in the classrooms that I end up writing about come to me.
Kate Bradshaw: And in this book, your characters go through some pretty intense classroom experiences, right? One of your protagonists, Cole Gallegos, takes a job as an aide in a special education classroom and is assigned to work with a student, Dizzy, who is going through some major challenges in her life. How did your experiences help you to develop these students as characters?
Emil DeAndreis: A lot of my time in SFUSD as a sub enlightened me as to all these different lives that exist that I feel like, unless people are put in front of those lives, unless they’re reminded of them, they are easy to be forgotten or not known about.
Kate Bradshaw: It seems like there’s a lot of love for San Francisco written into your local references within the book, but there is also concern about how it’s changed. And (spoiler alert) the resolution at the end is for the two friends to leave the city. So what does that say about the state of San Francisco today?
Emil DeAndreis: I (initially) finished writing this book (in 2015), years before the most recent exodus…I rewrote the novel, and as I started to give (the characters of Dizzy and Isaac) more life, it became more of a San Francisco book, because all those different backgrounds were very inherently of a very specific time and place, which was San Francisco in 2010 – at the end of the recession, the dawn of the tech movement, the end of the hyphy movement.
As it became a San Francisco book…it made it appropriate for me to include all this nostalgia, and make it a love letter to the San Francisco that I knew, and that raised me. And to also make observations about the way it was changing – ideally, without pointing fingers or without telling people how to feel about it.
Kate Bradshaw: The story’s two protagonists have different attitudes toward San Francisco, with native San Franciscan Gallegos being frustrated by tech’s rising influence, while Moss is very much caught up in the promise of the tech boom. I’m interested in how you juxtaposed these characters.
Emil DeAndreis: They serve to be emblematic of the widening gap in San Francisco that began around 2010 and continued and can be seen, arguably, as an origin story to some of the stark gaps in San Francisco and the Bay Area. There’s extreme haves and have-nots, and the middle class is vanishing. …I feel like a part of this story is the diverging paths of Isaac and Cole and the fact that at the end of the book, a lot of the people who are working blue-collar jobs end up moving out of the city.
Kate Bradshaw: To what degree did your personal experiences with baseball shape the novel?
Emil DeAndreis: I was never at all to the pedigree of Cole. I was a relief pitcher. … I was never projected to get drafted, let alone in the first round, so the idea of being a red-carpet celebrity in the college baseball world couldn’t be further from who I was. But I think that ultimately, all these red-carpet NCAA celebrities are still kids, and with that, they’re vulnerable. They’re still innocent, they’re still wildly inexperienced in terms of the real world. But the pressure on them is very real, and the stakes are really, really high.
Also, part of me was always fascinated slash really, really horrified by the yips …I never wanted to talk about it, I never laughed about it. … I feared it the way people fear God. Once my career was finally over, I didn’t have to worry about it anymore…I felt like I was indulging that fascination finally by writing about it and exploring it in the fictional world.
Kate Bradshaw: One of the ways that Cole and Dizzy express their frustrations in the story is to adopt troll culture on social media. Tell me about that.
Emil DeAndreis: I feel like this book explores the different ways mental health issues manifest, especially in millennials and especially in a digital age. I feel like social media is undeniably tethered to a lot of mental health concerns in some way. Trolling is definitely a weird mutation of social media that gets into (the) gray area of who is right and wrong, who is mentally ill, and who is struggling.
Trolling is concerning, but also the rapid posting, the humble bragging, the different kinds of performative activities – I think that is also concerning at times…and definitely a part of our landscape as millennials.
Kate Bradshaw: As an English professor at CSM, what are some of the writing lessons you’re trying to impart to your students? Have you ended up following any of those in your own work?
Emil DeAndreis: One of the blue-collar things I say, more to creative writers, is really try to write every single day. It’s more effective and more beneficial to you as an aspiring writer to write 15, 20 minutes a day, rather than once a week for two hours. It’s just like a musical instrument. …Do I live by that? When I’m on a roll – yes. When I’m a dad of a 1-year-old – not so much.
When I was younger, I felt that writing was this whimsical and very inexplicable journey that couldn’t be defined. And then, throughout the course of trying to get published, I realized there’s a lot of really blue-collar elements to writing, and a lot of stuff that’s honestly similar to trying to be a baseball player or trying to be really good at anything else, which is just being dogged, and being able to brace for rejection, for disappointment, for failure. All that stuff is very much present in any endeavor and in any passion. But it’s harder to wrap your mind around it in the arts because art seems so the antithesis of being dogged…All these little stupid athletic idioms like, “Step up to the plate again,” you would think don’t apply to the arts, but in my experience, they do.