Sun. Feb 23rd, 2020

Street Papers: A Story of Housing, Publishing, and Noir

IT WAS ON TWITTER that I first became aware of Rick Paulas and his work as a writer. Paulas, a journalist of nearly two decades, was providing writing career advice to anyone who had questions. This generosity of his, offering up whatever he could to anyone who needed it, has ended up being representative of Paulas, a through-line that comes across in both his actions and his writing. I spoke with Paulas over the phone from his new apartment in New York City about his debut novel, Eastern Span, a noir exploring different housing situations in Oakland and the Bay Area, where he lived and covered as a journalist for the past 16 years before his move across the country.
After finishing Eastern Span, Paulas decided against querying an agent in hopes of finding a publisher. Instead, he paid out of pocket to have around a thousand copies of the book printed. Paulas then donated 700 copies of the books to the vendors of the Bay Area’s Street Spirit, a street newspaper focused on homelessness and income inequality, which is distributed by more than 100 vendors experiencing homelessness themselves. These vendors set any price for Eastern Span they wanted, with a suggested price of $15–$20. Most radical of all, Paulas specified that vendors would keep any money they made on sales.
Eastern Span is a classic noir; more Dashiell Hammett than Natsuo Kirino. Starring a beat-up, down-on-his-luck detective, featuring old lovers, lost siblings, by-the-book cops, and a snarky tone that lends itself incredibly well to the close-third-person perspective of the novel, Paulas’s novel will be intensely familiar to avid readers of the genre.
Yet, a key update here comes in the politics of Eastern Span. Pug, the nicknamed investigator-protagonist, is a product of the gig economy, taking odd jobs the police don’t want for cash. After a routine job-gone-wrong (you know how it goes), a former romantic interest asks Pug for help finding her lost brother. In the process of investigating his whereabouts, Pug stumbles into a conspiracy regarding the housing climate of the Bay Area, as well as those in the area experiencing homelessness, that extends up the furthest reaches of local government and business.
“[Housing] is sort of the fundamental way to look through what’s happening in a lot of gentrifying or gentrified places. That’s the ultimate thing. How are people living, what conditions are they living in, what are they paying, what’s changed. So that became what I wanted to write the book about,” says Paulas.
As a journalist, Paulas has been spent his career covering issues local to the Bay Area, with a focus on housing and those affected by homelessness. He describes the inception of the book to me, the combination of a handful of ideas he’d been kicking around. Formative for Paulas was viewing the way the San Francisco city government treated the homeless population of the city during the Super Bowl, in which the government forced relocation on those affected by homelessness in the area, trying to sweep them under the rug. “It was a big tent city in the middle of the city. And I went down there and interviewed people, and that was the first time I saw the city dictate where its homeless population was moving to, and what [the government] was allowing and what they weren’t, and what was acceptable from a city that was trying to prove itself on a world stage.”
Then the Ghost Ship warehouse fire happened. “It was this warehouse, there was a party going on, and a fire got started […] people died. I had friends of friends who died in it. It was a hugely shattering moment for the community, but it was also […] it was shattering in a lot of different ways.” After, Paulas felt he had to write a book about the housing conditions he’d seen firsthand, and the struggles that faced many of those he’d met in the Bay Area.
Writing a book is a tremendous achievement in itself, but for many writers, the real challenge is in getting it into readers’ hands. “I have a bunch of friends who are in bands who have boxes of vinyl they never sold just sitting around a basement somewhere,” Paulas told me. “Once you have those physical things, how do you get it out?” There are two tried-and-true methods, traditional publishing and self-publishing, but both have their drawbacks. Paulas didn’t want to wait around for months to hear back from agents and publishing houses, and wasn’t sure how he’d be able to market an ebook. “So it was like, ‘Am I going to want to print this?’ When I got that in my head, I was like, ‘How do I distribute it?’”
Paulas expresses a deep respect for street newspapers, not only in the content but how they’re circulated. “I’m super interested in how these street newspapers work. I think their model is one of the most pure funding models that’s currently in existence for media. And its distribution model is also one of the most pure. […] Street papers, the few that have stuck around, are providing quality work and they’re helping people, which is rare.” He wanted to be a part of a model he understood, one that he respected. And he was serious about helping others, too.
Paulas felt a level of remorse for the nature of the relationship he has as a journalist often interviewing low-income folks. “If I go there, and people share their time, and their space, and their stories with me, I always felt weird that I was getting money for it, and they weren’t. So it was kind of a way to flatten out that contradiction over the years.” He saw Eastern Span as an opportunity. “This was a case where I could make money for people who need money, in a weird way.” He says the book was a sort of activism, a way to have a positive impact on the quality of life of some of the most marginalized people in the community.
Even more so, he wanted to help push past the stigma of homelessness. “I think that what happens in the Bay Area and so many other cities, where homelessness is a visible reality of life, is that people walk past it. […] I think that putting on those blinders allows people to think of homelessness as this faceless thing they don’t have to deal with.” He notes the contradiction to me, where cities like Oakland and San Francisco are seen as “liberal bastions,” and yet the way the city’s policies and residents act toward those affected by homelessness is often less than empathetic. He cites Berkeley’s recent law banning overnight RV parking, punishing those who live out of their cars. “That’s such a direct assault on what homeless people are allowed to do in Berkeley. Which again is known as this super progressive city.”
Instead, he wanted to create an opportunity for an interaction, allowing people to meet each other as people. “That’s something that was informed by my own journalism and talking to people,” he said. “The act of talking to somebody and hearing their own words as opposed to just walking past them I think is an important activity, and if the object I made can facilitate that conversation to take place, then it has value.” He hopes that even beyond the sale of the book, potential readers will feel more in touch with their community and surroundings: “It’s not a book, necessarily; that’s part of it, but it’s also the act of buying the book, of feeling the pages, and seeing the location in front of you.”
Paulas hopes by encouraging people interested in his book to interact with the Street Spirit vendors, he can create something larger than just a single sale. “If somebody buys this book from a street vendor and they talk with them for five minutes and they know who they are, or know their face, they aren’t just walking past them the next time. Maybe next week when there’s a new street newspaper they’ll buy that, and maybe they’ll talk, and get more involved in the story of their lives, in whatever way.” More than anything, his goal is to encourage empathetic moments.
Has it been a success? “It’s been successful, in having people talking while buying the thing, and [the vendors] getting money from the object, but I don’t know if they’re just buying it and then leaving, or if it’s like they’re talking for a while, or if it’s new conversations being had,” he said. Having just moved across the country to New York City, it’s difficult for him to gauge the reaction. Paulas wishes he could see the response in person. “That’s been the toughest part of this whole roll out, not being there for it.” Beyond the interactions themselves, Paulas says the books have sold out through Street Spirit vendors, though he still has some copies for sale himself.
Of course, donating over half the stock of books is not something every writer can do, particularly not writers who are represented by and distributed through a major publishing house, but Paulas hopes that more independent writers will attempt this distribution method in the future. “If other writers are like, ‘I’m going to donate half of my product to homeless vendors for them to make money,’ I think that would be great. I think that would be amazing. There’s no downside as far as I can tell.” He tells me he’s thought about potential problems with the model, and come up empty. In fact, there are additional benefits beyond the money; Paulas notes that any press he’s gotten as a result of this distribution has also been press for Street Spirit, homeless vendors, and street newspapers at large.
Beyond even the distribution, Paulas tells me about the tremendous benefits he’s gotten from this journey. “This whole process is making me think of things differently than before, when I was just like, ‘I want to write something.’” He notes all he’s learned about layout, about the distribution chain, about housing and the topics he researched for Eastern Span, and, most of all, about people. “There are cases with other things I’ve written, like journaling, where you write something and it helps you analyze the thing you’re seeing or describe the thing your seeing, it’s kind of this magical act, that once you put the world into words it becomes more concrete to you.”
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EASTERN SPAN, Rick Paulas, http://oaktownnoir.com/
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Ian Battaglia is a writer based out of Chicago. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Reader, The Kenyon Review, and the Chicago Review of Books.
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