Q&A with Emil DeAndreis: ‘Tell Us When to Go’ & a Changing San Francisco

Isabelle Edgar

Emil DeAndreis’ third novel, Tell Us When to Go (260 pages; Flexible Press), follows two college friends, Cole and Isaac, as their journey into post-recession San Francisco pulls them in very different directions. It’s a humorous and heartfelt story of friendship and baseball and the growing pains of both the city they love and the people who love it.

DeAndreis, who is also the author of Beyond Folly (2013)and Hard to Grip (2017), teaches English at College of San Mateo. This interview was conducted over email and has been edited for length and clarity.

ZYZZYVA: San Francisco feels like a character in this book as much as your main characters Cole and Isaac—we see the developments in the city mirrored through their friendship. And even in the acknowledgments, you thank San Francisco.  How did the city help shape the identity of the novel?

EMIL DEANDREIS: It was kind of subconscious that this became a San Francisco book. The first draft was a 500-page deep dive into the inner psychology of Cole’s nervous breakdown. It was a narrative that could’ve taken place anywhere, anytime. But the redrafting of it became a burden, and I began to give side characters more agency and life as a kind of book CPR. Simultaneously, at the time I was writing this I was living in the Sunset, where I’d lived my whole life, and it was just starting to hit me how San Francisco was changing, and so these observations made it into the characters and their surroundings.

Z: Throughout the book, we do get facts and research mixed with fiction. Did you ever consider writing the novel as a work of nonfiction?

ED: I might struggle to capture the dynamic of two male roommates growing apart through research and interview. In earlier drafts, the friction between Cole and Isaac was way more understated, with a lot more ghosting and silence and vague coldness because I thought that was authentic to male interaction. Well, really, all interaction these days. Later I developed more overt conflict for the sake of the plot, but a fear of mine in telling this kind of story as nonfiction would be having to find the drama where it wasn’t already obvious.

Z: How did you go about getting honest and authentic information to write about these situations—did you go into a school similar to where Cole works? Or visit an institution like GO?

ED: I’ve spent a lot of time in SFUSD, first as a student and for 15 years now as a substitute, including several stints in special ed classrooms, which has given me a kaleidoscopic lens into the realities and lived experiences of its student body. In terms of the startup GO, I had friends who were contract employees in Silicon Valley at the start of the tech boom. They had really vivid memories and no restraint with sharing them.

Z: The characters in this book could have easily fallen into stereotypes. However, they feel full, human, and unpredictable. For example, Dizzy. Could you describe how you developed her character?

ED: This story wouldn’t be the same, and it definitely wouldn’t be San Francisco, without her. I wanted her as three dimensional as possible—despite lacking internal thoughts of her POV—so that people weren’t receiving a statistic or a news article. Her intellect, suspicion of others, loyalty, silliness, physicality, naivety, and maturity: developing her as a character was about highlighting those layers of her in chorus with her obstacles and trauma without deficit framing.

Z: I love this line: “I disliked how sure people were when using logic that made sense in their lives and applied it to others. It was convincing if I wasn’t careful.” It seems like there are a lot of different logics in this story: that of baseball, the school, GO, Cole, and Isaac, etc. But they all live under the same umbrella of the Bay Area. How did you work to highlight these polarities in an honest and sensitive way?

ED: Having characters with different daily lives and outlooks in close proximity to one another helped so that their evolutions and differences rubbed against each other. These were the tensions I wanted not just to drive the narrative, but to serve as larger scale observation of San Francisco’s divergence at that time.

Z: Could you talk about your decision to make social media a central theme in this book? Social media even plays a role in the novel’s structure, as you include profiles, pictures, comments sections.

ED: There would have been something wrong or counterfeit about a millennial story that lacked social media. At least I didn’t have faith in my ability to do that. Social media, in this book, is a vice that makes things better and worse for everyone, and I thought it was a lens into the unique ways mental health issues play out for millennials. As in, it makes people consider where they stand at the intersection of compassion and narcissism. Social media trolling is a mutation of all of this that gets into the gray area of who is right and wrong, who is struggling and who needs help. The characters of Tell Us When to Go get caught up in all this without the self-reflection, which doesn’t work out well for them.

Z: Baseball serves as a touchstone throughout your novel. How does the game of baseball reflect the story of these two friends?

ED: Baseball is fickle and unpredictable. It giveth and taketh away, hence people believing in baseball gods to rationalize the irrational. And in that sense, I think there is likeness in baseball to these characters’ lives in that they find themselves on perpetually shifty foundations, at the whim of powers that are nebulous and outside their control.

Z: Do you see Cole and Dizzy as two characters who harbor nostalgia for San Francisco’s past?

ED: With so much success and promise in his past, it is natural for Cole to be a default nostalgist despite only being in his mid-twenties. His romanticism for a vanishing San Francisco is also fitting, as he perceives it to be morphing from the bacchanalia of the hyphy movement to something sterile and redundant. Isaac, on the other hand, has nothing to long for from his past, and sees the city’s developments in his favor. What mattered to me in these characters was that neither was an obvious villain or punching bag. Ideally, both could be at least understood for who they were, and how they came to be that way.

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