In Montclair, author DeBare to discuss hell of a book, ‘Shaken Loose’
By Lou Fancher
Having spent years suppressing her voice while writing as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee, Oakland-based author Ilana DeBare sought change.
The closest she’d come to personal literary expression were occasional op-eds and “Where Girls Come First,” a nonfiction book blending the history of U.S. girls’ schools with her experience as one of the co-founders in 1999 of the Julia Morgan School for Girls, an all-girl middle school in Oakland.
Almost no one, including DeBare herself, could have predicted for her first novel that she’d head straight to hell. That is precisely what she and her new book’s primary characters respectively did and do, though, in “Shaken Loose,” being released Wednesday by publisher Hypatia.
DeBare will discuss her book with writer Monica Wesoloswka at 7 p.m. July 13 in a book-launch event at Montclair Presbyterian Church (ggpbooks.com/event/ShakenLoose). A Great Good Place for Books, the independent bookstore in Oakland’s Montclair Village, is sponsoring the event.
In an interview, DeBare said she began to think about writing large-frame historical fiction in 2014 but was daunted by the prospect of writing convincingly about an era other than her own. She says eventually she decided writing about characters who find themselves in the Christian hell would be easier.
“It would be made up,” she said. “It ended up being even more challenging because I had characters who came to hell from different places, times and circumstances.”
This is why DeBare now has multiple shelves filled with books about Shanghai in the 1920s, precolonial West Africa, Europe’s Huns in the fourth century, Kenya during its fight for independence and titles such as by Dante Alighieri’s classic “Inferno” and “Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur” by geologist Salomon Kroonenberg, who traveled worldwide to search for geological sources for mythological, underworld entrances to hell.
“I needed to understand all these characters; what they’d be remembering, what they’d be missing, the work they did, the marriages they had, their conceptions of the afterlife.”
“Shaken Loose” operates on two levels, the most visceral being a horror story written for adult readers that includes brutal battles with demons and Satan, sex positivity and humans cast into hell’s “marsh of Limbo” and fire-filled craters and rivers. The deeper and definitely central narrative involves 29-year-old San Franciscan Annie Maple, who can’t recall how she died but whose life before landing in hell could be described as a series of little deaths.
Classifying and calcifying herself as an underachiever and lesser being than her genius brother, Ben, she works a low-level job after dropping out of college and is perennially dissatisfied with every aspect of herself. Annie lacks personal clarity and confidence; doubts her courage, body, prospects and moral judgement; and questions her every decision and whether or not justice exists in this world or the next. DeBare said Annie began as a “blank everywoman” character who then evolved.
“Initially, my landscape of hell was more detailed than she was. I put her in different situations,” DeBare said. “I wrote about who she was, her background and stuff that isn’t in the book.
“In the beginning, she was one of three siblings. It ended up being too complicated, and I combined two siblings into one, her older brother who is a national pundit. They have a good relationship in the book, and he is in no way manipulative or exploitive — they treasure each other — but she always feels like an underachiever in comparison.”
DeBare said she does not have a domineering older sibling but has experienced similar feelings of intimidation when encountering “smart, arrogant, very verbal male intellectuals.”
From a storytelling viewpoint, Ben having no bad intentions and Annie’s parents raising them with equal love and support lent depth and relatability to the “rivalry” that is more imagined than real.
“A lot of us, we come from families where everyone is trying to do the best thing and we still come out with conflicts and feelings we struggle with. I hammer on the parallels: Annie struggling with physical demons in hell, but the real battle is with personal demons.”
During the eight years she was writing until submitting her final draft in 2022, DeBare said she was struck by significant life events that occurred. Among them, she names Trump’s election in 2016, when she woke up the day after “feeling everything we had assumed about our country, the world and the way history was supposed to be moving was wrong.”
Other moments had her thinking about life changes, family, religion, justice and the afterworld. She retired from her job at the Golden Gate Audubon Society, her daughter finished college, her father died.
“Neither my father or my mother believed in heaven and hell, but they were extremely moral people. They weren’t religious, but they were kind, trustworthy, good-hearted people. Growing up with that meant it never occurred to me that you had to be religious to be a good person.”
Asked what she discovered about the voice she held back as a journalist but unleashed in her novel, DeBare said, “I’m strong at setting, descriptions, pacing, creating narrative arc and the first draft, when things appear on the page like magic. What’s taken time is finding voice. It gets hammered out of you as a journalist. You don’t want to sound unique, fancy, intimate, or emotional, you just want description. As a narrative writer, you want all of those things.”
Another discovery was humor.
“It would seem a novel set in hell would be grim, but there’s a lot that’s humorous in ‘Shaken Loose.’ I’m not a standup comedian in my own life, but I have places (in the book) where people might laugh out loud.”
One example; conversations involving Billie, a young housewife from Alabama.
“You have Annie in 2023 San Francisco and Billie in 1963 Alabama. The cultural and time gaps lend themselves to funny conversations about cable cars and workplace bosses.”
With newfound perspectives on the faith of people who believe in the Christian heaven and hell, DeBare said, “Hell plays into not just the punitive aspects of human nature, but into our positive, aspirational cravings for justice. I still don’t think it’s a constructive way to look for justice. We need to seek it here on Earth, while we are alive.”
To avoid spoiler comments that would give away the end of “Shaken Loose,” DeBare says she expects a sequel to be published by early 2025 that will resolve lingering questions about an unjust hell, what happens when a system breaks down and how characters come to terms with each other and their own values.