From the arts to golf, Peninsula writer Frank Criscenti has covered many topics in his work for a number of local publications, including The Almanac when it was still known as The Country Almanac. He explored subjects as diverse as antiques and low-flow toilets for a lifestyle magazine called Bay Area Homestyle and he also worked for Bay Area Parent.
But some of the most surprising stories he would write about ended up being inspired by his own youth. Criscenti, who lives in Emerald Hills, recently published "Stranger on the Shore," a fictionalized memoir that blends memories from his childhood growing up in Southern California and Las Vegas in the 1950s and '60s with fictional events. The book, which came out in June, plays out in a series of vignettes, reflecting the stream-of-consciousness, image-rich impressions and flashes of insight that a child might have.
"Stealing from yourself is always the best thing to do," Criscenti said. "Some are stories that I've either told or had in my brain for many years and other ones that actually were written before and published in literary journals."
Some vignettes are harrowing, made more so by the carelessness of the adults around the main character. For instance, most 6-year-olds don't know the rules to blackjack, let alone feel comfortable fleecing their babysitters at the game — and most children that age aren't left on their own to fix a meal of raw carrots with only a razor blade to cut them up.
In another vignette, Criscenti describes a sort of "driving lesson" out in the desert with his stepfather, who was drunk at the time, and a friend who had driven on his family's farm. Once behind the wheel, he initially began heading straight for a telephone pole because he knew so little about driving.
"This was back in the days of V8 engines and we went tearing across the desert. It was quite fun and finally (my stepfather) had to take the wheel because I didn't even know how to brake. All I knew how to do is step down on the gas," he recalled.
Criscenti said he was always drawn to writing throughout his life, and penned stories and, as he put it, "bad poetry" as a child.
He decided to write "Stranger on the Shore" in 2019 while taking a Stanford University class for National Novel Writing Month that called on students to produce a 50,000-word first draft in just one month.
"That, to me, was like a godsend because I just would start questioning what I had there and start editing before I put out an actual story. The Stanford class has worked great, plus there were some great teachers there," he said.
Criscenti did leave class with a first draft, which he worked on as the pandemic hit — and later, as he navigated a cancer diagnosis and treatment at the end of 2021. After radiation and chemotherapy, he said the cancer is now gone, but the experience inspired him to donate 50% of the proceeds from sales of the book to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. It also led him, after working with a publisher for a time, to decide to self-publish.
The book's title is taken from a song of the same name by musician Acker Bilk that Criscenti remembers hearing as a child.
Calling on some of the more challenging memories proved "embarrassing," Criscenti said, realizing now how he feels about some of his own behavior as a child.
But he also used a child's imagination as a device to give way to some more fanciful storytelling, such as a cellar haunted by what he describes as the mummy from the Hitchcock thriller "Psycho" and a possible murder in the family.
But overall, the many stories — based in reality or with a touch or more of fiction — highlight the lack of control that most children have over their environments, and their understanding of what "normal" is, he said.
"There is a common theme that kids don't really have a say in what's going on in their life — especially back then they didn't, I think maybe more so now. And so we didn't really know. I didn't really know my life was different until later. It just was just the way it happened," Criscenti said.
Similarly, Criscenti pointed out, children who are cancer patients may not have a lot of control over their lives, which is why he decided to make the book a fundraiser for St. Jude's.
"Stranger on the Shore" is available on Amazon.com as an ebook or in paperback form.