The cover of Eastern span: a sketching of the Bay Bridge with a red and black background
The cover of Eastern Span. (Courtesy of Rick Paulas)

Buy a copy of Eastern Span from a Street Spirit vendor for a sliding-scale price of $5-$20

Paulas generously donated hundreds of copies of his book, Eastern Span, for Street Spirit vendors to sell along with their papers. That experiment was a success—some vendors earned hundreds of extra dollars during the months they were selling his novel. Because of this success, he donated an additional 775 books for our vendors to sell in the coming months. We sat down with Rick to talk about his debut novel, and why he wants it to be sold by our vendors. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Alastair Boone: I read on Twitter that having Eastern Span distributed by street vendors has been a dream of yours since before you finished writing the novel. Why? 

Rick Paulas: Whenever I write about homeless folks or encampments, I always have a squishy bit of guilt, in that I’m literally making money off of them—just freelance rates, but still— while they’re still sleeping outside. Maybe it’s Catholic guilt. Anyway, this was just a way I could pay back a little. 

That said, I wouldn’t say this is entirely altruistic. I want people I don’t know to read this, and that means distribution that reaches behind my social sphere. Others use the publishing industry, but working hard to convince people they can make a buck off of you isn’t super compelling to me for this project. With those two goals, this just felt logical. 

Oh, also: As far as I’m concerned there is no better source of news than street papers. No economic incentive by advertisers to deal with, a completely underrepresented group of writers and journalists, and a perspective you can’t get anywhere else. What else is good writing or journalism supposed to be? 

AB: What inspired you to write Eastern Span? 

RP: Mainly, two big events happened at the end of 2016: Trump and the Ghost Ship fire. They seem like distinctly separate things, and largely are, but to me they were entwined within some of the same systems—Trump’s career as a blowhard real estate mogul who spent his career seeking ways to raise property values, often by kicking out poor minorities; the lack of artistic, “free” spaces left in the Bay due to landlords raising their property values by converting to lofts left Ghost Ship as one of the few gathering places left. Beyond those, I’ve been reporting on homeless evictions—for publications, or just for Twitter sometimes— and simply living in the ether or friends having to move out of town because they can’t afford it. Once I figured out I wanted to write about the effects of the commodification of property, I wanted to trick people into reading it, hence, the noir plot.

AB: Your book really grounds the reader in Oakland. Oftentimes, it grounds the reader in Oakland’s homeless encampments. How come Oakland’s encampments are so central to the geography of Eastern Span? 

RP: As far as I can tell, it’s all interconnected. The system that’s pushed artists into underground spaces and squats is the same one that’s evicted (often minority) low-income tenants from their homes is the same one that answers the complaints of property owners by evicting mutual-aid encampments without giving them anywhere else to go. The encampments, particularly “Here/There,” are so out in the open that I felt it’d give the reader, presumably local, more grounding to know where the action was taking place. 

AB: What do you hope readers will take away from your novel about Oakland? What do you hope they will take away about homelessness in Oakland?

RP: I want readers in Oakland (and the Bay, and all over the country really), to become more interested in their own local city. So much of the media now is dominated by whatever New York determines is “news,” or by Trump just sucking up all of the bandwidth, that people tend to overlook what’s happening in their own damned backyard now. If I could get one person to shift their funds away from supporting the New York Times to supporting a local journalist or independent enterprise in the Bay, that’d be a big win for me. 

In terms of homelessness, I want the housed to break down their self-imposed barrier when it comes to seeing the houseless. This sense that people so often walk past other people without any kind of acknowledgement, as if living on two planes of existence. A fictional book by some random dude isn’t going to erect the supply of public housing that’s needed to break this cycle, but maybe it can get some folks to see homeless folks as, you know, people. People that haven’t just been lazy, or didn’t work hard enough, or are weak because they’ve allowed a drug addiction to take over. But people that have been subjected to a system that, frankly, can be changed. I suppose that would be my hope.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.