In “Life Span,” Molly Giles Goes the Distance

a LitStack Review

by Lauren Alwan

LitStack is excited to bring you Lauren Alwan’s review of Molly Giles’ first nonfiction book, “Life Span”

Life Span and author Molly Giles

Molly Giles’ First Work Of Nonfiction

“Gretchen sleeps in the infant seat beside me. She is seven months old,” Molly Giles tells us, in her latest book and first work of nonfiction, Life Span. The year is 1963, and Giles is 21, a new mother contemplating her infant daughter’s thoughts:

She does not know that it took me five permits to get my driver’s license nor that I’ve only had it for two weeks. She does not know that I have never driven over the bridge before. She does not know the lanes are too narrow. She does not know the other cars are going too fast. She doesn’t fear the proximity of the guardrail or expect the towers to crumble or the girders to buckle or the pavement to break in midair like a plank sawed in half and send us roaring into the ocean below. She does not know the fare has slipped from my fingers but she feels the bump as I brake and fumble for it and firmly rear-end the car stopped in front of us at the toll booth. She feels that all right.

It’s a classic Molly Giles moment: confessional voice, high stakes, a vexed protagonist, and the crackling observational detail that has made her stories, as Giles says, unputdownable.

Life Span: Impressions of a Lifetime Spent Crossing and Recrossing the Golden Gate Bridge is a sui generis memoir. Amy Tan calls it “a must-read for fans of her fiction, and will no doubt garner her many new readers.” Vanessa Hua, author of Forbidden City describes Life Span as “a clear-eyed, deeply provocative portrayal of a writer’s life…by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.” And Eden Lepucki, author of California and Time’s Mouth, praised the memoir as “Epigrammatic and beautifully authentic, Life Span had me laughing out loud and then sighing at its insights, and I didn’t want it to end.”

The Truth Bombs Ring Crisp

In brisk, brief chapters titled by year, Giles takes us from her early life at age three, through her youth and adulthood to the present. Since her fiction debut, Rough Translations, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize, appeared in 1985, Giles has published seven books of fiction along with chapbooks, and numerous book reviews. Her fiction has been anthologized in the O. Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize. In a recent review in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joan Frank said of Life Span, “Pages turn fast. Giles’ truth-bombs ring crisp, piquant, self-ironic. While juggling early pregnancy, child-rearing, difficult men, teaching, bills and parental deaths, Giles keeps writing.”

Each vignette shows us the author’s life against the setting of the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic landmark that links suburban Marin County and San Francisco. Frank continues, “Chapters pop forth as sharp, powerful scenes; sometimes as a single paragraph. Many are perfect, complete mini-stories, each a distilled bio-sample of sequential worlds: parents, husbands and lovers, school, babies, jobs, homes—above all, writing. They ring brave, funny, and hair-raising.”

The memoir begins in 1945, when Molly’s father returns from service after World War 2, and Molly, just three, is having trouble adjusting. “He did not come back from The War to be attacked by a wild tiger. He doesn’t like having his ankles nipped at. He doesn’t like being growled at. He doesn’t think it’s funny.” Molly’s mother tries to explain to her husband: “She’s not used to you yet…The only men she knows are the milkman, the iceman, and that mounted policeman she tries to follow down the block every morning.”

1957 shows us Molly at fifteen, making numerous trips through the Golden Gate toll booth with a best friend who has a crush on a toll taker (for those who might not know, there were once live humans who took your money when you drove over bridges)—and this toll taker happens to be the brother of Johnny Mathis, “only better looking.”

Later, in 1959, we see Molly crossing the bridge with her boyfriend headed for the prom, with a plan later to spend some time parked under the bridge at Fort Point. “Dan turns the radio up—our song—André Previn, ‘Like Young’—and blows a perfect smoke ring and I poke through the center with my index finger like I always do and we both laugh as we cross over our bridge into our city.”

From an early age Molly intends to write, and at 16, riding the bus one day, she silently mouths the Dorothy Parker story she must memorize for class. The nun in the seat beside her expresses concern, and Molly assures her, no, she isn’t praying, she wants to be writer:

“Like Dorothy Parker?”

“Yes.”

“Someone who writes about sad miserable women who sit around waiting for gentlemen to phone them? Well good luck to you, dear. This is my stop. I will pray for you.”

The Long Writing Road

In the early years of marriage and motherhood, Giles takes classes at local community colleges. There are workshops and conferences, and always writing, rewriting, submissions, rejections, and submissions again. In 1984, Rough Translations wins the lauded Flannery O’Connor Prize, when Giles is 42, and appears in hardback the following year. In the chapter titled for that year, Giles relates the long story of its road to publication to her students: 

“I submitted to the O’Connor three times, I continue: the first time I got a note back from the editor saying that I had been a finalist but that the judges ultimately had not liked several of the stories. The next year I submitted again, deleting and replacing the offending stories (which were, of course, my best, I lie) and again the editor wrote back to say I had been a finalist but the judges were still unenthusiastic about some of the stories. The third time I submitted—and ‘submitted,’ I tell my students, is the verb writers try not to choke on—I fine-tuned the collection and I won!”

Giles possesses a skill many consider as valuable as talent: persistence. Where another writer might give up, she keeps going, and the result is a singular body of work: voice-driven, fresh, wry, and observant. 

Life Span is a relatively slim volume, but the arc of Gile’s experience is long. We follow her through marriages, raising her children, caring for her mother, and her career as a writing instructor, including a longtime faculty position at San Francisco State, and at the University Arkansas in Fayetteville. 

The years accrue, and so does Giles’ recognition, and the fresh eyes and irreverence grow sharper. On a weekend visit from Fayetteville, Giles has dinner with friends in North Beach, who want a debrief about her life in Arkansas—especially who she’s dating: 

“The deer hunter with the mandolin? The fellow you said looked like he’d ‘been rode hard and put up wet’?”

I shake my head. “He dumped me. I’m seeing an Irish alcoholic I met at a funeral now.”

Giles’ prose has a lot to teach us, but so does her openness to possibility—and her tenacity.

The Community Steps Up 

A similar doggedness accompanied the release of Life Span, in the challenges faced by its publisher, WTAW Press. As founder and editor-in-chief Peg Alford Pursell said in a recent interview, this past March on the same day a major award recipient was announced, the press received a shock. WTAW’s distributor, San Francisco-based Small Press Distribution, had suddenly closed its doors: “Within hours came the crushing news: SPD shut down, without warning. Less than 10 days before, I’d shipped to them copies of LIFE SPAN…and the title was set up on the distributor’s website for preorders. To this day, the warehouse where the books were sent cannot account for the books.”

A publisher’s distributor is an essential cog in the publication process. As Pursell explained, “Distributors get publishers’ books into stores and online retailers. The distributor collects books from multiple publishing houses; bookstores place single orders through a distributor rather than place many orders through individual companies. Without a distributor, it’s very difficult for a publisher to get books placed with retailers.”

With nearly all of Life Span inventory lost, the press had to scramble—as small publishers across the country were doing, to make up for the losses, and in a segment of publishing where, as Pursell said, “the margins are so slim.” To complicate matters, WTAW‘s inaugural subscription program, featured Life Span, and subscribers anticipated receiving their copies.

Within days, the press launched a fundraising campaign to recoup the losses and make sure Life Span got into readers’ hands. The drive was a success, “the community stepped up quickly,” and the book was released on its planned publication date of June 4.

Like it’s author, Life Span, is going the distance.

Life Span: Impressions of a Lifetime Spent Crossing and Recrossing the Golden Gate Bridge, by Molly Giles.
WTAW Press (June 5, 2024)
ISBN: 979-8-9877197-5-6

~ Lauren Alwan

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About Molly Giles, Author Of Life Span

Life Span author Molly Giles

Molly Giles’ memoir, Life Span (WTAW Press), based on her life as a writer in the Bay Area, came out in 2024. Her second novel, The Home For Unwed Husbands (Leapfrog Press) was published in 2023. Her fifth collection of short stories, Wife With Knife, won the Leapfrog Press Global Fiction Prize, and was published in both the US and Britain in 2021.

She has published a previous novel, Iron Shoes, and four previous prize winning collections of stories: Rough Translations, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Boston Globe Award and the Bay Area Book Reviewers award; Creek Walk, which won the Small Press Best Fiction Award, the California Commonwealth Silver Medal for Fiction, and was a New York Times Notable Book; Bothered, which won the Split Oak Press Flash Fiction Award; and All the Wrong Places, which won the Spokane Prize for Fiction. Source: https://mollygiles.com/

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