Larger Than Life: Talking with Alia Volz

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To say Alia Volz had an unconventional childhood wouldn’t do it justice. It wasn’t just that her parents were artists. Or that they often worked as psychics. They were also drug dealers. And not just any drug dealers: they ran what was likely the first, large-scale edible marijuana distributor in existence—often in costume.

Volz’s historical memoir, Home Baked: My Mom, Marjjuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco, centers on her mother’s underground business, Sticky Fingers Brownies, which operated in San Francisco in the ‘70s and ‘80s, sometimes from Volz’s stroller.

But the book covers ground well beyond the stoner romp she could have written. As the AIDS crisis mounted in San Francisco, Volz’s mother Meridy was at the forefront of medical marijuana, delivering brownies to those who were suffering. It increased their appetites, and eased their pain. Volz grew from a toddler surrounded in a cloud of green dust to a teen helping to wrap brownies, witnessing the epidemic herself.

Home Baked is both a loving, unconventional family portrait and expansive work of journalism, spanning the country’s evolving relationship with marijuana, the Jonestown massacre, the assassination of Harvey Milk, and AIDS. What stitches these layers together is Volz’s singular narrative voice, the same voice that landed her in 2017’s Best American Essays. It’s a voice that is funny, in command, intimate, and beautiful all at once.

Not unexpectedly, Volz’s upbringing left her out of step with other kids. She tried to act normal, she writes, “but the weirdness must have leaked out somehow.” I met Volz as an adult, when I joined the writing critique group she’s facilitated for about ten years in San Francisco. Today, it’s hard to imagine her trying to fit in. She’s a hard-working literary citizen, generous with her time, with a full calendar even under lockdown. Her debut is also a hell of a read, and cements her reputation as a nonfiction talent to keep watching.

Volz and I caught up recently by video call. We talked about the book’s early rejection, the influence of having artists as parents, and what it’s like to release a book about a pandemic in the middle of one.

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The Rumpus: So you actually tried to sell this book, was it ten years ago? What did the book look like then?

Alia Volz: It was completely different. I started this back in 2006 as an oral history. Each person I talked to would give me two or three more names who were in some way connected to Sticky Fingers Brownies. The interview pool got wider and wider, and every one of these people in the ‘70s was doing something wild and different and interesting. I had hundreds of hours of interviews and I strung them together and then did a lot of archival research and built this oral history. But I didn’t want to write about myself. I’m a very reluctant memoirist. I’ve always felt self conscious about navel-gazing or anything that smacks of it.

The oral history shopped in 2009 and it was roundly rejected. I had a good agent, who had every reason to think it would fly, but it just didn’t. One of the main reasons we were given was that cannabis was too niche of a subject, that it was only going to interest aging hippies. And that changed one hundred and eighty degrees in the ten years between when I put this book in the boneyard to molder, and when I dug it back up. The relationship American society has with cannabis completely changed. In 2016, it became apparent that Prop 64 in California (the adult recreational use proposition) would pass. In the intervening years, I’d learned to write personal essays, and had found a first-person voice on the page. So I was able to take the research that I’d already done and a little bit of the writing and tear it apart and then rewrite it all with a more traditional narrative style.

Rumpus: The book does a lot of balancing between that first-person voice and what I would call historical journalism. You don’t have a journalism background, do you?

Volz: No. Nor am I a trained historian.

Rumpus: So how did you approach that? Did you have to train yourself in journalism and if so, how did you do it?

Volz: I did have to teach myself. It was a lot of trial and error especially in learning how to blend the more journalistic voice with a personal narrative. That was probably the hardest part. I think that reading books is the best education for writing. So I read a lot of historical narratives that were beautifully researched and still had a fluid and entertaining tone and I tried to copy that. I spent a lot of time in the archives. In a way, the oral history was a cop out. I could just let it be that person’s claim and not feel responsible for fact checking. But once you claim authority to tell the story, you have to get it right. Although this may at first glance appear a stoner adventure, I’m also dealing with the AIDS crisis and a lot of death. I felt very, very worried, and very neurotic about getting it right.

Rumpus: There’s so much research in the book. You’re telling the story of yourself and your family, and plus the history of not just cannabis, but San Francisco. How did you manage these different story lines?

Volz: The balance was the hardest part. But I’m writing about such a meaty era. The ‘70s were frothy and weird and dark and also extreme and exciting. There was just so much happening, so many different scenes. And the phenomenon of Sticky Fingers Brownies was that at their height, when they were distributing ten thousand brownies a month, they really infiltrated all of the subcultures. So you know, there are the punks and there are the vaudevillians at Fisherman’s Wharf, and obviously the LGBTQ community, and a little bit of the cults. There was no shortage of material.

Even though Home Baked is not an oral history now, it’s driven by oral history. Every scene that’s in the book is as described to me by one of my interviewees. I had to have a first-person account or I didn’t include it. Anything that has dialogue comes from interviews. There’s a way in which this is still an as-told-to story. The other thing that determined whether or not a scene was included was that it had to have a clear connection to my parents or to Sticky Fingers Brownies. That eliminated a lot of material as well. Those became my guiding principles. But I’ve spent an enormous amount of time chasing rabbits in researching.

The other thing I did, that’s sort of a no-no in writing about family, is to have the principal players read the book beforehand. When I was in the later stages of editing, I had everybody read their sections, so that if anything didn’t feel true to them, there was an opportunity to talk about it. I wasn’t out to malign anyone; I wanted to get it right.

Rumpus: I know you were concerned about how your dad would take his scenes. Could you talk about that experience a little bit?

Volz: It was a really interesting experience. And very heartening. In writing about family, it’s often a truism that you have to be willing to burn it all down. You can’t worry about hurting people’s feelings. So we write about our families at the risk of losing our families. When I started this project, my dad and I were pretty estranged. My dad was not at his best in the ‘70s. Eventually, I realized that the only way to get my dad’s side of the story right was to spend a lot of time figuring out where he was coming from, which wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do. I had a lot of unresolved anger toward him at the outset. And he’s got memory problems, so that complicates it. There were famous fights and moments of misbehavior that he didn’t remember at all.

So, how do you handle that as a writer? I found the only way forward was to be open with him—and also with the reader. I learned to enjoy the uncertainty and to share on the page when there were conflicting versions of a story. What surprised me was how willing and open he was to have those conversations. We talked about all the darkest, most fucked up moments in our collective past. I thought that he would be defensive. Instead, I think he was touched that I wanted to understand his side. It’s also been long enough that he’s able to look at his behavior forty years in the past and say, Wow, well I wouldn’t do that now. Through that process, we became very close, which was the surprise gift of the book.

It also helped that he’s an artist. He has a higher idea of art. So he was able to go, Well, this is for the art, you have to do this, and was able to get on board that way. I think he was very brave. I mean his sexuality gets exposed, his psychological intricacies get exposed, and probably some of his most shameful moments.

Rumpus: It’s kind of incredible he was up for that kind of vulnerability. Speaking of which, you also talk about yourself as a reluctant memoirist. How did you become one?

Volz: An editor pushed me into it. Some years ago I woke up in the middle of the night having had a dream that connected all these weird tendrils in my memories. It connected snakes with my father, with memory, with this Native American dude who lived behind our house for a while. I woke up at, like, 3 a.m. with all of these images really strong in my mind. I got up and wrote, and that became the beginning of something I was calling a short story. I sent it to Tin House, to Michelle Wildgen, as fiction. She wrote back, “nice essay.” She just wasn’t buying it as fiction. She asked if I would be interested in writing an essay about my relationship with my father—which I screamingly, screamingly really, really, didn’t want to do. But I always wanted to be in Tin House, so I wasn’t going to not try.

I would say Michelle kind of took me under her wing. I sent her multiple drafts over several months, and she basically taught me how to write a personal essay. The thing she kept saying to me was, “you haven’t found the heart yet. Keep going. You’re getting closer.” She’d send it back with a long letter. And after months of this, I wrote a scene that made me break down. I ended up sobbing while I was writing. I had no idea that emotion was even there, you know, when it surprises you like that. And I knew I had found it. That was the draft that they published. That’s kind of what I got interested in about the personal essay—when there’s mystery. The personal essays that have done well for me start with a feeling of confusion or uncertainty about my past, or a distrust in my own memories. Then it’s a weird game, almost a treasure hunt. I like challenging myself and taking myself to task. It’s weird and fun and upsetting. It’s complicated, and I like complication.

Rumpus: Your mom has such a strong voice in the story, and is such a storyteller herself. Did her storytelling influence the way you tell stories?

Volz: We don’t have the same voice in storytelling at all, but growing up with a raconteur does give you a natural sense of narrative arc. You have the setup, the peril, the climax, and the punchline, right? That’s built into any kind of great story. The punchline doesn’t have to be funny, of course. I also became interested in self-mythologizing, which I think we all do, but certainly storytellers do. You have to make yourself larger than life.

I can’t remember where it comes from, but there’s a saying that the truth is infinite and also doesn’t exist. The first chapter in Home Baked has to do with finding out that a story my mom has been telling for decades wasn’t exactly true. I didn’t want to hide that complication. The plot of this book is driven by interviews, and storytelling is always a little rickety. I wanted to introduce that element of doubt, even though I’m researching and fact-checking and trying to tell the truth. I wanted to introduce the possibility that, you know, my sources are spinning yarns multiple decades old and might not be completely correct about what happened.

Rumpus: You show a scene of a joint gallery show your parents had, and you end up contrasting the ways they approach their painting. Did having working artists as parents change the way you work as a writer?

Volz: Oh yeah, absolutely. In a way I’m kind of a blend between them. I get my diligence and this sort of desperation to work from my mom. If she doesn’t paint or draw for a stretch of days, she turns into a basket case. It’s not just that art is an outlet—although that’s part of it—but that the idea of being an artist is so ingrained into her personality. The pot business was secondary to her. She worked every single day. So I learned discipline and diligence.

There’s good and bad in that. I have the same issue: my sense of self-worth is directly connected to my artistic output. So if I’m not producing, I get unhappy really quickly. It keeps me working, you know? The difference with my mom is that she loves making her art. It’s a joy for her. I’ll catch her on the phone and she’ll be painting and she’s like, Oh my God, these colors together are amazing. She feels good about what she’s doing and thinks she’s a badass. She feels like a genius when she’s in her painting chair.

Rumpus: Wouldn’t that be nice?

Volz: Wouldn’t that be nice! Most of the time while I’m writing it’s this self-flagellation process. I hate writing ninety percent of the time. Sometimes I wish I had picked a gentler art. But it’s what I’m good at, and it seems to be what I need to keep doing.

I started out doing visual art, but I started to feel in my later teens that any art I made would have to somehow be a response to their work. Either I’m pointedly not doing their style or I’m following in their footsteps. I couldn’t just make my own work. That was always in my head. I got into costuming for a while. I’m a bad singer, but I sang in a band. I fished around for a really long time trying to find my art.

Rumpus: One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the AIDS crisis, and its role in the book. There’s something a little bit—comforting isn’t quite the right word, but being reminded that humanity has weathered terrible things before feels helpful right now. What’s it been like to realize you’ve written a pandemic book in the middle of one?

Volz: It’s pretty meta. Oddly enough, Home Baked is resonant right now but in a way that I would never wish it to be.

It’s interesting that you talk about comfort. When Donald Trump was elected, I was at the juncture where I had to write about the AIDS epidemic. And it was a really fucking hard part of the book to write. The research was bloodying. It would leave me sobbing in a heap. And that was just the research. Still it mattered a lot to get it right, so I had to keep going. Trump had just been elected. And I saw that in the writing community, so many writers were like: I can’t work. My work is totally irrelevant right now. And I found strange comfort in writing about a time that felt like the end of the world—and for a lot of people it was the end of the world—but it was also over. We eventually got through those years.

So, fast forward to 2020, and all of a sudden we have a pandemic and Trump is handling it in Reagan-like ways. The parallels between Reagan’s handling of the early AIDS crisis and Trump’s handling of COVID-19 are pretty striking. Reagan refused to speak about AIDS publicly, and Trump refuses to shut up, but the failure of leadership is eerily familiar. It’s also different in serious ways. For the first fifteen years of the AIDS crisis, AIDS was a death sentence. People didn’t recover from it like many are recovering from COVID-19. Also, the fact that people could connect AIDS with behavior perceived as “immoral” dramatically and plainly increased the death toll. You could blame the victim. That squeamishness kept people silent in a way that’s definitely not happening now. COVID-19 is all anybody is talking about all over the world. So it gives me a certain hope that we’ll get through this as a community with more resources, even with Trump, blundering as much as he possibly can.

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Photograph of Alia Volz by Dennis Hearne.


Caryn Cardello lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend and their toddler son. Her fiction has been in The Sun magazine, Spork, and elsewhere. A former staff writer for The Davis Enterprise newspaper, she received an Associated Press News Executives Council award in feature writing, has an MFA from the University of Arizona, used to teach at California College of the Arts. She works as a copywriter. You’ve probably deleted an email she’s written. Find her on Twitter at @y_Caryn. More from this author →