By Glenda Winders
Katherine Hon bills her first novel, “Coming of Age Song,” as a “history, mystery, romance,” but even that description doesn’t tell the whole story of this exhilarating romp of a tale. It’s also a thriller, a philosophical treatise and a study of difficult relationships. Best of all for local readers, most of the story takes place in San Diego.
Hon, 55, moved to North Park 22 years ago when she married her husband, Steve, who was already in the house where they live today. Her interest in the neighborhood, her research into the history of her house and her involvement as a founding member of the North Park Historical Society all contributed to the book on which she has been working for the past six years. She even included a plug for her favorite restaurant, Urban Solace.
The several plots all concern Catlin Davis, an anthropologist who writes environmental impact reports for a living and lives in an inherited cottage with her Labradoodle, Packard. She is engaged to be married, but as readers will figure out before she does, the relationship with John, her fiancé, goes way beyond abusive. Meanwhile, her street is being torn up for a sewer-replacement project, and she is becoming friends with the foreman who oversees the job.
The mystery at the heart of the story concerns Catlin’s fascination with research into the life of a Denver prostitute during the late 1800’s. A historical account, a book of the woman’s missives, a yellowed packet of letters bequeathed to Catlin by her grandmother and a diary all make for tastefully juicy reading. The action moves from the present to the past and back as Catlin’s studies and dreams evoke the Wild West and the “soiled doves” who played a role in the country’s history.
Hon says that while these chapters may be the most fun to read, the parts she hopes will be remembered are those that deal with Catlin’s relationship with John.
“I wanted this book to be really fun,” she said in an interview, “but if there was a theme that I hope book groups would discuss it would be abusive relationships.”
Despite this aspect, her book is definitely not “chick lit.”
“I hope it is a book that has general appeal,” she said, “and a lot of men have enjoyed it. They like the bad guys and body counts.”
Some of Hon’s personal philosophies, including reincarnation, also play a part in what she has written.
“What I believe personally is that it’s very consistent with the concept of a soul,” she said. “Our essence goes on through time because it’s hard to learn all the lessons we need to know in one lifetime. I think we get the chance to keep learning.”
To test the theory she once underwent hypnotic regression, during which she saw herself as a farm girl taking a train west to become a schoolteacher and a scullery maid in a castle trying to learn to read so she could become a governess.
“I don’t know if you’re really tapping into something or just telling stories about yourself that you feel inform your personality,” she said, looking back on the experience. “But I was always reaching for the light, always trying to do better. I love that theme.”
Hon’s “day job” is working for her own company, Hon Consulting Inc., as an engineer. The work she typically does is much like Catlin’s, and she found writing fiction a pleasant departure.
“I write environmental impact reports that have a structure – noise, traffic, air quality, biology – all in a specific order to satisfy the California Environmental Quality Act,” she said. “So it was a lot of fun to write dialogue and action and have people get angry and be sad and fall in love.”
She also liked working non-linearly, writing the last chapter first and taking the manuscript with her on vacations to see what inspired her.
Other parts of her life besides her job appear in the book, too. The men doing the sewer project are modeled after the ones who once worked on her street, and her dogs, Bosco and Shelby, turn up at the park where Catlin goes for a walk. She confesses that she cried while she wrote the scenes where Packard goes through a rough patch, remembering her own dog, Reebok, who had served as the model for the fictional one.
Once the book was finished, she decided to produce it herself rather than spend the time it would have taken to find an agent and try for a major publisher. The novel is dedicated to “Mary Savage, my irrepressible mother,” who now lives in an assisted-living facility, and Hon’s goal was for her mother to see the finished product.
She had some knowledge of self-publishing gleaned from her earlier work on “North Park: A San Diego Urban Village” with the historical society. Photographer Roni Galgano and graphic designer Ellen Goodwin, who helped with the cover, are also North Park residents.
The book’s title comes from a sculpture of the same name by Hon’s friend and fellow North Park resident Brad Burkhart. Hon says as the story emerged, her process was very much like his.
“It was like I was a sculptor finding the piece within the rock and exposing it – not creating,” she said.
Along the way Hon throws in enough twists and turns to keep readers guessing about what will happen until the surprising end. But here’s a clue:
“I think happy endings are important,” she said. “I like it when good guys win and good things happen.”
“Coming of Age Song” is available at Vintage Religion, 3821 32nd St.; The Grove, 3010 Juniper Street; Nina’s Books, 6165 El Cajon Blvd.; and online at www.amazon.com.