With two successful books to her credit and an audience of loyal readers, Oakland writer Melanie Gideon took a gamble with her third book for adults. Her first two were the satirical novel “Wife 22” and the memoir “The Slippery Year.”
Rather than continue with the irreverent, contemporary voice she had developed, Gideon committed to a different tack. Her new novel, “Valley of the Moon,” is a romantic time-travel fantasy that ping pongs between San Francisco in the 1970s and an idyllic Sonoma County farm community in 1906.
Gideon, 53, remembers her first visit to Glen Ellen, when she was struck by the town’s “timeless, haunting quality.”
“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “It was an enchanting place, and I thought, ‘I want to set a novel here.’”
“Valley of the Moon” follows struggling single mom Lux Lysander as she navigates between two worlds. During a solo camping trip to Glen Ellen, she wakes to see a mysterious fog roll in, then follows a beacon to Greengage, a farming community magically marooned in time.
Lux is able to return to her life in San Francisco when she wants, but she always feels torn between timelines, one containing her beloved young son, the other offering happiness, simplicity and the possibility of true romance.
Gideon’s research into turn-of-the-century Sonoma County took her to the Glen Ellen Historical Society and executive director Jim Shere. She learned that there were a number of Utopian colonies in Sonoma County in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including Fountain Grove in Santa Rosa, Altruria on Mark West Springs Road and Icaria-Speranza, just south of Cloverdale.
She also discovered that two train lines went through Glen Ellen at the time, the Southern Pacific and the Northern Pacific, bringing crowds of tourists each weekend from both Santa Rosa and San Francisco during summer and fall.
“[Glen Ellen] was this kind of ‘hippie resort’ of its time,” Gideon said. “There were these tent resort campgrounds and cabins. That gave me the idea of the farm, Greengage.”
For details on life in San Francisco from 1975 and beyond, Gideon read reference books but largely depended on her own memories.
“The Seventies were my time,” she said. “That decade is just imprinted upon me.”
Gideon began her writing career with three fantasy novels for young adults, and those books also include characters who travel to simpler worlds. A fan of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” and Jack Finney’s classic time-travel novel “Time and Again,” Gideon said her desire for a portal to the past may stem in part from her childhood.
“My parents were really into antiques,” she said, “and we lived in a 17th century house in Rhode Island. I think it is a fundamental part of who I am. That desire to go back and live in a simpler time has always haunted me.”
Yet writing “Valley of the Moon” was anything but simple, Gideon said. She threw away one 500-page draft when she realized that the manuscript was “stillborn.” Ditching that unworkable version was scary and difficult, but Gideon said she’s glad she started over and now considers “Valley of the Moon” her best book.
“I think I’m most proud of that, that I took the risk.”