Katherine Seligman has seen a lot living on Clayton Street in the heart of Haight-Ashbury for more than 25 years. An increasingly visible homeless population. Boutiques becoming empty storefronts. Tent encampments. Buses of tourists still looking for hints of the neighborhood’s hippie past, who, like the character Ash, an adolescent drifter in Seligman’s debut novel “At the Edge of the Haight,” “thought everything was still a big love project.”
And then there are the colorful characters who’ve piqued Seligman’s curiosity — like the homeless girl who camped out on her corner feeding her pet rat from a juice box. The published poet who spent a decade sleeping in Golden Gate Park. Or the meth addict squatting in the house next door “who would knock on our door at 6 in the morning if he thought we needed to move our car across the street,” Seligman recalled recently by phone.
“It’s chaotic here, but it’s a wonderful community. I’ve met such a rich tapestry of people, including wave after wave of kids filtering through.”
Like 20-year-old Maddy Donaldo, the fictional narrator of “At the Edge of the Haight”; she’s a captivating composite of the countless street kids Seligman has observed and talked to in the Haight as a longtime journalist (she used to write for the Chronicle Magazine), neighbor and concerned parent herself.
Most are running away from something painful, others running toward what they hope will be a lawless adventure. For some kids like Maddy, both are true.
“At the Edge of the Haight” is told from Maddy’s perspective, as she arrives by bus from Los Angeles with no plan, adjusts to her precarious new independence and gets unwittingly caught up in a murder case.
The book is a compassionate and probing character study of the type of street kids Seligman knows people tend to overlook or even scorn when they see them begging on the sidewalk.
“I really wanted to explore the notion of proximity and how little we know about the people we interact with every day, and people leading hidden lives,” Seligman said.
“I didn’t set out to write about homelessness, but about this unknowable quality and how well people hide their secrets.”
Seligman describes the way Maddy stumbles into a new sense of community — “like people were waiting for me,” she writes — upon arriving in Golden Gate Park. Before long, she has a dog named Root and a makeshift family of new friends who wake each other every morning before the cops roust them.
“That’s how people have described the feeling (of community) to me,” Seligman said. “Of course, it can evaporate in a second when something horrible happens.”
Seligman had a harrowing experience about 10 years ago that sparked the central plot idea for “At the Edge of the Haight,” and which she recounts through Maddy’s eyes in the novel’s gripping first chapter.
“My husband and I were driving home through Golden Gate Park one night, and a man jumped in front of our car shouting, ‘Stop, someone’s trying to kill me,’ ” Seligman said. “He had a little blood on his face, but he didn’t seem injured, just agitated. We called 911 and when the police came they shined a light into the bushes and there was a kid lying there.
“My husband, a former ER doctor, jumped out of the car to see if there was anything he could do. And then the kid just died. He had a knife wound in his heart and bled out immediately.
“The next thing I knew, the guy who’d stopped the car was sitting on the curb in handcuffs. It turns out he had killed this kid. The cops never investigated the murder, and they never found out what happened.”
Seligman remembers asking one of the officers, “ ‘Well, where do you go from here?’ He just said, ‘Neither one of these guys was up to any good.’
“That’s what really what got to me,” she continued. “My own kids were teenagers then, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the young man who’d been killed and how his parents somewhere would find out and wonder how he ended up dead in the park. And I started thinking about how many dislocated people you see walking down the street and think, ‘Where did this person come from? How did their life end like this?’ ”
Seligman started writing “At the Edge of the Haight” about six months after that night.
The novel addresses themes that have always interested Seligman as a reporter: homelessness, social issues, a changing city. After graduating from Stanford University in 1975 and starting her reporting career on the East Coast, she moved to San Francisco in the mid-’80s to write for USA Today. She took a life-changing reporting trip for Life Magazine to Sudan “to interview the kids who were later known as the Lost Boys.”
“I guess I’ve always been interested in the notion of displacement,” she said.
“At the Edge of the Haight” has received advance praise for its sensitive handling of homelessness. The book received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an award established by novelist Barbara Kingsolver.
“People have so many different reasons for ending up like this, which is part of the reason it’s so hard to effectively help,” said Seligman, who used to volunteer and lead a women’s group at a neighborhood shelter. “Sometimes the issues kids on the street are facing are so deep, it’s not easy for them to accept help.”
She hopes her novel will encourage people “to think, when they see a kid hanging out on the street asking for money, that this is an individual who came from somewhere. They could have people out there who care about them and are worried.”
Or, Seligman added, “They could have no one.”
“At the Edge of the Haight”
By Katherine Seligman
(Algonquin Books; 304 pages; $26.95)
A Celebration of the PEN/Bellwether Prize with Katherine Seligman and Barbara Kingsolver: 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21. Free. Register at www.centerforfiction.org/events.
Katherine Seligman in conversation with Chronicle columnist and author Vanessa Hua: 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25. Green Apple Books via Zoom. Free. Register at www.greenapplebooks.com.