February 6, 2024
The Joy of Writing with Others: Interview with Janis Cooke Newman


By Tova Green

Janis Cooke Newman, founder and director of Page Street, a community writing center across the street from SFZC’s City Center, is organizing a series of readings by Buddhist Writers called ZenLit. These readings are designed to bring together the wider SFZC sangha and the local literary community. The first ZenLit event, featuring three Buddhist memoirists (Faith Adiele, Katy Butler, and Susan Moon), will be held on Friday, March 1.

Sangha News interviewed Janis to learn about her experience as a writer and how she came to found Page Street Coworking. Several years ago, Janis brought a friend who was looking for a new space for his writing co-op to see the storefront at the corner of Page and Laguna. Janis knew the space was owned by SFZC, and that it had been vacant for a while. It didn’t meet his needs for a space with individual offices, but Janis suggested that it could work with a cafe model, as many writers work in cafes. The space could provide several things that writing in a cafe does not—not having to worry about leaving a computer unattended when taking a bathroom break, not needing to keep buying lattes to stay longer, enough outlets for computers.

Very little remodeling was needed, as the space had been a cafe in its former life. Janis named it simply “Page Street.” She realized she could use a membership model similar to a gym, in which many members do not come every day. Page Street now has 135 members although there are rarely more than six or seven members there at any time.

In September 2023 Janis opened a similar space for writers on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley; there are already 65 members.

“Page Street is a community, not just a working space for writers,” Janis explained. Members often come before or after the 12:30 lunch hour to talk with one another, as the rest of the time silence is observed. Once a month they gather for a Happy Hour, and there are periodic public readings. Members have created “craft groups” for those writing memoirs or those writing novels. “Writers crave community because we work alone; we look for the support of other writers.” Page Street is open to both published and emerging writers in contrast to most writing cooperatives which require that you have published a book in order to join. Janis meets personally with every potential  member. She looks for those who are serious about writing, community-minded, and supportive of other writers.

Janis began working on her first book, The Russian Word for Snow (a memoir about adopting her son from a Russian orphanage), in her 40s. Janis wrote the book she wished she’d had to help her navigate the ups and downs of the adoption process. There was a lot of interest in international adoptions at that time and she sold the book to a publisher before it was finished.

Janis then turned to fiction and wrote Mary, a historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln,  who she thought had been misunderstood by biographers. It took her three years to write and was well-received. Her third book, A Master Plan for Rescue, published in 2016, was based on the St. Louis, otherwise known as “The Refugee Ship.” The St. Louis carried Jews fleeing Europe during World War II, and was not allowed to dock in the U.S. Janis thought this was a story that should be told.

After her second book was published Janis was invited to join the San Francisco Writers Grotto, a community of writers. This experience convinced her of the importance of connecting with other writers. Ten years ago, Litquake invited her to help them organize a writers’ conference in Calistoga. She established a nonprofit organization, LitCamp, at that time. She has organized writers’ conferences under the auspices of LitCamp every year since then except 2020, due to the pandemic.

Janis credits Brent Haas, a City Center resident priest, with the idea for ZenLit. Brent was spurred on by his wish for the wider sangha to have a place to meet offsite during the Beginners Mind Temple Renovations, and Janis wanted Page Street writers to meet Zen practitioners. It was a perfect match!

Register here for the first ZenLit event with Faith Adiele, Katy Butler, and Susan Moon at City Center on March 1.