Philip Fradkin’s extensive body of work is essential to understanding California and the American West. Over the past half century, he has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles and thirteen books about the region, its natural and human histories, varied landscapes, and some of its seminal characters. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for covering the Watts racial conflict in 1965, was a correspondent in Vietnam, and was the first environmental writer at the Los Angeles Times and the first western editor of Audubon magazine. His book, A River No More: The Colorado River and the West, remains the seminal work on that subject. He taught writing and western history courses at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and Williams College. The University of California Press has published most of his books. His two latest books are The Left Coast: California on the Edge, whose companion photographs were shot by his son, Alex L. Fradkin, and Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife. Mr. Fradkin lives with his wife in Point Reyes Station.
ZR: In your new book, The Left Coast, you tag transience as “the dominant human characteristic” of Californians. Your father immigrated to the East Coast of the United States in 1905. The very next generation—represented by you—migrated again—this time to California. What does this transience mean to you?
PF: There’s no doubt I’m a transient. My father came from Russia. When I added up the number of times I moved between 1960, when I arrived in California from the East Coast, and the 1990s it was 22 times. And I’ve moved about a half dozen times since then. I’m a very typical Californian. I came from elsewhere and I’ve been a transient within the state. What does that mean for me? I suppose an enquiring mind not saddled by too many preconceptions. I’m very settled now in West Marin, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever move unless the high cost of housing forces me to.
ZR: In your biography of Wallace Stegner, you quote him: “Most of us have one overbearing story to tell and tell it in many ways, over and over, often without being aware that we are repeating.” Is this true for you? Do you feel you have in your long and varied writing career one story to tell? And if so what would that story be?
PF: Stegner’s story was the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Once I read what Wally had to say, I found it clicked, and I’ve applied it to myself. My work, from which everything that followed is partially derived, is A River No More. It was like a first love. It was very challenging. The methods of organization I established for that book haven’t changed much. The thrust of A River No More has carried me through to my most recent book: it is about the excitement, the drama, and the sense of loss one experiences in the West. When I read what Stegner wrote, I knew where my beginning was and where my ending would be. The memories of researching and writing that book the late 1970s are still very vivid. I recall the excitement of entering the Colorado River Basin and having to be on instant alert. I knew that somewhere in that place was the nub of what I was searching for. It’s my most successful book. It has remained in print since it was published in 1981. It’s still regarded as the classic work on that subject. I went on to produce a cohesive body of work about the West. I never consciously meant it to be so cohesive. I just followed my interests.
ZR: A River No More is dedicated to your father, who first brought you out West when you were still a teenager.
PF: It was a grand tour. I was fourteen; my father was 64. (He was 50 years old when I was born.) As a younger man, he had been a marvelous horseman. He had grown up on an estate in Russia. He loved the West because it reminded him of the vast spaces of Russia. When he was younger, he used to take pack trips into the western wilderness. By the time I came along, he was a little old to do that, but he wanted me to experience those landscapes. We set out by train. The first stop was Yellowstone. Salt Lake City, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Lake Tahoe followed. We drove over Tioga Pass to Yosemite Valley. As I describe it in the Everett Ruess book, we saw the firefall from the valley floor. Next was San Francisco. Then we took the train to Seattle, and from Seattle on to Vancouver in British Columbia and over the Canadian Rockies via train to Lake Louise and Banff. These are all places that I later revisited and wrote about. He gave me a great gift with that trip. He gave me a feeling for the West, and as soon as I finished college and my military obligation, I migrated there. That is why the river book is dedicated to him.
ZR: When did your father die?
PF: He and my mother were visiting me when I was working at the LA Times in 1967. My father had a fatal heart attack in his hotel room. He was a gentleman. He was a prince.
ZR: Tell me more about your father’s background. He grew up on an estate: was he a White Russian, then? An aristocrat?
PF: No, no. His father managed the estate for an absentee general. He was Jewish and facing the very active discrimination practiced against Jews at the time in Russia. His socialist leanings also did not endear him to the Czar’s police. So he got on a boat and came to New York in 1910. I found the records of his landing on Ellis Island. He changed his stated occupation. He was a dentist. The customs officials were favoring other occupations, so my father said he was a “variety artiste,” and got into the country. He was listed as “Hebrew.”
ZR: You began as a journalist. What drew you to journalism? Did you always know what you wanted to write about?
PF: I began in 1960 on a small weekly newspaper near San Francisco selling advertising during the day and covering city council and school board meetings at night. A writer’s best work emerges when he follows his interests. I was interested in finding out what was happening around me, and I thought journalism was the best way to satisfy that curiosity. I eventually wrote to find out who I was, where I was, and how I fit. I also wrote to tell an interesting story. I had no previous experience and learned the craft of nonfiction by practicing it.
My mother inadvertently gave me my occupation. She was a wife, parent, activist (women’s vote and world peace), and a writer. She was both brilliant and erratic. She went to Vassar College and was suspended for marching in a suffragette parade in New York City. She graduated from Vassar in 1913, got a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University, and worked as a social worker in New York City. All of this was highly unusual for a woman at that time. Then she met my father.
ZR: You grew up on the East Coast. Where, exactly?
PF: Montclair, New Jersey. It was a heavily Republican, upper middle class/upper class, racially and economically-divided town then. My mother was a wild card. The Ku-Klux Klan burned a cross on my parents’ lawn because of my mother’s activities. She was an NGO at the League of Nations and United Nations, participated in a number of conferences, and wrote about various aspects of disarmament. [In 1946, the American Unitarian Association appointed Elvira Fradkin as an official delegate to the United Nations.-ZR] She was sharply criticized by a reviewer in the New York Times Book Review for being a woman who wrote about such serious topics. She was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and when my football coach wanted to deride me he would call me “Mrs. Roosevelt.” She could never find the balance between being a mother and wife and being out in the world supporting these causes. I remember her saying numerous times when facing publishers’ rejections, “If I was only a man.” It was a different time.
ZR: What was her name?
PF: Elvira K. Fradkin. If you do an internet search, you’ll find references to her work and the publications she authored.
ZR: So your mother influenced you to become a writer.
PF: Yes, but it took awhile for me realize it. I was a mediocre student. I did what most boys did in those days: I chased girls, drank beer, and played baseball and was co-captain of the football team. My parents said I could do better, if I wanted to. I didn’t want to, at that time. Then I discovered ambition. Later I received an award from that school.
ZR: [Looking on the wall of Mr. Fradkin’s office] You are an Outstanding Alumnus.
PF: Yes, from Montclair Kimberly Academy.
ZR: And you went on to Williams College in Massachusetts and two years as an enlisted man in the Army. What did you think when you arrived in California in the 1960s in the midst of a cultural revolution?
PF: There wasn’t a cultural revolution when I arrived. It took a few years to develop. You mean what did I eventually think of the laid-back, hippie lifestyle? I don’t know what I thought. I had to work. I didn’t have the luxury of just hanging out. I had to make my way up from the bottom of the journalistic ladder. As a journalist, I saw a lot. I saw college students rebel. I was in South Central LA during the riots and got beat up the first night. I followed the urban riots to other cities. I was at the first violent anti-war demonstration. I was there when Robert Kennedy was shot. I documented the flight on the underground railway during the Vietnam War from the State of Washington to Canada . Finally, I covered the war for the Times. I observed and learned, but I did not participate. I came from a very sheltered environment. By the end of that decade I had a very good idea what the realities of the world were.
ZR: My son is now a student at the University of Pennsylvania; he finds quite a difference in attitudes in the East.
PF: Yes, there are physical and cultural divides between the East and West Coasts. If I had stayed where I had been raised, I would have been a very different person. I know that for a fact when I go back East and visit my friends.
ZR: Moving from one coast to the other can create a feeling of displacement, I think.
PF: Displacement can mean freedom. There is a feeling of freedom in the West. Each coast has developed different habits or patterns for living that evolved over the years to fit those different places. When I first came here, I was struck by the great diversity of landscapes and the freedom that engendered. I later figured out how we all adapt to our very different environmental niches. We can pass from one to the other in a manner of minutes here, while it takes hours back East. This concept of adaptation to a landscape was imbedded for the first time in The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History.
ZR: In 1989, you wrote in your book Sagebrush Country, “In the last twenty-five years I had continually sought the feeling of emergence in the mountains and deserts of the West. . . “  Where did that feeling come from? In Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay you describe the only settler there being a hermit. And then more recently, just this year in fact, you wrote about the lone vagabond artist/poet/ named Everett Ruess. What draws you to such individuals as Ruess and Wallace Stegner and to the wild places that have formed them: such places as the canyonlands of the Southwest, the Saskatchewan prairie in Canada, Lituya Bay in Alaska, the Uinta Mountains in Utah, and the Lost Coast in California, which you wrote about more recently in The Left Coast: California on the Edge?
PF: I am drawn to good stories that take place in wild places inhabited by distinct individuals who have been shaped by those landscapes. That landscape determines, to some extent, destiny, history, and character has been the dominant theme of my writing since the early 1990s. I was drawn to Ruess, for example, because I also went on a quest hitchhiking and walking through Europe by myself. Like him, my youth was shaped by progressive education and the Unitarian Church with its emphasis on using your own mind to find your way. I chose to locate myself in the West. There were certain parallels with the western landscapes, and with Ruess, that drew me. I, too, had a manifesto: I wanted to live a full and productive life somewhere between the mountains and the sea.
I began my writing career in the Bay Area. It‘s a very dramatic landscape located between the Coast Range and the Pacific Ocean. It’s certainly not New Jersey. If you’re going to live intelligently in this landscape, you’re going to have to explore it. I have done so by rowing, sailing, and kayaking on Tomales Bay. I have a mountain bike. I take frequent day hikes in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. I have expanded my horizons. I sailed a 22-foot boat to Los Angeles when I went to work for the Times in 1964. Three times, the first for the newspaper, the second for my book, and the third to revise the book, I traveled from the headwaters of the Colorado River in Wyoming to where it ends ingloriously in the Gulf of California in Mexico. I took an eleven-day backpacking trip alone along the crest of the Uinta Mountains, using the hike as the structure for Sagebrush Country. I have car camped all over the West in three different versions of the VW van. I yoked my explorations to my work whenever I could, and those trips ranged from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego. Most of my time outdoors has been spent alone in wild places.
ZR: There’s a moving passage in Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay, in which you describe what drew you to this dramatic and dangerous place. If you don’t mind, I’d like to quote this passage: “Our feelings about a place, and its impact on us, derive from many factors in our past. The whiplash of my mother’s erratic moods, and thus the rhythm of my early years, matched the vicissitudes of Lituya Bay.” To research your book Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life along the San Andreas Fault (1998), you went underground to view the Hollywood Fault where construction workers were digging a subway under the Santa Monica Mountains. For A River No More you hiked steep canyons miles from anyone in the days before cell phones. You really were fearless, often putting yourself in danger for your work. Is that your mother’s influence coming in?
PF: The dangers were all calculated and are relative in the mind of the beholder. My father first showed me those types of places. My mother’s emotional eruptions represent the background rhythms of my life. I think you can see how both affected me. But if you’re going to write about the dark side of nature, an earthquake fault, a river, or anything else, I believe you have to go to that place, or as close to it as possible, and experience it. Otherwise your prose is incomplete.
My attraction to the link between the violence of the landscape and the human history of Lituya Bay encompassed other factors. I find the dark side of nature fascinating because people who love nature, say wilderness lovers and the organizations who represent them, won’t deal with that aspect. I proposed Lituya Bay as a magazine article for Audubon. They paid my way up there. I visited the bay and wrote the story. The editor wouldn’t run it. I tried to interest the Sierra Club magazine. They, too, didn’t want an account of nature gone berserk. It clearly violated their rhapsodic view of a Thoreau-like nature untouched except for the depredations of humans. Humans are destructive, but nature, according to this view, is not. I learned to recognize nature’s dark side by living next to the San Andreas Fault and being very aware of the natural history of this place: the earthquake of 1906, the flood of 1982, the forest fire of 1995, and periodic large waves that sweep people off the beaches. Everyone thinks this place, Point Reyes, is a very peaceful landscape, but it has a violent side where you trespass at your peril.
And that’s why my story of Lituya Bay was hard to place. I put it aside. Then the University of California Press offered me a contract for my 1906 earthquake book. I asked them to publish both books, and they agreed to do it.
ZR: I can see why. It’s a fascinating story.
Zara lives in Berkeley and is one of the first women to graduate in architecture from UC Berkeley. She grew up along California’s North Coast, attending school in Portland when she was fourteen, and later Mills College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) for college and graduate school. In her twenties, she traveled, living in Paris, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where she made a living as a freelance editor and writer, participating for a time in the Capitol Hill Poetry Group, before returning to the West Coast to raise her children.
Early California is a subject of her book Swimming the Eel, just as the drama of family life is the subject of The Book of Gretel. In leaving behind the rural counties, she became a part of the human potential movement of the 1960′s, and that movement perhaps more than anything, shapes her life and her work. Since she was a teenager, she kept journals, and sometimes returns to those early notebooks for ideas. Her poems appear in many literary reviews and magazines, including The Dark Horse, The Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, Dos Passos Review, Arts & Letters, and others. She also review books and writes essays on literature for various publications, including the Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review, and The Boxcar Poetry Review.