By Zara Raab
This continues our interview with writer Philip Fradkin, whose extensive body of work is essential to understanding California and the American West. In Part I, archived below, Mr. Fradkin spoke about his upbringing in New Jersey, his father’s roots in Russia, and his own early books, including the classic book on the Colorado River, A River No More, and Sagebrush Country, as well as his involvement with the burgeoning environmental movement while writing for the LA Times. Fradkin’s two latest books, which we will discuss here, 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.
Zara Raab: The photographs included in A River No More are your own. You’ve always had an interest in photography, as I understand it.
Philip Fradkin: Yes, I’ve been taking photographs since my first newspaper job. It was 1960, the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area were burgeoning, everyone was a stranger, everyone was a transient. Without any newspaper experience, I couldn’t get a job in the city, so I landed my first job in the suburbs selling advertising for a small weekly on the Peninsula. The gimmick for selling ads was “I’ll take your picture, and we’ll put a drawing of your face in the ad.” It was called “a get acquainted edition” and fit the needs of that time. I began with a simple Kodak and graduated to a single-lens reflex camera. When I moved after six months to the Turlock Journal in the San Joaquin Valley, I did everything on that small daily. I was the only reporter. When the sports editor quit, I did his job. I was the society editor when she took a vacation. When the photographer quit, I took the pictures, developed the film, and ran the engraving machine.
When I went to work for the Independent Journal in Marin County in 1962, I took photographs as part of my job. At the Times I was assigned stories that required extensive traveling throughout the West, and I didn’t want to be burdened with a photographer, so I took my own photographs. I did the same for Audubon, whose standard of photography was quite high. I illustrated the interior pages of my books from the Colorado River volume through the Ruess book. I supplied the cover photos for books published by such design conscious firms as Knopf and UC Press. I ‘m familiar with cameras and their uses, and now I want to become more familiar with what for me is a very intuitive way to express myself.
Writing, by contrast, is a long, arduous process of writing and rewriting again and again. It takes forever. It’s a satisfying exercise, but it’s tedious. Photography for me is fast and intuitive. Also, I have one major goal remaining to learn in life, and that is how to be present in a place. A camera is a tool that forces you to notice where you are. Take, for example, the four photographs of my regular morning walk [mounted in the hallway outside his office]. They capture the freshness of the mornings that I missed when I was writing at that time of day. I take my camera to force me to be in the present and notice more things.
ZR: Have you gone digital?
PF: I use a digital camera. It’s handy. I don’t have to process and develop film in a darkroom. I’ve had a computer since the first Mac in 1985. I’ve gone through every version of Microsoft Word for the Mac since that time. For an old geezer, I am proud of my electronic accomplishments.
ZR: Nearly thirty years after A River No More, you wrote Wallace Stegner and the American West in 2008. These are two very different books. For one thing, the research for the Stegner book must have been completed mostly in libraries not in the rugged outback of Colorado or Arizona. After your many non-fiction books about the geography and politics of the West, a biography was a departure for you, and now you have just published another biography, Everett Reuss: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife. Is part of what drew you to these stories, although they are very different from each other, a shared interest in the land and remote places in the West. Do you want to say anything about Wallace Stegner?
PF: The research for the Stegner biography was not confined to archives. It took me to the Saskatchewan prairie where he was raised and to the Colorado River again. The river, Stegner, and Ruess are all interrelated. They all inhabit California and the interior West. Stegner floated down the river, spent time around it, and wrote about the river and Ruess. What he wrote led me to Everett. Stegner and Ruess were shaped, to some extent, by the physical environments they had in common. A biography, like a river, is a point of departure for discussing other matters.
I met Stegner once in 1981. I wrote him a note saying I’d like to interview him for a story for Audubon, and I got a wonderful reply that I have framed and is on my office wall: “I am also reviewing your splendid book on the Colorado for The New Republic.” That was my first validation as an author of books. I thought about contacting him when I was writing the book, but I didn’t realize he was as accessible as he was. Maybe I didn’t contact him for the same reason I rarely read The New Yorker, I didn’t want to be overly influenced by someone else’s style.
The Stegner biography came about in the following manner. I knew his son, Page, and in December of 2005 he wrote me asking if I had any letters from his father as he was putting together a book of his letters. The question then occurred to me: what about a biography of Wallace Stegner? It was not an easy sell to publishers. Here’s Wallace Stegner, a Westerner, arguably the one person most responsible for there even being a literature of the West and for making books by other authors about the West more acceptable to eastern publishers. He had inadvertently raised the stature of all writers in the West. He not only excelled at writing fiction and nonfiction but also was an outstanding teacher of writing and a conservationist who had influenced the shape of the West. I thought his life had tremendous regional and national importance.
When I tried to sell the idea to eastern editors who had known and worked with Stegner and myself, I was told biographies were not selling well. On the second try, I got Ashbel Green at Knopf, who had edited A River No More and Sagebrush Country, to agree to do the book. Stegner had had his own problems with the eastern literary establishment in the form of The New York Times Book Review. As of this book, my eleventh, I had yet to be reviewed in that publication, so we had that in common. A wealth of new material about Stegner was made available to me, and the biography was favorably reviewed in the Times.
ZR: I gather that Page and his father did not always get along.
PF: Page had his difficulties with his father, who had a temper. But he had more with his mother. He wanted a straightforward account, not a hagiography, and he got it. As I do with all my books, I ask the people most knowledgeable about parts or the whole manuscript to read it for accuracy of facts and interpretations. Despite a long section on the possibility of plagiarism in Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose, Page had only a couple of minor corrections.
There are stereotypes that invade the publishing industry, like biographies aren’t selling and nothing of much interest takes place west of the Hudson River, and it’s difficult to fight those perceptions, even if you have a good story to tell. Stegner thought a good book review based in the West might counter that prejudice. The University of California Press is a publisher with regional interests, and books that transcend the region. They are adept at editing and do very good design work. They also listen to their authors. UC Press has been a great home for my work, both in the form of quality paperback reprints of books published originally in New York and as original works. Unfortunately, they are now constrained by budget cutbacks.
ZR: You mention in various places other writers and books, E. L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, for example. Are there other fiction writers, James Houston or Larry McMurtry, for example, who you think capture the West in their writing?
PF: I like the use of history in Doctorow’s novels, and frequently an outsider can portray a region better than an insider who is beholden to its myths. Andrea Barrett’s novel “The Voyage of the Narwhal” taught me what I was beginning to suspect: there is no ultimate truth in history, just different versions. I really liked Barbara Tuchman’s histories that used the specific to illustrate the general. Her book Practicing History was a great help.
ZR: Do you agree with Stegner that the problems of our age are more problems of the soul than political problems?
PF: There are always problems of one kind or another. If we look back, I have to say I’m very glad I lived when I did. It was a great time. I was born in 1935 during the Depression, lived through War II as a child and the postwar years as a young adult without having to experience combat, and witnessed the boom years before the country began its slow decline. The printed word was big then; it isn’t now, witness the decline of my former employers.
I’ve been exceedingly fortunate in that all my books have been published in print editions that I could hold and treasure, and that almost all have been reprinted in softcover editions that will survive as long as the text on acid free paper does not fade. If I had gone on writing books they would be disappearing into the vapor of the internet and what little money I have received would have lessened. It was good time to be alive and writing. Along with good health, I’ve been very fortunate.
ZR: Fortunate, too, to live in Point Reyes, one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.
PF: True. I made living here happen, too. If you compare Point Reyes with most of California, you can see how much this area has remained the same over the years. The reasons for that are there’s lots of publicly owned land, no sewer systems, and a united community that wants to keep it that way. After documenting growth throughout the West in the 1970s, I recognized the uniqueness of this place.
ZR: Wallace Stegner had Wilbur Schram, his college roommate, to give him a boost in his first teaching job at Bread Loaf. Was there anyone in your writing life like that?
PF: I was very fortunate in the first two newspaper jobs I had. The San Carlos paper had a wonderful editor named Justin Roberts. One day this stranger shows up from New Jersey, and he and his family took me under their wing. After selling ads all day, I attended meetings at night and wrote stories that Justin rewrote and showed me my mistakes. At the Turlock paper, Jack Bliler was my editor. You had to produce a lot of copy fast for those small papers to fill their large news holes. He forgave my mistakes in what was for me a graduate school of journalism. Justin and Jack were wonderful mentors, and I dedicated a book containing my environmental journalism to them. I had a small publishing company named Redwood Press for a while and we published a history of Marin County written by Arthur Quinn, a professor at UC Berkeley who got me into the Rhetoric Department. So there is that similarity with Stegner.
I learned the basics from them, and then there was no problem applying those lessens at larger newspapers. I learned to write books by first writing magazine articles. A book is just an expanded magazine story, larger in terms of content, scope, and format. I passed on what I had learned to students at the Graduate School of Journalism and the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley and undergraduates at Stanford University. I believe in helping other beginning writers, just as I was helped.
ZR: What did you teach?
PF: I taught news writing in the journalism school at Berkeley and Stanford. Then I got a job in the Rhetoric Department teaching advanced nonfiction writing. The department had a lot of pre-law students who would never take another writing class. I hope I improved their legal briefs. The writing class was very popular. Every once in awhile I get a note from former students thanking me for what I taught them.
ZR: In your biography of Wallace Stegner, you say, writing of both Stegner and Robert Frost, “Both writers used place as a point of departure.”  In your own writing, place certainly seems to be the point of departure—in particular, the Rocky Mountain West and California. Is that what drew you to Stegner, this shared interest in place and the values of conservation in the West?
PF: Undoubtedly. A story needs to be tangible and specific for me, but it also needs to be emblematic in a way that readers will be encouraged to find themselves in it and place the immediate subject in a larger context. I don’t have a generalist’s mind. My worst courses in college dealt with philosophy. I was adrift in them. There was nothing tangible to hold onto. It helps if the tangible subject can also serve as the structural device, such as the Colorado River, the Uinta Mountains, or the radiation trial in Fallout: A Nuclear Tragedy, one of my most powerful books.
ZR: We haven’t talked about Fallout. Tell us about that book.
PF: I dedicated the book to my mother, an advocate of world peace and disarmament. It deals with the atmospheric nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, the disinformation put out by the Atomic Energy Commission on the effects of radioactive fallout, and the health effects on the people who lived downwind from the test site. The structural device is the trial, where the downwinders claimed harm and the government claimed no harm. It is, in a sense, a legal thriller with the victims being the twenty-four plaintiffs, some of whom died after the tests. What killed them was the question. The trial has a discovery phase, testimony, and a judgment at the end. The appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court left the outcome inconclusive because of a legal technicality.
After William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, who had commissioned a two-part series, turned it down on the basis of the first one thousand words because it did not fit the magazine’s style, Knopf rejected the manuscript because, in the words of the editor, it “wasn’t wet enough.” I envisioned a documentary, not a tear jerker. I was devastated. The book, eventually published by the University of Arizona Press, received rave reviews from coast to coast. I appeared for the first and last time on NBC’s “Today Show.” The small university press was not equipped to handle the huge response. Bookstores quickly ran out of copies. The publisher had to go through a lengthy competitive printing bidding process to get it reprinted as a softcover. By the time there was a paperback, readers had gone onto other matters.
When do you trust your own judgment when the people at the top of your craft say you are wrong? Or, to phrase it another way, when do you give a publisher what it wants, and when do you hold onto what you want? That was a key question from students I could never answer.
ZR: You’ve written big books on a range of difficult topics involving extensive research and complex subjects. Obviously, you preferred writing your own books to working at a big institution like the LA Times. What was the turning point when you decided to follow your own interests rather than stories assigned by editors?
PF: I realized that a large institution like the Times would always take more from me than what l would get in return. In 1975 the editors took the environmental beat away from me, stating that I was too much in favor of the environment. I mean, how can you be against it? I left the newspaper and dealt with the environmental issues I had been writing about in a high-level policy position in the administration of Governor Jerry Brown. A little more than one year in state government taught me all I needed to know about that large institution, so I went to work for Audubon half time and began the Colorado River book. Now I had the freedom to select my own subjects and deal with them as I wished.
ZR: Tell me about your two most recent books.
PF: Gladly. Both were published last year, and both represent the ending of my writing life and semi-retirement. My first book California, the Golden Coast was published in 1974. My then 6-year-old son Alex accompanied me on much of the research. We camped along the coast and had many unusual experiences, which we both still recall. After I finished the Stegner book, I thought how appropriate it would be to end my writing career with another book about the coast, this time illustrated with Alex’s photos. After a career as an architect, Alex had switched to photography, at which he excels. I wrote the 50,000-word text. This time he drove, and we had a great time. The book is about the coast, and the backstory is about the relationship of a father and son. I know we have succeeded on both levels.
I thought that book would be my last, but there was still one more I had to get out of my system, and that was the Ruess book which took me back to my youth as I wrote about his early years. Ruess had become an icon to wilderness lovers in the West, yet no one had written a biography of him and his time. To me it is a both a celebratory story about that time of life and at the same time a cautionary tale about a youngster who goes to extremes. Everett was a talented artist who from the age of sixteen wandered through California and the Southwest making block prints and writing extensive letters home to his parents while flirting with death. He was on a quixotic quest for beauty while experiencing high and low emotional cycles. In the fall of 1934 he disappeared in the canyonlands of southern Utah. What happened to him remains a mystery. In many ways, I believe it is my most evocative book, and it certainly is the best one that could serve as a bookend to my 51-year writing career. Now I am using a camera for the same purposes that I used words.
ZR: Philip Fradkin, it has been pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you.
More biographical material and a list of Philip Fradkin’s books and reviews are available on his website at philipfradkin.com.
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.