In 1968 Hall began teaching in the fiction program at UC Irvine, where he taught Pulitzer Prize winners Richard Ford and Michael Chabon and guided the program to prominence. About teaching at Irvine, Hall told me, "Towards the end of my time there it was just one great workshop after another. I started to feel like I could really help people and that I enjoyed helping people. It made me feel good." He also cofounded, with Blair Fuller, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in 1969. In recent years, he has divided his time between his homes in San Francisco and Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe. In 1998 Hall published Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades, an acclaimed historical/mystery novel that follows a fictional Bierce (what Hall calls "a very liberal characterization") on the trail of a vast railroad conspiracy. Another novel about Bierce, Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings, was just published. And a third, "Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks," is in the works.
Starting with So Many Doors and Corpus of Joe Bailey, Hall has made a mark on American fiction. In his introduction to the anthology American West: Twenty New Stories from the Western Writers of America, Loren D. Estleman remarked on Hall's brand of realism. "Willa Cather, Oakley Hall, and Glendon Swarthout," he noted, "snatched the struggle for order in the old frontier out of ornate saloons where a piano player in a derby hat pounded out endless choruses of 'Buffalo Gals' and placed it in the ice-locked mountain passes and claustrophobic hotel rooms where much of it actually took place."
A review in Kirkus Reviews of Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades asked, "Has Oakley Hall really been this good all along, and if so why isn't his fiction better known?" I asked Hall if he had seen that review. "I read that," he said. "I have mixed emotions about it. The fact is, I get weary. I guess I would like to be famous without being famous. I wouldn't be able to do all the stuff that famous writers do. I would like to be here and have nice people come by. I don't feel like I want to be out in the world. The one time I felt like I was famous was after Warlock came out and was being made into a movie. The guy at the gas station in Tahoe City was really nice to me."
I met with Oakley Hall in the rustic office of his mountainside home in Squaw Valley on August 31 and September 1, after the poets had left the conference and before the writers were due to arrive. We talked about San Diego, Corpus of Joe Bailey, and a lot of other things.
What brought your family to San Diego?
They came out in 1906 from Indiana. A whole bunch of them came out together. My grandmother was kind of the grand dame of this migration. This was my maternal grandmother. She brought people out with her and kind of married them off to each other in this curiously high-handed and now unbelievable way. So my mother and my father were married and were not terrifically well-matched. The marriage didn't last very long.
How old were you when they split?
My father had a mistress; a couple of them, in fact. The way you do with that kind of thing, I tried not to understand it. They were separated when I was about 9 or 10. My mother went off to Hawaii when I was 12 and took me with her. So I was brought up in Hawaii, though I would come back and see my father. I was a commuter. The same thing happened to us in San Diego that happens in the book -- my father went broke, which was all part of the divorce.
I don't want to assume -- though this is something we can talk about later -- that Corpus of Joe Bailey is autobiographical, but I imagine some of it is.
Some, yeah. I had the sense not to use myself. How did I have that good sense?
What did your father do?
He was a contractor; he worked for R. E. Hazard, which was a big production then, and still is, I think. He worked building roads and paving. His company built all the concrete seawalls at Mission Beach. When the Depression came, everything shut down and he lost his job. He tried a lot of things, some of them across the border.
Is that how you became familiar with the cat-skinning business?
Yeah. A cat skinner is a tractor driver or bulldozer driver. As a kid I remember we would drive to work and the jobs would be in far-out places, and I remember listening to the conversations, about labor issues and what they were doing after work.
A lot of writers recall those kinds of moments, of listening to voices.
Yes. I wasn't quite so solipsistic as to pretend that I could understand what they were saying, but I would hear the voices.
What happened to your father during the Depression?
There was a point when the house had to be sold. Then I went to live with my grandmother again, right around the corner. I revered her. She was the storyteller and the one who had the books. A lot of writers had storytellers in their lives.
And your father's name was Oakley, right?
Curiously enough, there were a number of Oakley Halls in San Diego, including my father, and a Captain Oakley J. Hall, who was a manager of water taxis, and his son was also named Oakley. In fact, his son came up here [to Squaw Valley], and people kept coming up to me and saying, "I see the county has refused to let you build a new pier." But that was the other Oakley. He was a couple of years older; he had to leave here because of his heart.