Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Former Oakley Hall house on Dove Court
Read first part of the novel.
In 1953 Judy Garland made a splendid appearance at the opening reception for the Kentucky Derby. She was wearing a navy-blue, full-length coat; navy-blue, calfskin opera pumps with very high heels; white china beads; and she was carrying, cradled in her arms, a copy of Oakley Hall's recently published and somewhat scandalous novel Corpus of Joe Bailey. In an interview this August, Hall remembered what happened when the book came out. "I was feted," he said. "I had some brief fame."
Oakley Hall, 1923
San Diego Historical Society
In San Diego, Corpus of Joe Bailey also made a noteworthy entrance. The book was denounced from San Diego pulpits for being too sexy and provoked Mission Hills residents to speculate who among them was the model for the haughty Con Robinson, the political Uncle Dick, and the tormented hero, Joe Bailey. At the same time, the San Diego Union, in April 1953, hailed the book as a "long, credible" novel "bursting with vitality and immensely readable." The reviewer added, "For many people Joe Bailey will be recognizable as a guy like one they have known. He belongs to the shocked rather than the lost generation -- the kids who grew up in the '30s through the depression which couldn't happen, and got dumped into a war which shouldn't have come."
The book continues to fascinate San Diegans. On November 22, 1996, the San Diego Historical Society honored Hall with its first San Diego Author's Award. During his visit here to receive the honor, a group from the historical society took Hall around in a van to identify the locations of memorable scenes from Corpus of Joe Bailey. As the Union-Tribune noted the day before the ceremony, the first question of Hall is sure to be "Are you Joe Bailey?"
Corpus of Joe Bailey both belongs to its time and stands over it; the book has one foot planted in the past, in the fertile garden of hardy American fiction, the other hesitantly canting toward the solipsistic plaints of today. Hall dramatized the frustrating, often absurd conundrums that young people found around every corner during the '50s. Here are the incomprehensible codes of class -- place of birth, school attended, car driven, jacket worn, fraternity joined -- that dictated whether you were in or whether you were out and that excited novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara. Here as well are the restrictions that came with obedience to one's family and to sexual decorum, the restraints that confused so many young people as they lurched toward the realization that they would be either winners or losers in a new era. In his introduction to the 1984 reissue of Corpus of Joe Bailey, Herbert Gold forgot all these petty social inconveniences (or maybe he never faced them) and romanticized all that people from Joe's generation had come to miss and what reading the book might help them to recall. "People 'of a certain age,' " he wrote, "remember what it was like to think of going to the beach during the last days of summer vacation, to steal sexy magazines from newsstands, to read them in a secret place, to tear out and crumple and burn them, to work on model airplanes, to dream of automobiles and girls and heroism in war, to try to imagine parents in a different life." And, he added, "To think, finally, about death." Hall audited his period's most innocent and most base impulses.
But the book isn't trapped by the '50s. It tells a story that had long been told in fiction and that for better or worse is now usually told in memoirs. It's a bildungsroman, a story that explores the moral growth (spiritual growth in some cases, but not this one) of a single character. Joe is "nine or ten or eleven" when the book opens, and let's just say he's older when it ends. To tell this story Hall calls on a motif used most extraordinarily by William Faulkner, in As I Lay Dying; he titles sections of Corpus of Joe Bailey after major characters, so that by the end we have a group portrait in addition to a more dimensional sense of the hero. And part of what makes Joe Bailey who he is is an obsession with what comes next that is so consuming (no matter how elusive the answer) that we must sympathize with him. We believe Joe. "One thing about Joe Bailey," Hall told me, "I've never written a novel and had so many people tell me, 'That's the story of my life.' "
Oakley Hall's parents
Some of the novel's palpability comes from its brawn. As the title suggests, a lot of the book is concerned with Joe's body -- with its growth, its strength on the football field, its balance on a surfboard. Joe always seems just about to crack, to hurl the full weight of the world off his shoulders. But this corporeality doesn't belong just to Joe; much of it comes from Oakley Hall. He writes a direct, sturdy prose, which in 1953 still reflected his admiration for Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and the stories in Black Mask, the popular pulp magazine. In the very first paragraph of the book Hall flexes his muscles, describing the geography of San Diego with references to a "bent elbow," a "forearm," and an "artery"; Mission Hills, as he saw it then, "resembles very much a hand with the fingers clenched to hold it tightly there."
Oakley Hall – top row, third from left
Oakley Hall was born in La Jolla in 1920, but his family moved to Mission Hills when he was still young. His parents split when he was a boy and he shuttled between his father, who remained in Mission Hills for a while; his grandmother, who lived around the corner from his father; and his mother, who moved to Hawaii. Hall studied at the University of Hawaii and San Diego State (where he first became interested in writing), then graduated from UC Berkeley. He joined the Marines after college and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. He married his wife Barbara in 1945 before being sent to Maui, where he was about to be shipped to war when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Hall used his GI Bill money to study writing at Columbia and Iowa and to work on Corpus of Joe Bailey. His first novel, So Many Doors, part of which is also set in San Diego, was published by Random House in 1950. Throughout the '50s, Hall published several mysteries under the pseudonyms O. M. Hall (Murder City, 1950; Wanton City, 1951) and Jason Manor (The Girl in the Red Jaguar, 1955; The Pawns of Fear, 1955; The Tramplers, 1956). He was an avid athlete -- a body surfer, a tennis player, and a downhill skier. In 1963 he published The Downhill Racers, which was turned into a movie directed by the cinema verité filmmaker Michael Ritchie and starred Robert Redford. Hall's 1958 novel Warlock, a fictional account of Wyatt Earp, earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and was turned into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn. All told, Oakley Hall has published over 20 novels -- Westerns, historical novels, and mysteries -- and two books about fiction writing.
Oakley Hall as teenager
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.
Oakley Hall with grandmother
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."
Oakley Hall, 1949
San Diego Historical Society
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."
San Diego Magazine cover article, 1956
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.
Former Oakley Hall house on Arista Drive
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
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?
Oakley Hall, 2001
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
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.
Tell me about your childhood in San Diego.
Well, I went to Grant School and then to Horace Mann, when I wasn't in Hawaii with my mother. I went to the University of Hawaii for a while, then came back here to go to San Diego State for two years. Then I went to Berkeley to get my BA. When I was a kid we would play capture the flag on hot summer nights. We had a fancy house on Presidio Drive. Right around the corner was my grandmother's house. My grandmother was very important in my life; my mother disappeared for some time. I went to stay with my grandmother for a while. I was angry and pissed off. I wrote a thing about my mother, and I realized at the time that I was really mad at her. She wanted to go to Tahiti, but she couldn't afford the trip, so we went to Hawaii. I went to this private school where I worked my ass off cleaning the chapel and washing pots. It was sort of a scholarship. And all the other boys who lived in town went home on the weekends.
What strikes you about your time as a child in San Diego? What was the city like?
It was not a very big city then. It had an awfully strong Navy presence. I remember getting on the number three streetcar and going all the way to the end of Fort Stockton Drive. Or I would take it to school, though sometimes I walked. But the streetcar would be waiting there and the conductor would be taking a leak or something. Well, the doors had little holes in them and I would stick a pencil in the door to get in. That's a realistic detail.
It is. It is. Also, I think during the 1920s that Mission Hills --
We lived in Mission Hills right above Old Town, and Old Town was where poor people lived. And there was a very great consciousness of being on the edge. And I don't remember if I felt that then or if I think I felt that, but I think I felt it.
You mean the feeling of being in the hills, suspended geographically above Old Town?
Yeah, and the tramps would come up from Old Town and ask for handouts, and we were very conscious of a class situation. Old Town was a terrific place to go down and get tamales and stuff like that. There was an olive factory. But that's also what the difference was.
In the 1920s Mission Hills went through a big building boom. I know that in 1925, for one year, there was a sort of mayor of Mission Hills. His name was R. W. Caldwell; he was this chamber of commerce guy who dubbed himself "the mayor of Mission Hills."
There was a lot of pride.
And nice big sturdy homes.
I have a story called "The Retaining Wall." It's about boys playing on a retaining wall between Mission Hills and Old Town.
Is that the kind of thing you did as a boy with your friends?
My best friend was a guy named "Hammy" -- Hamilton Edgar Montague III. He lived down the street from me.
Did you run around the canyons like Joe Bailey?
We went to the beach a lot. My mother had an old car called a Winton that had this hollow sort of aluminum body -- a very old car. She would take me and Hammy and some other friends off to Mission Beach. I remember the hamburgers still. My whole family went to Europe, and when we came back, for some reason, I wanted to go to Mission Beach and I brought my surfboard. My family watched and I actually managed to stand up on the board, though it's not a perfect place to surf. This was 1963. I wish I had more memories of San Diego for you.
Did you get downtown a lot?
I remember being downtown once barefoot and I cut my foot on a piece of glass. I had to go to the police station, where someone stitched me up. Balboa Park was always a big deal. Later on, when I was in college, I was a deliveryman. I was delivering to the back doors of houses that I was once welcomed in the front door of, and that had a bit of ironical intensity for me. I don't know how much people were aware of class differences, but there was a guy on the corner, Artie Wells, whose father was a banker. My father was a contractor, another man on the street owned a hardware store, and up the street was a very rich family. The way you figured out what was going on was by what kind of car they drove. One father had a Studebaker, the Montagues had a Hudson. And there were other telltale quirks.
Tell me more about the Winton your mother drove.
It was a great big car, and it didn't have any current class, but it had the class of being a classic even then. It had a place in the backseat to put a pot of flowers.
What kind of car did your father drive?
A Studebaker. My best friend's family had a Hudson. The Packard was the big car to have.
How did you become a deliveryman?
It was during college. I was working to maintain myself so I could take my girlfriend out to the dance. My cousin had this company called Western Parcel Service that delivered both packages and groceries. I was really good at it; I could do it with some style. I would set the brake in the car halfway and get out and the rear door would slide by right where I needed to take the packages out. I enjoyed it.
That sense of class, on the one hand it seems to have come from living in Mission Hills, and on the other it was sort of a common preoccupation of novelists writing in the '40s and '50s. Think about John O'Hara, for instance.
Oh boy. Yeah. Wow, he had it in spades.
And he had a vivid sense about cars and haberdashery and all of that. Why do you think you noticed stuff like that?
Well, I don't know. If you wanted to be a novelist you had to keep certain things important. I knew at an early age that I had to go to college. Had to go to college. My mother told me she would support me for one semester, and then she was finished. So what did I do then? I wanted to be on the side of the tracks that you got to be on by going to college. I knew that at an early age -- that I had to go to get through to the other side of the river.
You once described yourself as a "suburban California kid, more of a surfer, heavily into cars."
That sounds about right. Heavily into cars and heavily into girls. There's that whole thing about loneliness; you had to have a girlfriend, someone to neck with. You didn't want to be alone.
Did you see yourself as different from the people around you?
I did. I felt paranoid, because my family was fucked up. I think I probably did feel different. But not superior.
Your interest -- and Joe's interest -- in class and status seemed pervasive. You could look at very particular worlds, like that of Mission Hills, and find status issues. I'll leave it alone after this, but where do you think that came from?
I think it comes from feeling your status is endangered, or not knowing what your status is.
Okay. What was San Diego State like?
It was small and there was that big black Indian out there on the quad. There were fraternities there, and I became president of my fraternity when I was only a sophomore. How? Why? That's not my style. But we rushed guys, and how did I know that the guys from Point Loma were important guys to get in the fraternity? It was sort of like the writer's program at uci: I knew who we had to get. I don't like to think about that stuff now.
Why were the Point Loma guys so important?
Because they were classier. Isn't that awful? I invented, as a sophomore in college, putting fraternity symbols on your saddle shoes.
I think a lot worse things have been done in fraternities. But what was it about the Point Loma guys?
It seemed to me that Point Loma was a fancy place, and the girls were more attractive. The grass was greener over there. I guess that's what it was.
That's something that most people go through on some level in college.
You become aware of rules about people. You noticed the fact that they were from Point Loma and you had to bid important people, but it didn't always make you feel good. John O'Hara would understand all of that better than I.
Or would he? He was obsessive but not always self-aware. He maybe didn't look back on those things with either humor or shame.
Let me backtrack for a moment. What kind of impression did the Depression have on you as a child?
Well, it was a fact of life.
But was it something at the time that you noticed? Did you know something was happening?
I was very aware of politics. My mother was a Republican and my father was a Democrat. I remember when Al Smith was running. That was 1928. My mother would rip Al Smith placards off people's front doors and put Hoover placards up in their place [during the 1928 campaign, which Hoover won by a large margin]. I can remember when Herbert Hoover was defeated in 1932 [by Roosevelt, by an even larger number of votes], a teacher sent me into the hall for smirking because I was on the side of the Democrats.
How would you describe the parties back then?
Oh, the Republicans were more respectable. Or at least we thought so. It's hard to say how important Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath  was. It really separated people, because so many Californians were against the Okies. The other Californians, of which I was one, detested, or I should say didn't like Okies, but they hated people who hated Okies. I hope that makes sense. I get this all mixed up with what I've written. In this case, my mother was pro-Okie. Well, I feel bad for saying that we hated the Okies. We just didn't like the idea of people moving to California. But the people who were against them were so bad, and you knew they were bad. You could see people being unfair to other people. There were incredibly ferocious arguments about that book.
Did any of these divisions have anything to do with your decision to transfer to Berkeley?
No. I knew Berkeley was a bigger-time place. A friend of mine named Charles Holloway and I decided to go together. At San Diego State there were a couple of hot writers who were writing mystery stories, and Holloway and I were very interested in writing. We were into pulp and Black Mask magazine, but there were these two kings already at State -- Bob Wade and Billy Miller were their names. They were the literary class of San Diego State, and Holloway and I thought, "We can do that." So we figured we should change to Stanford or Cal. And I can remember the figures: to go to Stanford was $225 a quarter. That was a lot of money. You could go to Cal for $19. Then we went to the Big Game. It was during the last years of the Stanford wonder team and Cal wiped them. So we agreed on Cal. And we went together as friends and a lot of other guys came up from State. I guess State was kind of like a way station.
Was Berkeley good to you? Joe has some strong thoughts about it.
Berkeley was a big deal, and if you were from San Diego you were from the hinterland. There were some big-time people from San Francisco, and I was very conscious of that. There was also that whole fraternity thing at Cal, but I was at the time in a rebellious phase. There was a guy who came in and made your beds for you each morning, but I was in the kitchen washing pots to pay for half my board bill. I got very pissed off about snobbery.
Here we are again, talking about being young and getting caught up in class and status and then feeling guilty about it. Is that what you're saying?
There was a guy in our fraternity who was a wild man, who bragged about all the crazy things he had done and we used him to recruit people we had given bids to. But when he couldn't pay his fees, we kicked him out. I thought that was really unfair. At that time I became a ghost at the fraternity. It wasn't a very proper cause, but it was a cause. And the whole thing about anti-Semitism. It was huge. And being from San Diego, I didn't even know what a Jew was. So that was a shock. But the fraternities kept it up, so I got pissed off, but getting pissed off was an awakening for me to social values.
And it is -- or maybe was -- one of the prerequisites for being a writer, having to have confrontation, having to work against something. Being an againster.
Maybe that's education. The rest of my education at Berkeley wasn't worthwhile. You want to go to college to find out what you want to do; you shouldn't get locked in by anything.
Joe calls Berkeley "a damn cheap school."
He did. Is that something you remember feeling at that time?
Well, there was Stanford and there was a real division then, particularly with those rich, white, Protestant kids at Stanford. Later on, I remember meeting kids who went to ucla, and they seemed to be having a much more interesting undergraduate experience. There were writers around, like Dreiser, who ran around campus. I had friends who lived in boarding houses at ucla, and I thought they had a so much richer experience in college than I had. At Hawaii I began a degree in civil engineering, and then I ran into calculus and quit that. Then my father, who had nothing to do with my bills or anything, told me that accountants got the good jobs. I really did not want to be an accountant, so I compromised and became an econ major. Still, I was very interested in writing, and I read Black Mask regularly and sent them stories. While I was in the Marine Corps on Maui, the editor of Black Mask wrote me and said maybe there was something for me, but by that time I was reading Faulkner and was going somewhere else. I had become literary.
You say the students had a better time at UCLA --
Well, someone like me, a writer, would have had a better time there.
You mentioned that at Berkeley San Diego was seen as a kind of backwater.
San Diego was a backwater, a real backwater. It was inferior to Los Angeles, even though Los Angeles was evil. Los Angeles was evil.
Even then. It started then. Boy. Jesus, I mean, it was the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce that rounded up the Japanese. A terrible place. Even without the movie business it was a terrible place. And usc was a sort of concentrated version of L.A. I think it was in Corpus of Joe Bailey that somebody's sister committed suicide on a train coming back from usc.
That was Con's sister. Tell me more about the knock against San Diego.
Oh, that it was hick.
That comes across in Joe Bailey. And what also comes across is a San Francisco, or Bay Area, versus the Central Valley attitude.
Oh boy, was it bad. For the same reason. They were seen as hick farmers. My wife grew up in Hood, in the Sacramento Valley. But they were always very contemptuous of people from the valley. Being from San Diego, I wasn't even in the battle. I was somewhere else entirely. But there were also some weird and funny people at Berkeley.
So after college you joined the Marines?
At my age I was subject to the second draft. I would have had a hard time finishing school because of money if they hadn't come along. They supported me while I finished. Afterwards I would go to officer training. We moved into our own boarding house, and suddenly there were more interesting guys around. And right across the street was a sorority where I met my wife.
It was sort of an equalizer then.
Yeah; that's what the war did. Richard Diebenkorn [American painter, 1922--1993] was with us, and even then we knew he would be a great artist. We hung out with all kinds. And there was the quarterback from the Stanford football team and he was going with one of the girls from San Diego, and there was this whole thing between Stanford and Cal. Anyway, afterwards we went right to boot camp at Parris Island, where a whole lot of guys died in training. They had this disease. I forget what it's called. They would fold back into a bow and die. After Parris Island, we went to North Carolina and then to Quantico and to officer school.
Did you know Diebenkorn well?
Not really. But everyone knew he was hot stuff and he was sent off to draw maps and stuff like that.
Were you ready to go off to war and fight for your country?
No. Kind of the opposite in a funny way. In Hawaii I knew a lot of Japanese, so I spent a whole lot of time defending the Japanese living on the mainland. The people in Northern California who lived closer with Asians thought the Japanese were good people, while the L.A. Chamber of Commerce was putting them in concentration camps. So I got in a lot of quarrels about the Japanese, but at that time the Japanese army was fighting ferociously. Then we dropped the bomb. It was the right move, but we did it to the wrong people.
Where were you when they dropped the bomb?
We were on the beach on Maui with our bags packed, and they were preparing us for casualties -- in the millions they said. But nobody cried. We weren't scared. I did very well in officer training school. For some reason I could drill large quantities of men; I could drill a whole battalion. How was I able to do this? I don't know. But I had a choice and I asked not to go into the infantry. So I went to work at the boat basin at Camp Pendleton so I could be closer to San Diego, where my girlfriend was. I was working with amphibious tanks, the most useless weapon devised by man.
When did you marry Barbara?
We were married in 1945, months before I went to Maui.
After the war you stayed in San Diego?
My wife's family had a place in Lake Tahoe. So my friend [Holloway] and I went up there and wrote a mystery novel together, called Cold Lake. But we didn't do it the right way. He wrote the first half and I wrote the second half. But I took it with me and went east to Columbia for a writing program. It was the only program I knew about. Caroline Gordon [1895--1981], who was a semi-famous writer at the time, taught there, and she was wonderful to me. She had rules, which is exactly what I needed.
What were some of her rules?
Rules like, if you want to bring a character to life you need three details. Sometimes you can do it with two, or brilliantly with one, but four is probably too many. There were similar rules about dialogue. If there are more than three lines of dialogue you should break it up with a gesture, and there are certain words never to begin sentences with, though I can't remember them. Both of my books on writing [How Fiction Works, 2000, and The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, 1994] have a lot of what she told me.
One of your rules, I remember, which is intriguing considering Joe Bailey, is "Plot is compulsion versus obstacle."
I don't think I want to go to bat on that one. But it's kind of true. The best statement comes from Henry James: "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character?" ["The Art of Fiction," 1884.]
Why did you want to write? Did you have stories to tell? Was it the draw of a certain life?
I had written a lot of letters when I was in the Marines. It was a time when they published a lot of books by soldiers. I had written these letters to my wife about boot camp that were funny. I had already taken a writing course at the University of Hawaii, and it was the first time I had gotten praise, and boy, was that something. You don't always get it. Even later on you don't always get it. And I thought that Chandler was the greatest thing. Talk about California writing. Chandler was such a breath of fresh air. He seemed so truthful to me. He didn't dance around. He didn't seem to be lying to us. He was direct. My wife wanted to get a job in publishing to help me get published, so she bought a very expensive hat to wear to meetings with publishers. She got a job as a secretary to Lin Yutang, who wrote a book called The Importance of Living. She worked for him on Gracie Square, and every day she drove our Buick convertible from Columbia. She would pass this travel agent who had trips posted in the window. We put money down on a trip to Europe, and we actually went. We were mostly in Paris. I was working on Joe Bailey then, and she worked at the embassy. This was pre--Marshall Plan and she made a lot of money. French money then was really big, and she stuffed the bills into a binoculars case. We went out to dinner a lot and bought stuff.
You were living the expatriate life.
I was an expatriate writer, though I didn't really know any other expatriate writers. I did know a guy named Jack Guss, and he and I started a little magazine. It was a wonderful idea: we would have people from different countries telling their war stories in different languages. Nobody could read it. Obviously, it didn't succeed. But I went on to become a writer and Guss became a Hollywood agent. After Paris, I went to Iowa. A poet named Paul Engel taught me. But when I was at Columbia, I wrote a mystery novel [Murder City, as O.M. Hall], so when I got to Iowa I was already a published writer and was sort of a hotshot. Verlin [R.V.] Cassill and I were the two hotshots. Paul Engel played us off each other. He would tell one of us that the other was publishing something or editing a magazine, and that would get the other going.
Who were you reading then?
Salinger. Oh boy. And short stories. But I read everything. Everything. I was way behind, you see. So I read all of Faulkner. Hemingway. I'm sure I read it all badly, but I read it. There were a lot of people who were really well-educated in the program. They had read the classics. But I only went for a year. Then I used every smidgen of my GI Bill to finish Joe Bailey. I went back to Del Mar to finish. When it was done, it wasn't taken right away, but I had already published a book about construction and cat skinners called So Many Doors  with Random House. As a hardcover it didn't do well, but boy, as a paperback it sold. I wrote it while I was at Columbia, but it also took a while to get published.
What was it about Salinger for you?
I wonder. The voice, I guess.
You mentioned Chandler, and I know that So Many Doors is not a mystery novel, but there is something noir about it -- the smoking, the stockings, the hotel rooms, the sex.
I had called it "Lilith," but they didn't like that title; they wanted a noir title and I guess they thought So Many Doors was noir.
So you were conscious of that sensibility in the book?
Well, Random House was more conscious of it than I was. But I'm fond of that book.
I read that when you were young you lived next door to Stuart Lake, the biographer of Wyatt Earp. [Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931 and The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp in 1956.]
Again, that exists in the foggy space of whether I wrote about that or whether I remember it.
They become the same thing after a while.
They do. But I remember seeing Stuart Lake sitting there in his garden, with his hat on and his typewriter. And a pretty girl came out of the house and sat on his lap. "What could be better than the writer's life?" I thought. Well, later, when I was in Del Mar, there was a cowboy-looking guy walking down the beach, and it turned out to be Walt Coburn, a famous Western pulp writer. He had a magazine called Walt Coburn's Western . To make conversation I said that I knew Stuart Lake, and he said, "That son-of-a-bitch."
Speaking of all these characters, tell me about your use of pen names. Was that a Black Mask kind of thing to do?
Well, I used O.M. Hall obviously because of my name. Jason Manor came about because I had a contract with Viking for five mystery novels in five years. Manor sounded good, and the word is related to Hall. So...
You've mentioned a couple of western writers already. I wonder, when you were working on So Many Doors and Corpus of Joe Bailey, did you think of yourself as a western writer or as a California writer?
It's a really complicated subject. Wally Stegner; that poor bastard. They never took any interest in his books until Angle of Repose won [the Pulitzer Prize in 1972], and even then they crabbed because they thought it wasn't supposed to win. He was stigmatized as a regional writer. I didn't really know about that very much, but I certainly was a regional writer. I was also typed by publishers as a writer of the working class. They kept coming at me with stories about people who worked the high-rises and about the Iroquois who did the high ironwork. And I thought, "Come on." But there aren't many western writers at all, are there?
Well, Steinbeck, Jeffers, Stegner --
But Steinbeck wasn't a particularly good stylist. All that symbolic crap about the turtles.
What strikes me about regionalism is that clearly most American writers are regional but that that in itself is a national characteristic. I guess what I mean is that to be regional is not necessarily not to be national. To write about the working class in California --
Well, who reads first novels anyway?
I think about how you describe California in So Many Doors as this dusty, dry place. And the characters all struggle to show some warmth and connection in this barren landscape, and it's the place that keeps them from connecting in the way they want to. I wonder if there's something about California that shaped you in that way.
I was very conscious of the Depression. It was a huge factor for me. I was writing about Starvation Valley. That's where the Mussel Slough massacre took place. The guy Jack [from So Many Doors] was based on a cat skinner that I greatly admired -- he was tall, handsome, terrific with women. And he had been broke in Starvation Valley, and then all of a sudden these cat skinners came to the urban areas, after they had been so poor, to make some money.
One thing about So Many Doors and Joe Bailey is that even when the characters are at a bar with their buddies, they are utterly remote. They don't want to be, but they are.
It's so funny writing a first novel, all you have is your own experience. I don't know how you would know anything else. Solipsism is such a huge part of being a novelist. You have solipsism and independence both.
But what distinguishes the millions of people who want to be novelists from those who are is that novelists can turn their stories into fiction.
One thing about Joe Bailey, I've never written a novel and had so many people tell me, "That's the story of my life."
What's universal about it is that it tells the familiar story of losing one's childhood. I grew up in rural Vermont and thought that was paradise. I've had to learn to live with the longing to get back to that.
I bet it wasn't paradise.
Well, that's just it.
Remember the importance of milkshakes?
It's about learning that those things that had such a value for you then aren't going to get you very far today.
And that they're not universally recognized as valuable.
So let's get to Corpus of Joe Bailey. In so many of your novels, from the '50s to the present, characters struggle against what can only be called corporate power -- the nameless, the faceless. Whether it's the railroads, banks, the notion of owning and trading stock. I wonder if that's something peculiar about California you've picked up on. It's a very corporate state, and was from the beginning. And Joe struggles with that.
When I went down to San Diego to receive this award from the San Diego Historical Society, they drove a group of us around in this airport van to all of the sites from Corpus of Joe Bailey. I had forgotten, but, boy, they sure hadn't. And one of the things they wanted to know the most was which bank was it that Joe stormed out of. Off the top of my head, I didn't know.
They couldn't read it as a novel.
The funny thing was they were old geezers from the same generation I'm in. And they were all interested in Con, because she was racy and they thought she was a real person. And I said, "She's Madame Bovary." And in the end, the last place they took us in this van was to the grade where the accident happens. So we stopped there. They had been reading passages of the book that had to do with each place. Well, after the accident there is this kind of reflection on death, but I was about 28 at the time, so I thought, "Please don't read that." And they didn't.
But this idea of California as threatening one from behind the one-way glass --
Right, that someone's trying to bury you. Well, when I think about my books that's exactly right.
It's that aspect of California that's large.
The railroad and power. Maybe I picked a little of that up from Chandler and Hammett.
There are a lot of places in the novel. It's funny that everyone calls it a San Diego novel --
That's derogatory [laughs].
No. San Diego is in it, to be sure, but also Los Angeles, Berkeley, Modesto, Walnut Creek, Tijuana, and other places. How do you think of this book in terms of place?
I always thought of it as a San Diego book. But you're right, a lot of it was springing loose from San Diego. It seemed to me like a place to get away from. After a while, there wasn't anybody or anything to bring me back to San Diego. Except when we went back to live in Del Mar, though we only went for the bodysurfing.
Did you research Joe Bailey? Did you walk around San Diego to remember it for Joe?
No. But the manuscript was originally so much longer. It was about four feet high. There was a lot more to Joe Bailey than there seems, which means we're all better off. But there were probably a lot more parts about San Diego.
It was cut by you or your editor?
Both by me and the editor. A very fine editor. Random House turned it down. There was a guy there named Harry Maule; we spoke of Maule's Curse. He had come to Iowa looking for writers, and he had taken my book [So Many Doors]. He wrote me a letter saying that certain words must go, and he wrote the words in pencil. Actually, he dictated the letter to his secretary and wrote the bad words himself. Words like "fuck" and "shit." Anyway, I sent them Joe Bailey and, oh boy, they hated it. They hated it. Of course it was longer -- a lot longer. Then Viking took it, after it had been turned down three or four times.
Why do you think it was turned down?
Because it was long and no one understood this story about a kid from California. Helen Taylor [editor of Joe Bailey at Viking] hadn't understood it or liked it, she said, until she read The Lonely Crowd [1950; by David Riesman]. She did a hell of a job. She sent postcards to booksellers and paid for advertisements. For the rest of your life you look for an editor like that and there aren't any. The book has many faults. Where did I come up with Laura Lee Crown? I see that now as such a cheap shot. There are a number of things like that that make me shudder. On the other hand, I was young. I wasn't well-educated.
Well, it's a strong novel. Joe's anger feels real, like it came from a genuine source.
But as I said, I wasn't thinking about myself.
But your voice and Joe's personality make for a powerful duo.
I should say that I had just read As I Lay Dying and it really meant a lot to me. That's why so many voices tell the story.
And where did you find all those voices?
Polly is the least fictional character in the book; she's mostly Barbara. And there was a girl I knew who was in some ways Con. But Con is sort of a girl that we all heard about, whose sister killed herself. But she's mostly made up. They're all made up.
Of course. And especially Con, who turns out not even to be real for Joe. She's just a totem.
There's one thing about Con I'm particularly proud of. She's watching Joe in the game when he gets injured, and he looks at her and she's wearing a polo coat. That's nice.
Because I can see it.
Part of what this book's about is the effort to make friends in college and adulthood who matter to you as much as the friends you made during childhood and high school --
And who may be totally different from you.
And who you may see only once a year --
And who drink the same milkshakes you drink.
Are you still close with people from high school?
Were you when you were writing the book?
Yeah, there was a group of guys. Three or four guys. You know, I never go to San Diego anymore. Maybe we just drive through on the way to Baja. One more thing about Con: she was really a construct out of literature. At that time, people liked noir dames. Fitzgerald liked them. She's a literary type -- a construct. Her polo coat fits that.
She's Joe's fulcrum, for better or worse.
Other characters are made up. Why was I writing about homosexuality? I knew nothing about that stuff. All of that seems terribly out of place. That's why I can't read the book. That stuff bothers me. It's turned bad.
And in the end Joe doesn't confront his friends' sexuality. It hangs there. But one of the things that strikes me about Joe is that he has a writer's personality. In the end, when he's in Mission Hills with Polly, he speaks about his "pure power of imagination." And that's his moment.
This book I've just finished, Gates of Horn, Barbara and I just read it through, and it has a lot of the same things. It goes from 1942 to the present, and there's a romance that goes through it all, impossible as that sounds. When I read it aloud, I would choke up, about things I could figure out only sometimes -- about real things like what Joe says in Mission Hills at the end there. Yeah, that's real. But that's also the writer as observer, and observers don't make very good characters because they're not making action. They're passive. And Joe isn't that. His anger makes him active.
Will you tell me a little more about Gates of Horn?
I've been writing it over about four or five years. Viking won't publish it because they say you can't publish the standard American novel anymore. Isn't that weird? Barbara and I like it.
I read somewhere that you were working on a book with a Joe Bailey kind of character in it. Is this the book?
I remember from San Diego that there was a weekly newspaper column about tots being molested, and I use that as a plot device and it ties in with the war and its molestation of young men. And the hero is like Joe Bailey.
Back to what you were saying about Joe's not being a writer type. Some of the things that Joe notices are things that novelists notice -- style and manners, for instance. And he has that envy. You once said, speaking about your young writing students getting huge advances, "I don't know if you're aware of the amount of envy that's in every author's soul. We're rattled with ego and envy."
Sometimes you get very good at concealing that fact.
Yeah. Maybe there's no question here. Maybe as a young writer yourself at the time, you gave Joe some attributes of a writer's psychology. One of the things about the book I liked was that it has this regional flavor -- Peter and Joe surfing at Mission Beach, for instance. But many of the observations are timeless and placeless. Peter observes Joe on his surfboard and notices his swim trunks sitting low on his hips. That's a timeless observation. One sees those things today as part of surfing's appeal. But the book also tells the story of a specific moment.
You can't imagine how much you learn to notice growing up in the Depression. Who else could imagine a sandwich made out of white bread and Ritz crackers? Details like that make me very proud. I think that's what it's all about. This grand lady who just died, Eudora Welty, said, "Details tell everything. One detail can tell you more than any descriptive passage."
There's a passage from your book The Downhill Racers that I want to read to you. You wrote, "Downhill racing is a lonely competition. No one understands what it is like except the racers, and people who are not racers say stupid things that are irritating, that make you feel contemptuous and aloof and even lonelier. Always, in the downhill, there is a chilly, gray, shivering mood, and yet there is the inner warmth of pride that you can do this well, the knowledge that it is a brave thing to do, and over all, of course, that great, tight constriction of wanting so much to win. In downhill, giant slalom and slalom, you are very much by yourself and on your own. You race the clock and your own estimate of your capacities and limitation, and it is only when you are down and waiting at the bottom for the times, that others are in it with you." Joe has a lot of inner monologues like this one. One is when he's walking out of that bank your hosts wanted you to identify.
He thinks about being in it alone. He's alone.
And one of Joe's main obsessions is the struggle against that faceless oppressor?
Faceless. That's right.
Though there are so many things: there's Con, Mission Hills, the fraternity --
And there's the tramp. And the Depression, which ruined Joe's middle-class life.
Joe claims he's "eternally raped by reality."
Did he say that? Wow. It doesn't seem that he enjoyed life very much. I didn't seem to write many fun parts.
There are moments in the novel when you want to grab Joe by the collar and shake some sense into him.
There are some bright spots too.
In another novel of yours, A Game for Eagles , you spoke about the "Laocoön struggle." What did you mean by that?
That you're gonna lose. Look at what Joe's working against. The efforts to eternally kick him out of Mission Hills; that's being done to him. He's victimized, though there's some paranoia too.
Which is another writer's quality.
Yes, it is.
I love Joe's response to bad news when he was young. It was always "Oh, damn hell." He never knew what to do. What Polly gave Joe was the knowledge, finally, that it's okay to let other people do things for you.
She did that at some cost to herself. My sense, though, was that everything would be okay. But what's Joe supposed to be? Is he supposed to work in a gravel pit? It's a start I guess.
Eventually one has to be happy with what they can do? Joe has to learn that.
But he's not, in fact, a writer type. His interests are not that way.
I don't think cerebrally he is; I think, maybe, iconically, he is. Writers always ask whether they're wasting their time.
Joe is the son of a failed contractor.
Joe constantly wants more?
Or wants back.
He's so worried about the future though. When the book came out, a note in the San Diego Union identified Joe as a member of "the shocked rather than the lost generation -- the kids who grew up in the '30s through the depression which couldn't happen, and got dumped into a war which shouldn't have come."
Yeah, he's always trying to get his balance. Did you know this book was denounced from the pulpit in San Diego? I'm so proud of that.
Is that the only way it was received in San Diego?
Oh no. I was feted. I had some brief fame.
The book reverberated. It was reviewed in the New Republic, the New Yorker, and other prominent magazines.
It was a bestseller briefly -- for seven weeks I think.
You must have been pleased?
I thought that was the way it was. You wrote a book and it was a success. Ho-ho.
I keep thinking about O'Hara. He wrote about Pottsville, Pennsylvania. You wrote about San Diego. When people write about Manhattan, or L.A., no one gets upset. Those places absorb that kind of attention with pleasure.
San Diego was small.
And so the book was denounced here?
There were people who thought it was too sexy. They were shocked, but of course it was meant to shock. Our generation thought it was our job to teach the middle class about sex. We thought we knew all about sex. What were we thinking? The country, of course, was very recalcitrant about sex.
It was banned in Britain and Australia?
They were going through a censorship period and they thought it was too sexy. It doesn't seem very sexy now.
Did it surprise you that people thought it was sexy?
No. It had been so long in the making. Some of it seemed so distant to me when it finally came out.
So, your memory of the city's response to the book --
It didn't matter to me much. There's that terrible phrase, "There's no there there." That was San Diego to me.
About San Diego. I'm going to read some random passages from the book and see what you say about them. Con thinks to herself about San Diego a lot. For example, "San Diego made her sick, and San Diego State made her sick, and everybody in San Diego and at State made her sick." "Her mother was small-time, as everybody in San Diego was small-time and grubby. And she, Con, was small-time too; they were trying to make her cheap and grubby too." "It angered her that she should feel embarrassed to say her dress was from San Diego." "They would live in a little San Diego apartment...never seeing or doing or being anything at all, in San Diego." Then Joe picks it up, thinking, "A guy's never really going to get anywhere around San Diego."
[Laughs.] Poor San Diego.
Is that your San Diego, or was that your San Diego?
It's Con. It was just a setting. It's fictional. Con especially felt that way, and Joe absorbed some of what she felt. It's a literary feeling; you're supposed to rebel against the small town you're from. I would like to go back and be celebrated for this new book. I would like to be celebrated again; it was fun. All of those people who never realized you were smart and now they realize it.
There's another passage in the book that's particularly striking; it seems to have both you and Joe in it. Joe's feeling alone and he goes to the beach for a swim. From the shore the waves look small; the sea is glassy. He goes in and gets tossed and slammed into the sand. Joe's body is taking a beating.
I remember that scene. I'm very proud of it.
Do you think that the book still rings true today? Does it have the vibrancy that it had in 1953?
I think it's dated. Don't you?
Some of its characters and phrasing, of course, but its themes of --
I never thought in terms of theme. I never have. I think theme comes after you've written the book.
I imagine you have to start a novel from a character. So many young writers, like me, want to write about ideas.
That's abstraction. You can't work from abstraction.
You start with a character, with a place.
There's the whole class of novel called the bildungsroman about youth and what you know. There's a funny thing about a first novel, it's something you've been writing all your life. That's not so with a second novel.
Were you happy to see the book republished by Arbor House in 1984?
It didn't do well, but I was happy to see it come out again. I would like to see it republished one more time.