An Interview with Louis Sahagun, author of Master of the Mysteries

Louis Sahagun is a senior staff writer at the Los Angeles Times writing on issues ranging from religion, culture and the environment to crime, politics and water. He was on the team of Los Angeles Times writers that earned the Pulitzer Prize in public service for a series on Latinos in Southern California and the team that was a finalist in 2015 for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news. He is a CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California board member and the author of Master of the Mysteries: the Life of Manly Palmer Hall, which was recently issued in an expanded revised edition by Feral House Press.

You can hear Louis Sahagun speak in Ashland at Friday Wine and Words at Weisinger’s Winery, September 23, at 6 pm.

EB: I enjoyed your revised edition of Master of the Mysteries. I had only heard a little about Manly P. Hall before. Can you tell our readers a bit about him?

LS: Manly Palmer Hall – a huge avocado of a man, six feet four inches tall and wide in the center with piercing blue eyes and chiseled features – helped give birth to a vibrant subculture in California comprised of mystically-inclined artists, authors, entertainment industry and civic leaders who continue to have a profound influence on movies, television, music, books and art.

The 20th century’s most prolific writer on ancient philosophies, magic and mysticism, Hall authored hundreds of books and delivered more than 8,000 lectures—many of them from a throne-like chair at his Mayan-style headquarters in the Hollywood Hills. His works introduced people to obscure spiritual texts and symbols of the remote past at a time when Los Angeles was unfolding into a metropolis.

The arc of his life is a story worthy of Raymond Chandler. Hall, who never knew his father, was abandoned by his mother and never finished sixth grade, was 18 when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1919. A decade later, he was dazzling the rich and famous and counseling heads of church and state. Adherents referred to him as “Maestro” and “adept,” and whispered of his supernatural powers and membership in secret societies.

His death under bizarre and suspicious circumstances in 1990 triggered a Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigation. Investigators believe he was murdered by his apprentice and the case remains an open-ended Hollywood murder mystery.

The endurance of Hall’s works sets him apart from the thousands of other mystics and gurus who brought spiritualism to Los Angeles at the turn of the last century. His writings continue to sell steadily around the world.

EB: How did you get interested in his story?

LS: It all started with a phone call I took late on Sept. 2, 1990, while working night reporting duty at the Los Angeles Times. “Manly P. Hall, the greatest philosopher of our time, has died,” a tipster told me. “You better get an obituary ready.” I was immediately skeptical, of course, because the newsroom gets lots of phone calls like that late at night on weekends.

“Can you repeat that name?” I asked. “Manly P. Hall,” he said. “Spell it,” I said.

A few minutes later, I was in the paper’s morgue, sorting through hundreds of news clippings about the man dating back to the 1920s.

I was on a tight deadline and the paper had room for a 10-graph obituary. It began: “Manly Palmer Hall, an eclectic philosopher and founder of the Philosophical Research Society, has died at 89, the society reported Sunday. The peripatetic philosopher, who authored more than 200 books and gave more than 8,000 lectures—many of them from a throne-like chair at the society’s Los Angeles headquarters—died in his sleep Wednesday of natural causes, a spokesman said.”

I decided to write the book a few years later, after learning that suspicious circumstances surrounding Hall’s death had prompted a homicide investigation, and that the chief suspect was Daniel Fritz, the tipster who called The Times on Sept. 2, 1990.

EB: What was his book The Secret Teachings of All Ages?

LS: Hall was only 27 when he published his introduction to ancient symbols and secret traditions, An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, also known as The Secret Teachings of All Ages and “the Big Book.”

Overnight, this immense book, which is filled with dream-like illustrations and uses Roman numerals instead of standard page numbers, ushered in a new era of appreciation for ancient religions and symbols and rocketed Hall into the national spotlight. Ninety years later, with more than a million copies sold, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, remains one of the most popular introductions to esoteric traditions.

EB: He wrote that in his twenties. How did he come about all the occult knowledge to do that?

LS: The occult knowledge in his so-called Big Book was gleaned from books he owned, borrowed, or had checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library. Beyond that, Hall, a self-taught writer with a photographic memory, was driven by a burning desire to explore lost and hidden traditions.

EB: Hall was a confidante of many Hollywood celebrities. Can you tell us a bit about some of them?

LS: Many actors and entertainment industry leaders were drawn to psychics and metaphysicians. In the late 1920s, for example, designer Natacha Rambova, an expert on metaphysical teachings and a friend of Hall’s, attended séances to communicate with the spirit of her late husband, the silent screen lover Valentino.

In 1938, Hall scripted an occult murder mystery for Warner Brothers titled When Were You Born? It starred his friend, actress and ardent astrologer Anna May Wong.

President Harry Truman had Hall’s books on his shelves. California Lt. Governor Goodwin Knight was a friend and a trustee of Hall’s society, and influential Los Angeles politician Sam Yorty touted him as a valued citizen. Movie stars Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lew Ayres and Gloria Swanson were close friends.

For horror film star Karloff, Hall developed a screenplay called Witch’s Sabbath, the tale of a robber baron in medieval times who sells his soul to the devil. For friend Lugosi, who was already bankrupt and 50 years old when his masterpiece Dracula was released in 1931, he researched and prepared movie proposals.

In 1940, Hall and Lugosi teamed up for a publicity gimmick to promote Lugosi’s fourth film with Karloff, Black Friday: A promotional film trailer purported to show Hall, with a nurse at his side, hypnotizing Lugosi for his small role in the movie.

On April 21, 1955, Hall accompanied Lugosi, then 72, to Los Angeles General Hospital, to kick his morphine habit. Lugosi told reporters that he had been addicted to the drug since he was wounded in World War I.

Lugosi entered Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, Calif. Three months later, he was released and married his fifth and last bride, Hope Linninger, in the living room of Hall’s home.

A little more than a year later, Lugosi was found dead in the bedroom of his Hollywood home, clinging to a script of what he had hoped would be his next movie, The Final Curtain.

EB: Hall’s death was mysterious also. How so?

LS: On Aug. 23, 1990, Hall, who was 89 at the time and showing signs of senility, signed documents that turned over his assets to his chief assistant Daniel Fritz, wedging out his second wife, Marie, and stepchildren who were to inherit everything, according to the last will and testament he had signed nearly two decades earlier.

At that time, Hall was receiving almost daily enema treatments from Fritz, a self-styled expert in alternative medicine. Fritz claimed he learned that particular enema technique from “ancient Essene documents” he’d discovered in the Vatican archives. He had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from Hall to market an “Essene” enema gadget he called “Water Angel.”

Six days later, on Aug. 29, 1990, Fritz telephoned a local mortuary to report that his boss had died in bed at his home of natural causes.

The corpse collectors and the Halls’ family physician were horrified by what they saw in Hall’s bedroom. Hall’s body lay on a bed without a single wrinkle; thousands of ants streamed from his ears, nose and mouth. Fritz and his helpers were hauling Hall’s clothes and valuables from the home to his car.

The physician, growing increasingly suspicious, rescinded the death certificate he had signed a few hours earlier.

Today, Hall’s death certificate, which has been amended four times by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office since 1990, says he died of “suspicious circumstances, suspect foul play.”

In 2001, Fritz was diagnosed with adrenal cancer. He refused standard chemotherapy and tried to cure himself by ingesting enormous quantities of compounds that federal researchers say actually cause cancer.

Fritz died in a motel room bed in Reno, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2001.

EB: What’s the legacy of Manly P. Hall today?

LS: Hall introduced thousands of readers to sages and seers from Francis Bacon to Gandhi. Long before the Gnostic Gospels were translated into 21st-century bestsellers, Hall was promoting Gnostic beliefs as windows on the origins of Christianity. Before mainstream publications were touting doctors who incorporated a warm and friendly manner into their practice, Hall was urging physicians to also pay closer attention to their patients’ mental and spiritual well-being and offer a handclasp and a smile.

Before the advent of blockbuster movies with mythical settings such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Hall co-scripted the first major picture with an astrological plotline and actively encouraged entertainment industry leaders to grow new markets by producing more movies and radio programs based on the spiritual visions and allegories of early civilizations in which, as he put it, “sorrow, suffering and loneliness are builders of character.”

These were not inconsiderable accomplishments for a high school dropout from a broken home in rural Canada.

EB: Your book is wonderfully illustrated with reproductions of Hall’s book covers, photos, programs for talks and lectures and more. How did you get access to all this material?

LS: This book is the product of 10 years of research. I relied heavily on his essays, books, memoirs and unpublished letters, as well as court records, testimonies and interviews with his widow, step-children, friends and associates around the world, homicide investigators and coroner’s officials.

I was given permission to reprint material from the archives at the Philosophical Research Society, which Hall founded in 1934. The striking portraits of Hall and his first wife, Fay, are from the William Mortensen Archives at the University of Arizona. Many other photos and images were provided by friends, business associates and relatives of Hall’s.

EB: What are you currently working on?

LS: I am a senior staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, specializing in coverage of environmental issues. I teach a course in environmental journalism. I am planning a new book: a modern history of the water wars between Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

LS: Thank for your interest. All best.

Posted in Interviews | Leave a comment

An interview with Molly Best Tinsley, author of BEHIND THE WATERFALL

Award winning aurthor, Molly Best Tinsley taught on the civilian faculty at the United States Naval Academy for twenty years and is that institution’s first professor emerita. She is the author of My Life with Darwin (Houghton Mifflin) and Throwing Knives (Ohio State University Press), Broken Angels, Entering the Blue Stone. She has also co-authored the textbook The Creative Process (St. Martin’s) and the spy thriller Satan’s Chamber. Her work has earned two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sandstone Prize, and the Oregon Book Award.

Molly Best Tinsley lives in Oregon, where she divides her time between Ashland and Portland. We sat down to talk about her most recent book, the young adult novel, Behind the Waterfall.

EB: Tell us a little about Behind the Waterfall.

MT: Behind the waterfall that cascades down one side of Table Rock Mountain lies the threshold to the invisible realm of Thrae. Governed by Wedron (the Lord of Wonder), Thrae is Earth turned inside out. As a young woman, Agnes Eagleman inadvertently visited this realm before the novel begins, and as a consequence, she and her children, the twins Chetan and Nashota and their half-sister Shyla, have been on the move for over a decade. The story opens on the day the family has returned to the area, and as it unfolds, the kids learn what they have been running from. With the discovery comes a mission that drastically changes their lives.

EB: How did you get the idea for Behind the Waterfall?

MT: Behind the Waterfall began with a question/complaint from my eleven-year-old twin grandsons: Why aren’t there more books about twins? “I don’t know,” I told them, “but maybe we should write one.” Despite their reservations–they had lacrosse practice and trombone lessons and tons of homework–we began brainstorming right away and soon we had a rough idea of a story featuring twin brothers. But since we live on opposite sides of the country, progress was slow. There were big bursts of activity before, during, and after a visit, and then the manuscript simmered on a back burner until the next get-together.
Once we had maybe a third of the first draft, I took it along on a visit to their seven-year-old cousin, a girl, and read it to her. She had only one improvement to suggest: “These guys need a younger sister.” So I went back to the beginning and wrote Shyla into the narrative.

EB: Do your consultants want to follow in your footsteps and become writers?

MT: The real-life twins are now older than the fictional twins at the beginning of the story. Their chief preoccupations are things like taking college boards, passing their driver’s tests, and hanging out with friends. The model for their younger sister Shyla, now in middle school–is more into performance–music and acting.

EB: Was it difficult for you to write in a teen voice or for teens?

MT: Actually, my inner adolescent is very much alive, shuttling between hopeful wonder and cynicism. Teens are in the business of questioning the assumptions that grown-ups take for granted, and I think in general the teen voice borrows from the kid who blurted that the Emperor had no clothes. Shyla’s voice in Behind the Waterfall may not be on the cutting edge of the latest slang, but I think it conjures a precocious, astute observer of human nature.

EB: Are there particular matters of style or genre that work better in writing for young adults than for adults?

MT: Departures from realism are widely popular with teen readers. In fact, all the books my real-life collaborators mentioned as favorites had fantasy components, and that seemed to be the path we would follow. The real-life twins started us out with an idea: when the fictional twins turn fifteen, each discovers he has a special power. Soon after, the fictional twins learn of their mission, which will require them to use these powers.

I was soon an enthusiastic participant in the fantasy, conjuring a realm parallel to the earth of the five senses, or perhaps contained within it. Mix-ups between the realms generated comedy, and as is so often the case with fantasy and science fiction, the building of an alternate world becomes an opportunity to comment on the real one.

EB: What sorts of things did you read as a teen?

MT: In 7th grade, I devoured a series of baseball novels, modeled on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yes, it was that long ago! Then I graduated to mysteries, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner. Around the same time, my mother began insisting I read “the classics”–she plucked Wuthering Heights off the library shelf when I was 13. At some point when I was in high school, we acquired a set of the Harvard Classics bound in fake leather. I began plowing through those–diligently reading every word of some of those nineteenth century tomes and probably retaining only a tiny per cent.

EB: Will we see more of the Eaglemans?

MT: The three siblings are ready for their next adventure: I’m waiting for readers to make suggestions as to what form it might take.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

Posted in Interviews | Comments Off

The Language of Wine, a guest post by Sage Behan

Sage Behan is a 2016 graduate of SOU with a degree in English and Creative Writing.

Fran Lebowitz, an author and social critic, once said, “great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.” While I’d rather not address the implications of her quote on this paper, Ms. Leibowitz has perfectly captured the over all sentiment of wine drinkers–specifically novice wine drinkers–towards the culture of wine, especially in America, where people simultaneously ridicule the snobby, elitist class of wine-consumers and also toss around the phrase “wine mom” and make jokes like “they say a glass of wine a day is good for you…the bottle is glass, right?” while picking up a box of Verdange at their local 7/11. For the average person–specifically, the average American–the world of wine is a world of exclusion, made so mostly by the language used by so-called “experts”. In fact, many novices feel that because they “cannot speak about its taste in a professional manner, [they] usually consider themselves as ‘not knowing anything about wine’” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 187). However, “wine language” is not some sacred, special patois that has been used across generations and around the world. Rather, the current way people talk about wine is a fairly recent phenomenon, and it may not be as exclusive as it first appears. Instead, it appears that “wine language” is just a tool for experiencing wine in a different way, and not actually necessary for appreciation of it.

Wine Vocabulary

Currently, the vocabulary of wine is as rich and full as any other jargon or parlance, with different groups of words for describing the over all taste of the wine, as well as various other traits, such as the volume, mouthfeel, weight, length, temperature, the region the wine originated from, the way it was made, the length of time it has aged or oxygenated, and so on. The most critical parts of the wine glossary are taste and smell descriptors, for which there seem to be a never-ending collection of ever-more creative terms including normal, useful words and phrases like “tannic”, “fruity” and “acidic”, as well as bizarre descriptors such as “dumb”, “crunchy”, “forthcoming”, and “foxy”. For the most part, however, the words used to describe the taste of wine can sufficiently describe a taste in a way that is not so bizarre it leaves drinkers wondering how in the world someone knew what foxes taste like. Many descriptors are also reflections of each other, in either a positive or negative way: “‘crisp’ is hedonic positive and is used instead of ‘acidic,’ even though the meanings of these words are very similar” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 193).

Adrienne Lehrer, author of Wine and Conversation asserts, “although we talk about the taste of wine, in fact what we perceive is a fusion of taste, smell, and texture” (Lehrer 6). As a result, many of the words used to describe wine do not fall under “flavor” type words (which tend to be types of foods, rather than tastes such as sweet or sour), but abstract ideas. Wine may be subtle, elegant, silky, or have a bite or a short finish.

While there exist a countless amount of words to describe wine, there are only a handful that tend to get tossed around most often, and of those, the words tend to get re-used between similar wines. Brochet and Dubourdieu explain, “when the taster speaks of a specific wine describing flavors, he or she mainly uses a series of words he or she has used previously for this category of wine and is not describing the specific wine” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 192). On top of that, many wine words fall under the same umbrella categories, according to Adrienne Lehrer, who writes “[wine vocabulary] is not just a list but rather a set of expressions that can be analyzed in terms of several dimensions. Many dimensions are interrelated, such as balance with acidity and sweetness” (Lehrer 18). While this means the descriptions of wines are less unique to the wine, it may, in fact, be a good thing: “if specific wines were described independently there would be many more word groups…” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 192). Instead, the vocabulary of wine is one of organization and specificity, and created to make the experience of wine drinking a little more inclusive.

Language Use

For the most part, the advent of a language specifically for wine is useful between wine experts, but also to bridge the gap between wine producers and the average consumer: “winemakers, professional critics, enologists, and amateurs have built a…vocabulary that they use to describe sensory properties of wine [which they use to] exchange sensory data among themselves and to analyze their information for other uses” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 187). Although there is a common misconception that the way experts talk about wine exists to make wine more inaccessible to the general public–especially in older variations of wine language, which involved referencing previous vintages a la “the 1978 Cheval Blanc is most like the ’72, though it has some characteristics of the ’68” (Gray) which don’t actually describe the wine at all–the fact is that “tasting notes also often accompany advertising documents or price lists… [and] are destined for the general public and should have a sense of the professional meaning of the wine vocabulary which should help individuals to appreciate the quality and the sensory values of a given wine” (Brochet & Dubourdieu 187). And while there may be some level of superiority in groups of wine experts, “experience has been shown to influence the use of wine tasting language which in turn affects the communicative value of the description” (Gawel 269). Because of this, it seems that as long as it’s done well, the language used to describe wines–especially with taste words that the average wine-drinker can identify, such as blackberry and chocolate–is meant to make the world of wine easier to navigate.

International Wine Linguistics

Despite the fact that wine vocabulary is extensive and intricate, the way wine is described–and thus, the taste of wine–is not necessarily an international experience. In old-world wine countries, wine is not described by taste or feeling of the wine, but by region or the experience of drinking the wine. While consuming a glass in France, “…the French drinker is thinking about the regions of Burgundy or Bordeaux” (Gray). One the other hand, French wine shares similarly metaphor-driven descriptions of wine with America, but in places like Italy, many people “may be bewildered by the adjective ‘big,’ which pops up in every American wine publication” (Gray). Italian wine drinkers are also more inclined to use what Americans would consider “negative” words like acidic or sour as a positive, or at least neutral description of a wine. Still in other countries, like China, where wine may not be a part of the traditional cuisine, wine isn’t described by taste, but by the mouth feel and the experience: “…it is important to talk about mouth feel, because Chinese people take that very seriously in food—so much so that they can describe mouth feel in ways that Americans have never even considered… you would want to use very specific words about how [wine] feels in the mouth” (Gray).

This means, writes W. Blake Gray, that “not only are we not speaking the same language; we may not even be having the same experience” (Gray). For those wine drinkers who see authentic and specific description of a wine as a sign of knowledge, this is bad news. However, for the rest of us, it certainly breaks down the barrier of exclusivity in the wine world.

The Wine Metaphor

Part of the reason American wine language is so difficult for novice wine drinkers to use is because of the metaphor included in the description of wines. According to Ernesto Suarez-Toste, author of Metaphor Inside the Wine Cellar: On the Ubiquity of Personification Schemas in Winespeak, “the incredibly wide range of aromas in wine is probably what attracts most neophytes to this beverage, but because the identification and naming of aromas in a wine is mainly a matter of experience and memory, the use of metaphors is particularly important in the description of a wine’s texture” (Suarez-Toste 54). Although there are a great many different individual flavor and texture words to describe the taste of wine–not to mention a whole wheel of adjectives classified in different ways to make the whole process easier– “if there is one inescapable schema in this context, that is surely anthropomorphic metaphor” (Suarez-Toste 54). Wine is often described metaphorically as a living organism, in the way metaphors of time are associated with money: “…we find that the combination… of alcohol, acids and tannin in a red wine is commonly labeled as its body and the tannins… supporting it as its backbone or spine” (Suarez-Toste 58). Further, “it is far from surprising to find different wine components referred to as its nose, palate, or legs…” (Suarez-Toste 58). Not only is there a whole anatomical schema in the language of wine– “big-bodied, robust, fleshy, backbone, sinewy, long-limbed, fat, flabby… lean, or disjointed”–there exists also “‘kinship’ relationships among wines (e.g. clone, pedigree, sister, mate, sibling or peer)” (Suarez-Toste 58). Ironically, before the current iteration of wine language, wine was occasionally described using comparisons to celebrities, such as “a famous one from a magazine called Wine X[:] ‘Tastes like Brad Pitt stepping out of the shower’” (Gray), so the theme of wine as alive doesn’t seem to be a new idea.


The language of wine is a vast, varied array of words and structures and ideas and metaphors. It exists as a tool, but occasionally acts as a hinderance in the average person’s understanding of wine culture. However, being able to speak fluently about the full-bodiedness of a wine, or it’s oak-barrel after-taste is not necessarily going to make one’s experience of drinking wine better than that of a person who proudly proclaims that a wine “tastes like wine”.

Works Cited

Brochet, Frédéric, and Denis Dubourdieu. “Wine descriptive language supports cognitive specificity of chemical senses”. Brain and Language 77.2 (2001): 187-196.

Gawel, Richard. “The use of language by trained and untrained experienced wine Tasters.” Journal of Sensory studies 12.4 (1997): 267-284.

Gray, W. Blake. “Tip of the Tongue: The Words We Use to Describe Wine “Changes” How It Tastes.” California. Cal Alumni Association UC Berkeley, Dec. 2011. Web.

Lehrer, Adrienne. “Talking About Wine.” Language 51.4 (1975): 901-23. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2016.

Solomon, Gregg Eric Arn. “Psychology of Novice and Expert Wine Talk.” The American Journal of Psychology 103.4 (1990): 495-517. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2016.

Suárez Toste, Ernesto. “Metaphor inside the wine cellar: On the ubiquity of personification schemas in winespeak.” Metaphorik. de 12.1 (2007): 53-64.

Teague, Lettie. “An Insider’s Guide to Weird Wine Words.” Wall Street Journal. 28 Dec. 2015. Web. 06 June 2016.

Posted in Language | Comments Off

An Interview with Josh Gross, author of THE FUNERAL PAPERS

Josh Gross, a southern Oregon native and Portland State alumnus, is a journalist, playwright and author of four books. His most recent book, a memoir called The Funeral Papers, is the story of Gross and his estranged father who died two years ago.

EB: Tell us a little about The Funeral Papers?

JG: My father and I didn’t really speak for the 15 years before he died. A major contributing factor to that was that I saw his self-identity as a writer as an excuse he used to not get a job or be a good parent. It might have been different if he’d ever produced anything. But it was a classic “those who talk don’t do, and those who do don’t talk,” situation. He talked about being a writer all the time, but never seemed to put pen to paper. So imagine my surprise when at his funeral I was given a manilla envelope of his collected works. It sort of threw everything I thought I knew about him, about us, into a tailspin. The Funeral Papers is a curated collection of his writing, my reactions to it, and postcards of our relationship and his passing that investigate how and why it all went sideways to see if there was another man beyond the one I thought I knew, and if forgiveness is even possible.

EB: What made you decide to write this memoir?

JG: It started as a journal entry about how weird his funeral was—and I say that as someone that has been to a funeral that turned into a dance party. It pretty much turned into an open mic, with accordion players, and stories about his time in the special forces with Elvis, and bizarre advice on grieving from his new age friends. It was as funny as it was intense. But while I was writing that I realized a couple things. 1. Since I was going to have to dig into his collected works anyhow, this would be a good means to cope with that process. 2. Since my failings as a child are myriad, and since he didn’t get any recognition in life, this might be a way to do something for him posthumously. 3. Cynically: the overly-honest, incredibly raw family memoir tends to sell well, and it was already half-written for me.

EB: You refer to this as a co-memoir. What do you think your father would say?

JG: Jeez. If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t have had to write this book. Hayo!

EB: Do you and your father share any literary influences?

JG: Not that I can tell. He gave me a lot of books, but it usually went badly because he was obsessed with grooming me to be a religious leader—but in really surreal ways. For example: he once got it in his head that I should read Lord of the Flies. Which sort of makes sense, since it’s generally required reading for high schoolers. Thing is, I was like, six at the time. So when I refused, he read it to me against my will. And when I was too horrified and uncomfortable to continue and started crying, he took me to the movie. In high school, he somehow acquired a really nice vintage Italian-imported bass guitar made by JG guitars (meaning my initials were built into the headstock in abalone, which was pretty sweet), and said I could have it for free, if I’d just read a book he wanted me to read. The book was called Autobiography of an Awakening, and though it was only 152 pages long, it took me three months to finish because it was so condescending and boring I literally fell asleep every four pages or so. At the end, I had to take a quiz. It remains, the worst book I’ve ever read. I would actually pay the cover price just to save someone else from it. Short version: Arnie really liked poetry and spirituality and I liked stories about robots—which in many ways is a succinct metaphor for our inability to connect.

EB: What do you want readers to take away from the book?

A desire for readers to try to see and understand their parents as people independent of them.

EB: A major component of Arnie’s personal history in the book is his involvement in the Sausalito Houseboat Community, both as a resident and columnist for the local paper. When you talk about the Sausalito houseboat wars (the decade-long legal and occasionally physical fight between the county and residents of the houseboat community over the legal status of their homes, a major event in Bay Area history), you describe Arnie as “one of the people who didn’t know he was in a fight.” Can you elaborate?

JG: I mean that the way he spoke and wrote about it treated it as a tall tale, as a caper, rather than as a choice between two paths, and that he could affect what which path was taken through his actions. He was quick to talk about the police raids, and the pranks, but never about organizing against the county in court or fighting back. Basically, it’s pretty clear in his first-person account of the Houseboat Wars (which I’ve included as an appendix in the book) that though he lived there for more than a decade, he viewed the conflict as an outsider, or as something that was happening around him, rather than something that he was a part of, and could influence. And because of that, he was never part of the victory. I think that in this age of gentrification, that’s an especially important element of the book to grasp.

EB: How did your family and your father’s friends react to the project?

JG: I don’t think any my father’s friends know about it yet, so I can’t say. But with this sort of nonfiction, you can’t worry too much about what other people might think because it can lead to self-censorship.

That said, if I were to speculate, I’m not sure they’d like it. For one: they didn’t experience Arnie the same way I did, so we have very different perspectives, and mine, is at times, quite caustic. For two: There are major cultural and generational conflicts that formed much of Arnie and I’s inability to connect, and they are as much a part of that as he is. For three: The biggest part of his writing that I cut from the final text was a collection of newspaper profiles of his friends, yet to his friends, those pieces would probably comprise the core of his writing, despite their being of no interest to anyone else.

EB: What have you got planned for your own funeral?

JG: I’d like animatronics and speakers to be installed in my body so that at the flip of a switch, my body will rise from my grave and say, “if I’m going out, then you’re all coming with me.” That’d be hilarious. Then karaoke. Basically, I’d want to Andy Kaufman the shit out of it. That would be a celebration of the way I like to live my life, just as much as his funeral was a celebration of the strange, confusing, and often wildly misleading way he liked to live his.

EB: What other projects have you got in the works?

JG: I run a small theater company and our next big production is my musical comedy adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. The script was written earlier this year, and I’m finishing up the music right now for a fall production. After that, we’ll be staging another script of mine, The Manifesto Monologues, a true-crime drama about three famous murderers. This summer I’m also probably going to start the script for the musical follow-up to the Cthulhu adaptation, Robopocalypse: The Musical, and either revisit the existing draft of another memoir I wrote about my time in youth prison, or novelize a sitcom pitch I wrote last year with a friend in the film industry.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JG: No prob.

You can check out Josh Gross’s book trailer here:

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off

An Interview with Mari Gayatri Stein, author of Out of the Blue Valise

Mari Gayatri Stein is the author of eleven books and the illustrator of many others. She has contributed regular articles to such publications as Inquiring Mind, The Medford Mail Tribune, Tea Magazine, and The Healing Garden Journal. Stein has been an actor and traded her Hollywood hometown for an organic farm in Oregon where she lives with her husband and a pair of rescue dogs. In addition to her work as an artist and writer, she teaches meditation and yoga and works with women in recovery.

You can find more of her work at Gypsy Dog Press and soon at

EB: Out of the Blue Valise is something of a departure for you as a writer. How did the book come about?

MGS: It began with a birthday gift: an adorable stuffed hippo who föted (Hippoease for flatulence). Po had a powerful personality. She became my constant companion. Po loved driving through the countryside with the top down, eating chocolate—she pronounced it shokolad, and couldn’t get her fill of British mysteries. In the winter, Po, my husband Robert, Mumbles and Snowflake (our rescue dogs) and I migrated to Malibu to escape the Oregon chill. After several days of meditating on the oh-so-blue breaking waves below the bluffs, Po and I began writing a story about a hippopotamus in search of authenticity, love and cheap thrills. Our pilgrimage commenced. We were on a magical mission. The scribbles became chapters, proliferated into The Po Pages and eventually morphed into Out of the Blue Valise. The compelling factor that changed Po from a frivolous bedtime story to a novel with serious intent (still retaining its whimsical nature) was cancer. Out of the Blue Valise became a book within a book and gathered gravitas.

EB: You got a veritable wonderland of curious animal characters—a shape changing hippo, a multilingual zebra, a frog. Why did you choose to focus the story around endangered animals?

MGS: We are all endangered species. Our very globe is imperiled. Human beings are complicated, self-involved and absent most of the time. Animals are innocents and utterly present. These pure souls are our saviors. They expand our hearts as spontaneously as a smile erupts on our faces when we see them, touch them, breath them in, admire and sit in awe of them. It is down to us to save them from extinction. Genocide and specicide are the nemesis of all that is sacred and spiritual. The endangered animals have the ability to break open our hearts, and by so doing they ignite our compassion and rescue us from ourselves.

EB: This is very much a healing fantasy. What is the role of fantasy in our lives, do you think? Escape, healing, something else?

MGS: Thank you. That was the intention—to delight, inspire, heal and provide sanctuary within the pages of Blue Valise. Humans have forgotten how to be happy. Fantasy and whimsy are inherent in our childlike nature and bring out the best in us. They are the antidote to earnestness and discontent. Life without humor is tyranny. Humor allows me to keep my boots on the ground and at the same time surrender to the joy of the moment. That is the magic of Po and her crew. Fantasy is the chocolate icing on her chocolate cake.

The writing of Blue Valise gave me refuge while dealing with cancer twice in two years; a safe place to dwell where meaning and purpose existed. Po’s world made me happy and lent equanimity to endless days filled with life and death scenarios. It buffered me against self-obsession, implosion, worry, doubt and fear.

Our fantasies, imagination and stories keep our hearts tender. They do offer escape, and they heal us. What is real or unreal? In the core of the Blue Valise lies the answer to this conundrum.

EB: Can you explain the idea of the blue valise to our readers?

MGS: The blue valise is packed for the ultimate journey within and without. When Petal lifts the lid and Po leaps into her arms, all things become possible. The valise reveals a bevy of characters and global adventures. Estranged twin British aristocrats will reconcile their differences by collaborating in the rescue of an endangered hippo held hostage in Africa. A lonely and victimized zebra with red stripes will be sneaked out of a Paris zoo by Petal’s bosom friend Dr. Jake. Characters will hippomorphosize—change size with a secret password, and finally defeat a supersized villain out for blood. And more.

Everything exists within the blue valise. All at once, Petal faces her demons and dreams and there is no turning back.

EB: You are also an illustrator, so I’m curious about the ways in which the visual dimension might inform your writing.

MGS: The pictures provide the subtext. In the same way that a friend’s expression and body language reveal more about her than the words issuing from her lips, my illustrations divulge a character’s true identity. They offer intimacy and insight into our hearts and souls—our humanity. No apology. No prevarication. No debate. Nice or nasty, drawings are the unspoken balloons above our heads. Imagine if today, every time you engaged with someone, you told the absolute truth. (Wouldn’t that be a treat?) That is the luxury of my illustrations. They dare say and do what I dare not.

EB: This is your debut novel. How was it different from your earlier books? Was it harder to write? Easier?

MGS: Different, much harder, and at the same time effortless as the inevitable can be, like gulping water when you are parched. I loved writing Blue Valise. This arduous discipline took me over. In previous books, the art starred and words filled the supporting roles. In Blue Valise, words reign. I wrote every day for three and a half years, no matter what—through two bouts of surgery and radiation in addition to the demands and rituals of family and daily life maintenance. My Higher Hippo ruled the creative monarchy. Po dubbed me invincible. Suddenly, I could breathe underwater. I could fall through the atmosphere unscathed. The book was my lifeline, and I was determined to outlive its publication.

EB: I really enjoyed some of the wordplay. I hope I can find a chance to use “hippomorphosize.” It seem like you had a lot of fun writing this.

MGS: Drop it into a sentence at your next cocktail party. It’s a very handy word and rolls off the tongue.

I had a ball. I am bored between books—in limbo. But no worries, a massive novel calls my name—a pile of patient folders stacked in a red Chinese box tucked away on the bookshelf in my office whisper daily. Stay turned. This one should keep me alive for the next five years. Words are my favorite playmates. I love my thesaurus—yes, a real book with frayed corners and glued-together pages.

The first draft is the hardest part for me and always daunting, but I have learned to sit still and face the blank slice of paper like a warrior. Once I start editing and playing with the text, I am in heaven.

EB: What are you currently working on?

MGS: Post-Po production and catch-up. I am writing blogs for my new website: They include a recent adventure at the Portland zoo where I fed and petted a rhino and hippo, a story about spirituality and recovery from addiction, the diary of my new found friend, Penelope, our resident peahen who adopted us as her flock, and sequels to earlier blogs about cancer and hip surgery. After that, I will launch my new novel. The title remains top secret.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MGS: Thanks for asking. Po and I had a great time. Join us for tea in the bamboo garden. Po will uncover your mantra. We shall hippomorphosize and dance through the fields.

Posted in Interviews | Comments Off

An Interview with Midge Raymond, author of MY LAST CONTINENT

Midge Raymond’s debut novel My Last Continent is just out from Scriber. Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, says this: “There is a romance about faraway, desperate places, about isolation, about ice and snow. Add penguins and you have Midge Raymond’s elegant My Last Continent, a love story about the Antarctic and the creatures, humans included, who are at home there. Half adventure, half elegy, and wholly recommended.” Library Journal says it is “Atmospheric and adventurous…the story and vivid writing will keep readers glued to the pages.” And there are rave reviews also from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

Midge Raymond’s writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and Poets & Writers and she is the author of several books, including a book of short stories, Forgetting English, that won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. She has been an instructor at the Richard Hugo House, San Diego Writers Ink, and Grub Street Writers and has been an Adjunct Professor at Boston University. Midge Raymond is also the co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

EB: This is a story about life and personal choices, but also a story about the environment and the consequences of eco-tourism. Which idea came first to you, the story of Deb and Keller or the story of the Antarctic? Or is it even possible to separate the two strands of the book?

MR: I wanted to tell a story about the Antarctic, and the character of Deb came to me quickly and clearly as the best way to tell this story. As a character, she is very much a part of Antarctica herself; she is so passionate about the continent and its future, especially the fate of the penguins. So I would agree that it’s not entirely possible to separate these strands of the book — they are all so closely connected.

EB: I thought the story of Deb and Keller was complicated, yet believable despite the unfamiliar settling. As you wrote them, were you thinking about how to make the characters relatable to the reader?

MR: Not at first. In the beginning, I wrote to get to know them, and it wasn’t until much later that I took a step back to imagine how they’d be perceived to readers. And then I worked on them some more. Their relationship is indeed complicated, and, I imagine, not easily understandable for most people. So I had to make sure that I could portray how they came together and how they make such a good fit for each other, despite all the complications.

EB: You tell the story of the shipwreck and the relationship between Deb and Keller non-sequentially. Why did you choose that particular type of narrative?

MR: I wanted to begin the story with the shipwreck — in part because I hoped to create a sense of tension and engagement in the story, which I really enjoy as a reader. I also wanted to create a sense of inevitability surrounding the shipwreck — this part of the story was inspired by the concerns among naturalists about large cruise ships in Antarctica as tourism increases. As I began to reveal Deb’s backstory within this narrative, I decided to separate out these sections so that they wouldn’t bog down the narrative but allow readers to take a step back every once in a while and learn more, then jump back into the drama of the shipwreck as it unfolds.

EB: Can you tell our readers a little more about the title My Last Continent?

MR: There’s a scene in which Deb tells a passenger, “[T]here are two kinds of people who come to Antarctica. Those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide.” While I don’t necessarily share Deb’s view, one of the things I did in the novel was put these two categories of people together, which provided plenty of drama for a novel about our planet’s last frontier.

Antarctica provides this contrast among the individuals and groups who share the ships headed down to the bottom of the world. For many tourists, Antarctica is their seventh continent, the last place left to see. For shipboard naturalists, including researchers, Antarctica offers a chance not only to do their work but to educate tourists, to make the passengers’ last continent more than just something to check off their lists. For Deb and Keller, the continent is their last in the sense that it’s the only place they can truly be themselves, both alone and with each other. So I wanted a title that encompassed many of the themes of the novel, and also one that I hope will be intriguing to readers.

EB: How did you first get interested in the Antarctic and its wildlife?

MR: I had the opportunity to visit Antarctica in 2004, on a small expedition boat much like the Cormorant in the novel, and I became fascinated by the wildlife, particularly the penguins and the people who dedicate their lives to studying them. I learned a great deal about the Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo, and emperor penguins while I was in Antarctica, and two years after that trip, I had the opportunity to volunteer for a penguin census with Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina, which Dee has been studying for thirty years. This experience gave me insights into a new species — the Magellanic penguin — as well as into the lives of scientists, which was very helpful in imagining and writing the novel. And most of all, I became even more passionate about these birds and their fate in a world that is changing around them so rapidly.

EB: What was the research like for this book? Did you have to consult a lot of experts on the environment, maritime disasters and wildlife?

MR: Much of the novel was based on my own experience in Antarctica and from volunteering at the Punta Tombo colony. But of course, I also had to do a lot of additional research, including reading books and watching documentaries. I was working on the novel when the Costa Concordia ran aground in 2012, and all the news surrounding this accident provided a lot of information about maritime disasters.

EB: Coincidentally, or not, it’s the 100th anniversary of Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctica expedition. Was that an influence at all?

MR: Absolutely. I’m fascinated by Shackleton’s story, and it inspired me a great deal because it’s not only a tale of the wild and unpredictable Southern Ocean, but also of the resourcefulness and good luck it takes to get out of such situations. He’s an inspiring figure, but I’m also intrigued by the ones who weren’t so lucky — Robert Falcon Scott and his party, for example — because one thing that becomes obvious when you read about explorers is how quickly things can turn around in Antarctica. We are all at the mercy of nature when we’re there, whether today or 100 years ago.

EB: I couldn’t help but read the story of the tourists Kate and Richard as a parallel to Deb and Keller’s story. Any thoughts on this?

MR: I did, in fact, want Richard and Kate to be a parallel for Deb and Keller in the story; as a married couple, they are more domestic and their lives are more settled than the lives of Deb and Keller, who travel to the bottom of the world and only see each other a few times a year. However, as she gets to know Kate, Deb finds similarities in the two relationships and begins to appreciate both the simplicities and complexities of love, no matter what the circumstances. And of course, for Deb and Keller, the continent itself is a big part of who they are as a couple, so in a way, Antarctica is like a third party in their relationship, creating something of a love triangle.

EB: Can you tell us some of your literary influences? Who do you read?

MR: Over the years, I’ve become much more interested in environmental issues, so I have a few favorites when it comes to the environment and animal protection: Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, among others. I also read just about everything by Lionel Shriver and Ann Patchett, whose work I really admire.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I really enjoyed My Last Continent.

MR: Thank you so much, Ed!

Posted in Interviews | Comments Off

An Interview with Morgan Hunt, author of WE THE PEEPS

Ashland writer Morgan Hunt has written mystery novels, poetry, screenplays, short stories, and magazine articles, including Writer’s Digest. Her Tess Camillo mystery series won a Best Books Award (USA Book News) and a National Indie Excellence Award. Her poems have been published in the California Quarterly, San Diego Mensan, and she’s considered one of the Oregon Poetic Voices. Hunt’s short story, “The Answer Box,” placed as a Finalist in the 2014 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction contest.

Morgan Hunt grew up on the Jersey shore. She is a Navy veteran and a licensed ultralight pilot. She has lived with an aggressive form of breast cancer for more than 15 years.

We sat down to talk about her recently published novel We the Peeps, her first political novel.

EB: You’ve written in a variety of genres, mystery, poetry, short story and more. What prompted you to try your hand at “a political caper and wish fulfillment”?

MH: Well, I’ve been a political junkie for the past 20 years. In 2011 I was weighing whether to write a fourth book in my mystery series or to stretch myself as an author and attempt something more challenging. That summer the House of Representatives let their Stooges off-leash, and the “most powerful nation on earth” wound up with the nonsensical sequestration budget. I wanted to understand the causes of this political chaos. I read 17 text books on political science, civics, the history of the American Revolution, the Beltway insider game, etc. Rightly or wrongly, I convinced myself that by writing a political novel with appealing humor, I’d encourage Americans to think about their government, and thus I’d be part of the solution instead of the problem.

EB: I have to admit, I didn’t see the ending coming. Did you have it in mind all along?

MH: Glad I surprised you, Ed. I’m sure that’s not easy to do! The main concept behind the ending was in my outline all along, although certain details eluded me until I wrote the final chapters.

EB: You had several ordinary – or not so ordinary –folks as protagonists. How did you choose your ensemble?

MH: I wanted to balance the political leanings and geographic backgrounds of the revolutionaries. I also wanted an ethnically diverse cadre to reflect current American culture. A friend suggested I make each character a different Enneagram personality type. When I began the novel, I did so, but that was a launching point, a guideline. By mid-book the characters knew who they were and expressed themselves freely.

EB: You managed to make the story funny without devolving to slapstick and to have a message without being preachy. As a writer, how does one find that sweet spot?

MH: I’m both humbled and happy to hear that the balance I tried to achieve worked. As for finding that sweet spot– a dowsing stick or Geiger counter might help.

EB: Tell us about the title. I notice that the cover has a little yellow peep on it. What’s the symbolism?

MH: The title is simply a pun that stretches (much like marshmallow) between a popular American candy and the familiar phrase “We the People.” After I finished the first two chapters, I took a short break. Using PhotoShop I modified the Presidential seal by substituting a yellow Peep for the American eagle. The resulting image conveyed whimsy, humor, and politics, so it felt right. I asked the graphic artist to incorporate it into the cover design.

EB: What was the hardest part about writing We the Peeps?

MH: Trying to nail down my plot before the news cycle stole it! Several times I’d put something in the plot outline that then happened in real life. It’s nerve-wracking to turn on TV and realize you have to rewrite several chapters because what was previously confined to your imagination has just been reported on cable news!

EB: Have you sent the book to any local or national politicians?

MH: I’ve sent it to several political organizations such as No Labels and I figured actual politicians would be too busy to read anything other than position papers and polls for a while.

EB: What are some of your favorite political novels?

MH: I’m a huge fan of Christopher Buckley. I particularly enjoyed They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, Supreme Courtship, and Boomsday. I also liked a novel called The Woody by Peter Lefcourt. If we open the question to favorite political fiction (v. novels), I’d include the films Dave, American President, and Wag the Dog.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Don’t forget to vote.

MH: Thank you for this opportunity. And as Peeps revolutionary Glenda would say, “Vote? Hell, yes! That’s what empowered democracy is all about.”

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off

An Interview with Nils Nilsson

Nils J. Nilsson is the Kumagai Professor of Engineering (Emeritus) in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Nilsson received his PhD degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford in 1958, spent twenty-three years at the Artificial Intelligence Center of SRI International and returned to Stanford in 1985 where he taught until 1995. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and essays on artificial intelligence and he was one of the leaders of the research team behind Shakey, a robot that reasoned from sensor data about its environment to react to dynamic worlds, plan courses of action, and learn from experience.

Professor Nilsson is a past-president and Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. He is also a recipient of the IEEE “Neural-Network Pioneer” award, the IJCAI “Research Excellence” award, and the AAAI “Distinguished Service” award. Nils Nilsson and his wife, Grace Abbott, live at the Rogue Valley Manor in Medford, Oregon.

We talked about his 2014 book Understanding Beliefs, part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series.

EB: What prompted you to write Understanding Beliefs?

NN: This short book has a long history. I originally set out to write about how we know things. I first wrote an unpublished draft entitled How Are We To Know?. It was in the form of a dialog—actually a “quadralog” among a philosophy professor, a student, a robot designer, and a robot. I still have an online copy of it. But I learned a lot by writing this draft. Mainly I decided I wanted a full treatment of reality (is there such?) and truth (I don’t think there is such). I was informed in all of this by thinking of how robots acquire knowledge and beliefs. We humans, I maintain, are like robots (very complex ones to be sure), and therefore our attitudes toward beliefs (our “meta-beliefs”) should be similar to those of robots. Robots have no privileged access to reality; they only have their perceptual mechanisms and what their designers program into them. I think we are in the same boat.

EB: What are the biggest mistakes that people make in thinking about their beliefs?

NN: People are resistant to changing their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. They think many of their beliefs are “true” and place too much confidence in them.

EB: You mention that beliefs are like a fortress. Why is it so hard for us to change our beliefs?

NN: There are several reasons. To change one belief means that you might have to change others in order to keep them all consistent. Some of these others are deep beliefs that help define us. Another reason is that we think some beliefs are true. One doesn’t fiddle with “truth.” Another reason is that some beliefs are comforting—we’d like them to be “true.” For example, some people believe in life-after-death–it’s comforting.

What accounts for conspiracy theories?

NN: People who believe in conspiracies might be having a case of borderline paranoia. Or, beliefs about conspiracies might support other beliefs. For example, believing that JFK was killed by orders of the CIA supports a belief that the CIA runs things in this country. Some people believe in many linked conspiracies.

EB: Is it possible to perceive or access reality? Or is our experience with the world always through some model?

NN: I don’t think we can access reality directly. We access it only through our perceptual apparatus (augmented by scientific instruments, etc.), and our models usually influence what comes through. In fact, without these models, we couldn’t make sense of our perceptions. And what would it mean to access reality directly anyway? Reality doesn’t come equipped with tags describing what’s in it. Our models supply the tags, which we have invented to make sense of reality.

EB: What does your work suggest about the way we ought to be teaching science?

NN: I think my chapter on the scientific method would be a good start. But, I would want to expand it, revise it, and strengthen it if I were to try to write textbook on how to teach science.

EB: Any final thoughts?

NN: I think a lot of philosophy is hung up with notions of truth and notions about what reality is. My view of these matters simplifies things a lot, I think. Some philosophers agree with me, Daniel Dennett for example.

Thanks for talking with us.

You are most welcome!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off

Armed Service Editions and the Birth of 20th Century US Paperback Publishing

A guest post by David Vonnegut Chambers

The creation and distribution of the Armed Service Editions (ASE) paperback books to soldiers fighting in World War II represents an important period of publishing history that benefitted not only US publishing houses, but the general war effort and the mental health of soldiers on the front lines. The ASEs distributed throughout the 1940s signify the beginning point of the paperback book industry in North America. By the end of the war, the ASE’s physical role in the second World War (WWII) had solidified the paperback book as a tested and economical format for future US book publishing, but it had also created a new white, male readership, positioning many soldiers for success in university and future careers back home.

David Vonnegut Chambers is a writer and photographer from southern Oregon. You can find his work at

Historical Overview

While other global militaries involved in WWII understood the importance of reading material and its affect upon soldier morale, many of these foreign powers involved in the war within European theaters (British, Germans, Soviets) failed to provide an affordable, portable alternative to the hardcover book during the war. But the United States military created hip-pocket sized paperbacks to provide ideas, education, and mental reprieve from war.[1] It was hard for the US government, at the outset of the war, to conceive of books as an integral part of wartime strategy.[2] But, by 1943, the United States Army Library Services (ALS) had begun to collaborate with the Council on Books in Wartime (an advisory group to the federal government composed of publishing industry leaders and professionals).

Thus, between 1943 and 1946, using an adapted rotary-press, the collaborative effort published 122 million copies of 1,322 paper-cover titles, specifically designed to fit inside the pockets of a G.I.’s uniform.[3] It was described by the Saturday Evening Post in 1945 as “the greatest book-publishing project in history,”[4] and it was the first instance when a nation put forth such a monumental effort to publish and distribute portable books for its military service. Before this, the Victory Book Campaign (VBC) had collected thousands of old, unwanted books in a monumentally sincere but unwieldy effort to provide US soldiers with reprieve from the mental and physical rigors of war.[5] Current scholarship has treated ASEs in the second World War as an isolated event, and according to Christopher P. Loss, this approach failed because it focused on the financial interests of the publishing industry while failing to account for the ideological role of book distribution to soldiers.[6] The creation of portable reading material for soldiers overseas was a technological and social innovation that not only helped the US to win the war, but helped to bring US soldiers home again after victory.

And, of course, ASEs did contribute to a budding paperback industry. In fact, it was the problem of soldier morale that led the sudden creation of a paperback book industry in the US. Before the problem of soldier morale overseas, neither the ALS nor the Council had truly possessed “the ability to transform copyrighted classic and contemporary bestsellers into portable paperback editions.[7] The distribution of ASEs was just as economically important for the future publishing industry (because it allowed prior experience and a degree of clout) as it was for US foreign policy and the national ideologies which celebrated the political and cultural differences between fascist, aggressive states and the US model of democracy.[8] Never before had a publishing endeavor covered such ground, and never before had books been ideologically positioned as “weapons in the war of ideas.”[9] At home, by the time the Council had begun working with the US military branches, the initiative also provided a limited form of “democracy in action,”[10] because the publishing industry was forced to put its reputation on the line in order to amend a Voting Act that had hampered book distribution with several months of outright censorship (an act sponsored by Senator Taft). All in all, however, the monumental publishing project—started by the VBC and expanded upon by the Council—had a core purpose: US soldiers wanted and needed reading material. The delivery of paperback books provided mental and emotional support for those on the front lines. One American soldier wrote to the Council while stationed in Italy, explaining that “there are many times when the only entertainment, relaxation, and mental stimulation is reading, so you can see how welcome the ‘Armed Services’ books are.”[11]

Distribution and Readership

Paperback books seem today like an obvious idea, an easy solution for the G.I. abroad: the physicality of war necessitated the removal of all “unnecessary”[12] items from soldiers’ packs in an attempt to keep them lighter and less cumbersome. Aside from the practicality of portable books, the real driving force behind paperback book printing and distribution to troops was money-savings and the seemingly democratic virtues of the mass-production of information. In 1939, less than two hundred thousand paperbacks were sold in the US.[13] Pocket Books was the first US publishing house to demonstrate that paperback bookselling could be profitable: this was achieved by printing smaller volumes that required less paper.[14] The Council on Books in Wartime (The Council) eventually collaborated with the US military to create specially-sized, foldable, pocket paperbacks.[15] The two-up style in which the books were printed, in two small sizes, with double columns and light paper (something dictated by material and technological constraints), required that the Council and the ALS collate titles more or less the same size and the same length in order to insure printing uniformity. Distribution, something that had plagued the ALS and the VBC in early years of the war,[16] was made easier by the uniform size and relatively light weight of paperback titles. Covers were specially-designed as well, in order to ensure soldiers that their copies were the same as the editions that their friends and family might read back home. The gaudy design featured images of the original hardcover, and also included a special form of rhetoric on the back, often a summary of the narrative in connection with its patriotic values, and how these coincided with those of the author.[17]

But titles varied widely. There was much more than just fiction. The Council included selections of history, science, philosophy, racier titles (albeit not racy at all),[18] as well as a slice of more “serious” literature, as decreed by the Council.[19] Ninety-nine editions of the ASEs were reprinted because they were so popular.[20] There was censorship by the army only when the leadership encountered something that seemed to “infringe” upon democratic ideals. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, as an example, was not included in either of the Council’s “long” or “short” lists.[21] Soldiers’ ASE paperbacks, following their distribution, were prized possessions: they were often traded, split, or swapped.[22] They were always cherished in moments of peace and quiet. Many authors received hundreds and even thousands of letters in response to their work.[23] In the case of Willa Cather, the ASEs cemented the author’s popularity well after her own death.[24]

While for many returning veterans the ASEs had only provided a distraction from the horrors of war, many soldiers who had read the paperbacks voraciously became a part of a specific, new male readership in a distinct period of American literary and cultural history. The Council, for its myriad motivations, had known how important the availability of knowledge was for not only troop morale but also for the course of the war itself. They could not have known, however, the change to come in the US education system following the close of the war, or how the returning soldiers would play their part in a changing model of education and a swelling of the middle class.[25] But the Council and the ALS overcame shortages of material, federal obstacles, and the task of distribution, knowing that the narratives they were shipping overseas were truly indeed “instrument(s) of power.”[26] And the soldiers were grateful: they all had a story to tell about the ASE publishing project, and most of these stories had a similar tone—“these little books are a great thing … they take you away.”[27] One soldier claimed that the distribution of ASEs in Europe to American serviceman was like “making it rain in the desert.”[28] Amidst the horrors of war, these small books were not only instruments of power, but instruments of salvation, of a sort.

Redistribution, Post-War, and the G.I. Bill

As fighting in Europe came to a close, soldiers were ready to go home. 400,000 troops were left in Europe to oversee the transition of power. Of the 3.4 million men who had fought on the European continent, however, 3.1 million were destined for the South Pacific theater. The islands were infamous, and most soldiers were less than overjoyed about their re-deployment. Morale began to suffer again, and so the army and the navy turned once more to the Council for redistribution in the years following 1945.[29] Distribution had increased that year, from 20 million books to 50 million books, but even that amount was deemed not enough. Soldiers were “starved” for titles, according to one officer in the Special Services Division (charged with, among other things, the triage of soldier morale). This same officer observed that there “never seems to be enough.”[30] One Lieutenant Colonel Trautman had noted that “when a soldier with a monthly pay of $55 is willing to pay 500 francs or 10 American dollars for the privilege of being next in line to read a particular Council Book they are pretty scarce.”[31] Trautman, on a visit to a platoon of combat engineers stationed in the South Pacific, had observed himself how precious remaining, readable ASEs were. This certain platoon had a collection of only ten ASEs, and the commander had ordered that men were to read together, in groups, so as to “reduce the wear and tear of multiple handlings.”[32] Facing down a lack of funding and an overwhelming demand, reprinting was ordered (sometimes numbering around 155,000 copies per print run), and the ASE paperbacks were created for the first time without stapled covers.[33]

As the American forces closed in around Japan, soldiers serving both in the South Pacific and Europe began to ponder their futures. As Molly Guptil Manning put quite plainly, “some men wondered whether it [home] would measure up to the ideals they had projected onto it.”[34] The idea of home, known for so long only by depictions that had provided sustenance overseas via countless narratives, was becoming unsure. While some soldiers simply wished to return to the same life they had left behind, some soldiers were especially concerned about future employment opportunities. During training, many enlisted men had enrolled in courses using “mathematics, science, and technical books,”[35] and they did not wish for this knowledge to go unused. While novels in the immediate post-war years did not provide fresh reading material for those still stationed overseas, troops in transition enjoyed a selection of new, practical titles intended to address the return to life in North America. Some examples include Darrel and Frances Huff’s Twenty Careers of Tomorrow, and Campbell and Bedford’s You and Your Future Job, printed at the behest of the Army.[36] Returning veterans were interested in a range of potential futures, including legal professions, entrepreneurial pursuits, and jobs that enabled economic growth: Huff’s Twenty Careers of Tomorrow addressed everything from working in plastics, fabrics, and recycling, to careers in publishing, television and radio, and the automobile industry.[37] Veterans were also, for the most part, critically aware of advances in medical technology, and many of them were inspired by select ASEs to pursue a career in medicine.[38] As the war drew to a close, the demand for ASEs dropped to around 15 percent of wartime ASE production.[39] By 1947, ASE production of fresh titles had ceased. Veterans and soldiers still serving active duty began to hoard and collect their favorite titles.[40]

President Roosevelt began planning to address the accessibility of higher education in 1944. College enrollment was something reserved for the upper middle class or the elite in US society at the time. The American Legion, a veteran’s organization, was responsible for drafting the “Serviceman’s Readjustment Act,” which became the “G.I. Bill of Rights” by June 22, 1944, when it was passed unanimously in the House and the Senate.[41] The bill provided counseling services, unemployment and disability benefits, as well as home and business loans, and two years of college or job training.[42] White men were the group that benefitted the most from the G.I. Bill, whereas women generally benefitted the least from the legislation.[43] The nonwhite, minority experience with the G.I. Bill was obviously different than that of white men, because of the segregated, racist nature of US society at the time. Nonwhite veterans often encountered the same “barriers to advancement”[44] that they had encountered before, even after enjoying the positive financial and educational benefits of the G.I. Bill back home. This topic requires its own paper, but scholars have so far concurred that black veterans who obtained college education through the GI Bill were more likely to become involved with the “struggles through which civil rights were won” in the US during the later 20th century.[45]

Veterans were successful in college, but their attendance was slow to begin.[46] Their eventual success stories would bolster the middle class and actually change the face of university and college education in the US. This breaking down of preconceptions about the eliteness of college attendance was one of the effects of the G.I. Bill, and it was of course due to the fact that many veterans were eager and well-read. Many veterans of this new, male readership were even excited enough about reading and writing in immediate post-war years that they began seeking the opinions of the Council with regard to their various book proposals, which were often centered on personal experience in wartime overseas.[47] This new, white male readership began challenging “prewar assumptions of who could benefit from a college education.”[48] Advertising in the immediate post-war years even reflects this shift in perception about college enrollment, but by the 1950s, advertising had shifted again to focus on family structure and consumer culture. But the role that veterans played in shaping higher education in the US cannot be understated. Images of the G.I. succeeding in a college environment provided the “average” American citizen with a new model (a more accessible model) of “social, economic, and cultural mobility”[49] that would ultimately foster greater civic engagement. Universities in the US began to transition more and more towards practical and vocational curriculum, and this was due, at least in part, to the demands of veterans studying and working within higher education.[50] The paperback book would continue to play an important role for publishing houses and a wide range of institutions within the US, and these small books are even more prolific in their availability today. Randall Stewart, in 1959 (then Chairman at Vanderbilt), probably captured their novelty the best: “You want to gather them up by the armfuls, put them on your shelves, and start reading (or re-reading).”[51]

In conclusion, it is important to grasp the importance of ASEs within multiple contexts. ASE creation and distribution represented timely technological and economic innovation by the publishing industry, and it also set a unique precedent of literary cooperation between the private sector, the public, and the US military. Not only did paperbacks take veterans “away” from the horrors of war—the portable books also helped to bring them home again. This appreciation for the written word, for the book, provided a solid base from which many white, male veterans could access vocational and educational resources. In a way, the paperback book has had no small role in helping along the development of a productive, civically engaged middle class, of which veterans comprised a healthy percentage.


    Abbot, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

    Chinery, Mary. “Wartime Fictions: Willa Cather, the Armed Service Editions, and the Unspeakable Second World War.” Cather Studies 6 (2006): 285-96. Web.

    Clark, Daniel A. “ ‘The Two Joes Meet. Joe College, Joe Veteran’: The G. I. Bill, College Education, and Postwar American Culture.” History of Education Quarterly 38.2 (1998): 165-189. Web.

    Hayes, Kevin J. “How G.I. Joe Read Stephen Crane.” Stephen Crane Studies 9.1 (2000): 9-14. Web.

    Mettler, Suzanne. Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

    Lehman, Edward W. “Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation, by Suzanne Mettler.” Book Review. American Journal of Sociology 113.2 (2007): 581-584. Web.

    Loss, Christopher P. “Reading between Enemy Lines: Armed Services Editions and World War II.” The Journal of Military History 67.3 (2003): 811-834. Web.

    Manning, Molly Guptil. When Books Went to War. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014. Print.

    Stewart, Randall. “Paperbacks.” College English, 20.7 (1959): 365-367. Web.


  1. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading between Enemy Lines: Armed Service Editions and World War II.” The Journal of Military History 67.3 (2003): 812.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions: Willa Cather, the Armed Services Editions, and the Unspeakable Second World War,” Cather Studies, 6 (2006): 288.

  6. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 813.

  7. Ibid., 825.

  8. Ibid., 828.

  9. Molly Guptil Manning, When Books Went to War, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014): graphical front-matter.

  10. Christoper P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 832.

  11. Ibid., 118.

  12. Molly Guptil Manning, When Books Went to War, 61.

  13. Ibid., 62.

  14. Ibid., 63.

  15. Ibid., 76.

  16. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 824.

  17. Kevin J. Hayes, “How G.I. Joe Read Stephen Crane,” 10.

  18. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions,” 291.

  19. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 829.

  20. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions,” 292.

  21. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 830.

  22. Mary Chinery, “Wartime Fictions,” 292.

  23. Ibid., 293.

  24. Ibid., 294.

  25. It is unfortunate that I am able in this paper only to generalize about white, mainstream North American culture and experience. I have chosen not to delve into the specifics of the nonwhite minority experience in this period, though any complete examination of male readership after WWII would require this.

  26. H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 40.

  27. Christopher P. Loss, “Reading Between Enemy Lines,” 833.

  28. Molly Guptil Manning, “When Books Went to War,” 118.

  29. Ibid., 162.

  30. Ibid., 164.

  31. Ibid., 162.

  32. Ibid., 163.

  33. Ibid., 168.

  34. Ibid., 170.

  35. Ibid., 171.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid., 172.

  39. Ibid., 178.

  40. Ibid., 179.

  41. Ibid., 184.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Edward W. Lehman, Book Review, 583.

  44. Suzanne Mettler, Soldiers to Citizens, 105.

  45. Ibid., 143.

  46. Molly Guptil Manning, When Books Went to War, 185.

  47. Ibid., 173.

  48. Daniel A. Clark, “The Two Joes Meet,” 175.

  49. Daniel A. Clark, “The Two Joes Meet,” 178.

  50. Ibid., 177.

  51. Randall Stewart, “Paperbacks,” 365.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off

An Interview with Lisa Sandlin

Lisa Sandlin was born in Beaumont, Texas, and grew up in oil-refinery air, sixty miles from the Gulf of Mexico. She raised a son in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then moved to Nebraska where’s she has taught for the better part of twenty years.

Her work has earned an NEA Fellowship, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Jesse Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, story-of-the-year awards from Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Crazy Horse. Her story collections are The Famous Thing About Death, Message to the Nurse of Dreams, In the River Province, and You Who Make the Sky Bend . The Do-Right, her first novel, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and Johnny Temple, the editor of USA Noir had this to say ““Thomas Phelan and Delpha Wade are unforgettable characters as gritty as the ramshackle office they inhabit. But their grit has soul, and plenty of it.”

We sat down to talk about The Do-Right.

EB: Delpha Wade spent fourteen years for in prison for killing a man who raped her and is starting a new life. Tom Phelan is a Vietnam veteran and neophyte detective looking for a secretary. As they each rebuild their lives, they solve a series of unusual cases in Beaumont, Texas, in 1973. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

LS: I didn’t get my first tenure-track academic job until I was 45. I sent stacks of applications, bought a $300 gray flannel biz-suit, went to MLA conferences waiting for interviews in hotel rooms (sounds racy, doesn’t it? It isn’t.), and continued to work adjunct for $10K a year. Under-employment became such an issue that frustration sank in deeply. In writing, I follow where my subconscious leads, and clearly it had a lot to say about joblessness and starting over—because both characters aim to build a new life, and they carry differing amounts of anxiety about being able to do so.

EB: Tell us about the title. Why The Do-Right?

LS: That’s a colloquialism meaning “jail” or “prison” that I heard from my friend, a witty deputy sheriff in Georgia; as in “We sent him to the do-right.” (He also informed me about the designation “ticket-proof,” which he was—and that he owns only 12 guns because “more are gratuitous.”) Delpha’s served 14 years in prison. But now, on the outside, she’s wrestling with doing right according to her own lights. She carries hatred and resentment against those who hurt her, and she doesn’t necessarily buy the forgiveness-and-closure prescription.

EB: I confess that I had never thought of the 1970s as a noirish time, but you made it seem as gritty and foreign to me as the depression era. What prompted you to set the story in that decade?

LS: Simply, because I was young then, and I wanted the energy of youth. But thirtyish youth, not crazy-head teenage or blithe 20 year-old youth. Though I was raised white collar—my dad was a chemical engineer with Mobil Oil—once I was in college and after, I spent twenty years not even within spitting distance of that economic level. Memorable lines from those years piled up. Asked about a dramatic scar on his throat that descends onto his chest, a young kitchen worker points out quietly, “It all on my forward side.”

EB: Does the feel of crime change, decade by decade?

LS: It changes writer by writer. Agatha Christie had to use the drawing room settings and social classes she knew. Dashiell Hammett portrayed the private eye / Pinkerton man cleaning up whole corrupt towns. (Watch how he kills characters; everyone gets a unique death description). Raymond Chandler, famously, gave us a dark and lush L.A. and shady people, rich and non-rich alike. Mario Puzo stunned the public with Mafia ruthlessness. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins not only solves mysterious crimes but also negotiates post-WWII America as a black man and a real estate owner on the down low. Dennis Lehane describes awful crimes that we all know happen, whose victims may find no help or redemption. Maybe it’s that some crimes, because of memorable perpetrators, seem to belong more to one decade than to another. Bankrobbing, Bonnie and Clyde, the 30s. Home invasion, Starkweather, the Manson Family, 50s and 60s. Heroin in Harlem, the 50s on. Drugs, 60s on. Murder, timeless. Alas.

EB: What sort of research did the novel require—about the 1970s, prison life, the detective trade, Beaumont, Texas, …

LS: I have a book on the detective trade, I read some library books on prison life. As far as Beaumont and the 1970s, I just had to double check geography, history, and phrases as I went along, since I had life experience there. (For instance, I asked a group of FB friends my age: Do you remember using the expression “Eat s*** and die” back in the 70s? One man answered that he had that on his helmet in Vietnam.) However, a whole lot of The Do-Right’s material is pure imagination, and the book probably has some howlers, to those in the know.

EB: There are two main characters in The Do-Right. Which one was tougher for you to write?

LS: Phelan, since he’s male. I have a mainline to Delpha.

EB: The relationship between Delpha and Isaac seemed important to her, to him and to his mother, and it seemed to fit the plot and character well. What prompted you to include that?

LS: Good question. After the isolation of prison, the dearth of choices, Delpha would be longing for some touch. I didn’t believe she’d choose a man who’d want to order her around or who’d put her into a public, complicated (to her) social environment that would require her to interact with lots of new people. Isaac doesn’t challenge her in these ways, and he himself has a need that speaks to hers.

EB: You have written award-winning short stories in the past. How is a novel different?

LS: So much more shape to keep in your head. I literally resorted to 3 x 5 cards to shuffle and sort scenes, though there’s a program that does this for you. You have to worry about the dead accidentally springing back to life. Yikes! You have to worry about scenes that cannot be consecutive because they don’t follow emotionally. There’s a time-passing aspect for the characters that has to be matched with real-life events such as Watergate and Hank Aaron’s homerun count and with fictional events.

EB: Will we see more of Miss Wade and Mr. Phelan?

LS: I’m working on that!

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

LS: I’m so happy for your interest. Thank you, Ed.

Posted in Interviews, What People Are Reading | Comments Off