MY BIOGRAPHY IN THREE PARTS
The American West in 1960 held a tremendous allure for a young man from the East Coast, and working on a newspaper, I thought, would allow me to observe and document all aspects of the lives and landscapes to be found in that dramatic land. For fifty-one years I have produced words at all levels of the craft of nonfiction and its closely related activities. Those words have appeared in small weekly and large metropolitan newspapers, national magazines, and thirteen books. During that length of time I was a newspaper reporter, war correspondent, environmental writer, high ranking state official, magazine writer, photographer, author, book publisher, bookseller, university lecturer, academic library consultant, and substitute county librarian. After this length of time and these varied experiences I have decided to call it quits in 2011. "Everett Ruess" is my thirteenth and lucky last book. I am tired of producing words and want to try something else, like photographic images.
A few thoughts about my writing philosophy acquired over a half century.
1. I tell stories; I don’t spin theories or outline ideas.
2. I don’t believe there is any single truth, but rather differing versions of it. For my version I employ three goals: accuracy, fairness, readability.
3. For average youths and would-be writers, there's hope; I was an indifferent student, only catching fire later when I had to earn a living and vowed to find work I enjoyed and was passionate about.
4. My mantra for all the rejections of proposals by editors was: "Don't let the bastards get you down."
5. Along the way the following phrase from Emerson’s essay “Nature” became my guideline: “All the facts of natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life.” I am interested in the blending of natural and human histories. That is why I call myself an environmental historian.
5. More on the fragility of history:
“History happens in the first person but is written in the third.”
This is what makes history eternally questionable.
The first line is attributable to Irish author Joseph O’Connor in the novel "The Star of the Sea." He went on to state, “This is what makes history a completely useless art,” with which I don’t agree. It has a use, as long as it is not represented as the truth——there being not one but many truths. So I added the second line. For another reason why history is unreliable, read Andrea Barrett’s “The Voyage of the Narwhal,” whose message is that history depends on what story receives attention.
I somehow lost my narrative biography on this website. I have chosen not to replicate it. For younger and more modern minds, I have been advised to keep the wording short and snappy; but I am unable do that. I find myself a slave to thoroughness. So I am posting my two-page resume and an interview that ran recently in High Country News. I think the combination of the formal and informal documents should give you a good idea who I am.
• 1996-2011: Writer. “The Left Coast” and “Everett Ruess” published by the University of California Press in 2011. Most recently completed a biography of Wallace Stegner published by Alfred A. Knopf. Five other books published since 1995. Consultant to the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Lecturer, Departments of History at Stanford University and Williams College.
• 1981-1995: Writer. Senior Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric and the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley. Lecturer, Stanford University Mass Media Institute.
• 1976-1980: Writer. Western editor, Audubon magazine.
• 1975-1976: Assistant Secretary of the California Resources Agency. Responsible for energy, coastal, and public affairs for the state’s principal environmental agency.
• 1964-1975: Los Angeles Times. Environmental writer, Vietnam correspondent, urban riot specialist, and general assignment reporter.
• 1960-1964: Reporter on three small California newspapers in the San Joaquin Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.
• “Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife,” University of California Press, 2011.
• “The Left Coast: California on the Edge,” University of California Press, 2011.
• “Wallace Stegner and the American West,” Knopf, 2008 hardcover, UC Press, 2009 paperback.
• “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself,” UC Press, 2005 hardcover/2006 paperback.
• “Stagecoach: Wells Fargo and the American West,” Simon & Schuster, 2002 hardcover/Free Press, 2003 paperback.
• “Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay,” UC Press, 2001 hardcover/2003 paperback.
• “Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault,” Henry Holt, 1998 hardcover/UC Press, 1999 paperback.
• “The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History,” Henry Holt, 1995 hardcover/UC Press, 1997 paperback.
• “Wanderings of an Environmental Journalist: In Alaska and the American West,” University of New Mexico Press, 1993 hardcover.
• “Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy,” University of Arizona Press, 1989 hardcover and paperback/Johnson Books, 2004 paperback.
• “Sagebrush Country: Land and the American West,” Knopf, 1989 hardcover/UA Press, 1991 paperback/Johnson Books, 2004 paperback.
• “A River No More: The Colorado River and the West,” Knopf, 1981 hardcover/UA Press, 1984 paperback/UC Press, 1996 paperback.
• “California, the Golden Coast,” Viking, 1974 hardcover.
Shared in a Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Los Angeles Times for coverage of the
1965 Watts racial conflict. Sierra Club Media Award, 1974. Distinguished
Alumnus, Montclair Kimberley Academy, 1989. Fallout and 1906 were nominated
for Pulitzer prizes and 1906 was given the Californiana award by the
Commonwealth Club of California for 2005.
Williams College, B.A., 1957
III. INTERVIEW IN HIGH COUNTRY NEWS, SEPTEMBER, 2010
"Curious About the Human Condition"
by Tony Davis
Philip Fradkin was raised in the Northeast, but he's done all of his writing in the West. As a fledgling L.A. Times reporter, he shared a Pulitzer Prize as the first journalist to cover Watts from the inside during the 1965 riots. He was one of the earliest environmental reporters, and he worked for a spell for California Gov. Jerry Brown, the first leading politician to preach the idea of limits. His 1981 book, "A River No More," marked the first time a layman documented the thesis that the overallocated Colorado River would eventually run out of water. It was followed by books about subjects as various as the Nevada Test Site’s downwinders, earthquakes, California's changing demographics, and, most recently, a biography of Wallace Stegner, the quintessential Western author. Now 75, Fradkin is researching his 13th book. HCN freelancer Tony Davis talked with Fradkin last spring (2010) after he spoke at a book festival in Tucson.
HCN: How did you fall in love with the West and decide to settle here?
FRADKIN: I was raised in Montclair, in the north Jersey suburbs of New York City. My father took me on a grand tour of the West when I was 14, of Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City and Lake Tahoe. Then, we drove down the east side of the Sierra Nevada and entered Yosemite National Park on a dirt road before continuing on to San Francisco. The trip opened my eyes to a completely different landscape, to a lot of drama that was missing in New Jersey.
HCN: What got you started in journalism?
FRADKIN: I graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, majoring in political science, and I had no experience at any level of the craft. Then I went into the Army, where I worked as a chaplain's assistant on a troop ship and put out the ship’s paper. That gave me a taste of journalism. I wanted an occupation that would put me in contact with as wide a range of experiences and people as possible. I’m curious about the human condition. Everyone told me I was a fool to go out West because New York City was at the center of journalism, but I wanted to live somewhere between the mountains and the sea. So I drove out West in a VW bug in the summer of 1960. I took my first job as an ad salesman at a small suburban weekly in the Bay Area, because I didn't have the experience to get a reporting job. At night, with the help of my editor, I covered city council and planning commission meetings and wrote the stories on my own time.
HCN: What was your experience in covering the Watts riot?
FRADKIN: The afternoon before the riot started a highway patrolman was trying to manage a crowd that was gathered because he had stopped a motorist. I went down there with a photographer, and they stoned our car and broke some windows. We left, and came back later. Just as police started pulling out, the crowd exploded. I saw someone out of the corner of my eye raise a brick and aim at my head. I ducked, the brick grazed my head and landed on my shoulder. I fell on the ground, rolled over and knew if I stayed there I was done for. I quickly got up and vaulted across the hood of a car, found our photographer who was about to leave without me and got out of there. I was terrified, but I returned for the next five days.
HCN: How did you transition into environmental reporting?
FRADKIN: After Watts, I covered urban and student riots all over, was at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968, and spent six months in South Vietnam. I could see that other journalists got addicted to the violence. It was cyclic and very exciting, but the huge gaps in between those times were rather depressing. The environment seemed a much more peaceful –– and enduring –– beat. So when I came back from Vietnam just after Earth Day 1970, I saw nobody at the paper was specializing in the environment, and it was a big issue. After about a year I pushed a little and they gave me the title of environmental writer.
It was a hell of a good story. I got to travel anywhere I wanted to go in the American West, the Canadian Arctic and as far south as Tierra del Fuego. I was dealing with subjects in places that really interested me. But in March 1975, the metro editor called me into his office and said that he and other editors thought I was becoming too much of an advocate, and they were taking me off the beat.
HCN: Were they right?
FRADKIN: It’s a problem with specialists; you start believing in your specialty. You need to believe in it to keep working at it. But I think the editors suspected what I didn’t realize myself. I get bored doing things that had been done before. I was finding I’d written a lot of these stories and they were falling into a predictable outline. The message was that it was time to move on, not from the environment but in terms of the job. I contacted people I knew who had just begun work in the Jerry Brown administration and became assistant secretary for the California Resources Agency, where I stayed for a year and a half before going to work as Western editor of Audubon magazine.
HCN: Were you able to accomplish your goals at the California Resources Agency?
FRADKIN: Brown had a very good mind, but he didn’t want any agency to move ahead of him. From almost the beginning, he was focused on running for president. His main concern was how would this play in his campaign for the Democratic Party nomination. What you had to do was disguise what you wanted to get done. You had to be cunning. I focused on getting the California Coastal Act passed in 1976, which created the State Coastal Commission. It was the first agency with real strong land-use controls, and it had control over the most valuable, heavily populated real estate in California. All the various departments within the Resources Agency had to agree on the various aspects of the legislation that would create the commission. They didn’t agree, though –– they had their own petty jurisdictional fiefdoms they were trying to protect, and the best way I could figure out to get around their pettiness was to represent their views to Brown to the best possible extent, and that made them look foolish. If they looked foolish, Brown would think they had no realistic objections. That was the case, and he endorsed the legislation.
HCN: How did you come to write "A River No More?"
FRADKIN: After writing stories on the Colorado River for the L.A. Times and Audubon magazine, I knew the river knit the West together. I thought it was a tremendous way to give a portrait of the region and hook it onto the river as a lifeblood, a sinking lifeblood. Nobody in the government had put the whole river together and seen the demands on it and documented the amount of water that was and wasn’t there. No one had ever taken into account the fact that when the Colorado River Compact was put into place in 1922, it was based on a series of very wet years. I felt I was out on a limb. But if you added up the facts and looked at the river as a whole, you couldn’t help but come up with this idea that it’s no longer a river –– it’s a river no more.
HCN: Now, with the river suffering from a decade-long drought, do you feel vindicated?
FRADKIN: No way. I think vindication is a sign of a large ego. The vindication is not personal. It's observing the continuation of the same kind of boom-and-bust development and the overuse of water in the West that has occurred over time and then writing that story – it’s the vindication of history. I only act as a narrator.
HCN: How did your reporting affect your view of the environmental movement?
FRADKIN: Increasingly, I saw it as just one more special interest. They would always damn the developers as a special interest, but particularly working for Audubon magazine and watching that bureaucracy operate, I could see that where developers sought money, environmentalists sought to inflate their egos. After I left Audubon in 1980, I never renewed my membership in the Sierra Club or the National Audubon Society. But today, I’m very active on local issues in the small community where I live, on the coast north of San Francisco. At the local level, you can solve problems and have a greater effect than you can nationally.
HCN: You said at the Tucson Festival of Books that you changed from writing about things to writing about people. How did that happen?
FRADKIN: I follow what interests me. If I repeat myself, I get bored and disinterested. The things I was writing about for a long time, like the first book in a trilogy about earthquakes, although people were in them, it didnt center on them. It centered on the phenomenon and how that effected them. The third book in the trilogy was about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and that centered on people rather than the phenomenon. Then it was an easy step to pure biography.
HCN: What moved you about Wallace Stegner, and what made you take on the Everett Ruess biography?
FRADKIN: Stegner’s is a story about a life and a place. It is a history of the American West seen through the life of this man. It was a wonderful journey that allowed me to go back and write about areas I had known and loved. Everett Ruess is the story of all of us when we were young and confused and in our formative stages. It is also the story of a parent’s grief. There is a totality and a universality about the story of Ruess’ life and death that has not been explored. His death made him a figure of mystery and myth.
HCN: What’s next in your creative development? You’ve said you might switch to photography from writing.
FRADKIN: I’m sort of bored with books. I’m moving on to something more intuitive. I’m fascinated with photography. It’s another method of expression. [See my photography gallery.] I have no specific project in mind. It’s nice to just travel without knowing I have to come back with information to put into a receptacle. You may never hear from me again.
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