Sunday, January 27, 2008

Saying thanks to the Livermore Library

I've been such a wanderer most of my life - from Livermore and Pleasanton to Los Angeles to Hawaii, back to Los Angeles then to Massachusetts, back to Livermore, the to Stockton, and then back to Los Angeles in 2005. And although I've lived in Los Angeles for a good portion of the last twenty years, I still consider Livermore my home town. Which makes my visit to the Livermore library to talk about Pulp Writer this Wednesday night even that more special.

I've been thinking a lot about my ties to Livermore lately. First on the list is my bond to the library itself - it was one of the most important town institutions for me whenever I lived there.

When I was a little girl, every Tuesday night my mother would drive us down to the library when it was housed in the Carnegie building on Fourth Street. I was always so excited to get there - the fountain outside held a certain fascination for me, and I would always lean over the cement seat and peer down into the water, looking for the gold fish that were there then, before they chlorinated the water. I'd then race up the stairs and into the building, up to the second floor, run through the shelves that held the adult nonfiction - way back to the back corner that was the children's section. I cared only for one type of book - books about horses. Books by Walter Farley in particular - The Black Stallion and all its sequels, and his book about Man O War.
Some landmarks in Livermore are still here, thankfully, but for how long? The Donut Wheel is still here. I remember walking all the way from our house on Olivina to the Donut Wheel on Saturday morning. That was quite a hike. When I got there, I ordered a sugar donut and a coke from my sister Patty, who was working the counter. I was fully prepared to pay for them, but Patty pushed back my money and winked at me. Forget it, she whispered, and turned away to help someone else. She would have gotten in trouble. It was one of the first moments of spontaneous generosity that I remember in my life, and it was very characteristic of Patty.

We walked a lot in Livermore on Saturdays - to the Woolworths, which was on second street, another major excursion for my sister Becky, who was four years older, and I. I remember it took some cajoling to get our mother to let us do it. We always walked to the Quart House not far from our house with our dimes and quarters to buy candy. A few times we walked to the railroad tracks near Boot Hill near Granada High to bury one of our pets or one of our neighbor's cats. We walked solemnly to underneath the railroad overpass, cat body draped in a blanket in a red wagon. And of course we walked to May Nissen Park on Rincon, to the pools there in the summer, to Marilyn Avenue School during the school year. We walked by ourselves, to and back from school. It was a different time then.

We moved away from Livermore in 1967, and I didn't return until 1976, after I had graduated from high school. I stayed for a few years, going through some major personal upheavals. All the while, the Livermore library was there, where I could escape. by then, it was in its new building on the corner of south Livermore and Pacific. It was large and airy, and quickly filled up with books. I spent many nights there when I needed to have an anchor of some sort.

When I graduated from Smith College in 2000, I moved back to Livermore to work at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. At the same time, I was continuing my research in the history of pulp fiction magazines and my grandfather's role as a pulp writer. And while I didn't have the resources that I had back at Smith, when I could rely on five major libraries, Livermore still held its own. In my opinion, they had, and still do, one of the most amazing book collections I have ever experienced.And if they didn't have the book, they could order it for me.

By the time the new library was built a few years ago, I had already moved to Stockton and was commuting from the Lab to Stockton every day. I didn't have a lot of time to visit the new, gorgeous building that housed the Livermore Library. Maybe by giving this presentation, though, I hope I can express some of my gratitude for what this place has meant to me.

Back in the 1960s, my grandfather came out to visit us a few times. He was living in Oakland at the time, working at a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Apparently he wasn't pleased with Livermore because there were no bookstores here. It must have been a cultural desert for him. We didn't mind - we had the library.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Amazing Stories: television show?

Last night I spoke at the Torrance Library and was so happy to see several brave folk show up despite the ridiculous rain/hail/thunderstorm occurring right at that moment. (You know things are crazy when the Emergency Activation System comes on the radio to announce the possibility of tornadoes in Southern California. As it was, a water spout was reported off the Long Beach coast). Anyway, Dana Vinke, the librarian, and I weren't expecting anybody to show up, but about ten people did. A wonderful time was had by all. Dana said he wanted me to come back - maybe he felt bad because there wasn't that much of a turnout because of the weather. But I didn't mind - I love talking about pulp fiction - there are so many interesting stories to tell. And I always end up meeting great people - and many times I end up learning something in return.

One of the patrons last night, a young woman, quiet and unassuming, asked me after the talk if I knew if Steven Spielberg's TV show "Amazing Stories" was based on the Amazing Stories pulp magazine. First of all, I had to admit that I had never heard of the show, and no, I didn't know if it was based on the pulp. Are you sure you're not thinking of Stephen King? I asked her. No, she was sure, it was Steven Spielberg.
Well, my curiosity was piqued by this exchange, so today I looked up "Amazing Stories." This cover, by the way, is from 1932.

Apparently this was a TV show that ran for two years in the mid 1980s, and yes it was created by Steven Spielberg. It was controversial, to say the least, for varied reasons. There was a lot of hype before it came out because of its illustrious creator, fueled by the fact that very little information was leaked out to the media before its debut. Spielberg was designing the show somewhat in the same vein as the Twilight Zone, with vignette stories directed by various directors and acted by guest stars. There were mixed reviews from what I can tell, but there seems to be a huge cult following now. And yes, Spielberg did create this show in the spirit of the Amazing Stories pulp magazine, although one paper dismissed it as "a pulpy sci-fi magazine from the 50s." Amazing Stories was much more than that, and it was around a long time before the 50s. This cover is from 1927, and included a story by H.G. Wells.

So I have ordered a copy of the first year's episodes and will check it out when it arrives.

So what other tv shows and movies have been inspired by the pulps, besides "Pulp Fiction" of course, which was inspired by the great hard-boiled detective magazine, "Black Mask," and Speilberg's Amazing Stories? Many of the pulp Westerns were transferred to the silver screen, 3:10 to Yuma being the most recent movie (and a remake). I think it would be a tough task to try to research all of these, but maybe some of the most famous and successful transitions might be worth mentioning. I know that "The Shadow" was made into a movie in the 1990s, starring Alec Baldwin. If you know of any others out there - write them in.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

First elegant and grand, later rowdy and raucous: the Willard Hotel in Tucson

In 1929, my grandfather piled all of his belongings into his Cadillac and left his hometown, Little River, Kansas, for good. He drove straight through, "bucking the snow" as he writes, and didn't stop until he hit Tucson, Arizona. He was a fledging pulp fiction writer, already having published well over a dozen stories for Wild West Weekly since he began submitting stories for them the summer before. Now, at 24 years old, already divorced and the father of a four year old, he was ready to start his new life as a red blooded writer of shoot em up Westerns. And he picked the perfect place to start in Tucson: the Willard Hotel.
He picked the Willard, he writes in Pulp Writer, because it was "the horsiest and cowiest lobby in Pima County. Most of the professional ropers, riders, and bulldoggers roomed there while waiting for the rodeo (pronounced ro-DAY-o in the Southwest)to get under way.In addition, ranchers and stock buyers used the Willard for a rendevous, and it was there that I met the late Ted Smith, Ed Ryan, and other well-known Tucsonians."

Mr. Willard Wright and Mr. Charles Fleming took over the hotel from Alexander Casey in 1902 and changed the name of the hotel from the Hotel Casey to the Willard. I don't think they had a wild West hotel in mind when they remodeled the hotel. Rather, Messrs. Wright and Fleming, who leased the hotel from Mr. Casey, designed what only be described as a "Grand Hotel," one of the first, if not the first, for Tucson. Certainly the town was excited when the hotel was being built, because several articles appeared making note of the progress and the furniture buying.

The Tucson Citizen wrote on writes on September 2, 1902 that "their efforts are far enough advanced to show that a unique and in all respects high-grace hotel - probably not surpassed in Arizona - will be the result."

"The bedrooms," the Citizen wrote, "both upstairs and down, single or in suites of two, three, or four - were designed for convenience and fitted for solid comfort. They contain splendid, heavy bedroom furniture of solid oak and birdseye maple, the large windows are elegantly curtained, the floors are covered with Brussels carpets and rugs of the finest texture, and last but not least, the beds are designed to make their occupants forget the troubles and cares of the work-a-day world." Even Arizona territory Brodie stopped to stay.

But things got off to a rocky start. An article in the Star on July 8, 1903 reported that the Willard was going to close. Mr. Wright, it appeared, had gone to Mr. Casey and requested a reduction in the rent. The rent was way too high, Mr. Wright thought, more than the business warranted. But Mr. Casey in response just turned off the water. Mr. Wright announced that he would be forced to close and move all of his guests. Records are sketchy, but it appeared that a William Siewert, a professional chef, took over the hotel shortly afterwards.

I don't know if the Willard had retained its elegance by the time my grandfather showed up in 1929. But it had become one of the most popular stays in Tucson - maybe legendary. Paul writes that it was a gathering point for many brave folk who liked to troop down to the Mexican border to watch the local skirmishes during Mexico's revolutionary wars. He writes of colorful encounters with locals down there and a few soldiers too, which I won't go into here for space purposes. Driving down to the border to watch an early version of a drive in movie, only with real bullets, apparently was a popular pasttime for many of the more adventurous Tucsonians.

The Willard, like so many unfortunate grand historic buildings, fell on hard times after World War II. According to "Yesterday's Tucson Today" (Harry and Mary Cuming), the hotel was converted to the Pueblo Hotel and Apartments in 1944. Sometime after that, a pool was added, which was the talk of the town at the time. The neon pool sign, a swimmer, stood for many years. In 1984, the hotel was condemned by the city and was a harbor for transients and cats for many years.

In 1991, a grand stroke of luck occurred. Six Tucson businessmen bought the hotel and decided to restore it to its original grandness. Accordig to the Tucson citizen on February 6, 1993, the law firm of Hirsh, Davis, Walker and Piccarreta and a development firm, R.B. Price, spent about $1.5 million to renovate the building. More photos were posted on the firm's website, but unfortunately, as of today, the web site is inaccessible. We could use more local business people like these folks - in every town.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Some pulp Western anthologies

I mentioned in my last post that most pulp anthologies feature detective and mystery stories and I complained about the dearth of Western pulp collections. That doesn't mean that there are absolutely none out there; there are some good ones. You just don't hear about them as much.

If you want to read some of the old Western pulps, here are three anthologies from my bookcase: "The Big Book of Western Action Stories," edited by Jon Tuska (Castle Books, 1995); "Wild Westerns: Stories from the Grand Old Pulps," edited by Bill Pronzini (who also wrote a marvelous book about the pulps Westerns, "Six Gun in Cheek"), (Walker and Company, 1986); and "The Western Story," also edited by Jon Tuska (University of Nebraska, 1982, 1995). All of these feature stories from the grand masters such as Max Brand (Frederick Faust), Luke Short, Ernest Haycox, and William Colt MacDonald. "The Western Story" is a more comprehensive book about Westerns in general - not just the pulps - and includes stories by Owen Wister, Mark Twain, and Frederic Remington, and more current authors such as Elmer Kelton and Louis L'Amour.

I'm sure there are plenty more out there. A lot of them feature stories written in the 1950s and 1960s, past the time of pulp Westerns. Many of those were originally features in paperback issue, such as the Bantam paperbacks.

Friday, January 11, 2008

New Reading for Pulp Fiction Fans

Last night I received a long awaited packaged in the mail, and boy, was it heavy. It contained the latest anthology of pulp stories that's been getting a lot of attention lately: "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps," edited by Otto Penzler. The back jacket claims it's the "Biggest, the Boldest, the Most Comprehensive Collection of Pulp Writing ever Assembled!" And at over 1,000 pages, I'm almost inclined to believe it, although the archives listed at the left would certainly have more stories in their collections, but then they're not very easily accessed.

Anyway, I'm just delving in and will report occasionally on what I'm reading. It appears to be all detective and crime stories - no Westerns, adventures, romance, etc. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case with most pulp anthologies. I guess people are stuck in the rut of believing that the only good stories were detective and crime (and occasionally people will come out with an anthology of Weird Tales stories, which are always nice.)

But I'm looking forward to reading some good hard boiled stuff after all the history and memoirs I've been buried in the last few months.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Getting in and Staying in the Pulps

My grandfather, Paul Powers, did very well financially during the Great Depression while writing for the pulps. He averaged between around $400 a month, which was almost 4 times the national average of a salary - if you were working, that is. He writes in "Pulp Writer" that he didn't suffer as much as others during the Depression, and that he was rather ashamed of that. But knowing him, he probably did what he could to help out others that he met along the way.

A lot of people tried writing for the pulps during that time, hoping that they could end up like my grandfather. Writers arrived in New York in the early 1930s by the droves, looking for what they thought would be the “easy” work of writing for the pulps. Hey, the stuff was so formulaic, you could probably type it in your sleep, many of them thought. Most of them were in for a surprise. Getting past the front door of publishing houses depended on talent, sometimes luck, sometimes just plain persistence, and it wasn’t that easy. Staying inside was even harder.
Many writers knocked on that front door. Frank Gruber estimated that there were roughly twelve to thirteen hundred pulp writers in 1934; 300 of those lived in New York. Almost all of them submitted work to the publishing houses like Street and Smith, Popular Publications, Standard Magazines—who liked to add the word “Thrilling” to all of their magazine titles—Dell Magazines, and Magazine Publishers, who put out the “Ace” Magazines like Ace Detective and Ace High Western Stories.

Most magazines paid between a penny and a penny and a half a word; the lower based magazines with little prestige paid as little as a quarter penny a word. On the other end of the spectrum, the heavy weight magazines like Black Mask paid two cents and up to five cents a word. Most were like my grandfather and made a penny a word to start. Later, after a couple of years and after Sonny Tabor and Kid Wolf were firmly entrenched with the magazine, Paul made a penny and a half. In the late 1930s, however, Oliphant just started paying Paul a flat $200 per novelette, regardless of the length. Later, he was paid 1 2/3 cents a word, which just ended up being too time consuming; the editor eventually threw up his hands and paid him 2 cents a word. When times got really lean for the magazine in the early 1940s, they lowered it to 1 ½ cents a word, a rate that continued until the demise of the magazine in 1943. This cover on the right is a copy of the last issue of Wild West Weekly.

Most writers were like my grandfather: they aspired to write greater things, but in the meantime they needed to eat. The pulps were a good way to get an occasional check if needed. For others, they became a solid income for many years. Many, like Paul, had diverse, restless backgrounds that were put to good use in pulp stories. Many who had never even written a story before the Depression tried their luck. Stories were written by ex-newspapermen, lawyers, retired soldiers of fortune, con men, convicts, poets, and hermits. Walt Coburn, who wrote many stories for Western Story Magazine and eventually had his own pulp magazine, was the real deal, a cowboy who grew up in Montana and got many of his stories from the bunk house.

Many of them studied the industry beforehand, strategizing which magazines would be easier to break into, which ones paid promptly, and which ones were less likely to go out of business before the writer could be paid for services rendered. Others depended on the goodness of friends to get them into an editor’s office. Recommendations went a long way. Editors were busy people however, and for many it was fruitless to try to get into see them in person. They received hundreds of stories every month, from agents, from the mail, from writers who delivered them in person. They didn’t necessarily read the stories either, and depended on a back room of underlings to recommend stories. So while a writer may be lucky enough to get in the front door, he or she may still be faced with a obstacle of four or five critics hidden from view.

Still, the bottom line was that even if you got a story or two in, that didn't mean that you were on easy street from then on. To make it in the pulps, to keep up the pace and get a regular check in to feed the family, you had to type continually, day after day, year after year. You had to continually think of stories that, while not masterpieces, still had to be hugely entertaining and sound somewhat fresh and original. Out of the thousands that said that they "wrote for the pulps", probably only a few hundred could truthfully say that they were really members of the club.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Pulp Fiction Web sites

In a nutshell, it's either feast or famine when it comes to getting information on the history of pulp fiction on the Internet, depending on what you're looking for. There are plenty of sites out there, but be careful as to the accuracy of the information. For one thing, as we know, there is a lot of questionable material out there on the Web. So that's a general disclaimer. Also, there is a lot of anecdotal history out there about the pulps - stories about writers, editors, publishing houses, statistics on the numbers of magazines, fables and folklore - that has been passed down for decades. This information may have been exaggerated over the years or not even true to begin with.

The history of pulp fiction is full of holes and stories that cannot be verified or documented. When pulp fiction started to die off, many of the authors, editors, publishers, and the reading public didn't feel the necessity to put the history down in writing. In such a disparaged industry, not many people saw the importance of keeping all of their bookeeping and editing records for posterity. So double and triple check your sources, and don't take anything for granted.

With that said, I'm starting a link list of helpful websites. Some of these are directories, like the Yahoo site, and many are archives at various universities. I have picked these to start because they've been around a long time, have reputable authors, and I haven't found any glaring errors in the text.

If you're looking for good reading material, you can go to the Pulp Writer website (www.pulpwriter.com) and go to recommended reading. There is a bibliography listed of books used for my work in Pulp Writer. There are lots more out there - those on the Pulp Writer list are just those used for my work in that book.

Oh, and by the way...if you're going to do search on "pulp fiction" on the Internet, you can save yourself a lot of time by trying to get a little more specific than just putting in the words "pulp fiction." Those words will just get you a ton of web sites about Quentin Tarantino's movie. (No disrespect to Mr. T - his movie was a homage to the great pulp magazine "Black Mask"). But also use words like "magazine," "history," and "Western," etc.

Good luck!

I'm waiting for info from the Arizona Historical Society on the Willard Hotel in Tucson. To be continued....

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Sonny Tabor: Tucson's own (kinder and gentler) Billy the Kid


While living in Tucson, my grandfather created what was probably his most memorable character, Sonny Tabor. Sonny's first story, "The Eleventh Notch" appeared in Wild West Weekly in the summer of 1929, and Sonny Tabor stories continued unabated, about once every month, in the magazine until 1943. Sonny was a "good" outlaw, and my grandfather admits in Pulp Writer that Sonny was created in the spirit of Billy the Kid (but a much more sanitized version). Sonny was wrongly accused of murder when he was a young lad, and has been on the run ever since. He is the most feared gunfighter in the west, and there is a $6,500 reward for his capture. But even though Sonny continually has to look over his shoulder, he always manages to find someone in trouble who needs his help. And he always does help.

This type of character was enormously popular during the Great Depression, as many people know. The bandit, the nonconformist, and the person who dared to buck the system (the system being the government and banks, who really took a bad rap during this time due to so many bank failures). Think Bonnie and Clyde.

But unlike those sociopaths, Sonny genuinely cared about other people, didn't smoke or drink or cuss, and always did what was right. Sonny wore the same clothes for his 15 years as a WWW hero: blue and white checked shirt, bandana, chaps. He had a bullet scar that most people mistook for a dimple, and his youthful, innocent demeanor fooled a lot of lawmen. Sonny rode a trusty Pinto, Paint (which Grandpa admits that the name is somewhat generic, probably named in a hurry. Sonny's own name came from two sources: my grandfather came up with "Sonny" after watching a movie featuring "Sonny Boy" and "Tabor" was the name of the "Tabor Grand" hotel in Denver, located close to where he lived when he was a struggling writer.

Sonny Tabor stories usually begin with the outlaw riding Paint through some desert landscape sprinkled with mountains. In the next scene, Sonny either encounters a bandit gang harassing, robbing or even murdering innocent ranchers, or he discovers a crime that has just been committed. Finding an old prospector or rancher tied up and shot in his cabin is stock-in-trade. Other times, Sonny rides into a ranch looking for work. There, he usually finds employment due to his extraordinary skills as a cow-puncher.

Within the first chapter, Sonny is presented with a crisis that he feels compelled to solve in the name of innocent citizens everywhere. If Mom and Pop Farmer are about to lose their land, their life savings and/or their heads, Sonny tosses aside his own troubles and risks his freedom and his life in order to save them. Of course, there is always some kind of clue or identifying document left at the scene of the crime to make his job a little easier. The clue can be as straightforward as a letter recently written by the dying man; sometimes it is as obscure as a brand on a dead man’s horse. After gathering all of the evidence, Sonny swings into the saddle and rides off into the next scene.

Sonny wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of these feats without his horse Paint. Paint is a swift, agile, hardy and incredibly intelligent pinto. He is a mustang and “desert-bred,” and can out-run the wretched crook’s horse, dodge bullets and leap over brush all at the same time. Paint is always ready and available for Sonny; he never wanders off looking for food while Sonny is preoccupied with ugly, snarling gunmen. Instead, he waits quietly and patiently, in brush nearby, ready to leap out at Sonny’s whistle. Paint jumps onto moving box cars, comes back from the dead several times, and gallops over hundreds of miles through moonless nights and cold snowy mountains but never stumbling and never tiring. I love Paint.

So does Sonny. He talks to his horse (many pulp heroes were quite chatty with their steeds) and Paint always nickers a knowledgeable answer. Paint is actually quite typical of the Western hero’s horse. Regardless of their actual size, many heroes ride “ponies” rather than horses, which could be a mutation of the term “cowpony,” but they’re also known as “cayuses.” They are wiry and tough, occasionally of Mustang descent, and just like the covers depict them, always interesting colors such as pintos, roans, or buckskins. Heroes never ride dull, plain horses. Horses anticipate every move of their masters, and wisely protect them whenever they can. Horses are treated with reverence; woe to the villain who threatens to harm the hero’s pony.


Across the basins and over the mountains of southern Arizona, in the midnight coolness with the moon peeking out from behind the clouds, Sonny and his pony Paint scramble over rocky trails and through purple canyons that fold into darkness. The austere land weaving in and out of the story lines, Paint deftly dodges short chollas and hedgehog cactus, his hoofs clattering over the rocky ground.

Sonny can’t forget the law that is continually chasing him, however, and it is usually at this stage that Sonny will encounter a sheriff and his posse or a vigilante group, just to complicate his life a little more. Even though everyone knows what Sonny looks like from the Wanted posters, nobody ever recognizes him. The innocent face, the frank blue eyes and the easy demeanor don’t quite add up to a profile of a dangerous criminal. Sonny never lies about his identity, however, so when the time comes when he is forced to identify himself, he antes up and loudly declares that he is Sonny Tabor.

He is always prepared for the reaction, though, drawing his guns instantly and ordering the lawmen to put their hands up. Sometimes they comply; they know that Sonny is the fastest gun in the West and are afraid for their lives. Other times a deputy will stupidly pull his gun. Sonny fires with his deadly accuracy and shoots the gun out of the deputy’s hand. But in accordance with the stringent rules of pulp Western etiquette, Sonny never kills lawmen. Instead, he shoots bullets purposely into the dirt in front of the lawmen’s feet, or over their heads —just enough to force them to take cover. Sonny leaps onto Paint and they melt into the desert.

He doesn’t hold a grudge, however, and many times will surreptitiously lead the lawmen to the bandits’ hole, or to the victims’ ranch just in time so the lawmen can redeem themselves and save the citizens’ lives. Not that Sonny wouldn’t save their lives himself. He does frequently. But sometimes he has his hands full thwarting the other members of the criminal gang. Sonny has his own game plan. Sometimes he does some investigating and tries to draw information out of a few law-abiding men in town. There is always a problem with this, however: the law-abiding men are really members of the gang in disguise. He is caught by surprise (a little human vulnerability is attractive in a hero) and captured. Sonny is doomed.

But Sonny always has an ace up his sleeve. He cleverly frees himself with some sort of makeshift tool, or manages to find a way to reach his gun. In one story, Sonny has no time to draw his gun, he just shoots the perpetrator dead by firing his gun, even though it is still in its holster. In another, Sonny is tied up and close to being executed. But he has hidden a pistol down the inside of his pant leg. When the time comes to use it, in less than a split second, Sonny frees his hands, shoots the gun through his pant leg and hits the crook right between the eyes.

"Instantly the long kitchen became an inferno of humming lead and crashing thunder! Pale-blue smoke churned up toward the ceiling, spangled through with scintillating streaks of scarlet flame!"

Sonny kills all of the villains with clean, efficient gunshots. The lawmen arrive, stunned by Sonny’s unsolicited help and his efficiency in getting the job done. They aren’t quick enough to catch him, though; they’re always two steps behind. If it’s Mom and Pop Rancher who have been saved, they don’t try to apprehend Sonny or tell lawman where he’s headed, because in their eyes, Sonny is now “a fine feller!”

Pulp Writer is available for sale at www.pulpwriter.com, and if you want to read some Sonny Tabor stories, Desert Justice: a Sonny Tabor quartet, is available in hardcopy and paperback at www.pulpwriter.com/books.htm.