Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Writing On Location for the Pulp Westerns

I'm going to take a break from writing memoir and go back and write a little bit about the pulps tonight.

The pulp Westerns peaked in popularity in the 1930s. During a twenty five year period from 1920 to 1945, over 160 different pulp Western magazines showed up on the newsstand at one time or another. At one point in 1940, there were at least 40 different Western magazines to choose from.

During the early days of the Great Depression, say 1930 through 1933, a lot of writers who wanted to break into the pulps and into Westerns in particular, packed their bags and moved to New York City, thinking that living in close proximity to the pulp publishers would give them a better chance of getting their stories published. A lot of these folks were novices when it came to knowing anything about the old West, the wild West, or anything that resembled that. Many of these people just went to the New York City Library and did their research there.

As a result, a lot of the stuff that got churned out during that time had a lot of historical errors and were of poor quality. John Dinan writes in his wonderful history "The Pulp Western," of the writer, who he recognizes as John Creasey, who put "wings on a coyote and legs on a buzzard" in one story. Dinan continues that the problem of factual errors in the Westerns reached almost epidemic proportions, to the point where the stories could only be read for "pure entertainment fiction."

Ironically, my grandfather, Paul Powers, writes in Pulp Writer, that the readers (at least of Wild West Weekly) were quite intolerable of historical inaccuracies in the stories of that magazine, and were not shy in letting the editors know. He writes in his introduction:

"The writer for the pulps needn't worry, anyhow, that his work won't be read. It will be thoroughly criticized too! The author must continually watch his step, and an error or even the semblance of an error will be immediately spotted by the clientele. The readers of pseudoscience and of sports are particularly keen witted, and the writer of a Western story who makes a mistake in the caliber, rotation motion, or trajectory of a Winchester rifle bullet will, before the storm if disapproval has subsided, feel like using one of the bullets on himself."

In all fairness, there were many writers who were the genuine deal. Walt Coburn immediately comes to mind, who grew up on a ranch in Montana and eventually would have his own magazines - two in fact: Walt Coburn Western and Walt Coburn Action Novels.

My grandfather was born and raised in Kansas. He dropped out of high school and spent many years hopping between Colorado and Kansas. Much of his time in Colorado was spent in the ghost towns around Denver and in towns like Blackhawk and Central City and the surrounding deserted mines. This photo of Blackhawk was taken in the early 1910s or 1920s. Once he started selling stories to Wild West Weekly, he decided that he wanted to live in the real West, not just write about it, and rightly thought that he would be a better writer if he had first-hand experience in the locale. So he moved to Tucson in 1929. then, during the next fifteen years, from 1929 to 1943, he moved himself and his young family fifteen times, all across the Southwest.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sweet Times in Livermore

I mentioned in an earlier blog how much I loved to walk when I was a young girl living in Livermore. I have to admit that most of the walks were purely motivated by my insatiable desire for candy. It wasn't until the past few years that I have realized what the serious sweet tooth I have has been around since I can remember. I walked to the Sprouse Reitz on Rincon. I walked to the Quart House on L Street. When I swam at the May Nissen park, the only thing I could think about was getting the 50/50 ice cream bar after my swim.

Sweet Tarts, Red Hots, Jolly Ranchers, Hershey Bars (a real treat), Sugar Daddys, Almond Joys, Sugar Babies and of course Life Savers. M&Ms were very cool because they melted in your mouth, not in your hand. Candy cigarettes and the Pez candies and the Pixie sticks and of course the Bazooka bubble gum. When the Sweet Tarts came out with their giant Tart, about the size of a hockey puck, I would suck on it until my tongue bled, and then would just save the rest for later when my tongue had stopped bleeding. One of my treasured Christmas presents was a Life Saver Christmas box from my sister Becky. I relished going through each roll, saving the Cherry roll for last. When I lost a tooth and got a quarter or a fifty cent piece under my pillow, that money was gone by noon, spent at Woolworths or the P&X.

I chewed Dentyne after any kind of binge, because I had been told (probably by some television commercial) that Dentyne was recommended by 9 out of 10 dentists and I thought that maybe it would help me from getting cavities. I even would take the chewed wad and paste it on my front teeth for a while, thinking it's magical powers would help straighten my buck teeth out.

I smugly walked into the dentist's office on my own when I was eight. I had been to the dentist before, many times, and had never had a cavity. The dentist sat back and told me gravely, I'm afraid that you have a small cavity." My heart sunk, and I dreaded getting the novocaine needle, but it didn't stop me from buying candy.

Did I eat the sweets to stave off the loneliness? Some other kind of emotional pain? Couldn't tell you that. I wasn't feeling much of anything after my father died. I was bent on being the good girl and I was dead inside. Sugar in its many varied forms filled a hole. At that point, I just thought it was a hole of hunger.

I am the youngest of four girls; my mother was left to raise us after she and our father divorced in 1958. We managed, mainly on dinners of macaroni and cheese and a concoction called Hamburger Heaven (my sister has the recipe on her blog), and my mother made a lot of our clothes. But things were tough, there was no doubt about it. My mother always seemed tired; partly due to her work as a secretary at Sandia, and partly because she was emotionally exhausted from the stress of raising four girls on her own. I came home one day and heard my mother sobbing in her bedroom. What happened, I asked Becky. The puppy chewed up her best dress, she answered. She wasn't a fashion maven. She was just despondent over not having the money to replace her only good dress.

Linda was the oldest of the girls, ten years older than me. The responsible one, always making sure we’d done our chores before Mom came home from work. Patty was eighteen months younger than Linda. and looked more like Dad than the rest of us.

I was afraid of Patty most of the time. “C’mere,” she’d tell me when I would come home from second grade. She would be in the living room, putting her hair up in rollers with Dippity Do in the middle of the afternoon for her date that night. “Tell me what this is.” And she’d flip me the bird, three inches from my face. I’d stand there, confused, not knowing the answer. She’d laugh and turn away.

One day she and Becky told me that they would pay me fifty cents if I managed to put an entire pack of gum - not the regular size with five pieces, but the giant sized with 20 - into my mouth all at once. This bet stemmed from an incident in the car a few days earlier when they discovered that I had a very large mouth that was practically cavernous when I opened it wide. One by one I put those sticks of Juicy Fruit in my mouth. Patty and Becky were busy cleaning their rooms, or at least pretending that they were - they never did clean a room in the real sense of the word, they just moved clothes from one pile to another.

Oh my god! Patty said when she finally checked on me. I stood in the bathroom, tears streaming down my face, making gutteral sounds, trying to wail past the wall of gum that was in my mouth. I could not move my mouth and could only breathe through my nose. Patty and Becky stood at the bathroom door, mouths agape if only for a second before they started to howl with laughter. Patty slapped a fifty cent piece into my palm and I pulled the gum out of my mouth. I'm sure that I spent the fifty cents on candy. I don't remember what kind, but I'm sure it wasn't Juicy Fruit.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Plane Ride

When I set up this blog, I decided that I would focus on a few things: the experiences I've had while researching my grandfather's career; other writing topics, including memoir writing. I've concentrated on writing about the history of pulp fiction, but there are some days when I just can't think of anything to write about, and I even get a little resentful because I really want to write about something else (i.e., me!). Then I thought today, hey, wait a minute, who's blog is this anyway? So I'm going off on another slant now, just trying different things. I really enjoyed writing the blog a few weeks ago about growing up in Livermore, and I think I'll continue with the same type of writing.

I've always wanted to encourage other people to explore their past by writing memoir. I believe it's a very important part of American literature, one that hasn't received a lot of attention until the past 20 years. But in this day and age, we all feel so disconnected, so stressed, and lost. Memoir is a way of chronicling our place in the world. It doesn't matter if it never gets published. Believe me, your kids, your grandkids, or some other ancestor a hundred years from now will be extremely glad you did (even though your kid may appear to be not the slightest bit interested in your past, and yes, I know it hurts. But they'll come around).

So if any of you out there want to try to write memoir, want to share what you've done, feel free to make this blog a jumping off point. One thing that has really helped me is to make your goals very very small. Don't try to write the book: write the page first, or even just the paragraph. Start with essays first rather than an entire tome.

Here's another snippet from living in Livermore.

On New Years Day, 1964, Mom called home to tell us that she and Hal had gotten married the evening before. New Year’s Eve. Grandpa and Mary had come out from Berkeley to babysit us, and when he heard the news that Mom had eloped, Grandpa drove off in a huff. He didn’t like being tricked, he didn’t like that he was taken advantage of, and he certainly didn’t like my mother’s new husband.

Neither did I nor my sisters, for that matter. We certainly were not prepared for them to get married. Of course, we had met him before the marriage, and had even gone over to his duplex for barbeques. Becky and I especially liked that he had a black female Belgian Malnois named Chloe. She would eventually become our dog, too, and the only thing about Hal that we would completely embrace.

Hal was very tall, six foot three. I think that his height had something to do with why I never warmed up to him. To me, seven years old in 1964, he was a giant. My mother was only five foot tall, and my father hadn't been that tall, so having this towering stranger in our living room was initially a shock.

He was also bald. Well, he still had the hair around his ears, but he just shaved all that off; he was wearing the shaved head look that seems to be cool now, forty years too soon. It was inevitable and almost immediate that he would gain the nickname Mr. Clean. Although we’d never tell him that.

Hal was an engineer, a pilot, who had been to Hawaii and had even named one of his daughters from his first marriage Kapiolani. I liked that about him, although I’d never admit it. This was an Intruder. I could sense the distrust emanating from my three sisters, and I followed their lead. He just scared the shit out of me.

When Hal and Mom came back from Nevada, Mom asked me to come and sit next to them on the couch. My mother never asked me to sit down on the couch unless something drastic was on the way. I sat down on the edge, Hal and Mom sitting next to us. I refused to look at either of them, and stared straight ahead. They were now husband and wife and Hal was moving in.

Hal is going to be your new father, Laurie.

I said nothing. I couldn’t say anything; nothing seemed to fit the moment for me. I felt lost. Answering back that I already had a father, even though he wasn't around, seemed to be a treacherous risk. I didn’t take it.
I got up from the couch and went to my room, not uttering a word. I was alone.

I never warmed up to him. I'm sorry in a lot of ways about that; if I had tried to pull my weight in the relationship, perhaps things would have been different later, perhaps better. But when you're under ten, you hang on to certain feelings very strongly. If I surrendered, accepted him into the family, that means I would have to accept the fact that my real father was gone.

One spring day, my mother had a suprise for me when I appeared for breakfast. Hal’s going to pick you up after school, my mother told me. He’s going to take you on a plane ride. He's going to pilot it himself and take me for my first plane ride.
I tried to temper my enthusiasm. After all, this was Hal. But that entire day at school, I looked at the clock. Once 3:30 hit, I was out the door.

It was still a strong afternoon sun when we arrived at the Livermore airport. The airport was just one runway at that point and a small office, without even a vending machine for a coke or a coffee. The dirt fields beyond the airstrip stretched forever, all the way to the hills in the distant. Small planes littered the lots around the airport. Hal led me over to a small single engine Piper, with one propeller. He strapped me in, then strolled over to the propeller. With a single graceful move, he threw away his cigarette and then grasped the propeller blade and with one strong tug, the blade was a blur and the engine roared.

My heart jumped as the plane bounced down the runway. I felt myself being pushed against my seat and suddenly we were in the air. I was free and weightless, and for one of the few times that year, I enjoyed myself. With the lift of the plane, the weight of the world was off my shoulders for a while.

I peered out the window after we took off, and watched our neighborhood on Olivina, my school, Marilyn Avenue School, the May Nissen pool where I would spend the entire summer, dwindle in size. All movement on the ground stopped as we soared over the bare hills, out of Livermore, past all of the suburbs, to the Altamont Hills that were still green from the winter and only occasionally inhabited by a small cattle ranch. A herd of cattle meandered slowly along a fence line, on cue for the pick up truck that would be by soon with bales of hay for dinner.

The plane engines and the propellor were too loud to try to make conversation, and I was grateful that I didn't have to talk. I looked out the windshield, straight ahead at the hills, then to the left at the freeway that sliced through them. I glanced at Hal; he smoked his Benson and Hedges cigarette; he was smiling, his eyes dancing. He was in his element.

Within minutes, we could see the small farm town of Tracy on the horizon. And then Hal banked the plane and we headed home.

Afterward, when I climbed out, I was still unsure. I was bonded with this man now, but I didn’t know what to say to him. I mumbled a reluctant thank you. It wouldn’t make up for marrying my mom, it wouldn’t replace my father. But it tempered the tension...for a while.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pen Names and Johnny Forty Five

Most writers did not want to be know as a writer of pulp fiction stories, so they did not want their "literary" careers to be tarnished by the stain of being known as a pulp fiction writer. In addition, the magazines liked to have every story in an issue written by a different writer, or at least have it appear that way. Their reasoning was that a reader wouldn't be so inclined to buy a magazine if they knew that one writer had written two or three of the stories. Readers wanted variety. But an editor, if he or she was short of good stories, might have two written by one person. So they would publish both in one issue, both under different pen names. Some of these were "house" or "stock" names.

The editor hung on to these various "house" names so they could use them at will, and no writer could claim exclusive right to that "house" name. My grandfather's most used pen name, Ward Stevens, was originally a house name, but eventually my grandfather would use it so much that the editors let him have it exclusively.

My grandfather, for example, writes in Pulp Writer about how he might have two stories in one issue: one published under Ward Stevens, and one under his real name, Paul Powers. On more than one occasion, he had three stories in one issue, credited to Ward Stevens, one to house name Andrew Griffin, and Paul Powers.

One of my grandfather's most memorable Wild West Weekly heroes, and arguably the one with the most bizarre characteristics, Johnny Forty-five, was published under the house name Andrew Griffin. Johnny Forty-five didn’t get as much air time as Sonny and Kid, but he certainly was one of the most memorable of Wild West Weekly heroes. He first appeared as “The Fightin’ Poet” in the July 20, 1929 issue. Johnny forty-five answers in rhyme, four line verses, such as the following during Prohibition times:

“Whisky makes me very ill,
Beer gives me quite a pain;
So kindly fill a water glass,
And I will be refreshed again!”

Johnny was continually thrown into hot water by his bumbling sidekick, U.S. Deputy George Marshall Krumm, who editor Ronald Oliphant complained at one point was “too stupid to be believable.” Johnny Forty-five also had a peculiar habit of rolling cigarettes, but not smoking them. His explained in this four-line wonder that it kept his fingers nimble for shooting purposes:

“ I promised ma I wouldn’t smoke
Till I was sixty-one
But rollin’ cigs is mighty fine
For fingers that trigger a gun.”

But one of the best retorts was the following from "Ruin to Renegades":

"Take it, you murderin skunkaroo!
It's a slug, and I'm hopin' it suits,
It's got your name wrote on it,
So die in your smelly boots!"

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

New Links to Pulp Fiction and Periodical Resources

I met William Costento the other night at my Livermore presentation, and he clued me in to his great web site "Homeville" which is a central location for online indexes for various periodical collections. Check it out: www.philsp.com/homeville. When you get to that page, if you go to the Fiction Mags Index, it has a listing of many pulp fiction writers works. According to Bill, this is a work in progress and the list has a way to go before it's complete, (the list for my grandfather, Paul Powers, is very incomplete) but it's a good start and much needed. He's got a great list of resources on his home page as well. I'll put his web site address on my links list on the left as well so you can find it later.

One of the web sites that you can connect to from his site is the Research Society for American Periodicals. They have a biannual periodical that I haven't checked out yet, but will. They also have a Research Resource Page which is a periodical historian's dream. It just about blew my mind, as they used to say. You know you're getting old (or nerdy, or both) when the things that blow your mind are research web sites.


Sunday, February 3, 2008

Who Read the Pulps?

Last Wednesday night I spoke at the Livermore Library in Livermore, California in front of about 75 people - friends, family, and those curious about pulp fiction. It was a wonderful night, and I wish I'd had more time to talk to everyone who showed up. Unfortunately, once I got back to Los Angeles, the next night, I was hit between the eyes with some kind of food poisoning or intestinal flu. I'm not sure which it is, but it's now Sunday and I'm still recovering. So some of this blog that discusses the history of pulps, forgive me, is from something that I wrote a few years ago.

One of the things I love about giving these library presentations are the stories that people tell about how their lives were affected by pulp fiction magazines during the 1920s and 1930s. One women spoke up after the Livermore talk and said that she had grown up in Oklahoma during the 1920s. She remembers that many of the folk that lived in that area were immigrants. For the most part, the heads of the families, the first generation immigrants, were illiterate. But their children had learned to read. The son or daughter would buy a pulp fiction magazine - at 10 or 15 cents an issue, they were one of the few luxuries that these families could afford - and then read the stories to the rest of the family.

This was a story I hadn't heard before, and it resonates with my belief that for the most part, pulp fiction magazines touched the lives of many people in rich and unexpected ways.

The amount of people that read the pulps on a weekly basis has been never really verified, and the numbers range from a few million to ten million. The pulp fiction magazines promised unimaginable drama, suspense and romance. For the most part, the stories had a happy ending and justice was always served, which was quite comforting when the real world in the 1930s had become illogical, cold and cruel. As many as 250 different varieties of glossy, colorful covers almost jumped out of newsstands every week, in stark contrast to the men huddled on street benches shivering in thin overcoats and the gray-brown clouds of the Dust Bowl that swallowed entire towns whole. Gangsters and detective stories, jungle, desert, and sea adventures, Canadian Mounties stories, Civil war, World War I and spy stories; police, courtroom and prison stories; ghost, supernatural and weird tales; frontier and science fiction, and even college stories promised a few hours of diversion, their predictable endings providing comfort in a very uncertain world.

Pulp fiction magazines, along with their predecessors, dime novels and cheap fiction magazines of the 19th century, were one of the most popular forms of entertainment from the Civil War to World War II. At the same time, they were the least respected. The stories were driven by plot, not character. One of the stories that has lingered for decades is one about Max Brand, who is considered the most prolific of pulp fiction writers. In one of the few times that one of his stories was rejected by an editor, it was because the editor complained that the story had too much character development.

Pulp magazines were disparaged by teachers and clergy, forbidden by parents, laughed at by those who sniffed at its low-brow stories. But they were still bought by the millions every week and subsequently hidden under bed covers, slipped in behind the covers of a schoolbook, hid underneath a housecoat on the way to the privy. And their readership didn’t just consist of working-class men or barely-literate immigrants. Yes, they were read by waitresses and mechanics, school boys in Jersey and in Kansas, by both farmers and those who knocked on their back doors looking for a handout. But they were also read by plenty of other people, from the king of gangsters, Al Capone, to the resident of the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And as we continue to find out, lots of folks who enjoyed the escape and entertainment provided in a inexpensive package.

My grandfather writes in Pulp Writer of some of his internal battles over writing the pulps. He sometimes felt that his stories were of little literary merit. But at the same time, he knew that they provided entertainment for many people who could not afford any other kind. And for him, a life-long crusader for the working man, that was enough.