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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Back in the saddle after a weekend of nothing but books

You couldn’t have asked for a better couple of days over the weekend for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – temperatures in the low 80s, nice breeze, some 150,000 people, and endless talk of books, and writing.

I moderated a panel on “Landscapes: Real and Imagined,” which was one of those amorphous themes that made for an engaging talk among three authors, and that was broadcast live over C-SPAN’s BookTV (you can watch it here). The authors were Julia Flynn Siler, a wonderful writer and fellow journalist whom I’ve known for a number of years, talking about her recent Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure; T.D. Allman with his Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State; and Greg Goldin, co-author of Never Built: Los Angeles, about grand dreams and plans for the city that died on the drawing board.

The best part of the festival for writers like me is the chance to sit around and talk about this odd business we’re in, the different projects we have underway, and to drop in on panels talking about both current books and how we go about doing what we do. Plus it’s a great chance to catch up with old friends and former colleagues.

I also managed to cover a couple of the panels for the Los Angeles Times, one on American Arguments and the other on gun control.

All in all, a great way for a writer to spend a weekend. Now, back to Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero. The first draft is done and now I’m diving in for rewriting, tweaking, backfilling and trimming. Which, honestly, is a lot more fun than it sounds. Read More 
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On a dark anniversary, and a spur to collective memory

Happy Ludlow Massacre day! What, you didn’t know? Well, you’re not alone, but with luck that will be changing.

Today, April 20, is the 99th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, which of course means next year is the centennial. I’m pleased to see the state of Colorado has created a commission to oversee plans to commemorate the event, and I wish them luck and a big budget. And with my friend Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State Pueblo history professor, on board, I’m confident they’ll get the history right. Which is more than I can say for my colleagues in journalism: Nearly every story about Ludlow seems to contain an error or two. I guess that’s understandable, though, given how much misinformation is floating around out there.

Readers of my Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West know that the story of Ludlow involves much more than that single day. Between August 1913 and May 1914 at least 75 people were killed in what became running guerrilla warfare between striking coal miners and the Colorado National Guard, by then little more than a public-private military operation focused on keeping the coal mines operating. The strike, organized by the United Mine Workers of America, involved a dozen or so coal operators, though the biggest by far was the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., which was owned by the Rockefellers. The Ludlow Massacre itself centered on a strikers' tent colony, pictured on the book cover. After a day-long gun battle, Guardsmen torched the tent village and inadvertently killed 11 children and two mothers, who were hiding in a pit hidden below a wooden tent floor.

The massacre gave rise to a convulsion of retaliatory violence, and at its peak striking coal miners held military control of most of the Front Range from New Mexico north nearly to Denver. They didn’t lay down their arms until President Wilson sent in the United States Army as a peacekeeping force, dislodging the National Guard from the zone. And it need be noted that when the National Guard held the upper hand, there was no talk of federal intervention. Only as the miners were winning were the feds spurred to act, another instance of the federal government looking out for the interests of corporations over people.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Colorado comes up with to commemorate – and draw fresh attention to – this riveting moment in American history. And I hope to play a role in some of the events. I’ll keep you posted here and on Facebook.  Read More 
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History's long arc, and Las Vegas, city of the ever-new

I'm taking a little break* from writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero with a long weekend in Las Vegas catching up with a handful of old friends from college - we all worked together on the campus radio station, WCVF, in the '70s. And we schlepped in from California, Utah, Washington state, and New York (three from there), which makes this a small but national reunion, I suppose.

Early Saturday morning I headed out with one of the friends, Stan Maziuk, before dawn to try to catch the early light in Valley of Fire State Park, about an hour east of Vegas. I was looking for petroglyphs, and had we more time I would have continued on to Lake Mead, now about 100 feet below its normal level. The depleted lake has exposed old settlements that were flooded in the '30s when the Hoover Dam was built, and the Colorado River backed up to form Lake Mead. I've been taken recently with the phenomenon of lost histories revealed accidentally, such as the ancient people's settlements that were discovered a few years ago on Colorado's Mesa Verde after wildfires scrubbed the earth clean of obscuring foliage.

At Lake Mead, the rising waters inundated a pueblo along one of the tributary rivers. Next time back, I hope to figure out a plan to get close to see what time, and water, have wrought -- or even if the ancient ruins are still discernible after all those decades.

Meanwhile. you'll have to settle for the petroglyph above.

* "Little break" is relative; didn't write much Friday or Saturday but put a few hours in the morning. Read More 
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On Detroit: A Biography, a year later

It was just about a year ago that copies of Detroit: A Biography began showing up in bookstores, always an exciting time for a writer, but fraught with uncertainty. Will people like the book? Will it get the attention of critics? Will it sell? And, perhaps most unsettling of all, did I screw something up?

I’m very pleased, and gratified, to be able to say that the book has done well. It’s in its third printing, reader reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and I continue to get feedback from folks who say they learned a lot of unexpected things about Detroit, and how it has come to be what it is. The professional critical reviews were light, but except for one culture critic who dismissed the book for not being about culture (?), they have been overwhelmingly positive. And they keep trickling in. This essay-review ran recently in TriQuarterly.

It turns out my book was at the head of a surge of mass media interest in Detroit, from other books about the state of the city to the national media coverage of the installation of an emergency financial manager (you all know what I think of that) to some movies that have touched on the city (from “Detropia” to ”Searching for Sugarman”). I like to think that, among all these projects, my book offers the broadest foundation for understanding the place.

And from the assembly line of book writing, I’m pleased to report solid progress on Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which is due to the publisher at the end of next month, with a tentative publication date of next Spring. In a touch of inadvertent timing that will coincide (roughly) with the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre, the central event in my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, which came out in August 2007.

The publication of Jones’s Bones will be my fourth book to hit the bookstands in seven years. And I have a couple of unpublished novels I’ve written in between those nonfiction projects. It’s a very gratifying way to live, and work, and I thank you all for your readership and support. It’s an overworked and often ill-used word, but, literally, I couldn’t do this without you. Read More 
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