Albuquerque Days

The author with a fan

I flew down on Friday wearing a sport coat, slacks, and my sandals. I was already sweating when I got on the plane, and I didn’t want my feet stuffed into uncomfortable dress shoes any longer than they had to be. I stuffed myself in a middle seat on the Southwest flight–I had neglected to check-in early for the flight and was one of the last people to board.

Five hours later we landed in the Land of Enchantment. I stepped off the jetway into the airport and breathed in the warm, dry air of the southwest and felt comforted at being back in the land of my birth. New Mexico is a place so close to my heart, and sometimes I don’t realize how close until I come back after an absence. Outside scattered clouds littered the big blue sky. The Sandia Peaks rose like monoliths to the east, while the high desert plateau sloped gently towards the western horizon. The entire city is like a gully, east and west Albuquerque sloping towards the mighty Rio Grande that flows through here.

The high volume of rain that had fallen in recent months was visible in the west as the valley had a lush green tint to it that seemed to bring the land closer. The air, too, seemed both hotter and wetter than normal. I stepped outside and did not feel my skin immediately sucked dry by the desert air.

I had about an hour to waste before my first event of the weekend, a talk at a local bookstore that my publisher and I had set up only a few weeks before. I drove to the north end of town to say hello to my aunt and uncle who were graciously giving me a room for two nights. Then it was off to the bookstore.

I got a little lost with directions as the street I wanted to be on couldn’t be accessed from the street I had taken to get there. When I arrived about ten minutes late I was too out of breath to be nervous. I had also neglected to change out of my sandals.

Because of the late arrangement of the talk, the bookstore was unable to do their usual round of promotion. It was only last week that I appeared on the bookstore’s website at all, and the clerks working in the store did not have my name on their daily calendar. I had done my own round of publicity, mostly through social media.

Had this been my first event I would have been upset and fretted over lost opportunities. However, this being only the most recent of a dozen or so such events I felt rather non-plussed by the whole affair. They moved some tables and set up a few chairs, gave me a glass of water, and mentioned that one person had already bought the book.

That person was still in the store, eyeing some other books, and so I introduced myself and asked how she found out about the event. She was a friend of my publisher, it turned out, and though she hadn’t read the book yet she was interested in the subject and in historical fiction in general. We sat down and I began to tell her about the book, about myself, and about the Mesabi range.

My aunt and uncle arrived then, and since they had both read the book they had a lot more questions about the story, about the history behind it. The discussion wandered from the Mesabi, to what happened to the Merritt family, to Leonidas himself, to my work on the second and third books in the trilogy. In the middle of it, another of my uncles arrived. He only stayed for a few minutes, but he had some questions of his own and he fueled the discussion even further.

While I talked and my audience asked questions, the bookstore had a lot of traffic, more than some of the bookstores that I visited in Minnesota. While none of these patrons sat down and joined the talk, I noticed many of them vacantly browsing the books nearby, their ears propped open and listening.

Eventually the talk had to end, and I thanked by audience for coming out and for helping make the discussion so lively. “I hope you got something out of this,” I told them. I know I got something out of it: renewed confidence in my work and in myself. And a renewed call to action to get the second book complete.

Meet You in Hell, by Les Standiford

Meet You in Hell by Les Standiford is the story of the bitter partnership between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie was born poor and is an American story if ever there was one. As told by Standiford, he amassed a fortune and created the largest steel company in the world with a small startup investment and a deft business cunning, sometimes operating by what today would be illegal methods. Frick was born to wealth and privilege and used his connections and influence, as well as a creative and ruthless business sense, to build the largest coal and coke empire in America.

The book recounts how the two men separately built their fortunes and their empire, and then how they met and began to form a business relationship. The coke that Frick made was the main source of fuel to create the steel that Carnegie made. Carnegie was a smart manager who believed the best way to ensure profit was to tightly control costs.

Standiford theorizes that the Homestead Strike of 1892, in which several striking steel workers and Pinkerton detectives were killed, was a decisive moment in the breakup of the business relationship of the two men. Frick’s method for dealing with the strikers was to start a war with them, while Carnegie simply wanted to close the factory and starve them out. The backlash over the way the strike ended fell on both their shoulders, though most of the public outside of Pittsburgh seemed to blame Carnegie.

This basic premise falls apart, however, as the book tells of their continued relationship. While it may have been strained for a while, the two men continued as friends. Carnegie may not have liked the way Frick handled the strike but he put his faith in the man who was in charge of Carnegie Steel at the time. It was only years later, when Frick secretly tried to oust Carnegie from his own company, that their relationship soured completely.

Where I find the book most interesting is in the telling of the Homestead Strike itself. This event takes up a significant part of the book, and Standiford goes into great detail not only about the leaders of the union, but also about the striking workers themselves, how their daily lives were lived, and their reasons for striking. As a writer of historical fiction that takes place in the same time period, I was struck by how different were the lives of the men in Pittsburgh versus Arthur Maki and his crew of pioneers in Mountain Iron.

The business attitude toward labor and unions during this industrial period was not a positive one. Frick’s tough stand against organized labor spread like wildfire through the Minnesota iron mines after the formation of US Steel in 1901. For the men working the iron mines there—the Iron Rangers—the decisive events came more than a decade later, in 1907 and again in 1916, when striking workers managed to almost completely shut down the mining industry over better pay, shorter work hours, and better working conditions. Frick had been ousted from the Carnegie Steel Company in 1900, but when US Steel formed a year later, he was back on the board of directors, making decisions that would affect workers for decades to come.

My stories are not about the big men, the Carnegies and the Fricks of the world, but about the Arthur Makis and the Matti Seppalas and the thousands of other miners and laborers who day in and day out climbed down into those pits and brought the red gold out of the ground. Without them there would have been no steel industry for Carnegie and Frick to dominate.

A Convergence of Ideas

Several years ago I read a most remarkable book called JR by William Gaddis. Published in 1975, the novel relates the story of an eleven-year-old boy, JR, who manages, through a series of business moves made through a pay telephone in his school, to turn penny stocks into one of the largest fortunes in the world. The book took Gaddis twenty years to finish, and he won the National Book Award for it in 1976.

The novel is remarkable not only for the satirical nature of the story and its relevance still today, but for the style of writing. Written almost entirely in dialogue, the book has no discernible narrator. It is a cacophany of voices that speak over one another, conversations with no beginning and no end, transitions that transport the reader through the air. It is a brilliant novel, one of the greatest books I have ever read. And done in a style I’ve not seen repeated or even closely mimiced.

A few weeks ago I was shelving books in the elementary school library when I happened upon this gem: Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway by Avi. I was drawn in by the title, a reference to the old radio version of The Lone Ranger. I was further drawn to read the book by the style of writing. Told completely in dialogue, the novel glimpses a brief time in the life of a radio loving boy in the 40s. He spends the novel getting into all sorts of trouble, all because of his love of radio shows.

I love old time radio shows. They are my go-to listening pleasure. When I’m cleaning the house or driving a long distance or running, I listen to old radio detective shows.

Avi’s novel struck me on two fronts. First, it is a book told completely in dialogue, similar to Gaddis’s work. Second, the book is about a boy obsessed with radio shows—and I’m a boy obsessed with radio shows.

And this is what I love about writing, and about reading. That I can one day find myself surrounded by various creative works, all of which relate to each other in my head. I see references to one of the greatest novels of the 20th century in a short juvenile fiction novel published in 1992 which also happens to be about one of my favorite forms of entertainment.

I’m reminded of this as I continue work on book two in the Mesabi series. Pioneers is a convergence of some themes and subjects I’ve longed to write about; the second novel is an extension of those ideas: the men and women who got their hands dirty building America. When I feel stuck it helps to be reminded that these connections are out there. I just have to be open to finding them.

If you’re of a mind to be entertained by a quick read, check out Avi’s book. If you want to delve deeper into a satirical account of society’s obsession with making a quick buck, and you have a little more time to dig into a great book, check out JR.