Saturday, July 11, 2015

Author Interview: Bill Hall

Bill Hall is the author of McCallandia, a clever new political novel that imagines what America would have been if Tom McCall, Oregon's popular, environmentally-friendly governor, had succeeded Richard Nixon as President after Watergate.

Bill recently took time from his book tour to answer some questions for Rose City Reader, including why people outside Oregon should read it!

How did you come to write McCallandia?

I wanted to add something to the Tom McCall story. He published his autobiography decades ago, and a fine biography, Fire at Eden’s Gate, appeared twenty years ago. I wanted to tell the story of the McCall years in a new way, and help people envision what might have been had he taken his passions and skills to the national stage.

Do you have a personal connection with Tome McCall? What led you to write a novel around the idea of Tom McCall becoming President of the United States?

I grew up in Tom McCall’s Oregon and have admired him since I was a child. He’s been a role model for my own professional path from journalism (newspaper and radio reporter) to elective office (Lincoln County Commissioner). I’m proud to have volunteered in his 1978 comeback campaign when I was a college freshman. I met him a handful of times that spring and introduced him at an appearance on the Pacific University campus.

How much of your novel is based on true, historical events?

Virtually everything up to October, 1973—the point at which McCall is selected as the new vice president after Spiro Agnew resigns—is actual historical fact. From that point, things diverge from reality pretty substantially, though most of the other key players in U.S. and world history remain the same.

How did you research the historical information and detail found in your book?

I have read widely in Oregon and U.S. history for more than forty years and had accumulated a large personal archive of McCall-related materials. I also interviewed several people with personal and professional ties to McCall including his son Tad, his executive secretary, a former Supreme Court justice, and colleagues of his from his years at KATU.

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

Tom McCall is remembered as a great environmentalist—and he was—but writing this book really helped underscore for me that his great empathy with people is what drove him most of all. He loved making connections with people, especially those who didn’t have a voice in public life. He wanted them to enjoy a healthy environment because he was wanted them to enjoy their overall quality of life.

What do you think today’s presidential candidates could learn from Tom McCall?

He had great vision and passion. He had a remarkable gift for engaging people and winning their support by expressing his ideas in memorable ways. He saw the connections between things that aren’t always immediately apparent. He had great empathy for people. He was always learning, always growing. He went out of his way to reach out and include young people in his inner circle because of their energy, passion and fresh ideas. These are all qualities that would serve any potential president well today.

People outside Oregon probably don’t know much about Tom McCall. Would they enjoy your book? 

Yes! McCall was one of the most memorable figures in Oregon history, not only because of the things he accomplished but for his colorful, outsized personality. He did have his flaws; he could be very thin skinned, and he needed a strong, loving wife and an excellent staff to help harness and focus his energies. He was wrong on issues a few times, but was the first to step up and admit it. Reading this book will allow you to know an imperfect, yet great human being whose story still has relevance for all of us.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?

Ernest Hemingway, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson, J.D. Salinger, David McCullough. I try to learn about technique from everyone I read. I’m so pleased that several readers have told me, “You feel like you’re in the room with these people.” This is one of my favorite quotes from Hemingway:
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

What kind of books do you like to read? Do you have a favorite genre? And guilty pleasures?

I read pretty widely in a lot of genres; my reading was 80 percent non-fiction, mostly history and biographies, for a long time. Now it’s probably 80 percent fiction, mostly literary fiction. I don’t know if I can pick a favorite genre. I might call YA a guilty pleasure. I truly admire the ability of the best YA authors to plunge you right into a story without wasted effort. You come to know the people and places very quickly and care about the results.

What are you reading now?

Dear Zoe by Philip Beard; On the Road by Jack Kerouac (which I had never read before); and Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News by Brad Schwartz.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

Write, write, write and then rewrite! I worked in journalism for many years. That helped me learn to write quickly and clearly, but fiction requires an additional skill set of pacing and story-telling. Editing is so important. You have be willing to prune and reshape what works and discard what doesn’t.

What do you do to promote your books? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources?

Book promotion is a must! Books rarely sell themselves. The website of my publisher, Nestucca Spit Press, features the book prominently. You can also find it on the Powell’s web site. I seek out blogs like this one. I use my personal Facebook page to publicize the book, along with several pages and groups related to Oregon history and environmental interests.

Do you have any events coming up to promote McCallandia?

I am having a lot of fun telling the story of Tom McCall and introducing the world of McCallandia. Matt Love and I will have a joint appearance at Broadway Books in Portland on August 13; I have a solo shot at Powells Books on Burnside on August 20; and and October 8, I’ll be at the Oregon Historical Society for a joint program with Dr. Laura Jane Gifford looking at the McCall influence on presidential politics, real and imagined.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

I have a couple of more books in the works; they’re both historical fiction with Oregon settings. One is set on the coast and spans the 1940s to the 1980s; the other is primarily set in Portland in 1965. Throw in time travel (in one of the stories), a little romance, and a good buddy relationship, and I hope there will be a couple of finished works that will find an audience.


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