Saturday, October 24, 2015

Author Interview: Michael Helquist

Michael Helquist is an author, historian, and activist who has written for several publications including the Oregon Historical Quarterly, the American Medical News, and Ms. Magazine. He is a Portland native living in San Francisco.

Michael's new book is a biography of Marie Equi, an early 20th Century doctor and progressive activist described as “the most interesting woman that ever lived in [Oregon], certainly the most fascinating, colorful, and flamboyant.”

Michael recently took time from a busy book tour to answer questions for Rose City Reader:

How did you first learn of Marie Equi? She hasn’t been someone particularly well-known.

What first grabbed my attention about Marie Equi was an account of her sensational horsewhipping of a Baptist minister and school superintendent due to a pay dispute involving her girlfriend. This was in 1893 on a bake-oven hot summer day in the center of downtown The Dalles, Oregon. She was living on a homestead with her companion, Bessie Holcomb, who was a teacher. The school superintendent, O.D. Taylor, had refused to pay Holcomb her full salary after repeated entreaties. Equi – then 21-years-old – took the matter into her own hands. She got hold of a horsewhip and paced back and forth outside Taylor’s office, daring him to appear.

When Taylor ventured onto the street, Equi struck him repeatedly with the horsewhip. It created quite a stir in town. The local newspapers covered the ruckus for days afterward, and the story even appeared in The San Francisco Examiner. As it turned out, many in the town applauded her because Taylor was considered a scoundrel involved in land fraud. That episode made me want to learn more about this bold, independent woman who fought for justice and who dared to live far beyond social norms.

Can you tell us more about Marie Equi and why you wanted to write her biography?

Marie Equi was one of the marginalized people in our country’s history whose life stories seldom appeared. She was the daughter of working-class, Italian and Irish immigrant parents, and she knew early on that she did not want to get married. She yearned for independence and security, and she overcame considerable obstacles to achieve them. She became an early doctor in Portland and then achieved public acclaim as a heroine for helping victims of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But she remained an outsider as a lesbian and as a fierce advocate for working class and poor people, laborers, women seeking full citizenship rights, and all those mistreated by the ruling 1% of her time. In her words, she had “fighting Irish blood and fighting Italian blood” in her, and she refused to back down in the face of injustice. She endured police brutality, several arrests, and ultimately a prison term in San Quentin for speaking against World War One.

I was drawn to Marie Equi’s boldness and passion and to her reputation as one of the most prominent activists on the West Coast. That she was also a relatively open lesbian made her story more compelling. As an historian, I wanted to contribute to our understanding of how much these little-known outsiders contributed to our politics and our sense of who we are as a people.

How did you research Marie Equi’s story and how did you find enough source material about her?

Other historians and writers had concluded that not enough material and primary sources existed to permit a biography of Equi. I was determined to discover if that was accurate. I found records about Equi in boxes stored in the family church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I located previously unknown documents about her schooling, medical career, political protests, and love affairs stashed in archives from the U.S. National Archives to the National Library of Ireland, from Indiana University to the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

Fortunately, Equi lived a remarkably public and controversial life. My research led me to more than 300 newspaper articles about her. I also located her testimony in court cases and her correspondence with family, friends, and other political radicals. I undertook a close reading of hundreds of pages of surveillance reports filed by federal agents and copies of her prison correspondence. These primary and secondary sources allowed me to document Equi’s considerable historical footprint and her voice.

Your book inspires further reading. Can you recommend any other books related to political activism in the Pacific Northwest? Any related to the history of lesbian/gay rights in Oregon?

I recommend:

I also suggest regularly checking the website of the Oregon Historical Quarterly and the Gay Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN).

What is your work background and how did it contribute to writing your book?

My background as a freelance journalist and as an activist helped me become a better public historian. From the start of my work on this biography, I wanted to tell a compelling story about the life and times of this complicated, remarkable person. I was also determined to ground this account in scholarly research and documentation.

What do you do to promote your book?

I schedule as many speaking engagements as possible. During the mid-September launch of my book in Portland, I squeezed five author events and two radio interviews into a four day period. That was followed by four events in San Francisco, including a release party attended by 100 people.

I also use social media every day – my website blog, Facebook and Twitter, emails, and articles on other websites. I’m currently developing two-minute videos to enhance my reach to new audiences. I find the challenge is to be both organized and methodical as well as to respond quickly to opportunities.

Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?

I’m excited that my next author event – titled “From Soapbox to San Quentin” – will be at McMenamin’s Edgefield in Troutdale, Oregon on Tuesday, October 27 at 6:30 pm (doors open at 5:00 pm). It’s free and open to the public. Books will be available to purchase and I’m more than happy to sign them.

I will also be interviewed by The PDX Beat on October 24 and by Wild Planet Radio (KPQR 99.1 FM) on October 27. Check websites for broadcast times.

And, I will be the featured guest on Oregon Public Radio's Think Out Loud program on Wednesday, October 28, 2015, from 12:00 noon - 1:00 p.m. Pacific Time. Listen live online.

Where can your book be purchased?

Local independent booksellers are always a great option. Broadway Books and Powell’s Books have copies in stock at their stores as well as through their websites. Other book stores can easily and quickly order copies. All the major book purchasing sites – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others -- can readily provide copies.

Oregon State University Press published my book, and copies can also be purchased at or at 1-800-621-2736.


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