Steve Bartholomew says he was born “a long time ago.”
He spent three years in the US Army where he learned a lot of vital skills, such as how to use a soldering iron and screwdriver, as well as how to make the bed, mop the floor, and wash dishes. He grew up and spent most of his life in San Francisco. After obtaining a useless liberal arts degree, he became a social worker and did more than 20 years in the mean streets of New York City, San Francisco, and rural California.
He is now devoted to writing books, which he should have been doing in the first place. He has written some science fiction and fantasy, but is now mainly interested in tales of the Old West.
Some previous publications not featured on this site include The Terrorist Plot at Gopherville (© 2006, Lulu.com) and Chapel Perilous (© 2009, Norlights Press).
The Terrorist Plot at Gopherville
Ariella, a heroic tale
Outlaw Pizza: A Christmas Tale
HFAC Interview #2: December 2011
I found that your latest work, Ariella, An Heroic Tale, had a mixture of fantasy and a dreamlike quality. How would you describe it?
Real life has to me a quality of fantasy and dream. There is a thin line between reality and dream, as most ancient peoples understood.
What was the inspiration for the story?
At the time I wrote this I had a hobby of building musical instruments such as dulcimers and psalteries. I don’t play, but I love handling well made instruments; the wood has a feminine, sensual quality. Building an instrument is an extended form of meditation in which the builder develops a relationship with the wood. The story of a troubador and his beloved lute was carried to me on the scent of fresh sawdust.
I understand that you wrote most of this story some time ago but you had to wait before realizing how it should end. Was there a particular element of the story that proved difficult to resolve?
For some reason I found myself unable to see the ending. The story simply ended when Rymer recovered his lute. The moral of the story was that his music resulted from his own talent rather than from any quality of an inanimate object. This moral has not changed, but it’s even more valid when another person is there to share.
What was the main catalyst in changing your focus from fantasy to tales of the Old West?
Long story. Having lived most of my life in the West, I had a lot of material to draw upon. As a child I lived in several old Victorian flats, with the old gas light fixtures still there. They were cold and drafty, with fireplaces that didn’t heat much. So when I look at pictures of Old San Francisco I recognize the houses and find it easy to see myself living there. My first Western story was Gold, the tale of a sidewheel steamer bound from New York to the California gold fields. I got started on that because my father-in-law in Crescent City was involved in salvaging the wreckage of the Brother Jonathan, a steamer that went down there in the 1870’s. I didn’t know it at the time, but the story was begging to be told. I spent maybe a year researching sidewheel steamers and 19th Century sailing ships and how thousands of people traveled to the West in them. Once I found myself in that century it was hard to leave.
Do you have a particular favorite real-life character from this period of history?
Probably Black Bart, though he’s a toss-up with Emperor Norton. There are dozens of people from that time who had amazing stories. Black Bart had real style. So did Norton, albeit in a goofy way.
Your experience as a social worker must have given you insights to some distressing true stories. Have you ever considered writing modern fiction influenced by these experiences?
I suppose everything I write is somehow influenced by my experiences. I have done a couple “modern” novels, both with fantastic elements. However, I prefer digging up the past because it illustrates how little has changed in human nature, despite all our technology.
What would be the best compliment you could receive about your work?
That you do not regret the time spent reading one of my books.
Are you currently working on a new book? Can you give a hint of what the reader might expect?
I currently have two completed manuscripts out to publishers. One of them, Black Bart Reborn, is a fantasy about where Black Bart went and what he did after disappearing from history a month after his release from San Quentin. The other book, The Woodcutter, concerns Wovoka, the Paiute prophet. BTW, that book was about to be accepted by a publisher except that the owner of the company died unexpectedly, causing them to suspend all publication. I’m writing a new story inspired by the life of John W. Keely, who was either a great inventor and scientist, or a great con man depending on your viewpoint. Either way, he was a great man.
Thanks for asking the questions and making me think about them. I ought to do more of that.
Lorraine Fraser King for Historical Fiction eBooks
HFAC Interview #1: January 2011
Congratulations on Gold being an Eppie Award finalist. What more can you tell us about your book?
Gold is a “journey” tale, like The Wizard of Oz. The California Gold Rush was a turning point in history, for America and the World. Imagine that you are living on an impoverished planet somewhere in space: you’re freezing cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, and it’s always crowded. You have to work at least 12 hours a day just to survive with little chance of ever getting ahead. Suddenly you get an unexpected offer–for a small fee of passage you can travel to another world, where you have a good chance of becoming rich by just picking up gold off the ground.
There’s only one catch: You will be boarding a new ship based on untested technology. You will be out of contact with the rest of humanity for weeks at a time, and the journey will take several months. You will have to live on hard tack and salt pork a good part of the time, and expect to have about a thousand people crowded into a vessel 200 feet long. Oh, and by the way there’s a fair chance the ship may blow up or burn.
That was exactly the choice faced by thousands of immigrants who took the risk of leaving their homes for California. There were hundreds of businesses in the east that had to close because most of their employees had departed for the gold fields. This was the background of my story, a unique moment in history unlike any other. Such an experience changed the Nation and those who took part in it. In the end, the characters in Gold will discover that what they are seeking is not metal in the ground, but (as in The Wizard of Oz) their own hearts, minds, and courage.
Marcus Gale is a great nautical name, and Alouette Thorndyke brings up the very image of a woman in chiffon. What goes through your mind when you name your characters?
Marcus Gale was secretly named in honor of Dorothy Gale, of Oz fame. (The first novel I ever read was an Oz book.) I’m not sure where Alouette came from. If I run out of names I can always consult one of my history books. People had weird names back in the 19th Century. One of my favorites was a famous ship’s captain named Preserved Fish. For real.
Do you think Americans are less and less familiar with their own history? Do you think historical fiction can make readers more knowledgeable?
I think historical fiction may arouse curiosity. The schools can no longer be relied upon to teach history, at least true history. I think one can learn more history by reading True West Magazine than by perusing the average high school or college text book. Reading Tony Hillerman makes me curious to learn more about the history of the Navajo and the Southwest. The same principle applies to all novels, historical or otherwise.
You are right, there is something compelling about knowing a story is true, even when it is fiction. The elements of history add a sparkle to a gripping plot. What aspects of writing historical fiction do you find the most challenging? The most fun?
The fun part is imagining myself living through the time and place I’m writing about. There is a web site that preserves archive facsimiles of every San Francisco newspaper printed in the 19th Century. Fascinating reading. I often think I would have fit right in. When I was growing up I lived in several old San Francisco Victorian flats that still had the old gaslight fixtures installed, and were freezing cold during the winter. No showers, either–claw foot bathtubs only. That seemed only natural.
The challenging part of writing is getting the details right. For example, in researching for Gold, I read as much as I could find about early steam engines. I was surprised to discover how little information is available; for example, how do you get cold water into a pressurized boiler? How can you tell when the water level is getting low and the thing is about to explode? Getting the little details right is what creates the texture of reality.
Has the format of the e-book been an advantage to you as a writer?
I don’t know that the format is any different than writing for paper. There are differences in marketing, which is a whole other subject. Personally I prefer using an e book reader to carrying around two pounds of paper and cardboard which will take up space and collect dust. I often hear that reading an e book isn’t nearly as satisfying as a “real” book. I always counter that paper books aren’t nearly as fulfilling as clay tablets.
Thank you, Steve.
Annmarie Banks for Historical Fiction eBooks