Teacher As Writer
Author Oakley Hall's roots are showing in his most recent novel.
Thursday, December 10, 1998
In his most recent novel, Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades, author Oakley Hall exposes his own roots as a writer. Hall teaches creative writing, co-founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers 30 years ago, and directed the writing department at the University of California, Irvine for 20 years. Throughout Queen of Spades Hall''s experiences are evident from the smooth progression of events, the orderly pace of the novel and the clearly drawn characterizations. But nowhere is Hall''s background more evident than in the title character.
Set in 1880s San Francisco, journalist Bierce and his proteg, Tom Redmond, track a Jack-the-Ripper style murderer. As they do so, Bierce still finds time to taunt the railroad power barons of the day and to offer writing advice to Redmond. At one point, you can almost hear the author''s voice as Bierce reprimands Redmond for using too many adverbs. In fact, it takes no imagination at all to hear that voice.
In an interview with Sylvia Rubin of the San Francisco Chronicle, author Oakley Hall offered a list of 15 tips for writers. Tip number 14: "In the second draft, start deleting adverbs."
When asked if Bierce was simply an alter-ego for himself, Hall laughs.
"Isn''t any character, really? I use a lot of [Bierce''s] words, but he was too right wing curmudgeonly for my taste," says Hall. "So I made him more left wing."
The novel, rich in historic context and detail, offers ample evidence that Hall pursued his research with scholarly passion.
"I was really kind of in love with the research I did about San Francisco at the time," says Hall. "I read a lot of books; I just tried to suffuse myself in the city of the time.
"There''s a society with a history in San Francisco that''s very interesting to me, what Bierce called the ''instant aristocrats.''"
If the setting for the story is exotic, the story structure and iconography of the characters is typical of today''s mystery genre: An unlikely candidate becomes a de facto detective and is paired with a part-time sidekick to track down a murderer before someone close to the protagonists is murdered. Along the way, pooling their resources, they enlist the aid of various allies (who are usually the greatest source of the story''s color).
But, just as so many teachers, Hall says by following the rules, writers can find power rather than restriction.
"There''s a kind of a strength in following the conventions," he says. "You just try to have the denouement at the proper time."