Hi James and welcome to The Maiden’s Court! I am so excited to have you here today as I inhaled your book, 1906, right after it came out and I LOVED it.
Heather: The world that you create in 1906 is as realistic as if you experienced it. Did you do a lot of research before writing this book? What type of research?
James Dalessandro: I am a fanatic for research. I love history, we just don’t make characters like they once did. It’s also the best excuse I know to avoid writing. I spent seven years researching and writing 1906. I tracked every minute of the earthquake and the activities of the real characters involved – the city’s mayor, it’s political boss, the great Enrico Caruso – who sang at our opera house five hours before the temblor hit.
I wanted people to know about the great city – I called it “part Paris and part Dodge City,” the wildest, wickedest and most colorful city in North America – a city that was wiped from the face of the earth. Nearly 29,000 buildings were destroyed, 100 theaters, three opera houses, 17 cable car lines. Every town along the San Andreas Fault over its 300 mile path was destroyed – Santa Rosa north of us and San Jose to the south.
I read military reports that were released under the Freedom of Information Act in the 1970s. I made friends with an army of historians, particularly Gladys Hansen, whose book Denial of Disaster destroyed many of the lies and cover-ups. City officials claimed the death count was 478 – it was actually more than 3,000. They claimed the Army marched in and kept order. What they really did was get drunk on the job, shoot a few hundred innocent people as suspected looters – while looting dozens of stores themselves. They used dynamite on wood framed buildings to try to stop the fire: the flaming debris started a dozens of fires and spread the conflagration. The city burned for three days.
I had automobile catalogues from 1906, and catalogues on women’s fashions. Another on horse carriages, food and recipes. I had more than 200 books and magazine articles.
Most of all, I wanted to destroy the “official record.” If history is the lie most commonly agreed upon, what happened in San Francisco in April of 1906 might take the brass ring. In 2005, the resolution I wrote on behalf of Gladys Hansen and myself was passed unanimously by our Board of Supervisors, setting aside the century old death count of 478 people and recognizing a count of “3,000 plus.” It made national and world wide news, to my great surprise. How is that for irony: a work of fiction that changed history?
H: That is phenomenal! I am a fan of research too; I never want to get to the actual writing part, I just want to learn more!
To tag on to that previous question a little bit, are there any great databases or sites that you could recommend that a reader could go to learn more about this time period and event?
JD: Gladys Hansen’s “The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.” We are right now digitizing her entire collection. She worked on the 1906 earthquake story, and compiled a registry of all who died, for more than 50 years. I’ve been the Chairman of the Board of that museum for over a decade. And please see “The Damnedest, Finest Ruins” on Youtube. It’s the documentary I wrote and directed on the disaster. It sports restored photos and silent film footage, and the restored voice of Enrico Caruso.
H: I will have to go check out the Virtual Museum!
This great earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 was a terrible disaster and one that is remembered in history of California. Could you explain some of the elements that contributed to make this such a notable event?
JD: Nature’s wrath, human folly and rampant urban corruption. The earthquake was the most destructive in North American history – a 7.9 on the Richter scale that lasted 53 seconds with an average ground movement of 15 feet along the entire 300 mile rupture. But that was probably one quarter of the damage. The day the earthquake struck, its visionary fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, was scheduled to meet with a Federal Judge to force the city’s corrupt officials to build his massive fire suppression system. He wanted huge water tanks on the city’s hills to feed into specially designed hydrants. He wanted fireboats and manifolds along the city’s perimeter – we’re surrounded by salt water – with diesel pumps to supply unlimited water. Dennis Sullivan never made it to the meeting. At 5:12 a.m. his fire station was ripped in half by falling debris. The great chief lay in a coma for the next four days. He was likely the first victim pulled from the rubble, and the one man who might have altered the city’s fate at the hands of the Army.
H: History is full of such irony!
What led you to choose to write about this event? Do you have any personal connections to it?
JD: It was just the greatest untold story I had ever seen. I love big, sweeping historical epics full of colorful characters – East of Eden, Gone with the Wind. And I love keeping the little guy in the story – the people often left out of history. My personal connection is a 45-year love affair with my adopted home of San Francisco.
H: For those who have not read your work, how would you describe your writing style in this book?
JD: I took a risk. The great Nellie Bly, who worked for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, was the most influential writer of her time and the most important American journalist ever, in my opinion. She got herself confined to mental institutions, infiltrated baby peddling rings and sexual slavery rings at the turn of the century. And she pioneered a unique writing style: in the middle of her third person reporting, she’d add her first person insights and experiences. She was a worldwide sensation who was often denounced for putting herself in the story and changing perspective from third person to first. My narrator, Annalisa Passarrelli, does the same in 1906. Though I had Annalisa explain that many observations were provided by others’ first hand accounts, including letters and diaries by both the living and dead, et al; not everyone liked it. A huge percentage did, thankfully. If you take risks, you’ll never bat a thousand. You won’t anyway, so you might as well have fun.
H: Well, you can count me among the many that loved it!
Last question, and I always have to ask, do you have any future writing plans?
Always. I’m writing a television series on the life of Joseph Petrosino, a former New York shoeshine boy who was drafted into the NYPD to combat an epidemic of crime in the Italian neighborhoods. Over a 26-year career, he perfected undercover work, created the New York Bomb Squad and nearly wiped out the New York Mafia before they got a stranglehold on the entire city and much of the country. His best pal and partner was a squeaky voiced police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt. They were best of friends for all their lives and fought to end crime and corruption in American cities. Petrosino was the most famous detective in America at the time: the highest award in the NYPD is named for him. And then there’s the Nellie Bly project. I’m on a campaign to bring American history to life. And fortunately, TV has caught up with me: I’ve been trying to do this for years.
I did a Movie of the Week on one of my other books, Citizen Jane – the true story of a woman who spent 13 years tracking down and convicting the man who murdered her aunt. Jane Alexander is her name. By her death at 86, she had solved 20 cold case murders and helped hundreds of victims’ families fight for justice. I’m hoping to bring the remainder of her story to television, which has now picked up the slack for good story telling that once belonged to movies. The latter is now obsessed with special effects and films based on theme park rides.
I believe in historical fiction, not historical fraud. I take what liberties I take based on the facts I see, and just try to imagine what happened in those moments, bridging those gaps. E.L. Doctorow said a journalist will tell you what happened, a novelist how it felt. I try to do both. I’m not in the cartoon business. I’m in the good story, accurately told business, with all the heart, drama and color I can find.
H: I have to agree with you about television picking up the slack and featuring very good historical shows. Can’t wait to see what you do! Thanks for stopping by today, it was wonderful to pick your brain about this book I loved.
James Dalessandro was born in Cleveland Ohio, and educated at Ohio University and UCLA film school. In 1973 he founded the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ken Kesey, the nation’s largest literary event. He has written for Playboy, the Examiner newspapers, San Francisco magazine. He was writer of the House of Blues Radio Hour and created the nationally syndicated program “Rock On” with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. He has published four books: Canary in a Coal Mine (poetry); Bohemian Heart (noir detective fiction); Citizen Jane (True Crime); and 1906: A Novel (Historical Fiction). He is award winning writer/director/producer of the documentary film THE DAMNEDEST, FINEST RUINS (PBS/KQED), and writer/producer of the Hallmark Movie “Citizen Jane,” based on his book. He is screenwriter of “1906” the upcoming Pixar/Warner Brothers live action film based on his novel of the same name. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Katie and best pal Giacomo Poochini.
Find James Dalessandro: Website | Facebook | Google + | Goodreads
Set during the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, this page-turning historical novel reveals recently uncovered facts that forever change our understanding of what really happened. Narrated by a feisty young reporter, Annalisa Passarelli, the novel paints a vivid picture of the Post-Victorian city, from the mansions of Nob Hill to the underbelly of the Barbary Coast to the arrival of tenor Enrico Caruso and the Metropolitan Opera. Central to the story is the ongoing battle—fought even as the city burns—that pits incompetent and unscrupulous politicians against a coalition of honest police officers, newspaper editors, citizens, and a lone federal prosecutor. James Dalessandro weaves unforgettable characters and actual events into a compelling epic.Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia
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