Author Spotlight: Michael Doyle

Book: Radical Chapters: Pacifist Bookseller Roy Kepler and the Paperback Revolution

As a reporter in the Washington, DC, bureau of the McClatchy newspaper chain, you may be familiar with this week’s Author, Michael Doyle. He holds a master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University and a master of studies in law from Yale Law School, where he was a Knight Journalism Fellow. Doyle is the author of The Forestport Breaks: A Nineteenth- Century Conspiracy along the Black River Canal. His new fall 2012 title, Radical Chapters: Pacifist Bookseller Roy Kepler and the Paperback Revolution, comes out this month.

Tell us about your upcoming book, Radical Chapters: Pacifist Bookseller Roy Kepler and the Paperback Revolution?

“Radical Chapters explores the life and times of an extraordinarily influential and much beloved pacifist, whose West Coast bookstore became ground zero for multiple social, musical and technological revolutions. Through Roy Kepler’s experiences, many colorful chapters of 20th century U.S. history come alive.

Roy survived a series of World War II conscientious objector camps. He led the War Resisters League. He helped establish the nation’s first listener-sponsored radio station. He helped his close ally Joan Baez start a world-famous peace institute. He directed one of the first and largest free universities of the 1960s. He guided key Vietnam War protests.

And Roy sold books, lots and lots of books. Starting in 1955, when paperbacks were still considered low-class and slightly scandalous, Kepler’s Books & Magazines served as a West Coast hub for curious people of all stripes and colors. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia got his start at Kepler’s. Apple Computer’s Steve Wozniak and other Silicon Valley thinkers would buy their books there. Future booksellers got hands-on training.

Throughout his life, Roy had a knack for being where the action was, or was about to be. He was both an acutely intelligent observer of the passing scene, and an active participant in it. In Radical Chapters, I use his personal story as an entrée into these broader adventures.”

What inspired you to write this book?

I grew up going to Kepler’s. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I began regularly hanging out at the bookstore when I was about 12. I was an avid reader, simply voracious, and I loved drifting through the stacks of all these books. There was also something, I don’t know, illicit about the experience; the workers were shaggy, and some of the newspapers and magazines found on the racks were kind of disreputable. The whole scene appealed to me.

After college, I was working at the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper, and I found myself doing stories about Bay Area people who had some connection to Kepler’s. I’d write a profile of an author like Gurney Norman, or his then-wife, the dancer Chloe Scott, and I would learn they used to hang with Ken Kesey back in the day. Or I would write about a reunion of the Midpeninsula Free University, and they would seem really interesting. Once, I drove up to Roy’s home, about three hours away, and interviewed him at length.

For whatever reason, I held on to all this material, for years. Finally, while I was doing a week-long fellowship at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, shortly after SU Press had just published my first book, I realized that I had all this material with which I could start my next book topic. I called Roy’s son up and made my pitch, and pretty much started that very day.”

What kind of research did you have to do?

The foundation of the book, that which makes it possible, comes in the Roy Kepler Papers, on file at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Roy was a bit of a pack rat, and an invaluable batch of clippings, letters, files, photos and other documents are jammed into six or seven boxes. I would go up to Swarthmore every few months, spend a day paging through the documents; and, the great thing was, Swarthmore is also the home for many, many other invaluable records from various peace movements. So once I had worked my way through Roy’s materials, I could shift over to the War Resisters League, or Civilian Public Service, or something else altogether.

The archival records are the basis for the book. I used a lot of other standard investigative reporting techniques to flesh it out. I filed Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain FBI records, I scoured through court and bankruptcy records, obtained birth and death certificates, scrolled through Census microfilm and conducted lots of interviews. The existing literature, including doctoral dissertations, as well as contemporaneous newspaper accounts helped out a lot. I spent considerable time at the Library of Congress; sometimes, I admit, playing hooky while I was supposed to be doing my day job.”

Do you have a specific writing style?

“I am a newspaper reporter, by profession, and I think I bring a newspaper style, with all its strengths and weaknesses, to the task of writing a book. That is, I try to emphasize clarity and directness; I like anecdotes and concrete, specific detail. I am not a big one for abstraction or theorizing, nor do I like the baroque and orotund. I prefer a fairly stripped down prose, muscular where possible. I believe this helps bring a certain reader-friendliness to the text. And what usually happens, when I read one of my favorite writers, like Robert Stone or Tobias Wolff, is my writing temporarily adopts some of their personality.”

What is the best advice you can give to aspiring reporters and writers?

“In addition to my reporting, I teach introductory and advanced news writing at The George Washington University. My basic advice is to learn by doing; write story after story, get them ruthlessly edited, and then go back and write again. Each story will whittle away one more niggling imperfection.

There are, of course, plenty of specific lessons to convey. Some are specific to reporting, the gathering of facts: Ensure accurate quotes, obtain original source documents, use archives, pry open records through freedom of information requests, question assumptions. Some are specific to writing, like the necessity of writing actively instead of passively. But when it comes to the single best advice, it’s to write more in order to write better.”

What authors have been most influential to your life or writing style?

“I read “Studs Lonigan” by James T. Farrell when I was 12, and it changed my life. Or, at least, it changed my whole way of thinking of myself. I had always been a big reader, gobbling up books by the armload, but “Studs Lonigan” somehow opened my eyes. It made me think of myself as a serious reader, someone ready for the big leagues; plus, it was a thoroughly gripping tale of these sympathetic losers. About the same time, my dad gave me “Catch-22,” which I must have read a dozen times; it somehow seemed to be a gift from the world of men, like there was a really important lesson buried in there amid the jokes.

I keep falling in love with different writers and try to lift something from their approach; I mentioned Tobias Wolff and Robert Stone earlier. I had a serious thing for Graham Greene, and roared through all of his works; same with the early John LeCarre.”

What do you hope the reader gains from this book?

“Pleasure, insight, information and their money’s worth.”

For more information on Doyle’s new book, Radical Chapters, or to purchase a copy, visit the Syracuse University Press website.

“A good bookstore is a garden of ideas, and Kepler’s was one of the best. Nourished by Roy Kepler’s curiosity, sense on social justice, and kindliness, it particularly fed the minds of young beatniks like Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, and Willie Legate.” – Dennis McNally, author of A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead

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