Author Timothy Egan to speak on 'The Worst Hard Time' at Town Hall lecture

The Fresno BeeNovember 18, 2013 

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COL___ Timothy Egan Photo credit: Barry Wong

BARRY WONG

Award-winning writer Timothy Egan is coming to Fresno with a mission: ensure people remember those who braved the Dust Bowl.

Egan will speak on "The Worst Hard Time: The Dust Bowl" at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20, at a San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series event at Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.

Egan's book on the Dust Bowl — "The Worst Hard Time" — won the 2006 National Book Award for nonfiction, considered one of the nation's highest literacy honors. He writes of a mother watching her baby die of "dust pneumonia" and farmers who gathered tumbleweed as food for their cattle and, eventually, for their children.

The Bee recently caught up with Egan to learn more.

Question: The Henry Madden Library at Fresno State has a prominent display of your books, so a younger generation also is learning about you. What does that mean to you?

Answer: I'm flattered and surprised. They say this generation historically is illiterate, but I couldn't disagree more. I am a great believer that there is no bad history; it's badly taught.

You've written seven books — all compelling — about people and tough times. What is the key to good writing and holding an audience's attention?

I mostly write nonfiction. You're dealing with history, real-life human beings. The challenge is to make them breathe and come to life. I go out of my way to research them, their personality quirks and make them more than statues.

I love being drawn to the clash between people and nature. Nature tells me there's a dramatic force that you never know how things are going to end.

I make the characters interesting. I try to find the cleanest story line I can find — and tell what is the basic struggle.

You were a Times correspondent who covered the Pacific Northwest. What one place did you enjoy returning to in that area — and why?

The place I've always loved is the San Juan Islands. No way you can tire of these little archipelagos sitting up there. It's so beautiful.

It was tough to find stories there, but I've always loved that place.

Your online column — Opinionator — is one of the most read pieces on the New York Times site. What do you hope viewers are getting out of the Opinionator?

You're trying to be provocative, with complete conversation and thought. I am trying to be compelling; that's the main thing.

The freedom you have, on the opinion side, is so much different. It's scary. You can say anything you want. There also is the fear of getting it wrong.

Seven years after your book — "The Worst Hard Time" — won the National Book Award, what one thing are people still saying to you about the book?

I do get huge reaction, which continues to amaze me.

The consistent thing that people say is they can't believe this happened in our lifetime. There are still people who lived and ate road-kill and saw the world turn black at noon, who had to give up as children.

It was the worst of all-time, with nature, the economy, the earth. Don't let folks slip away, there are people in your midst, in their 90s, who can still tell their story.

You are featured prominently in Ken Burns' acclaimed 2012 film, "The Dust Bowl." Any part of that film cause tears to well in your eyes — and why?

The first time we viewed it, almost everyone in the room was crying.

Caroline Henderson found herself in absolute loneliness, an educated woman in her 20s, being in love of the plains and when the earth turned on her, you could feel her heart break.

What do you hope readers get out of your most recent book — "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher" — about the most famous photographer of American Indians?

The magnificence of this achievement. It's the greatest photo accomplishment of our history, bar none.

Mathew Brady set out to document all living Indian tribes — and he pulled it off. I want people to understand that accomplishment, one person with a sixth-grade education, took 40,000 photos of 80 tribes.

What are you hoping people get out of your talk at the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series event?

I want them to understand how close they are to this history. So much was influenced by this largest migration of our people from an event — until Hurricane Katrina came along. It's close to them. They may know someone who was part of this story.


If you go

San Joaquin Valley Town Hall series featuring Timothy Egan, speaking on "The Worst Hard Time: The Dust Bowl," 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20. Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. Cost $25. Details: valleytownhall.com or (559) 444-2180.

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304 or rorozco@fresnobee.com.

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