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The Story Behind "Fresno Growing Up"

On Writing

The Story Behind "Fresno Growing Up"

Stephen H. Provost

"Fresno Growing Up" was, like most books we authors write, a proverbial labor of love, and all the more so than most because of its subject matter. It's about the place where I grew up, a city that happened to be growing up itself at the same time (hence the title). The postwar Baby Boom era defined the Fresno for tens of thousands - even hundreds of thousands - of residents. It was what many consider the city's golden age, when it was growing not only up but also out, stretching its wings northward and learning to fly along new freeways and buy at new shopping malls.

As I write this, Fresno may well be entering a new golden age, with downtown redevelopment proceeding at a pace not seen in decades and the city reclaiming some of the vibrancy that marked the era covered in my book, roughly from 1945 to 1985. 

I no longer live in Fresno, and in fact, it was my departure from the city that planted the idea for this book in my head. In 2011, I found myself without a job due to downsizing within print journalism: For the first time in more than 25 years (all in the San Joaquin Valley and 14 of them at The Fresno Bee), I wasn't working at a newspaper. Ironically, I'd chosen journalism so I could write for a steady paycheck - something a career as an author couldn't promise - and I had spent the majority of my career in newspapers as an editor rather than a writer.

After a year as a substitute teacher at Fresno Unified, an opportunity arose to get back into journalism with The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, so I left the Valley for the first time since age 15. It was then that I started to write books. My wife, Samaire, can take a good deal of credit for this: She'd always wanted to be an author herself and had what seemed like a hundred stories swimming around in her very creative brain. I said to myself, "If she can do this, why can't I take a stab at it?" I'd gotten into journalism to be a writer, so why not write?

My primary job at The Tribune was as a copy editor, but I also started producing an occasional column on language and communication. Meanwhile, I was self-publishing a series of books under the name Stifyn Emrys (see the Works section of this website). I wrote about ancient history, mythology and philosophy; I produced a children's story, a dystopian novel and a companion novella. Then there was a book called "Undefeated," a series of stories about individuals who had overcome prejudice and bullying. 

This last project served to whet my appetite for delving into recent history, and Fresno seemed to be the ideal topic. Despite having moved to an area (California's Central Coast) that's pretty close to paradise, I was, in some ways, homesick for Fresno - not necessarily the city that it had become, but rather, the place where I grew up. According to the old saw, you can't go home again, but I decided to try anyway, and I chose writing as my means of transportation.

I'd read a few works on the early history of Fresno, but I hadn't seen a book dedicated primarily to the postwar years - the years I remembered from my youth - so I decided to write one.

Writing nonfiction is, for me, a process of exploration and discovery. I'm not the sort of author who sets up an outline, accumulates folders full of notes and gets "everything in order" before I start on the actual text. I research and write as I go, because it keeps things interesting. Each new revelation leads to another line of inquiry, pulling me along like the passenger on a scenic tour of some wondrous land who never quite knows what's around the next bend. As the journey continues, an outline takes shape on its own.

In the case of "Fresno Growing Up," the work evolved into a three-part project: the first part dealing with Fresno's postwar growth, the second revisiting the city's pop culture during the period, and the third focusing on sports and recreation. Plenty had been written on local government and civic leaders, so I turned my attention instead to the people who built Fresno's movie theaters and shopping malls, who scored the goals for the Fresno Falcons or the touchdowns for Jim Sweeney's Bulldogs, who made and played the records we all heard on KYNO and KKDJ.

Starting with my own experience as a base, I consulted books on Fresno and books the Baby Boom era, looked up hundreds of newspaper articles and conducted phone interviews with some of the folks who helped shape that era - people like Dean Opperman (who graciously agreed to write the foreword for the book), Roger Rocka and Dick Carr. Some of those I tried to contact didn't return my calls, and in a sense, I couldn't blame them: I hadn't written any books under my own name at that point, and my newspaper writing for the previous decade and a half had consisted largely of headlines and photo captions. Bylines? They were practically nonexistent. 

Besides, I didn't have a publisher. I didn't even considered looking for one until the book was finished, assuming that I'd just publish it myself through CreateSpace (Amazon's self-publishing platform), as I had done my previous works. But then, this project had something those earlier books hadn't: a large number of historical images, along with a collection of photos I'd taken myself. I'm a writer by profession, but I've always enjoyed photography, and to be honest, I got as big a kick out of taking pictures for "Fresno Growing Up" as I did writing the text.

Bottom line: I knew I couldn't create the kind of presentation I wanted for these images within the constraints of CreateSpace's platform, so I decided to test the waters with traditional publishing by contacting Linden. The Fresno-based publisher had a great track record (nearly four decades in the business) and had published just the sort of regional history book I was producing. Among its titles: Catherine Morison Rehart's series on "The Valley's Legends & Legacies," illustrated books by Pat Hunter and Janice Stevens, and volumes showcasing Pop Laval's vintage photos of Fresno.

I had heard one horror story after another about authors papering their walls with rejection notices and unagented authors not even being considered for publication, so I was ecstatic when I heard back from the folks at Linden that they were interested in publishing my book on their Craven Street label. Now, with the book scheduled to hit the shelves in just over two weeks, I'm just as excited as I was then - if not more so. The quality of the book's presentation not only met my high expectations, it exceeded them, and I believe provides a fitting tribute to Fresno during the era covered in the work. It's my hope that those who grew up in Fresno during the postwar period will agree with me, and will join me in the concluding that, contrary to that nettlesome old saying, sometimes you can go home again.