by Lorie Lewis Ham
This week we are interviewing Valley historian and author Stephen H. Provost. Last year he released his book Highway 99. The book is filled with historic photographs and forgotten tales. Highway 99 is a nostalgia-fueled road trip into California motoring culture. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Highway 99, and a link to purchase it from Amazon. Watch for a review of this book here in KRL soon.
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Stephen: More than 35 years now. I wrote my first short story as a junior in high school and have been at it in various forms (reporter, columnist, headline-writer, novelist, author of historical nonfiction, blogger) ever since. You could say I got the bug and never shook it.
KRL: When did your first book come out? What was it called and can you tell us a little about it?
Stephen: I produced a number of works under the nom de plume Stifyn Emrys from 2012 to 2014, but my first book published under my real name was Fresno Growing Up (2015). I’d lived most of my life in the Fresno area, but had moved away four years earlier, and the idea occurred to me of revisiting the city as it was in my childhood. Many authors seek to write memoirs, but it occurred to me that, while my own life hasn’t been that noteworthy, I’ve got tons of memories I share with others who grew up in Fresno around the same time I did. I wanted to revisit them myself and help others tap into them, too. A number of books had been written about the city’s pioneer era, but not much about the decades after World War II. I thought readers would be interested in the story of how the city grew, defined itself and developed a distinct pop culture, roughly from 1945 to 1985.
KRL: Are you originally from this area? If so, where did you grow up? And if not, how did you end up here?
Stephen: I was born in Fresno, at the old Saint Agnes Hospital, and spent much of my childhood and college years there. My father was a professor of political science at Fresno State starting in 1958 and was teaching there in some capacity into the new millennium (he passed away in 2016). I worked at newspapers in Tulare and Visalia, covering sporting events in many communities around the Valley, before returning for a 14-year stint at The Bee. I’m currently managing editor of The Cambrian newspaper.
KRL: What sparked the idea of a Highway 99 “biography”?
Stephen: Just as I had memories of Fresno, I also had memories of traveling up and down Highway 99 to Santa Monica and Orange three or four times a year during my youth to visit my grandparents. The highway has changed a lot since then, and is continuing to change with the advent of high-speed rail. Many books have been written about Route 66, and Highway 99 was similarly significant for travelers driving north and south in California. I wanted to tell the story of an era that seems to be fading into the mists of history – the era of roadside stops, old motels, coffee shops and full-service gas stations – before it’s gone forever.
KRL: How long did it take to research this book?
Stephen: The main research and writing took less than a year. It took a little more time to compile the photos, as that involved driving the highway itself on weekends and vacation days to locate and photograph sites of note.
KRL: Did you have a plan for presenting the material or did it just come together once you got into the writing?
Stephen: A little of both. I had an idea of the topics I wanted to address, and I also knew I wanted to offer a “tour” of the historical road. So, I constructed the book in two parts: It’s meant to appeal to both highway buffs and people interested in general history. Once I had the topic ideas in place, the material I gleaned during research naturally flowed into the various chapters.
KRL: Where did you find the leads for the anecdotes featured throughout the book?
Stephen: I started with my own memories, then started investigating things associated with those memories. I also kept an eye on social media sites associated with highways (I belong to several and administer one) for clues about other topics. I made extensive use of newspaper archives from across the country, California Department of Highways (now Caltrans) publications, books, historical society archives and personal interviews, among other sources.
KRL:Same question about finding the landmarks up and down the highway (BTW, I was sorry not to see anything about Bruce’s Lodge The restaurant with the airplane on old 99 near Fowler).
Stephen: I wish I had included Bruce’s Lodge! Unfortunately, the history of both Fresno and Highway 99 is so rich, that I was bound to leave out a few things – even though it was my intention to be as comprehensive (yet readable!) as possible. Another example: I left out the Forestiere Underground Gardens from Fresno Growing Up, but included it in Highway 99, because it’s just off the highway. I found records of some old landmarks in the resources listed above; others I encountered on my road trips, and still others I remembered from childhood. A few, such as the J’s Coffee Shop sign in Delano, had been torn down only recently. Others I managed to photograph shortly before their demise. For example: the old motel row in Fresno, which was subsequently razed to make way for the rail project.
KRL: Any plans for another California history book?
Stephen: Yes. I’ve got a book on the history of U.S. Highway 101 in the works. It will be similar in scope and format to Highway 99. It was a natural, because I’ve lived along, or close to, Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo County for the past six years.
KRL: Tell us a little about your background as a historian?
Stephen: I’ve always been drawn to history. I’m fascinated by the story of “how we got here.” I remember, as a child, being enthralled by sports history books, and during my college years, I seriously considered changing my major from journalism to history. At various times, I’ve researched sports history, ancient mythology, the history of Western religion, certain aspects of the Middle Ages and, most recently, 20th century Americana/nostalgia. History tells stories, and that’s what I enjoy doing most.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Stephen: With a full-time job and a family, it’s definitely the latter. I started writing in earnest when I began working at the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Copy editors there worked 10 hours a day, four days a week for the few years after I started there and that gave me three full days off each week to devote to writing. That, and my wife’s encouragement, helped jump-start everything.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Stephen: Unlike some authors, I research and write as part of the same process. This keeps me interested in the story I’m telling. If I were to do all the research, then sit down to organize it, it would seem overwhelming and I’d be less motivated because, as I began writing, I would say to myself, “I’ve seen this before.” The joy of the process for me is the discovery. It’s like a scavenger hunt. So, for that reason, the research and writing are inseparable components of the same process. I track things by keeping a running bibliography as I write and making a few notations at the bottom of the document, but apart from the general outline I mentioned above, I don’t set out with any comprehensive list of things I want to cover. I let the research and the writing take me where it wants to go.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Stephen: I’m most productive early in the morning, before I have to get ready for work. That’s when I have the most energy and inspiration.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Stephen: I was very fortunate. Linden was the first publisher I queried for Fresno Growing Up and ended up publishing that book and my subsequent titles. I looked for a publisher that had carried similar titles in the past and struck me as having done quality work. It’s been a great partnership.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Stephen: Next year, I’ll be writing the third installment in The Memortality Saga, a series of novels built around a woman with a psychic gift for bringing people back to life through the power of her photographic memory. The second installment, Paralucidity, is due out in June. I’ve got a few nonfiction ideas, as well.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Stephen: I’m drawn to writers who can write conversationally and keep a story humming along, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Writers I admire include Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman, Ransom Riggs, Josh Malerman, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Lynn Asprin.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Stephen: Write for the muse, not for the checkbook. Write what you enjoy writing. If it becomes a career, great, but if not, you’re still getting enjoyment out of it, and that’s worth so much! If you write primarily for others or “to sell books,” you’re less likely to enjoy what you’re doing and you’ll be less motivated to do it.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Stephen: My books are available at quilldriverbooks.com, Amazon and at various brick-and-mortar outlets including A Book Barn in Clovis, Petunia’s Place in Fresno, Coalesce in Morro Bay, some Costco outlets and various Barnes & Noble stores up and down the state. If they don’t have it, they can order it. doesn’t have it.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Stephen: I occasionally sing karaoke, and I spent a year in Australia when I was young.
KRL: Where can people find you online?
Stephen: Website: stephenhprovost.com Twitter: @sproauthor
Facebook: www.facebook.com/sproauthor; I also moderate the groups California’s Historic Highways and Fresno Forever. You can read my news reports and columns at sanluisobispo.com.
To enter to win a copy of Highway 99, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “99,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen January 20, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
You can also use this link to purchase the book on Amazon. If you have ad blocker on you may not see the link:
Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases using those links. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.