About the Author

A conversation with Richard Fitchen:

Weaving history and storytelling

 

Richard FitchenIn some ways, writer Richard Fitchen’s life has been all about blending different worlds: those of fact and fiction, history and storytelling, reality and idealism.

With the publication of United by Covenant: Ben’s America (eFrog Press, Carlsbad, CA, $11.99 print; $4.99 ebook), the first installment in an ambitious five-part “American Saga,” Fitchen plans to twine the story of two rival families with the colorful history of our nation.

“I’m trying to blend fact and fiction,” he said. “I want to create characters who have life consequences, who develop—characters readers will come to care about.”

Fitchen’s life reflects this blend of practical and academic, always pointing toward an interest in political science and information. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science at San Jose State University. A PhD in political science at UC Santa Barbara followed, and then an MLIS (master’s in library information science) from the University of California at Berkeley.

During the years spent acquiring those degrees, the San Mateo, California, native also acquired a wealth of life experience that he folds into his writing. During junior college, for example, Fitchen worked summers as a firefighter in Santa Cruz County for the California Division of Forestry. “That was a remarkable experience,” he recalled. “You live in the stations for about three months during the summers, with a variety of people. It was interesting work.”

He also put in six years with the National Guard, and did land surveying while taking a break from college studies. Engineering was his first major, but after a couple of years of survey work, he returned to college with a new focus: political science.

“I realized my interests just weren’t in the direction of engineering,” he recalled. “I was always interested in questions of how people hold positions of authority, and why it works or doesn’t. Why society affords these positions to some people. And why things run the way they do, or don’t. I became interested in national and international affairs at that point, thinking I’d work for an international organization some day.”

After his PhD, he did post-doctoral work and a fellowship, both abroad. With his dissertation completed, he landed a post in the School of Communications at the University of Washington. There, he taught courses such as Communication and Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Intercultural Communication.

“Those kinds of courses and aspects of communication really reflected a variety of social science backgrounds—persuasion, mass movements. Weaving those together was significant to me.”

With his wife and two then-young daughters, he returned abroad to teach, but then shifted fields, this time to information management (“I had spent a lot of time in libraries”).

He completed his library science degree at Berkeley, then was offered posts at Stanford and Yale. Fitchen chose Yale, where he became the social sciences bibliographer for the university’s libraries, responsible for acquiring books, “like a curator,” he explained.

Later, at Stanford, he continued his work as a bibliographer, eventually becoming bibliographer and reference department head of the university’s libraries. “I found that pretty satisfying, because it involved a lot of work with faculty and students on campus, but also colleagues at other universities. It turned out to be a truer fit of the interests I had at that point.”

At retirement, Fitchen was ready for something new, taking on a project in Geneva to digitize the archives of the World Trade Organization and the GATT. But after years of living and working with characters real and fictional, inside and outside of libraries, he couldn’t resist the writing urge any longer. “I realized I could retire and write full time.”

He started with the second part of his saga, about pre-Civil War America. “But I produced a gigantic book—way too large—and I was told it could be a hard sell. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I’d better rethink this.’”

Unable to “hack it apart,” he decided to put that volume aside and “just go to the sequel”—United by Covenant, the third chapter of the saga.

United begins just before the Civil War and continues to 1906. The main character is Ben LaBarre, a mixed-race minister from the North who not only fights slavery, but helps create the concept of a national covenant—an agreement among citizens that America must hold together, with its common ideals of liberty and justice for all.

“This is the point,” Fitchen said, “where the country is rescued from itself. Ben is providing the rationale of why a break can’t happen. The covenant is monumental, and Ben is heroic. We are pulling together a unifying construct. He’s doing it for me, in a way.”

In subsequent volumes, Fitchen, now living in Encinitas, California, will show America as a “republic in triumph” from 1908-1965. He then moves to the present, where “America will be a leader of scientific development, which will lead to a discussion of issues—the environment, Internet information, collective security.”

A blending, in other words, of the many worlds and interests of Richard Fitchen.