S.L. Stoner’s Sage Adair books are set in the era of America’s first progressive revolution, the early 1900’s. Her new book, Slow Burn, is the seventh book in the acclaimed series. Adair is an undercover labor movement operative who runs one of Portland’s most exclusive restaurants at the turn of the last century His goal is to help bring about social and economic justice.

Susan Stoner

The books relate historical events and people and the series’ underlying purpose is to relate what Howard Zinn called the “People’s History;” harkening back to a time when ordinary people rose up, fought for and advanced the cause of economic and social justice under circumstances harsher than those we face today.

Slow Burn had its impetus in a one-paragraph, 1903 news article reporting that the city council had voted to plank or gravel Powell Blvd and Milwaukie Ave. after being warned by the Fire Insurance Underwriter’s Board that the city’s continued failure to make the two roads passable during wet weather would result in all structures in that area being uninsurable. This organization’s impact in this instance triggered research into both the firefighters’ working conditions and the Underwriter’s Board.

While that may sound like the summary of a dry, historical treatise, these facts roll out within the context of a fast-paced story that includes arson, murder, kidnapping, and false accusations and adventure. There’s nothing like reading a great mystery while learning Portland history.

The Southeast Examiner had a visit with author SL Stoner and the conversation was kaleidoscopic, like the Sage Adair books.

Q. Do you consider what you’re writing Historic Fiction?

A. Yes. Definitely Historic Fiction. And it is fiction. The stories are the primary thing, but I try to make it historically accurate and from a progressive viewpoint.

Q. When you wrote the first book, did you know that it would take this long to get the stories out or have they just naturally progressed so that when you got to the end of one there was more to tell? 

A. What usually happened is that I would get to the end of one, I would go to the Oregon Historical Society and start reading newspapers to get an idea for the next one. Then I would start researching it and that’s kind of how it happens. A lot of time, ideas come either from the Oregon Labor Press (they’ve been publishing forever) or from The Oregonian. The one about the bridges falling down [Dry Rot] was an article from October of 1902. All these bridges in Portland started falling down and at the time there were 65 bridges  and I thought ‘What the heck is happening? All these bridges falling.’ and these were bridges over ravines, not over the rivers… We used to have a lot of ravine bridges… I just kind of go from one idea to the other…

Q. Is there a continuity from one book to the next?

A. Yes. Not all the characters are in all the books, but characters do reappear. In the book that has to do with Shanghaiing [Land Sharks], a character in there appears in the next book. There’s a character in the third book, [Dry Rot]; the character is a ragpicker poet who was based on a real person that was here in Portland. He doesn’t appear in all the books but he pops up. He’s not in Slow Burn, but he’s been in most of the other books.

Slow Burn has reoccurring characters. The Portland Hotel imported blacks from the south, and one of the significant characters who worked in the Carolina Governor’s mansion was very skilled. So when they opened the Portland Hotel, they wanted to be the most exclusive hotel on the West Coast, and they imported these black workers from the south that had worked in fancy places. That guy is in Slow Burn and most of the other books as well. At this point, the characters have all smirged together as a collective of people that I know.

Q. You’re talking about the history of the northwest that is not often reported or long ago forgotten.

A. Yes. When I started this, I never realized what a journey it would be into a town where I grew up. It’s changed how I see the town. A lot of people who read these books have the same reaction: it’s really enriched their understanding of the town.

Q. What neighborhood were you born in and where did you grow up?

A. I was born out near Hillsdale and Robert Gray School and Wilson is where I went to school. When I was seventeen, I moved out to be a hippie and lived in Corbett Terwilliger. I probably lived in fifteen houses around there. That was where I got involved in my early twenties in my neighborhood association and it was a life-changing experience.

Q. So when you wrote the first Adair book, what was your motivation? What had you written up til then?

A. Before I started writing fiction? I was in college, and they would give me a choice of taking a test or writing a paper, I always wrote the paper. I wrote about the history of Seattle, the history of neighborhood organizations… I’ve always been a research writer person, so I did that. Then I went to law school and did a lot of brief writing. So I had always written either historical or nonfiction.

Although I’d read fiction incessantly, I never really thought about writing it but I had come across a story about these guys that traveled on the trains and protected hoboes from the railroad bulls that were really violent towards them.

I was working in the union and I realized from talking to people in the union they had no idea where the guys came from or where the union movement came from or any of that.

I thought how am I gonna get these folks who ordinarily wouldn’t read nonfiction history to learn about themselves? And that was the first thing I did – I wanted to tell the story of these guys who rode on trains and protected people. They were Wobbly people – IWW people. So that’s what started the whole thing and I discovered I loved it. It was a great escape from reality in a way.

Q. Were you involved in the formation of ONI (Office of Neighborhood Involvement)?

A. Well… it was called the Organization of Neighborhood Associations and there’s a real interesting story behind that. My friend was hired by the City Council and the Bureau of Planning to go out and interview neighborhood organizations about what it was they would like to do. I was in the Corbett Terwilliger Lair Hill neighborhood association and planning committee.

She went out and interviewed every neighborhood association and came back with the recommendation that the city be divided up into districts and that neighborhood associations be empowered to make the decisions that affected only their neighborhood and then, at a higher level, that the district, which would be comprised of those representatives from each neighborhood association, to make decisions.

The city’s response to that was one of horror, and they quickly came up with the Office of Neighborhood Associations whose real goal was to bring these rowdy neighborhood activists under control. When we first started in Corbett Terwilliger, the city bureaucrats did not know how to deal with neighborhoods. They hadn’t developed their techniques for channelling and controlling neighborhood involvement and so we got lots of things accomplished.

That’s when they were putting John’s Landing in there along the river and we designed the park and we forced them to provide access to the river. We just did all sorts of things like that and were able to get the city to agree a lot of stuff. As time went on, the bureaucrats figured out how to channel neighborhood involvement…

Q. Do you know how your writing process works as you weave all the disparate elements into your next tale? 

A. You know it really evolves as I write it. I don’t outline. I don’t know how it’s going to end. The story just sort of tells itself. I’m as eager as the next person to know what’s going to happen next. I usually write a chapter at a time.

The beauty of doing the research is there are so many gems out there, that once you start researching it, it just kinda tells itself.. There are things you want to share, and then you have to figure out how to put those things in. It’s not that hard… of course now that I say that maybe in the next book I’ll be struggling…

Q. Well if you got through seven of the books by now, you’re doing great… I like the idea that what happened a hundred years ago is still relevant now. People freak out about what’s happening now but it’s not anything new. 

A. It isn’t …It isn’t… and the battles that we’ve fought and have won before, and now there’s been some slippage and we need to fight again, and on a global scale.

That’s what exciting… before, during the Gilded age, it was pretty much centered in this country for us anyway. But now the same values are being again discussed only now it’s global and I think that’s exciting.

Q. It’s interesting to me to think of the early 1900’s version of the 1 percent, because that’s the time when the Federal Reserve was created, and the stock market crash happened and for similar reasons as now, and we have to see it as a pattern instead of isolated instances.

A. That’s true and I think Robert Reich did a short movie on that very topic. It’s not a cyclical with a table and a peak and a trough and a peak and a trough. He also thinks we are on the verge of a paradigm shift…

Q. Maybe it will all evolve… it would be nice if there was some kind of understanding and respect between nations…

A. I think the UN is consensing on what is a crime, saying phosphorus bombs are criminal; land mines are criminal etc,… so I think that is starting to happen.

My next book is probably gonna be about child labor and how it was addressed by the progressives. I think that’s another thing the UN is starting to focus on – child labour.

Q. Thanks for talking with us about so many things Susan.

A. Thanks and take good care.

SL Stoner will appear Thursday August 30, 7:30 pm at Powell’s on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd.