My pal Michael Challik, the great veteran “shooter” at KDKA TV and a born Dutchman, did me a great favor the other day by translating part of a video interview with Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak.

Mak, a famous and renowned Dutch journalist/historian/author,  retraced Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 and wrote a big fat, footnoted book that became a best-seller in Holland. Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America,” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably.

Unfortunately, the book, like the video interview, is in Dutch.

Here’s a link to the video — Geert Mak talks about the journalism & politics of “Bill Steigerwald.”

And here’s the translation of the 5-minute video, courtesy of the kind Michael Challik:

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

You think you have designed a great plan, but one afternoon in a little town, Lancaster, we were looking for a place John Steinbeck had stayed.  The night, a motel, pouring down rain, got out at a gas station, asked where is the motel from the 1960′s.  I can still see him, a hat on turned backwards, “Oh Steinbeck! Right?”

(The service station attendant continues.) “Yesterday, there was also somebody here.” So you think you’re the only one.  Real quickly Googled, wondering who that could be, and got the answer in about three minutes.  Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retired journalist.  Did exactly the same, except took off half-an-hour sooner.  We left at at 8:30…he left at 8, so we just missed him on the ferry to the mainland.

Bill wrote in his blog on the ferry at 8:45 where he met a third journalist, a guy called  John Woesdijk (sp?), who was walking the route with a dog for a dog magazine.  Later we found out that there was a fourth.  She was with the Washington Post with her Mum.  The last two I didn’t hear anything from again.  All four wanted to follow Steinbeck’s route, but Bill S., I must be honest, tried to follow Steinbeck’s whole route.  I must say I couldn’t agree with his political views, to say the least, but he did describe the route very precisely, like where Steinbeck bought his gun, with all kinds of movies, including if you would like to follow the route through his eyes.  I really recommend his website.

QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with him?

ANSWER: Oh yeah, later on we talked a lot about it.  I really did want to talk to him because I really did find – even though he had opinions on     Obama, etc. – he was very dedicated, and he did it by himself, and he was the only one who     was roughing it, because Steinbeck stayed in hotels mostly.  Bill really roughed it out.  I got a lot of respect for him, but I thought the only thing I can do is to use him in my book…and so it goes.

But as soon as my book was finished, I wrote him – and he had also heard of me. He heard about a book in Holland, and we talked openly and frequently, and we are planning in our lives absolutely to come together, and with a great glass of beer and talk about world problems and solve them by the end of the afternoon.

QUESTION: He is an arch-conservative, right-winger Republican?

ANSWER: No, no!  He would get real mad if you tell him that, because he really didn’t like George W. Bush.  He is a Libertarian thinker.  No, No I am a half-Socialistic, latent drinking, French loving, Volvo driving, European.

So I was really different, but Steigerwald found out that Steinbeck said things in his book that were absolutely not true, and I also discovered that too.  Because if you follow Steinbeck’s journey you find, for instance, he went fishing a whole afternoon with a companion, and talks about his marriage etc., but supposedly on the same day when you follow his iterinerary he drove 400-450 miles.  You can’t be fishing in the beginning of the afternoon – and then drive 450-miles. So you find a lot of discrepancies.

Twenty-nine seconds in, Geert Mak starts talking about “Bill Steigerwald” during an interview in Holland last spring.

Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably. Someday we plan to meet — over there.

If you read/understand Dutch, enjoy:

Geert Mak was in Leeuwarden. Hij vertelt over het boek Reizen zonder John. Maar zijn roadtrip was niet helemaal uniek vertelt hij de aanwezigen. Er waren meer mensen die in de voetsporen van John Steinbeck treden.

For English readers:

If you can read Dutch, you can order Geert Mak’s new book “Traveling Without John in Search of America.” Mak, a well-known and high-quality journalist and author in the Netherlands, did what I did and carefully repeated Steinbeck’s trip in the fall of 2010.

Mak did a lot of the same Steinbeck research I did and his nearly 600-page book about the current state of America includes much of what I discovered about Steinbeck’s real trip.

Here, translated by Google’s clever but imperfect computers, is how the book is described on Mak’s web site:

Travelling without John

Looking for America

On September 23, 1960 left the legendary writer John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley for an expedition across the American continent. He wanted his country and his countrymen again know. Exactly fifty years later, on the hour, was Geert Mak again for the old house of Steinbeck. It was the beginning of a renewed inspection tour in the footsteps of Charley and John, but now with the eyes of 2010. What is the past half century in American cities and towns changed? Where is Main Street USA go?

Which dreams chased the Americans over the centuries their ideals? What is it ended? What remains of that “city on the hill”, the Promised Land which was once the world looked? And above all, what we have together, America and Europe in the 21st century?

Geert Mak avoided, like John Steinbeck, the beaten path. He drove thousands of miles through the potato fields of Maine and the infinity of the Midwest, sat day after day at the table with farmers, laborers, fishermen and schoolmasters, met with shiny suburbs and boarded-up village shops, searched, again and again, to the stories of this country which nobody ever gets finished.

 

 

In my never-ending quest to get a legacy publisher to publish “Dogging Steinbeck” so it can get into libraries and bookstores where it deserves to be, I left a phone message and sent a token pitch to the University of Nevada Press.

The folks there were nice and responded, which itself was a rare treat.

Here’s the response I got:

Thank you for telling us about your book Dogging Steinbeck.  I regret that we cannot take on this project because it has already been published and is available on Amazon.  I do agree that there will be new attention to Steinbeck this year, given the anniversary celebration of The Grapes of Wrath. You might find that the best use of your time is to try again to promote the book you have already released.

 

It was a typical response. And so, in response to their response, I wrote this gripe, which applies to every publishing company big and small in America:

It’s a pretty annoying and strange publishing system we non-famous, non-tenured authors are up against.

I couldn’t get a book advance from a major New York publisher in 2010 — despite my fine proposal — because I was not famous, because road books don’t sell and/or because no one cared about Steinbeck anymore (these were the top reasons I was 0-35, despite my readable, crazy style, according to my Madison Avenue agent).

I went ahead anyway, did my trip and wrote my book. On my own time, on my own dime.

I got lucky, I met many memorable Americans along the Steinbeck Highway, I made real literary news by exposing the deceptions of a major American writer. And I forced a major publisher, Penguin Group, to confess that, after 50 years of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, “Travels With Charley” was really a bunch of fiction and dishonest BS.

You’d think that in the declining world of publishing, all this would be worthy of a book. But after I took my road trip I still had no interest from legacy publishers.

I did everything right and got really lucky, thanks to the Steinbeck scholars who were asleep at their desks for half a century.

I wrote a road  book that tells, in an entertaining and authoritative way, how I made major literary news, how I changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore, and how I — by my self-promoting self — got media attention and editorial-page praise from the New York Times, got praise and plugs from the world’s most celebrated travel writer (Paul Theroux), got on NPR and CBC radio in Canada, got written up in the pages of the Washington Post and, best of all, got an hour of airtime with Brian Lamb on CSPAN.

I also got grief, not praise or thanks, from the Steinbeck scholars.

Then, after I self-publish my book and have some success, I hear from some small and medium publishers that they can’t publish my book because I did too good of a job promoting it and my “scoop.”

Then I hear from other publishers that it’s too late for them to publish my book in print (so it can get into its natural market of libraries and bookstores) because I already published it as an ebook on Amazon. (I’m sure you know I can take it off Amazon in 30 seconds.)

Then, when it turns out I was ahead of the curve on the 2014 Resurrection of John Steinbeck and my book is timely and topical, it still doesn’t matter.

What earthly difference does it make to librarians and independent bookstore owners, and their clientele, whether my book already exists as an ebook somewhere?

It doesn’t exist yet in print, in stores. How can a small publisher looking to sell 10,000 copies of a book with a long commercial tail that has already proved its value and credibility not want to take advantage of the work I’ve already done?

It has nothing to do with an advance or royalty terms. It’s just a “rule.” I bet if my book started selling 100 ebooks a day a publisher would break the rule — I know it’s happened with other books.

So far I’ve sold 1,000 copies without any help from a publisher or its marketing department.

I’ve heard a dozen newspaper book editors say they don’t review self-published books.

I’ve heard two dozen very short-sighted bookstore owners tell me they won’t carry my self-published book because they can’t return it.

Other, even more clueless, bookstore owners have told me I can’t even appear in their stores to talk about my book and sell POD copies of it because I was hooked up with the Devil — Amazon.

I know Amazon is the bad guy who’s mean to bookstores (most of whom are stuck in 1850 and can’t handle the competition).

So I guess it makes the soon-to-be-gone bookstore owners feel good to do unto nobody authors like me what Amazon does unto them. Can you understand why I might not shed a single tear when I hear a bookstore had died?

Thank God for Amazon.

I wouldn’t have a book without it. I would never have gotten emails of praise from Holland, where the book “Travels Without John in Search of America” by super-star Geert Mak is a best-seller, has been translated into several languages and is headed to America soon. (Mak retraced Steinbeck’s 1960 trip the same time I did in the fall of 2010 and he credits me and my dogged journalism a dozen times in his book — in Dutch.)

Amazon made it possible for me to get around the braindead publishing industry and get a book distributed around the world without costing me a quarter. Now Amazon is keeping me from getting a “real” publisher?

I’ve proven in the marketplace and in the conflicting worlds of journalism and academia that my book “Dogging Steinbeck” is a valuable piece of literary and travel journalism.

I caught Steinbeck and his publisher with their literary ethics down. I got praise from some of the smartest travel writers and journalists on the planet.

And all I get — still — from publishers is the same Catch 22s.

It’s no wonder the publishing industry is collapsing. It deserves to.

Bill Emerson of Kansas City read my book and liked it enough to give it four stars, for which I am grateful.
But he couldn’t understand why I had put so much of my  libertarian politics in the book.
Here’s his comment from Amazon.com, followed by my explanation/response.

I had read several Steinbeck books, but not Charley.

I really did like the “investigative” parts to this. Bill
Steigerwald does a great job of tying the time of Steinbeck
in with today.

One thing I did not understand and would like to ask the author:

What in the hell does Libertarian have to do with it?

Don’t you know that there are only 17 Libertarians
anywhere in the world at any one time? Except when a Democrat is
president, then it mushrooms to most of the Republican party…..

 

My response:

Thanks for the nice comments. As I write somewhere in the book, when you drive the miles and write a road book about America you — the author — get to air/spew your political opinions about what you see and think. Steinbeck did, though most of his (liberal Democrat) comments were taken out of his original manuscript. Bill Barich did in “Long Way Home.” Philip Caputo just did in “The Longest Road.” Heat-Moon did.Everyone does.

Sprawl, commercial development, cars, the environment, energy policy, city planning, race relations, the ups and downs of the economy — they’re all driven by politics (unfortunately) and open to debate. Most travel books are written by liberal Democrats who, as I point out in the book, all sound like they’re reading from the editorial page of the NY Times. They hate sprawl, they hate malls, they make fun of free markets, they unthinkingly embrace government regulation, they hate the culture and the conservative politics of Flyover Country — and they say so in their books. Most reviewers don’t even notice or mention the authors’ left-liberal-East Coast politics, mainly because the reviewers invariably are liberals too. I’ve been an open libertarian journalist/columnist/media critic for 30-plus years. For me to pretend not to disagree with Steinbeck’s political point of view or the liberal Democrat point of view of Barich et al., or to let their political commentaries or biased asides about America or its people pass without comment, would have been dishonest and phony, not to mention foolish.

Road books are about the road, the country, the people you meet, etc., but they’re all filtered through the author — his life, his thoughts, his politics. Not everyone is a Republican or a Democrat, thank god. The two major parties have brought us a national government that is a Big Nanny/Big Snoop at home and World Cop overseas.

It’s pretty sad that my libertarian politics — that peaceful people should be as personally, economically and socially free as possible; that government should be as decentralized and weak and unnoticed in our daily lives as possible; and that America should mind its business overseas — would seem exotic or out of place to a fellow America today. Those basic libertarian principles have been forgotten and abused. But they would be very familiar — and very dear — to Jefferson or Washington or Grover Cleveland or Twain or Mencken or Milton Friedman or hundreds of other dead great Americans whose politics were essentially libertarian.

On Sept. 29, 1960, John Steinbeck slept in camper under a bridge in the rain somewhere along Maine’s Route 11, which probably has more moose living along it than people.

We know Steinbeck actually did sleep in his truck that night, because he told his wife Elaine he did in a letter to her from the road the next night.

Steinbeck’s lonely night may have been the only time on his 75 day trip he slept in his camper in the middle of nowhere. Most of the time he was in a motel or shacked up with his wife in a fancy hotel, resort or family vacation home.

Three falls ago, exactly 50 years after John Steinbeck took his “Travels With Charley” trip, I chased Steinbeck’s ghost around the USA.

Here’s an excerpt from my book that recounts what I did when he drove down motel-less Route 11 — and where I had to sleep.

 

Destination Milo

The Aroostook County line finally appeared, but Route 11 refused to end. I watched a protracted sunset from a hilltop and small-talked to two overly serious photographers from Montreal who had set up their tripods in the tall grass to capture the glorious panorama.

The middle of Maine feels even emptier when the sun is gone. It was dark when I pulled into Millinocket, the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lived. After a surprisingly good spinach salad and a beer at Pelletier’s crowded family restaurant/bar, I drove into the black night for the next major town, Milo. In the dark I covered a distance of 39 miles to Milo, but the road I traveled could have been a high-speed treadmill in a tunnel. As far I could tell, except for Brownville Junction, it was deep forest all the way. I took photos of the twisting road ahead as I chased its white lines at 60 mph, straddling the centerline through a narrow channel of trees.

image027

A few mailboxes flashed by, a house with no lights, maybe a river. My Sirius XM radio, cranked up extra-loud with jazz, cut in and out because of the terrain or overhanging trees, I didn’t know which. I met my third car after 17 miles. In 45 minutes I counted 12. Steinbeck, who slept overnight in his camper shell by a bridge somewhere along Route 11, traveled the same lonely desolate way, but probably in daylight, when the local moose population would have been awake. Maine has 30,000 moose but I didn’t run into one.

I passed through downtown Milo, a town of 2,400 in the dead center of Maine. Once a thriving railroad repair facility for all of New England, Milo earned its Wiki-immortality in 1923 when 75 members of the Ku Klux Klan sullied the town’s Labor Day parade by holding its first daylight march in the United States. South of town I stopped for gas at the C&J Variety store. A true variety store, it carried booze, paperback books, pizza, live bait and Milo hoodies. Out front it even had a public pay phone, something Steinbeck would have appreciated if C&J Variety hadn’t been a Studebaker dealership or whatever it was in 1960.

“Did you ever hear of John Steinbeck?” I asked the 20-something girl behind the counter when she came outside for a smoke.

“I don’t think he lives around here,” she said.

Too tired to laugh, I held my smart-ass tongue. I provided her with some context.

“He’s the author of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Did you ever have to read them in high school?”

Her face brightened. “Now that you say it, I’ve heard the name. I thought you were asking me if he lived around here.” She wasn’t the last person, young and old, who would not recognize John Steinbeck’s name until I also mentioned his two most famous books, which most high school kids in America still read – or at least are still assigned.

I’ll never know how close I was to a motel when I gave up. I drove another 70 or 80 miles south of Milo, trusting my GPS Person to figure out the best way to get from endless state Route 11 to U.S. Highway 2. My notebook from that night faded into scribbles and went blank. “Dover has a McDonald’s …. Guilford, no business district….” For an hour I looked for a decent turnout or rest stop. On a long grade on U.S. Route 2, somewhere east of Farmington, Maine, I flew past a poorly lighted used car dealership sitting by itself. I hit the brakes hard, backed onto the grassy lot and parked at the end of a row of vehicles. With the nose of my RAV4 pointed at the road, I locked myself in, cracked my sunroof, installed my blackout curtains and instantly fell asleep.

Impersonating a used car worked flawlessly. Even with its cargo carrier, my RAV4 blended in with the 30 or 40 other vehicles parked on the lot. Trucks and cars and the local law hurrying by in the night took no notice. Here is an extremely over-exposed photo I took of my car in the used car lot.

 

DSC_2029

Up at 4:50, by 5:15 I was in the Farmington McDonald’s sipping coffee, reading my email, writing a blog item and eavesdropping on four Republican geezers saying kind things about Sarah Palin that would offend and frighten most of my ex-colleagues in journalism.

It was there that I discovered two reliable things about McDonald’s that benefitted me for the next 10,000 miles: You can count on every McDonald’s to have strong, free Wi-Fi that you can use for as long as you want any time of day. And you can count on finding a local gang of 4 to 6 wise old guys in bad hats who will be thrilled to answer a stranger’s questions about what their world was like in 1960.