August 2018


Steve Wasserman, publisher of Heyday Books, is former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He grew up in Berkeley and organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965 among junior high school students. In 1968 he co-led a successful student strike at Berkeley High School that founded the first black history and studies department at an American public high school. 

You had quite an illustrious career before coming to Heyday Books. Could you tell us about some of the highlights?

I’ve spent the better part of the last 40 years determined to work every station in the publishing kitchen: newspapers, magazines, and books. My parents moved to Berkeley in August 1963, and because geography is fate and timing is everything their doing so permitted me a precocious adolescence since Berkeley was one of the epicenters of what would come to be called The Sixties. Growing up in Berkeley in those over-oxygenated years aroused in me a passion for politics and — more broadly — a conviction that ideas mattered, and I began to harbor the ambition that I might act as a kind of midwife to their birth. It always seemed to me that good writing held the key to the project of deepening civic awareness and encouraging critical thinking.

I was lucky to fall into the orbit of Robert Scheer who was in the mid- to late-60s the editor of Ramparts magazine; he also ran for Congress in 1966 on a platform to end the Vietnam War and end poverty in Oakland. I was then a 14-year-old campaign worker going door-to-door for him. In the early 70s we worked together: I was his researcher on a book he was writing that would be called America after Nixon: The Age of the Multinationals. Later he joined the Los Angeles Times as a reporter and then a columnist. I came down to L.A. as his researcher, and was later hired as deputy editor of the paper’s Sunday opinion section and daily op-ed page. Five years went by and I found that in Los Angeles I was so often mistaken for being from New York that I had to embrace my fate and actually move there. I also became convinced that there was a limit to what newspapers could actually do. At their best they were transmission belts for the popularization of the news from elsewhere, and I came to believe that no truly original idea was first bruited about in their pages. Books, by contrast, although they did not have as wide a readership as the circulation of America’s best metropolitan dailies, could have an influence out of all proportion to their actual readership. I became convinced that sometimes less really is more, and that spending time working with an author to advance an argument was a worthwhile thing to do. I was hired by The New Republic, where I quickly found myself to be a minority of one, politically. Later I went to work for the publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Fortune looked favorably upon me, and I was privileged to publish a number of best-sellers. Random House came knocking and I jumped at the chance to have a larger playing field and was appointed editorial director of Times Books, where I helped publish Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, among other books. Then, in the mid-90s, I returned to the Los Angeles Times as the literary editor of the paper, presiding over the Sunday Book Review section, and a principal architect of the newly founded Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I did that for nearly 10 years and then went back to New York as a literary agent representing various ne’er-do-wells like the late Christopher Hitchens, among others, and then, after his untimely death in 2011, went to Yale University Press as its editor-at-large for trade books.

I’m afraid this romp through my resume only suggests that I’m not able to hold a job longer than perhaps six or seven years at a time, possibly because the boredom factor sets in. So I’ve turned my temperament into what I hope is a virtue in that I keep trying to learn new things and to keep challenging myself. When the opportunity arose a little over two years ago to return to my natal town, I thrilled at the chance. The offer to run an independent nonprofit press as distinguished as Heyday was too good to refuse.

A lot of OLLI members are familiar with Heyday Books as one of the stalwarts of the Bay Area literary landscape. How has Heyday evolved over time, and what are some current and forthcoming projects and publications from Heyday?

Heyday revolves around four pillars:

First, a longstanding concern with the predicament of California’s indigenous peoples. That’s been an interest ever since Malcolm Margolin, Heyday’s remarkable and visionary founder, self-published a book he called The Ohlone Way — a book that remains in print 40-odd years after it was first published — which is a close look at what life may have been like for the native peoples who occupied the East Bay during the 10,000 years before European contact. Heyday publishes a quarterly magazine called News from Native California which is entirely run by native peoples and reflects Heyday’s continuing interest in Indian cultural renewal.

Second, a commitment to issues of social justice. Among our forthcoming books is a posthumous memoir by the late Don Cox, who was Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party from 1967 to 1972, and left at his death in 2011 in exile in France a memoir of his time in the party’s high command. Unfortunately many of the issues that gave rise to the party are still with us, especially police brutality, plus widespread inequities and the persistence of racism in the country and the general culture. Susan Anderson, who is the temporary curator of the African-American Museum and Library in Oakland and a distinguished historian, is writing a one-volume history of African-Americans in California from the Gold Rush to the present. It’s an epic story that has been hiding in plain sight for a long time but oddly nobody has written it. We recently published a book aimed at younger readers called Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, which I’m delighted to say has received widespread literary recognition, including most recently the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. The ACLU has been especially supportive of this book, and it is conceived as the inaugural volume in a series of books on social justice issues that Heyday has embarked upon. The series takes exemplary figures who, by virtue of their courage and outspokenness, have been focal points around which various struggles have been waged. The second book in the series, which we’ll be publishing in February 2019, during Black History Month, is called Biddy Mason Speaks Up. It examines the life and achievements of a woman who was formerly enslaved who came to Los Angeles and would go on to become one of the great philanthropists of L.A. Her story is not nearly as widely known as it should be.

Third, a commitment to celebrate nature and its bounty and to defend California’s ecological environment. As part of that project we published Obi Kaufmann’s California Field Atlas, and we continue to publish remarkable work by such writers as the gifted John Muir Laws.

Fourth, exploring history, as well as the making of it. We try to encourage new voices — fresh voices, often younger voices — without of course believing that only the young possess wisdom. So too do elders; we don’t want to discriminate against those of us who managed to survive our own youth! Mainly Heyday is devoted to helping authors tell stories that make sense of otherwise inchoate experience; history is a chorus of those stories and we aim to expand their number. Let every voice sing!

You were in Berkeley in 1968. What were some of your experiences?

As everybody knows who lived through it — or who has given it any thought — 1968 was a hinge year in the country and throughout the world, culturally and politically. In 1968 I was 16, a junior attending Berkeley High School. The most vivid thing for me personally that year was the student strike led by myself and my friend, Ronald Stevenson. Ronnie was an African-American kid who was an early member of the Black Panther Party and the first chair of the Black Student Union which he had helped to found. Together we led a student strike — me trying to organize the white kids and he trying to organize the Black kids around a single demand: to establish a Black Studies and History department. We were successful: the school board agreed to fund such a department and I promptly enrolled in it. The only disagreement I had with Ronnie was that he thought the course should be an elective, and I thought that if it were an elective only the Black kids would take it. I felt that, arguably, it was an even more important class for the white kids: after all, how could you consider yourself an educated person if you only knew, say, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and not the writings of Frederick Douglass when, in truth, both were a part of our common patrimony. I still have on my bookshelves the books that were assigned reading: Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Before the Mayflower, Basil Davidson’s The African Genius, and Malcolm X’s autobiography, among others. Sadly, Ronnie died a few years ago at age 58 of a brain aneurysm but I’m proud to say that the department we founded 50 years ago still thrives at Berkeley High. It is, distressingly, the only such department in any American high school today.

Nineteen sixty-eight for me was propelled by the previous year of 1967: I had participated in the demonstrations during the Stop the Draft Week at the Oakland Induction Center, and in numerous moratoriums and protests around the Vietnam War. I remember vividly attending two days of the August 1968 trial of Huey P. Newton, charged with killing an Oakland police officer the previous year. I still have the diaries I kept from that period.

Your course title is “1968 and Its Contested Legacy.” Which aspects of 1968 are still up for discussion 50 years later?

There are many. We are still living the division in this country between so-called blue states and red states, what has been called the “culture wars.” I’m interested in avoiding cliches, especially here in Berkeley where one could easily think — in a way that would flatter our collective vanity — that we had achieved rather more victories than actually occurred. Nostalgia should be avoided. The evidence suggests that we won the culture but lost the politics. Nineteen sixty-eight saw the election of Richard Nixon, and indeed 1968 might be regarded as the death knell of a counterculture whose conceits would be shredded by the ultimate victory of a conservative backlash — a backlash which would go on to mount a depressingly successful fifty-year struggle to drive a wooden stake through the heart of the hard-won achievements of the New Deal. Of course hindsight is notoriously 20/20, but even back in 1968 you could sense a darkening mood in the country, a kind of hyperbolic, apocalyptic tone beginning to affect everything from the music to the culture itself. The trajectory from 1967’s “Summer of Love” to Jim Morrison intoning in 1968 “The End” — as The Doors so mordantly put it — to the looming tsunami of reaction engendered by Nixon’s victory based on a campaign of restoring “law and order,” should give us pause. We shouldn’t take easy comfort in the slogans that we so self-servingly chanted, and that too often substituted for a more sober realism. I’m especially interested in the many ways the impulse toward and indeed triumph of a gnarly conservatism was prompted and energized by the ideas and events of that year. It’s grist for a serious and unsentimental examination of our own prejudices and presumptions. At the same time I would hope that any such autopsy doesn’t mean that we have entered a catacomb of extinguished hopes.

How does the unfinished business of 1968 inform contemporary politics and culture? You just mentioned the New Deal; could you expand on that?

I think back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms:” freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The project of the counterculture generally and of the New Left in particular was to create a space that would extend and deepen the enfranchisement of groups that had previously been left out or gotten the short end of the American stick. There was also the hope that we would liberate creative possibilities and free a puritanical and joyless America from the crushing weight of the corporate Moloch, as Allen Ginsberg urged. In other words, the project was to deepen democracy, to extend liberty to others, to make it possible for previously excluded groups to have a seat at the table, to free the imagination and encourage joy and beauty. This perhaps utopian project would be meaningful for all kinds of people and might help diminish their suffering: not only for the historical injustices that were inflicted upon African-Americans but also for women, for gays, and for others left out of the American Dream. At the same time, these campaigns for inclusion curdled into something that became known as identity politics. The tension between the enfranchisement and privileging of specific agendas and the shrinkage or disappearance of the common space is now a debilitating contradiction among and within the progressive movement, and we see it writ large today in the country as a whole.

I remain nonetheless devoted to that imperishable motto “e pluribus unum” — out of many, one — but I worry that we have a hard time making the case to other Americans because the enfranchisement of particular groups is experienced by some as a diminishment of their own status. It also has enfeebled the language we speak to each other. It has had a huge impact on the shaping of the larger political culture.

In a world gone global, in which our fates are bound up with the fates of others, you can see a real tension which has both a reactionary expression and a progressive expression. We live in a world increasingly hostage to tribalisms and movements of irredentism and xenophobia, and at the same time movements both of capital and cultures that are international in scope, rendering borders ever more porous. On the one hand, capitalism steadily weaves the globe into a single international market, challenging traditional notions of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the world is increasingly riven by fratricide, civil war, fundamentalisms of all kinds, demonization of the “other,” and the breakup of nations. There’s a battle between those two phenomena. What they have in common is a distaste for democracy and a decided affection for despotism. How that contest unfolds in specific historical circumstances all over the world — and in our own country in particular — seems to me at the root of a so far unresolved predicament. Our age is marked by a politics of hysteria. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The future of our species — and indeed the very planet — depends on a successful and just outcome.