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Oakley Hall, 1920 - 2008

Author of Western novels, UC Irvine writing teacher

May 16, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Oakley Hall, an author and teacher whose novels set in California and environs helped define contemporary Western literature and who also helped launch the literary careers of such prominent writers as Michael Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan, has died. He was 87.

Hall died Monday of complications from cancer and kidney disease at his home in Nevada City, Calif., said his daughter Brett Hall Jones.

In a richly varied and productive career, Hall wrote more than 20 novels, including "Warlock" (1958), a fictional account of the early West that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and "The Downhill Racers" (1963), about skiers in the Sierra Nevada. Both books were made into movies.

He was best known, however, as a professor of English at UC Irvine and a co-director of the school's writing program. He joined the faculty in 1968.

"Oakley was a hugely generous mentor who was very important to many writers," Michelle Latiolais, co-director of the university's programs in writing, said Thursday.

"His course on how to structure a work of fiction was legendary," said Latiolais, a former student of Hall.

He wrote several guides to fiction writing, including "The Art and Craft of Novel Writing," in 1989.

As a novelist, Hall wrote "psychological realism," Latiolais said. He often used the historical West as his setting, without the white hats and black hats.

"Warlock" is set in a California mining town where a gunslinger lawman tries to impose order. Violent gangs, murky politicians and a decent woman who is a prostitute are among the characters.

"Oakley complicated a romantic moral clarity we had about the West," Latiolais said.

She said he also helped lay the groundwork for several generations of revisionist writers, notably Cormac McCarthy, whose "Blood Meridian," a 1985 novel, follows a gang of Anglo scalp hunters in the mid-1800s.

Hall's other books include a series of mysteries featuring American satirist Ambrose Bierce as the main character. The first in the series, "Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades," was published in 1998.

Hall wrote the libretto for "Angle of Repose," an opera by Andrew Imbrie based on the novel by California writer Wallace Stegner.

As a teacher, Hall was admired, beloved and feared.

"Oakley would stay on a piece of writing, get into it on a molecular level," Chabon said Thursday.

"He wasn't harsh, but he didn't pull any punches," he said of Hall's critiques. "He didn't worry if what he said would be easy to hear.

"He had a classic gruff exterior, but you knew he was a warm and affectionate man who was really trying to help. That made the criticism easier to take."

In 1969, Hall co-founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a summer program with workshops and informal lectures held at a ski resort near Lake Tahoe. The program offers unpublished writers the chance to hear from established authors. Ford and Tan, both close friends of Hall, have often been guest speakers.

"Squaw is where I got my start as a writer," Tan said in an interview Thursday. "That is where I found the confidence and determination to be a writer."

She attended the program for the first time as a student in 1985 and brought along several short stories she had written. They became part of her novel "The Joy Luck Club," a bestseller published in 1989.

Hall, his wife, Barbara; daughter, Brett; and son-in-law, novelist Louis B. Jones, all became closely involved with the Squaw Valley program, which brought out a certain side of him.

"You can't separate Oakley from the 'father, husband, patriarch' that he was," Tan said.

Hall was born July 1, 1920, in San Diego. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1943 and earned a master of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa in 1950. He taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop before he joined UC Irvine. He retired in 1990.

Hall married Barbara Edinger, a well-known photographer, in 1945. In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by a son, Oakley Hall III; daughters Sands and Tracy; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned.

Contributions in his name can be made to Doctors Without Borders, P.O. Box 5030, Hagerstown, MD 21741-5030; or the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, P.O. Box 1416, Nevada City, CA 95959.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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