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Rabbit Holes, Coca-Cola, and Time: Joseph Taylor III’s Research Process

November 1, 2019

Joseph E. Taylor III is a professor of history and geography at Simon Fraser University. He earned his degrees at the University of Oregon and University of Washington, and his research investigates the intersection of social and ecological systems in the fisheries, outdoor recreation, gentrification, conservation, and politics of the North American West. He is the author of the recently released Persistent Callings: Seasons of Work and Identity on the Oregon Coast, which explores the history of seasonal labor and intertwined industries in the Nestucca Valley.

Ashley: Did you have the idea for the book first, and then begin your research, or did you start accumulating research, and then decide to put it together into a book?

Joseph: First of all, there’s never a plan. I am always living on Plan B or Plan C, whatever. In this case it’s a particularly shaggy dog story because I started this project in 1988 in an undergraduate seminar, extended as an honors thesis, and then promptly forgot it. Three years ago, a neighbor out of the blue suggested publishing it to make some money for a scholarship fund. The Nestucca Valley has a very low rate of sending kids to college. I thought that was a good idea, but it required a lot of work to transform it into a book, including many rabbit holes. So, I backed into this project, but that’s the story of everything I’ve ever done.

Ashley: What were some of these rabbit holes? Do you have any examples?

Joseph: Employment data, voting records—there were just a whole bunch of themes that still needed exploring. The thirty years between when I defended my honors thesis and right now has included a really tragic story of what’s happened to the rural West in general, and rural Oregon in particular. It includes stories about meth and opiate addiction and what economists call “deaths of despair.” Plus, I had to wrap my brain around the gentrification of the Nestucca Valley, especially the Pacific City/Neskowin area. And all those were stories that simply had not yet happened the first time around. Then, when I was done with the research, I had to rewrite everything because I’m a different writer now than I was as an undergraduate.

Ashley: A different writer in what sense?

Joseph: Better! There were moments when reading my undergraduate prose was really painful. I wrote a hundred-and-thirty-page honors thesis in nine days flat. I basically took spring break, kicked my roommate out of the dorm, cranked up the music, and wrote nonstop while living off of Track Town pizza and Coca-Cola.

Ashley: So I imagine your writing process is a little bit different now.

Joseph: Not that much, really. I wrote my dissertation on Coca-Cola and Hostess Fruit Pies, as well as my first book. The second book was sustained by Snickers and Coca-Cola. You can see the constant. Coke was big this time around as well.

Ashley: Do you have any other traits or qualities that have helped with this kind of work?

Joseph: Well, the most important thing for this project was dropping out of school and spending ten years climbing and fishing and living in the Nestucca Valley. That’s really important because it gave me a baseline understanding of the temperament of a place and the complexity of small-town life. But it also gave me the passion to carry this through.

Ashley: Do you think it’s important for other researchers who are doing similar projects to immerse themselves in that region the way that you have?

Joseph: It helps to see the landscape but also interact with people enough to get a sense of who lives in this world and how it works. Because the past is a different country. The past really is a different place you’re trying to write about. You can’t simply extrapolate back from your own experiences. So, yeah, I think you have to embed yourself at some level for some period. I know many people who go to see landscapes, but they don’t really interact enough, in my mind, with the people. Especially for a book like this which is so people-driven, I think you have to have some sense of that.

Ashley: How did you draw stories out from the people you interviewed?

Joseph: I simply asked questions and let them go. With many it took two or three interviews. They needed a comfort level and, in most cases, it helped that people were vouching for me before I went in, saying, “This is not a stranger; this is not an outsider.” And I am absolutely certain that made a huge difference in terms of willingness of some residents even to talk to me.

Ashley: What else did you do to set them at ease?

Joseph: In every case it started without the recorder. There were cases where we spoke two or three times before they said, “Okay, now you can start the recorder.” I had specific questions, but I let them go where they wanted because what they said was important to them and that’s what mattered. It became easier when I realized I had some baseline data and that they were as likely as not to err on certain facts. I realized that I would need a variety of research methods, basically, to nail down anything.

Ashley: If you had to give one piece of advice to other scholars who plan on writing similarly research-heavy books like your own, or books about a specific region, what advice would you give them?

Joseph: One of the advantages of waiting so long after the honors thesis for publication is that I had time to mull over what I had. The single best example is that is when I finally came back to it, what I thought was a history of the fisheries was much more about the entanglements among the valley’s many industries. I was able to see a story of seasonal labor that nobody has actually ever told. I had one of those idiot epiphanies, where I sat back and suddenly realized, “Why didn’t I ever see this?” It took me twenty-eight years to get to that point, so a scholar’s greatest resource is not necessarily money, but time. Having the time to actually think about what we have, and not rushing to judgment on things: I think that’s the best advice I can give.

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