35 years ago Joe Cottonwood bought a 600 sq ft cabin in La Honda, with no hot water, no heat, no stove, and developed it into a beautiful home that seems directly evolved out of the Redwood forest. Joe was born in the distant land of Maryland, but around age 7 a young friend moved to Palo Alto and sent back that magical postcard we’ve all seen, showing a car driving through a Redwood Tree; and that was it. He knew then that one day he would live around trees like that.
Joe Cottonwood has eight (8) novels out, and is writing two more right now. That other La Honda novelist, Ken (Whats-his-name? oh, yes, Kesey! of course), only produced three novels. Like Wally, the hero of his recent novel, 'Clear Heart.' Joe is a General Contractor who has put bread on the table primarily by working "over the hill" where money and houses change faster than around here. Unlike Wally, he has never been crucified to a 'King' post by a souped-up, run-away, pneumatic nail gun named "Debbie Doofus", but he has suffered other injuries (including a wooden stake driven into his hand), and has 'walked the walk' of the principled, rural, physically vital working men who he writes about with fascinating insight.
His path to La Honda went through Washington University in St. Louis where he became an English Major, despite being 'programmed' by his parents to become a scientist. By the time he graduated, leaving the student deferment behind, the Viet Nam war was heating up and as sure as he knew giant Redwoods were good, he knew war was not. He traveled to California hoping only for a final look at those BIG Trees, before what he assumed was going to be an ex-patriation to Canada. The massacre at Kent State happened while Joe was en route to California, and he remembers the odor of tear gas in Berkeley, where he stopped on the way.
Joe's daughter was born on a waterbed under a pine tree lit by an August full moon in the backyard of a hippy 'semi-commune' called "Wagon Wheels" on Alpine Road. The midwife was June Witson (RIP), another name from the lore of La Honda, who eventually lured Joe and Barbara (Joe and Barbara first dated in 1964!) to complete the transformation to La Hondans. As well as most of his novels, all Joe's children grew up in La Honda. Joe left his mark on Alpine Road however, by painting signs saying "FAR IN" and "FAR OUT" which exist to this day, to show folks the way to a now different, but similar group of small cabins off Alpine Road. Joe has a novel in progress that takes place up and down that stretch of road, where the suburban life and the truly rural life still find themselves in conflict.
Joe joined, and continues to support the group of local artists that originally formed in the early 1970's around Will Schmidt (another La Honda legend). The group has continued in many forms, recently meeting in the home of local artist and writer, Lynnette Vega. Joe currently co-hosts "Lit Night'" the last Wednesday of each month at Sullivan's Restaurant.
Joe almost received an "F" for his first novel, due to poor class attendance, at Washington University. But when he handed in the manuscript the instructor recognized a talent the likes of other WU faculty, Howard Nemerov, William Gass, Stanley Elkin, and Robert Coover. And though he had been keeping a journal all through High School, and had written his first story in the 4th grade, "A Dog Named Caesar," it took (his future wife) Barbara's encouragement to persuade him completely away from a career in science, into the life of a committed writer. Most writers have a "Day Job," as Joe has his carpentry, but Joe has lived one of the modest dreams all writers aspire to. He actually made enough money from his novels to support some dedicated writing time for a short while.
His novel "Famous Potatoes," first published in 1978, by Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, New York, has been translated into 7 languages. It is still currently available, and selling well as an 'ebook.' You can find it at smashwords.com. The Italian company, Mattioli 1885, brought Joe to Italy in 2009 to promote the re-release of "Famous Potatoes" in translation. The "Famous Potato" hero, Willie Crusoe, is "...on the lam from a spurious murder charge, with an aching heart and broken balls ... from the Mushroom Mountain Sanitarium in the hills of West Virginia, via highways, bus stations, and cheap diners in Philadelphia, St. Louis and points between to a lost gold mine in the sky-high Rockies of Idaho." (from the Famous Potatoes book jacket).
To me, the novel up-dates Kerouac's "On The Road," into a 1960s and 70s rite of passage that is more down to earth and respectful of the "...great many warm, loving, genuinely beautiful people buried (like potatoes) beneath the slickness of a prosperous, straight, suburban America." (from the Famous Potatoes book jacket).
"Clear Heart" deserves as much or more kudos as "Famous Potatoes" in my book because it reveals the exciting, though seemingly common dramas of the independent American tradesman who is as alienated from accounting and tax-discipline as from the arrogant "Snots" who pay reluctantly for the hard, dangerous work. The novel also gives us a glimpse into the lives of folks who gravitate to the trades, at least for some part of their lives - the runaway young woman "Frog Girl," the graduating scholar who already wants out of the parental-corporate complex "Abe", the escapee from a brush with crime, too canny and quick for his own good "Juke." These are the folks who name their tools, find some tools haunted, and learn how to make their work come alive.
Joe's novels are "Quake," "The Adventures of Boone Barnaby," "Danny Ain't," "The Naked Computer," "Famous Potatoes," "Babcock," "Frank City Goodbye," and "Clear Heart." He also has a book of poetry called "Son of a Poet." He is working on two more novels, but his current passion is podcasting. If you want to hear Joe's podcasts, go to iTunes and search for "Joe Cottonwood." Joe has involved some young, local talent to add dramatic voices to his podcasts. Caroline Graham, a student at Pescadero High School, has a starring role in two of the features. Joe also has a blog at clearheartblog.blogspot.com and an official web site at joecottonwood.com.