Q & A with “Take Me to the River” editors Joell and Coke Hallowell

For ten years, Coke Hallowell and her daughter Joell asked people with deep connections to the San Joaquin, “What was your life like along the river?” With candor and enthusiasm, people responded. Take Me to the River recounts the many trials—damming, overpopulation, climate change—and triumphs that a river undergoes in our times.

What was it like to hear all these amazing stories from folks with deep connections with the river?

History truly comes alive when it is particular and personal. It was impossible not to be enthralled by these tales as they were told to us with such genuine enthusiasm and gusto. The storytellers’ exuberance was so palpable that we think it remains apparent in the written form, even after the inevitable cutting and rearranging that happened in the editing process. Most of the storytellers, after having lived so many years by the river, were still excited about its riches and rewards—the fishing expeditions, canoe trips, the wildflowers that continue to blossom each spring. We couldn’t help but be swept up by these energetic anecdotes. The hours zipped by and it was always a disappointment when our time was up. Often, just as we were packing up our camera to leave, a stack of family photo albums would be brought out for our viewing. That was always a particularly exciting moment and one that was hard to walk away from. Precious, though often yellowed and tattered, many of the photos had been passed down through several generations. These photos are a big part of what inspired us to turn our video interviews into a book. They are truly remarkable.

If readers could get just one thing out of your book, what would it be?
We observed one major commonality in all of our narrators, even those who were not activists or environmentalists. They all had incredible reverence for the earth, a great respect for the land they grew up on and for their current plot of ground, whether big or small, owned or leased. Each storyteller seemed to have a sharp sense of what was surrounding them, and an acute understanding and curiosity for what had been there before. They would inevitably point out a new bloom, the sound of a bird nesting nearby, or the remnants of a past dwelling. If readers are inspired to look more closely at the world around them—to take note of what flies past their homes, from which direction the clouds blow in, how the full moon lights their bedroom—that would mark a wonderful triumph for us, and would carry on the legacy of our storytellers.

The forces of this earth are ever powerful. It seems that even when all odds are at work against nature, it has a way of taking back its strength—especially when a group of people put their minds together to help. The citizens of Fresno and Madera counties saw a river neglected, they saw looming threats to its survival, and they have begun to help the river regain its strength. People with passion are ever powerful. It was wonderful to meet so many of the individuals who have worked so hard to protect the San Joaquin River and set it back on its natural course.

Anything surprising happen that you did not expect?
Sometimes, though we’d shown up to hear stories of life on the San Joaquin River, we would suddenly be transported to the Midwestern plains, the vineyards of France, a cyclone fence factory in Oakland. The human story is innately tangential, our lives are full of varied encounters and diversions—and one story always leads to another. Our goal was to try to stay focused and collect stories of the San Joaquin River, but the diversions were always a welcome bonus. A story that begins at the river doesn’t always stop there.

What challenges did you encounter?
The process of collecting first-person stories was not as easy as we’d imagined. We wanted to make sure that the storytellers were able to tell their stories in their own ways, in their own voices. We had to learn to be a very particular kind of interviewer. We had to be active listeners and to follow every nuance while not interfering with the natural course of the story. So as not to leave any detail unturned, we’d attempt to keep track of where we’d been confused and which elements seemed to be missing, but we’d try to wait to ask our questions until after the narrator’s trajectory had come to its natural conclusion.

We found that rather than coming with a predetermined set of questions, we just needed to say, “Tell us about your experiences on the river.” People are usually very good at telling their own tales, though sometimes our narrators would first give us a quick ten-minute wrap-up of their stories. They’d already told their stories a million times—their families had heard them over and over—and they imagined that we wouldn’t want to hear all the many fine points and particulars. We had to assure them that we were eager to hear it all, and that’s when the fun began. I think this was an enjoyable experience for most of our interviewees, too. We were a fresh audience. When we got to what appeared to be the end of each story, we always asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?” Invariably there was another story, sometimes the best yet.

It was often difficult not to join in. We both knew many of the characters that showed up in the stories, we’d been to many of the locations along the river, and we’d heard similar details in other interviews. It was a challenge not to say, “Oh yes, we’ve been there. We know him, too. Yes, it was wonderful, wasn’t it?” We tried our best to let every story stand on its own, and to keep our own feelings and experiences out of the way. That may have been the biggest challenge of all. We both love the stories of the San Joaquin River.