Sunday, March 20, 2011

Holly Felsen Welch Interview

One of the bigger events on this year's car culture media calendar is the re-release of Henry Gregor Felson's 'Hot Rod' - his first in a series of speed crazed teenager parables. It turns out, about the same time Hot Rod was kicked out into the world, so was Henry's daughter, Holly. She followed in Henry's footsteps as teacher, author and parent. Now married to Mike Welch, retired and living back in her native Iowa, Holly is the living force behind the current Felsen renaissance.

I was honored to have connected with Henry shortly before his passing and when the same thing happened recently with Holly, I knew something important was up. The least I can do to honor that is to pay attention. So  when Holly accepted my invite to share her insight, imagine my delight!

Holly, thanks so much for agreeing to this whacky 'interview' experiment. You're a good sport. You may have a bright future as a test monkey.

Well, I'll just answer the best I can, without trying to put any literary twist on it.
Hey, twist the night away!

Okay, if you say so.

In your new intro to Hot Rod, you mention that you'd never read it before and in fact, you grew up embarrassed that your dad didn't have a 'real job'. Would you care to elaborate on that?

My dad was a local celebrity, so everyone knew I was his daughter. I’d get questions like, “What is it like to have a writer for a dad?” I wanted to be known for me. Besides, I thought it was ordinary and it wasn’t really until recently that I realized how special it was.
Everyone liked my dad and where ever we went, he was treated with care. It was kind of nice, but also a little embarrassing. He liked to be funny and sometimes said things about me. I didn’t want to be singled out. I liked my anonymity!
I remember going with Dad when he was interviewed on a local TV show and I got to be on the show with him. It was a mixed blessing.
However, it was nice in some ways. We went to the state fair one year and he got us in to meet Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. That was really special, to go back stage with them.
When I was a teenager, I was totally embarrassed when I had friends over, because he was always funny and I didn’t really want him trying to make my friends laugh.
I didn’t even know my friends read his books until a couple of years ago. We were working on our class reunion and one of the men said something about reading dad's books. I had no idea anyone read them! No one ever said anything about it to me in high school. Hmmm, maybe I could have had more boyfriends!

You've mentioned that your brother Dan is more of a gearhead - but you must've been exposed to some car culture too. Was it a pain being the daughter of a famous figure in that scene?

Not really. I think, being a girl, no one expected me to be interested in cars. I am just realizing the effect my dad had on me. I never drove an automatic until I was 45. I thought of driving as having a stick shift. I know that was his car influence.
He had a 49 Chevy for many years, then bought a new Dodge Dart in 1965, but it was a stick. I loved driving it! I also realized that the last three cars I have owned, I kept for 11 years each! I don’t think I ever got the idea I had to have a new car. He bought the car he wanted and kept it. Me, too!

Besides writing, you also followed your dad's footsteps into teaching. What did you learn from your students?

Be prepared! I learned a lot about life from my parents and Dad used to go to schools and talk to junior high kids. He would have some kid put on his suit jacket and ask him how it felt. He talked to them about doing age appropriate things and not trying to be an adult too soon.
He used his story characters to teach life lessons and I think that had an effect on me growing up. Always knowing that there would be consequences and were you aware of what they were before you chose your actions.
As a teacher, one of the things I learned from my dad was to be what you are, follow your passion and use your talents. I think we are so locked into this idea that you have to have a certain score on a 'fill in the dot' test, that we miss the best part of people. Appreciate all the talents, whether they be art, music, reading, mechanics, great comedic timing....whatever it is, use it!

Yeah, I guess we all take turns being students and teachers every day, huh? So what's your life like today, when you're not busy being Henry Gregor Felsen's daughter?

My life is perfect. I started teaching at 21 and never missed a beat, even though Mike and I moved from Iowa to Texas, to Nebraska, and back to Iowa. I was lucky enough to always get a teaching job. That afforded me the luxury of retiring at an early age. I spent my last year of teaching trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up and finally decided I would follow my love for photography. I was always taking photos, but had a gut level feel for what I did, not a technical approach. The day after I retired, I started a photoshop class at a community college, then joined the Professional Photographers of Iowa. I’ve spent the last 4 years taking classes, reading, watching tutorials and now I know the technical side, as well. I have a small studio in my basement and was shooting kids, families, babies, weddings, whatever I could do. I found though, that my real talent has come from the books. I have been shooting cars since getting Hot Rod ready and now I have been finding success printing those photos on metal.
But the real pleasure is that after years of dressing up every day, I now get to wear my jeans and boots. I am comfortable all day, can go to the  bathroom whenever I need to and I can take more than 20 minutes for lunch! I also have quiet time to myself, which enables me to think! I spent 36 years surrounded by kids all day and didn’t have time to put a personal thought together!

Considering your experience with this project (Henry's car books), what's your take on the publishing industry?

Wow, I don’t know what I think of the publishing industry. I only really had one company that was interested, The Iowan. They are interested in it from the standpoint of Dad being from Iowa (transplanted from NY). That helped us get started.
I am sad to see so many people preferring to read on an electronic device, as I still have a place in my heart for the book. I want to hold it in my hands and keep it on my shelf. Fortunately, Dad’s fans feel the same way, as they have kept their older copies of his books and they still want the new one! I don’t know if we will really sell very many, according to today’s standards. I’m just happy that there are people out there who still care and want a copy to have on their shelf. One person bought two: One to put on the shelf and one to fold in half and carry in his back pocket!

There's a strong testament! If/when this whole series of books gets re-done, what's next? Where would you like to go from there?

I have that planned already!! As soon as the car books are done, my brother and I want to republish dad's 'Letters' books: “Letters to a Son in Uniform”, and “Letters to My Son the Teenage Driver”. My husband just read the 'Son in Uniform' and suggested we get it out again. He was in the military in Vietnam and he thinks there is an important message in the book.
After that, or before, or during, I’m working on a book about a trip my dad took to China in December of 1945. He wrote a short story about it, that was chosen as Best Short Story of 1952. It was always my favorite story. I found one other person who was on that trip (out of 11), and now know the whole story. My dad saved all kinds of things from the war, so I have the receipts for his hotel stay, dinner with Chinese officers and the photos, as well. I think it would be an awesome book for middle school students, as I also have the original draft in his own handwriting. This is the book I’ve always wanted to do.

'Li Chang's Millions', right? I've read that and it left a mark on me. I hope you guys get it back out there. That's amazing that you connected with one of the people in it! Anything else going on?

There is also an animated film being made in LA from another war story, 'The Gentle Rain' - a very moving story, that I hope will get a little recognition. We are also going to do a book of his short stories and include The Gentle Rain.

A movie! Very cool. First I've heard about that. Hey, guess what? Unexpected down-shift!: If you were a car, what kind would you be?

I would be my first car. My little green VW bug. I miss that car to this day! I had a lot of fun driving that car around.

Bonus question: Now that you're an esteemed member of the elite automotive literary hierarchy, you're qualified to answer this: What's the future of transportation in the U.S. and in the world?

I think our only hope is to go back to driving things that you have to work at, meaning no more automatic transmissions. People don’t drive anymore. They eat, they text, they talk, they put on make up, read books, and I saw one man shaving his head as he drove. If we went back to DRIVING cars, people would have to pay attention to the road. So, I say, let’s really drive, and take a bus if you don’t want to do the driving!

Ha! Someone had to say it! I sense that Henry may be beaming right now... Hey, before you sign off, can you please substantiate or quell this rumor: Word on the street is, there are plans underway for some kind of Henry Gregor Felsen car event this year. Truth, or urban myth? What say you?

Funny you should ask. The rumor is true! The Inaugural Henry Gregor Felsen Memorial Car Show will be held on September 17th at the famous Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, Iowa - where Henry lived when he wrote the car books. I don't know all the details, but the planning is being taken on by four top notch supporters. We'll be meeting next week and I'll be able to give you more details soon. I do know that there'll be a '50s dance with a band and maybe a personal appearance by a certain hot rod songwriter that you all know. It should be a lot of fun!

Well, it's definitely been fun having you on the SGE blog. Thanks for playing along.

My pleasure. But you owe me, big time...

I know.

Keep tabs on the movie at:

For more on Hot Rod and the car show go to:

Secret spy photos of Holly at last week's World of Wheels show in Des Moines (with Tommy Shaw's T and her metal photo art) by Mr. X.