I have them all. When you fall in love, you try to find out all you can about the object of your affection. Once I fell for California, Starr's history books, with their cinematic and journalistic sweep, ensnared me in a way that no monograph, no memoir could do. Clear-eyed but ultimately hopeful, they've sold well, but, as he says, "People aren't going to the beach with an Oxford University Press book."
You grew up in an orphanage?
My mother had a nervous breakdown, and my parents separated. Roman Catholic Social Services put us [Starr and his brother] in an orphanage for five years. I loved the place. It was a tremendous education, great nurturing. There was a great pool table, a great library, a camp up in the mountains. My experience was very different from some of these horror stories you hear.
What's your personal history with history?
My great-grandfather came to San Francisco in the early 1850s. My other great-grandfather came in the early 1870s. My grandmother would tell me about going to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. She had a banana plant she bought there -- 30 years later, it [was] still growing. She told me about the  fire and earthquake. So from her I absorbed this tremendous sense of the San Francisco story.
You've said that in some ways you didn't discover California until you got to graduate school at Harvard.
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This Yankee institution had a tremendous sense of the history of the West. I started to browse on the fourth floor of the Widener Library in the California section, and suddenly it dawned on me. I thought, "There's all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don't seem to have the point of view we're encouraged to look at -- the social drama of the imagination." So I started the first volume, writing it for my thesis.
So it was California, the untold dream?
I've always tried to write California history as American history. The paradox is that New England history is by definition national history, Mid-Atlantic history is national history. We're still suffering from that.
Did you have a hard time initially getting others to take California seriously?
Oh, absolutely. I think we still have that.
As a San Franciscan, did it kill you to have to say nice things about L.A.?
I came down here on vacation in the late '50s, early '60s, and I fell in love with Southern California. I think that divide has been out of date since the 1960s. A tremendous anxiety overcame San Francisco in the early 1920s when Los Angeles became the most populous city in the state. Cities tend to get twinned: Boston and New York, Kyoto and Tokyo. One is more open, assimilative, growing, exuberant; the other becomes more self-reflective. By 1855 (eight years after the city became Americanized), San Francisco is publishing "The Annals of San Francisco," an 800-page book.
Sheila, your wife -- to whom you dedicate this book with "we met in this time and began our life together" -- has said you tell history like you're holding forth at the bar at the Bohemian Club.
I like narrative, and I ultimately am in love with the men and women I write about, most of them. My editor eliminated 350 to 400 pages. But she also suggested that narrative history takes room.
How do you keep all your research organized?
They talk about San Francisco sourdough bread, that the yeast in the bread is alive since 1849. I started a bibliography of California that I have kept alive for over 45 years, every time I come across a reference. I'll read something by you, and that's a reference.