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[Interview] Nik Interviews David L. Ulin - Thirteen Question Method

[Kelp Journal] Welcome to the show, David L. Ulin. You're the former book critic for the Los Angeles Times, a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, author and editor of a dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction. Including a memoir.

[David L. Ulin] We're now close to seventeen—this one is the seventeenth.

[KJ] Some of those books are Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, the novella Labyrinth, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. And you have a new book that came out recently, and it is a novel. And how many novels have you done?

[DU] This is my second. There’s also a novella that was published in 2012.

[KJ] And this latest one is a little different from your other work. This is a noir, which is kind of a new frontier for you artistically, yes?

[DU] As a writer, yeah. I've been fascinated with the genre and have read deeply and written about it for years. And I did edit one of the Akashic Noir anthologies, Cape Cod Noir, which featured a short story of mine. I think that story and this novel are the only two pieces of noir that I've written, although my fascination with the genre, particularly the existential aspects of it, definitely colors a lot of my other writing.

[KJ] That's awesome. So the title of this work is Thirteen Question Method. Is that direct from the Chuck Berry song?

[DU] Yeah, it took its name from the Chuck Berry song.

[KJ] For our readers that aren't super familiar with your works, can you give us a little bit of an idea of who you are and what your influences are? Where did you grow up and what was that like? What first fascinated you about literature, and more specifically, what got you into the writing aspect of it?

[DU] I grew up in New York and lived there most of the time—I traveled around a bit—until I was in my late twenties, when I moved to Southern California. I grew up in a house full of books, so my father was and still is an avid reader. There were thousands of books in the house. My mother was a former English teacher. My father kind of influenced me as a reader. And my mother taught me stuff about being a writer. I don't think it was particularly conscious in the early days, but I knew I wanted to be a writer from basically the moment that I realized that someone made books—like, they didn't just exist in the world, but that it was somebody's job to create them. I was like, that's the job I want because I love them. Partly it was also because when I was a little kid, I idolized my father. I followed him around. I wanted to do what he did. When I was four or five years old, I thought that there were four things you had to do to be a grown-up man. You had to read. You had to drive. You had to smoke, and you had to shave. So, I no longer smoke, but I have done all of those things. And so I think that was part of it. You know, I just really loved reading. Saul Bellow says that “writers are readers inspired to emulation.” From when I started to be aware of books as a created object, it was always kind of in my head that I wanted to write. I started trying to write my “first novel” when I was in fifth grade or sixth grade. After thirty pages or so, I just, you know, never stopped.

[KJ] So you've continued writing all the way through from a young age.

[DU] Yeah, but, I mean, I didn't complete anything at a young age.

[KJ] Right, but you just kept working on stuff.

[DU] I took creative writing classes. I wrote in a variety of genres. I wrote a play when I was in high school. I wrote a novel as a senior thesis in college, a really bad novel, but a novel nonetheless. It was always part of my world, part of my interest. So I always had a project cooking.

[KJ] Awesome. Are there any mentors that you had along your journey that stand out in your mind?

[DU] Early on, not really. I was basically figuring it out on my own. I will say my teacher in eighth grade. She graded the first extended piece of writing I did, which was an extra credit project. I guess I would call it a novella. It was about a 10,000-word piece of fiction, sixty handwritten pages, the biggest thing I've ever written, and I was really proud of it. But my teacher, she took it apart, and I was wounded. But then I realized that she was taking me seriously, and she was taking my writing seriously. That was really helpful to me. Her name was Mrs. Defazio—I don't know her first name. I wouldn't necessarily say she was a mentor, but that was the first moment I realized that criticism, or critique of your work, could be useful, and that sometimes someone was doing you the best service by telling you what didn't work about a piece of writing; that they weren't insulting you, they were trying to direct you.

I kind of was mentor averse in high school and college, or maybe even not kind of, absolutely mentor reverse. When I moved to Southern California, I got to know Carolyn See, and she became a mentor for me in all kinds of ways, not necessarily in terms of the content of my writing, but just in terms of thinking about how to build a literary life. Thinking about place, thinking about doing a variety of things. You know, you write your books, you write reviews, you teach—partly you do that because you need all those pieces to make a living, but also it really is a three-dimensional life. You're not just a writer sitting in a room. You're editing, you're critiquing, you're part of this multi-hued conversation about literature. So in terms of the direction of my career, she was a huge influence and an astonishing mentor for many years.

[KJ] And where did you meet her?

[DU] I was already doing a lot of book and cultural criticism and journalism when I moved to California in 1990, ’91, and one of the first assignments I got was to do an interview with her. She had a novel that had just come out called Making History. This was in the fall of ’91, and I was lost. I’d been here for a few months, and this place didn't make any sense to me. I didn’t even know how to navigate it. There was nothing happening, so I drove out to her place in Topanga.

I thought it was just going to be a straightforward interview. You know, we were sitting on this beautiful deck overlooking the canyon. At a certain point, she broke out a bottle of wine. I was there for three or four hours. We became friends. She died about seven years ago. We were friendly up until she died.

[KJ] Can you name some of your major influences, either writers or just specific works that had big impacts on you and your journey?

[DU] The Beats were a big influence for me when I was young, as they are, I think, for many people. I was drawn to that countercultural point of view. I was drawn to the romance of driving cross-country and all those things, which I did a fair amount of in my teens and twenties. I was drawn to the autobiographical nature of the work, or let's call it the self-mythologizing, which I think in retrospect, is part of what makes some of those works so complicated and challenging. I still am drawn to it. I love the idea that you could make art out of your own life. So that was an early set of influences that I think linger in that sense. So much of my work—well, the nonfiction is all autobiographical—up until this novel has been really autobiographical.

I should also mention a second early influence was the writer Larry McMurtry, whose work I fell in love with when I was in eight or ninth grade. At that point, he only had seven novels. I read all those. His books were so steeped in place. He was writing about Texas, which was a place I had not been to at that point, although later I spent some time there. But it was the first inkling I had of the importance of place, or place as a subject, and place is obviously very important to my work as well.

The third kind of pillar in that triad is Didion. I took a year off between high school and college. I was living in San Francisco, and my mother, I think she was afraid I was never going to come back, that I was just going to—I mean, I was a latter-day hippie, so this was 1980, long past the heyday, but I was living on Haight Street. And my mother, who did not recommend books, she said, you need to read this essay. There's this book by a writer named Joan Didion, called Slouching Towards Bethlehem. And you need to read the Haight-Ashbury essay, which was the title essay. So I went out and bought the book. And I did read that essay, and it was useful for me for a lot of reasons having nothing to do with what my mother wanted me to learn from it. But that's another story. I read the book, and then I immediately went out and bought The White Album and read that. I still think of those books as kind of one long book.

What Didion gave me was a sense that I could write about my own life. I could write about, like, public events, right? I had not thought about writing essays. Up until that point, I always conceptualized myself as a fiction writer. All of my baby writing was writing fiction. Didion’s books taught me that I could write not only autobiographically, but also culturally and socially, that there didn't have to be a divide between those things, and that writing about my own time, my own place, and myself in context of those things could be a really powerful combination of elements. So I think those three influences altogether—certainly other influences as well—but those three in particular are probably the most directly influential on the work I went on to do as a writer.

[KJ] Do you have LA figured out now?

[DU] [laughs] No, no one will. That's what makes LA such a strange and wonderful place, right?

[KJ] That’s correct for me too. So what about the Thirteen Question Method? Do you have some specific influences for that? What was the impetus to this particular project?

[DU] It was a lot of things. Like all of my books—I may be lying about that, but I don't think so—or certainly most of my books, it was a long incubation period. I'm a slow writer until I am a fast writer. Sometimes that has to do with conceptualizing. Sometimes that doesn't have to do with the process of writing. I read a lot of crime fiction as a kid. I went to fancy schools where it was not encouraged, so I never took the genre that seriously, but I really loved it. And it was kind of a guilty pleasure, which is a concept I no longer believe in. If you draw pleasure from it, then there should be no guilt. It should just be pleasure. But I read a fair amount, all sorts of weird stuff: Chandler, Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem and some other things like that. I like those books, but they were my leisure reading. I never thought about writing in any genre particularly.

After I got out of college, I got really interested in noir. I just fell down the rabbit hole partly because a friend of mine and I were trying to write screenplays, and we wanted to write a crime screenplay. We were looking for a book that we could option. And we did in fact end up optioning an obscure noir novel, but we never ended up making a film out of it. So I was reading that way, and my earliest experience of writing in the genre was a couple of screenplays in my twenties.

I fell in love with the genre for a couple of reasons. One was I like the kind of spareness and bluntness. And directness. They're like a sledgehammer. They're propulsive. They keep moving, and that's it. As someone who's deeply existentially tilted philosophically and spiritually and all, I really like the idea that they were sort of staring at the existential abyss without blinking, and the best writers were doing that, and they had influenced writers like Albert Camus, who wrote The Stranger, which is heavily influenced by James M. Cain, among other writers. And so I began to think about it in a way that you could write an existential thriller that could really be fundamentally about existential despair, which is, like, my jam. That was the first impetus. And that was a long time ago. I came up with the title of the book and a basic idea for the book in my twenties, but I had no idea how to write it. I was working on another book at that point, and it was a project that I figured I'd eventually get to, but it was in my head. I had the title and I knew the song. I knew that it would be about someone who would get caught in between two people, and there would be an inheritance dispute.

After I moved to Los Angeles, I played softball with a friend, and one Saturday afternoon after the game, I went over to his place to have a couple of beers. While we were sitting in his living room, one of his neighbors started screaming, and I said, do we, you know, is that what's going on? He's like, oh, don't worry about that, it happens all the time. And so literally right there, I was like, this is the beginning of my book. I mean, I still didn’t know when I was going to write this book, but this was going to be how it began.

I had the setting, and in 1999, I wrote. Four or five pages of it, just the opening, and it had that first line: “The woman across the courtyard was screaming.” And then I put it down and didn't do anything with it. And then finally, in 2015, I was between projects, and I just started writing it. Over the course of the summer, I wrote the first seventy-five pages. I wrote myself into a corner that I couldn't get out of. I didn't know how to get out of. I wasn't plotting. I didn't have an outline. I was just kind of writing it as it came. So I put it down when I didn't know what to do. I always meant to go back to it, but I got sucked into other projects. I finished Sidewalking. I was teaching, I edited a couple of books, and I was working on a memoir, and the pandemic hit.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was just like memories—I don't even know what memory means anymore. It seems completely irrelevant to this super present-tense moment we're living in, and I couldn't work on that book. I picked up these pages again and read them. And as I was reading them, I was like, okay, I think I know what has to happen. And then I finished the book in about four months. So I picked it up in August of 2000, and I finished it in early January of 2021. So it was a long build. It's been a book that's always been there, and those influences are Dorothy B Hughes, a lot of Japanese crime writers, Caine Kamau, and David Goodis, who is one of my favorites, the great Philadelphia pulp writer. And so I wanted to write a book like those books because they were unrelenting. They didn't have false resolution. There was no redemption at the end of them. And I really was drawn to the idea of writing a story like that.

[KJ] Yeah, that's awesome. It's a beautiful book, and it just came out in October this year. Everyone's going to have to pick up a copy. So, you kind of touched on this a little bit, but what does your creative process look like? It sounds like a lot of your work, you kind of start and stop projects.

[DU] It depends. Each book is different. But I've done enough now that I can kind of see what the commonalities are. With nonfiction, those books often emerged from pieces. The Myth of Solid Ground grew out of a piece for the LA Weekly about earthquake prediction. When I finished that piece, I was like, there's totally a book here. The Lost Art of Reading grew out of an essay I wrote for the LA Times. A publisher read that essay and got in touch with me and wanted to know if I wanted to expand it into a book. At first I thought I didn't, because I didn't know that I had anything else to say. Then I remembered a book I really admire; it’s called Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. It's sort of a memoir for reading life, and I realized that I could actually make the lost art of reading a kind of memoir of my reading life. Sidewalking, too, grew out of a number of pieces published in varioius magazines ten years before the book came out.

I tend to circle and write and throw away a lot of stuff, and kind of try and find the voice and the focus. At one point, this memoir, which I'm back to work on now, had so many failed first chapters that I was like, I'm just going to gather all of these bad first chapters up into one book and call it a series of unworkable beginnings. It'll be like a Calvino-type book, like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Then at a certain point, critical mass hits. It might take me months to write the first ten pages of something, and then I'll put it down for a while and then come back to it and write the rest of it in three or four months. There's always a tipping point in every book where something happens, and then literally the whole back end of the book gets written in three to six months.

[KJ] Do you give yourself a daily word count after you hit critical mass?

[DU] I shoot for a thousand words a day, but I don't beat myself up if I don't hit it. One of the things I've come to realize is that I don't want to sit there and force it, because if I'm forcing it, I'm going to end up having to tear it out the next day. Rather than sit there and try and force my way through it, it's actually more efficient for me to get up from the desk when I'm struggling and go do something else and come back to it the next day. The forced work always goes. The next morning, I'm like, I don't even know what I was thinking here. This needs to go. All these pages need to go.

When I’m really rolling on something, I start in the morning, when I'm fresh and it's quiet. I get up early, and I'll start by reading the last couple of days’ pages and do some edits and fixes, because that gets me in. I often think of it as “getting in,” like you're walking into the water. So that gets me knee deep a little bit, and then I'm acclimated and can start it. I have the impetus at that point to keep moving it forward. So that's basically how I operate.

[KJ] Awesome. Great answers. It's a wonderful book. We're excited to read it. Do you have anything else that you want to convey to our audience? Anything else you're working on?

[DU] I don't think so. I mean, I'm always working on something, but I don't generally talk about work in progress; I’m afraid to jinx it. So yeah, I think we covered it pretty well.

[KJ] Cool. Well, I greatly appreciate your time. Thirteen Question Method is available everywhere where books are sold.


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