No local writer is more local than Ken Kuhlken. Born in Mercy Hospital on September 4, 1945, while celebrations for World War II’s end were still in progress, Kuhlken only rarely and for short periods has lived away from San Diego. “When I was born,” Kuhlken said, “we lived in Rolando, by San Diego State University. When I was two my dad’s business went broke. We sold our house and moved in with my grandma — my mom’s mom — in La Mesa. That’s where I grew up, in this nifty two-story house built about 1900 on an acre of land, right in the middle of town. It was parklike, with huge trees. I didn’t have brothers or sisters. But all my cousins would come and hang out. We grew up close.”
About Kuhlken’s grandmother, he said, “Without her, I don’t know if I would have ever become a writer. She had stories, stories, and stories. She was a painter. She studied with Charles Fries, who was famous. They got to be friends. She would go off up in the mountains on painting day trips with Mr. Fries. Watching her paint, I learned a lot about writing. She’d start off with one color all over the canvas. Then she’d come back and layer on other colors, and scenes would start to develop. I always had this idea, even from the first time I started writing, that you didn’t just sit down and write something, but that you built scenes in stages.”
When Kuhlken was 9, his father recouped his financial losses. He bought a house in La Mesa, where Ken Kuhlken still lives. In this house Kuhlken has written four published novels and several unpublished novels. “I started writing, or toying with it,” he said, “when I was 13. I wrote a novel inspired by the movie High School Confidential. It turned out to be 12 pages long. I thought, ‘How do these guys make these big books?’ ”
About his father, Kuhlken said, “My father was a hero of mine. He was an artistic guy, a musician who never had a chance to be an artist. He was an orchestra leader, and before that a rhythm guitar player, and before that, a rhythm banjo player. He went belly-up soon after the crash. He knew, once the Depression sank in, that he’d better concentrate on making money. So his artistic gift was stifled. He had a violin, but I never once saw him play it. It was like it hurt too much for him to have given that up.
“Right after Pearl Harbor, my father tried to join the Navy. They wouldn’t take him because he was borderline diabetic. Then my dad and his half brother opened a restaurant in downtown San Diego, and it was quite successful. But a year after the restaurant opened, my dad got drafted. While he was in the Army, they lost the restaurant. When he got back he was broke and everything had fallen apart.
“My dad went broke in three businesses, maybe four. In each case he ended up with a load of debt, and in each case he spent several years paying it off. He never went bankrupt. People nowadays would see that as foolish. I think he largely went broke because he trusted people too much and he wasn’t enough of a hardnose. He didn’t care about finding a business that would make him money; he wanted to create something. So he did businesses that probably weren’t wise decisions fiscally.
“In 1957 my dad built this little golf course — Sun Valley Golf Course, off I-8 between Spring Street and Jackson Drive exits. It was nice because it forms a greenbelt in La Mesa that by now probably would be condos if it wasn’t a golf course. He also was the instigator of the rebuilding of a Little League field right next to the seventh hole of the golf course, on University Avenue in La Mesa, that became one of the nicest fields anywhere.”
Asked if his father looked like Tom Hickey, the shamus/club owner/sax man/military policeman who is at the center of three Kuhlken novels, Kuhlken said, “He looked just like Tom Hickey.”
“Hickey,” Kuhlken writes in The Venus Deal, “was a big man, shoulders so broad he didn’t use padding in his suit coats, or else he’d appear monstrous. He had a ruddy complexion and thin, scraggly hair beginning to gray. His nose was long, his chin cleft, his eyes steady and quick, azure blue.”
Christmas Day, 1960, Kuhlken’s father suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 54. Ken was 15. Six months after Kuhlken’s father died, his mother, a schoolteacher, contracted spinal meningitis. “She got sent,” Kuhlken said, “to the isolation ward at the county hospital, where she ended up spending months and months.”
I asked about Kuhlken’s mother. “My mom,” he said, “was born in 1904 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a town not far from Chicago. She arrived in San Diego in 1906, lived in San Diego and in Julian before coming to La Mesa in 1915. She wanted to become a lawyer like her dad, but with seven kids in the family, she being the oldest, she didn’t think she could afford law school. She was the practical one in our family, while my dad was the dreamer. She taught junior high, at La Mesa Junior High, for 30-some years and retired about the time I started college. She and my dad met through my Aunt Woody. Her girlfriend was married to my dad’s half brother. They were both 39 when they married, my mom for the first and only time, my dad for the second time.”
While Kuhlken’s mother was in the hospital, Kuhlken’s friend Eric moved into the La Mesa house. “We were trying to figure out the meaning of life. We read Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. Mostly people we read were atheists or had anti-Christian perspectives. Then, on February 17, 1963, when we were both 17, Eric died in a car crash. I staggered around trying to figure out what was going on. A woman invited my friend Cliff and me to a Billy Graham Crusade down at the old Balboa Stadium. Billy Graham sucked me in. We went down to the front and did the accepting-Christ thing, and then nothing happened. I didn’t follow up. But starting with the crusade I took a strong interest and kept moving toward being a strong believer. I still had this phobia, though, about churches.”