In fall 1963, after graduating from Helix High School in La Mesa, Kuhlken started college at San Diego State. “I wanted to write, but college was preferable to the Army. Also, I was getting Social Security because my dad died, so I made about as much money as I would have made working.”
Kuhlken married in 1967. In 1968 he received his B.A. in English. “When I graduated I didn’t know what to do to bring in dollars, so in 1971, from State, I got a teaching credential. In 1972-’73 I substituted for the Grossmont Union High School District and wrote my first novel — Like an Old Green Flatbed Truck — and, again, at State, worked on my M.A. in English, which I received in 1972. Then I won money on a radio station contest. I wrote about that in a story, ‘The Giveaway.’ My wife and I took the money and went to Europe. When we were there we ran out of money, so for part of 1974, I substituted at the American Community School in Athens. When we came back, I substituted one more year and then got sick of it and took a job working at a camp up in the mountains for boys on probation. That was crazy. Then I went to work for the welfare department and started thinking about graduate school. I ended up at Iowa, where I got an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1978. From then on I’ve been teaching and writing.
“After Midheaven [a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award] came out in 1980, everything seemed to cave in — my marriage broke up and I wasn’t selling anything except short stories. By 1989 I was teaching eight classes at five different schools, trying to make a living. My kids [Darcy and Cody, born in 1976 and 1979] were mostly living with me. In the years since 1980, I’d written several books that I hadn’t had any luck publishing.”
However, something good did happen to Kuhlken in the early 1980s. He explained. “A friend was drawing cartoons for a local swingers’ magazine. The editor was looking for a short story and my friend referred me. The guy said he’d pay me a hundred bucks to write a porno story. A woman I knew from high school was a cheerleader and on the surface a real straight arrow, but on weekends she went down to Tijuana and stripped in the nastiest club in Tijuana at the time. It wasn’t a matter, actually, of stripping. She just walked out on the stage naked and got mauled. I was interested in the psychology of this girl. I started writing a story I called ‘The Blue Fox.’ I didn’t give it to this swingers’ magazine because I didn’t think it was pornographic. I published it in a magazine, and with that and another story, I won an NEA grant, so that one story paid off a lot more than a hundred dollars. The other story was ‘Cars,’ which came out in Esquire, and that paid me a thousand dollars. The NEA was $12,500. That was in 1983. That was the most money I ever made on anything.”
By the late 1980s, Kuhlken wasn’t getting much down on paper. “I couldn’t stomach not writing, so I started getting up at five in the morning and working on the book that would become The Loud Adios. When I completed the first draft, I sent it to several writer friends. They advised me to send it to this contest. I was pretty discouraged, but I sent it off the day before I went up to Lake Tahoe with my kids and several of their friends. While I was up in Tahoe, these four kids were raising hell in the room and so I went out and walked on the beach and the idea for the other two novels came in a flash. Within half an hour, I had them plotted. Then, we got home from this trip and I learned that The Loud Adios had won the contest, which was the St. Martin’s - Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel award, and I had these other books ready to start, so it was a real high point. That’s one of the fun things about writing. You never know when somebody will call you up and say this or that, and you’re all of a sudden in another whole world, another category.”
Kuhlken’s novels The Loud Adios (1991), The Venus Deal (1993), and The Angel Gang (1994) form a trilogy of mysteries set in and around San Diego and over the border in Mexico in the era before, during, and after World War II.
“At the time I wrote these books,” Kuhlken said, “I was approaching the age when my father started getting heart trouble. I’d always identified with him, just because he was my father. I wrote these books about him, I think, to be with him, in a way. I developed something like an adult relationship with him that I never had because he didn’t live long enough. I figured out a lot better who he was.”
We talked about The Venus Deal, the second novel in the trilogy. “I was 46,” Kuhlken said, “when I wrote The Venus Deal. I sat in the room that had been my parents’ bedroom. I was working at San Diego State, full-time. I would get up in the morning, before my kids. Cody was 13 and Darcy 15 or 16. I would shoot down coffee and start writing away on my Toshiba laptop.”
The novel’s femme fatale is a woman Kuhlken calls Cynthia Moon. This is how he describes her.
“A slender, high-cheeked face, milky skin, emerald green eyes, all of which set off her wavy red hair, a mix of burnt orange and auburn. Smallish mouth, lips full and restless. She moved regally, self-conscious but poised as if it were natural law that whatever she did would be admired and imitated. In heels she stood over six feet, eye to eye with Hickey. Most of her was legs. Modest breasts and hips, a small waist, broad, square shoulders, a long, graceful neck usually trimmed with pearls.”