After Kuhlken’s friend Eric was killed, Kuhlken started visiting Eric’s mother, a woman who shares characteristics with the fictional Cynthia Moon. Kuhlken said, about Eric’s mother, “I became a helper for her because she was crippled. She was a brilliant woman who had hung around with jazz musicians, and she was deep in a way. You couldn’t pin her down. She was a real enigma to me. She was fascinating and I loved being with her. But in other ways she was draining and difficult and somebody you wouldn’t want to be with. She had a tragic life. Eric died in the car wreck, and Eric’s father died in a plane crash when he wasn’t even 30 and Eric was 2. She never remarried. She lived off a V.A. pension, plus she’d sell parcels of land that she owned in Mount Shasta.
“She told me stories that revolved around the grounds that are now Point Loma Nazarene University and before that belonged to the Theosophical Society that Madame Katherine Tingley ran. During that earlier time, Eric’s mother’s mother, a real estate agent, first met Paramhansa Yogananda. Eric’s mom, when she was a girl, also met him, and she said he was the sexiest man who ever lived. From all these things and many, many more, this story that became The Venus Deal came into my mind.”
We talked about money. Kuhlken said, “Ever since I started writing, the trick has been to finance it. What goes on in my head is ‘How can I get more time to write and how can I get everything done that I have to do?’ Unless you make big money, you have to do stuff on your own. If your house gets painted, you paint it yourself, and when your car breaks down, you fix it. You are relegating yourself to a certain level — not poverty, but pretty low income. That’s if, like me, you’re not making a big splash commercially.
“So then comes deciding whether you’re going to write commercial stuff. Because I’m writing mysteries, I’m leaning toward the commercial. I think, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this next novel, and I’m going to try to do it in a commercial way,’ but this never works. As soon as I start writing, I start doing things that I know aren’t going to be commercial, but I do them anyway.”
“When,” I said, “you finished Midheaven and Viking accepted it and set a pub date, you must have had hopes that the book would do well and your life would change.”
“Sure. You’re naïve. You don’t realize that you’re being relegated by your publisher to the libraries and a few other sales. When Midheaven came out, I would go into bookstores and think, ‘Where is it?’ I’d maybe find it back in the stacks, or maybe I wouldn’t find even one copy. But there would be whole tables of Stephen King. I would get irate that Viking was spending more money on promotion of Stephen King than me. It was a revelation to me that all authors weren’t treated alike. I thought once a publisher bought your book they had a place in their heart for you. But what actually happened with Midheaven and later with my St. Martin’s books is they got no publicity. They’d get reviews, but there was no publicity money behind them. So you can’t be surprised if nothing happens. Once you understand that this is what happens, then you give up the stars-in-your-eyes feeling. But the first two books, I thought I was going to be on easy street. When I sold The Loud Adios and it won this contest as best first private-eye novel, for which the money award was $10,000, I presumed this was going to make me a whole new life, even though my editor at St. Martin’s warned me not to quit my day job. I thought that was just being pessimistic. But she was in fact giving me an assessment of what my future was at St. Martin’s, because they simply threw the books out there and then didn’t do anything with them.”
St. Martin’s paid Mr. Kuhlken $5000 each for The Loud Adios and The Venus Deal. The print run was 5000 copies. “The trilogy was not a good idea for marketing, because the three books were never available at the same time, and when they were, hardback was the only way you could get them, and nobody wants to spend 50 bucks on a trilogy from somebody they don’t know. But publishers know they’ll get a certain number of library sales and a certain number of sales generated by the author. They can make $10,000 or $15,000 profit on each one of these books, and if you do a hundred of them a year, you can with that money finance some of your bigger books. People tend to think that the big books finance the smaller books, but that’s not necessarily true.
“So you get yourself in a situation where you sell a book, but it may be the worst thing you could do, because if you sell a book to somebody that doesn’t promote it, then it’s unlikely it will sell. Lately, responses I’ve gotten from editors are something like this: ‘We can’t really go with somebody with a hitless track record.’ What they look for is somebody who is brand-new or somebody with huge sales on his last book. It’s a big-money game. So you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I playing this for the money or am I not?’ I’ve chosen to not do that and to be willing to support myself doing other stuff in order to be able to write what I write. Some people get bitter, and I’ve felt bitter at times. But for the most part, I think, ‘If I’m going to write what I want to write, then I’ve got no call to squawk about not making money for it.’ If I’m going to write things that I prefer, then if I make money on them, that’s great, and if I don’t, so be it. I can’t change the world from the way it is to the way I would like it to be.”