San Diegan Mike Davis, author of eight nonfiction books and Planet of Slums, the ninth, comes on the line, voice weak from recent pneumonia. We launch in.
"You were educated...?"
"I went to UCLA. I started when I was 29, or 30, something like that."
Could I have heard right? "You started when you were about 29 or 30?"
"I went to school as a freshman. I worked [first] for about 10 or 12 years."
"Oh, so you went late in life?"
"And you're described as an 'urban theorist.' I was wondering if you see yourself that way."
Mike Davis sounds impatient. "What does that mean?
"I don't know," I confess. "And you have quite a bundle of kids?"
"Not actually. I only have two two-year-olds here, twins, and then I have two older kids in Ireland. I spend time commuting between here and Dublin. Both my Irish kids are coming over in a couple of months."
"So you split your time between San Diego and Dublin?"
"And your wife resides in which location?"
"She is here. Her name is Alessandra Moctezuma, and she runs the Gallery Studies Program at Mesa College. She is an artist."
"Uh-huh. What year were you officially declared a genius?"
Mike Davis is mildly put out. But eight years ago he was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and an award of $315,000, which is often referred to as a "genius prize."
"In what year were you officially declared a genius? When did you get the MacArthur?"
"I don't remember. It was -- Jesus, when was it? -- in 1998."
"Was that around the time of City of Quartz being published?" A landmark book on Los Angeles, in which Davis predicted the L.A. riots that were to follow two years later.
"No, City of Quartz was in 1990, this would have been after The Ecology of Fear."
Of course. The riots were in '92. I run down the list of his titles chronologically: Prisoners of the American Dream, City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Magical Urbanism, Late Victorian Holocausts, Dead Cities, Under the Perfect Sun, and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.
"And how do you explain why your range of interests is so wide? What connects the dots, what connects the subject matter in your writing?"
"Well, first of all, I went to college late and then mainly enjoyed the library in college. You know, I'm kind of a typical self-educated person. Of course, I've learned to write, and I tend to write about the things that I study. So each new interest usually produces some spin-off interest. For instance, I used the MacArthur fellowship money to take my kids all over the world. I took my son to Greenland, and then that ended up becoming a story, which ended up becoming a kid's novel. But I find it difficult to describe what I do. I work as a historian now, but I've taught in geography departments and in architecture schools, taught political science and political economy. So [the various themes of interest] have a kind of common thread, but it may be only visible to the author."
"What sort of work did you do before you went to school at the age of 29?"
"Initially I was involved in the civil rights movement in San Diego, in the early '60s. And I went to work for Students for a Democratic Society, at the national office in New York at the end of '64, and worked for SDS for a couple of years and then got married and worked for a while as a meat cutter with my father here, in San Diego. And then I went through a War on Poverty jobs scheme, the Teamster Opportunity Program in Pico Rivera, which trained heavy-duty truck drivers -- which was the best thing that ever happened to me (at least it was a helluva lot more fun than the MacArthur). And then I became a heavy-duty truck driver. Worked at that for about five or six years, then went to college. I lived in London from 1980 through 1986 or '87 and had worked in publishing [there] and was sick of intellectuals. I came back at the end of the '80s. I went back on the road, trucking, for almost a year and had a lot of fun but lost my shirt."
"Where did you work in publishing?"
"I worked for Verso in London. Verso Books is actually owned by the New Left Review, and I worked for the New Left Review and then for Verso. I've been associated with Verso since, oh, 1980-81. And I used to have a series at Verso, which I did with my best friend, Mike Sprinker, who was at Stony Brook. He died some years ago, and the series disappeared after his death. We did that for about a decade."
"When did you first meet Verso's former publisher, Colin Robinson?"
"I met Colin when he started working as sales manager for Verso, and that must have been '82 or something like that -- '83. So I've known Colin well over 20 years."
He is someone I know too. "Where is Colin now?"
"Back in New York and kind of looking at his options. He has some really interesting offers on the table."
"He may go back to Verso. Some complicated negotiation going on, but I was...I was pretty shocked by what happened at the New Press and still don't quite understand what went on. I mean, I wrote to André Schiffrin [proprietor of New Press, who let Colin go] and never got a response."
I glance down at my notes. "How did you come to do a book on avian flu?"
"It is actually a spin-off of larger interests, which are in this book that just came out, Planet of Slums. My intention was to sit down and try and read as much as I possibly could of this huge literature on contemporary urban poverty. And, of course, one of the issues is public health in today's megacities and slums. And I taught before on the history of infectious disease. I just got interested in the whole question of how you have slums which are growing so rapidly and teetering with poor sanitation, worse than anything that existed in the Victorian world. Much worse. I got interested in the ecology of disease. One thing or another led me to thinking about avian flu, and before I knew it, this turned into some columns and eventually into this short book."