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 In this house Kuhlken has written four published novels and several unpublished novels.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.”
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.”
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.”
“How,” I asked, “do you think your career might be different if you lived in New York?”
“My friend Rick Russo just won the Pulitzer. We used to hang out over in Tucson — he was a graduate student when I was teaching there. When I read his first book, which I like a lot, I felt that it would have been less appreciated had he been writing from a small town in Oregon or in Northern California as opposed to Upstate New York. Most publishing goes on in New York, and naturally people in New York are interested in things that happen there. If publishing were spread out all over the country, it wouldn’t be a problem. I’ve noticed that when I write about characters from the 1960s and people in New York read about these characters, they don’t get it. Almost by definition, the people who work in publishing houses and live in New York City are driven and ambitious. People whom I write about from the ’60s and ’70s in California often have completely different motives and goals and values. Sometimes they don’t even ring as real with people in New York because they don’t know people like the ones about whom I write, or at least they don’t hang out with them. I’ve also written a lot about Mexico, and I’ve gotten responses from New York folks that Mexican characters didn’t ring true in certain novels, whereas people who live here and know Mexico didn’t respond in that way. Many of these editors have had no contact with Mexico, and they have stereotypes. If you don’t write about somebody wearing a big sombrero and snoozing under a saguaro cactus, then they think you’re writing about somebody who doesn’t exist. They’re more convinced by stereotypes than they are by real people.”
“Do San Diego mystery writers get together?”
“Not much. Alan Russell and I get together occasionally. Others of us bump into each other at conferences. There was an attempt at one point to get together every few months to inspire action from bookstores. I think we met one time and then never got together again. The ‘we’ was Alan, Bob Wade and Abby Padgett and Janice Steinberg and maybe Martha Lawrence, and there were others.
“I’ve been president of the San Diego Book Awards for several years. I discovered that there are lots of San Diego writers. But I’m afraid that many are either self-published or writing in fields that I don’t pay attention to, like romance and action thriller. And there are a lot of science fiction writers and also quite a few horror writers. The literary writers mostly collect around the universities. One thing with these book awards that I was trying to do was to create more community, but most authors don’t have time to hang out with each other. And then there are cliques: there’s the literary writers who don’t think much of anybody except people who do literary stuff, and sometimes fiction writers don’t think much of poets, and poets don’t think much of fiction writers, and these animosities get in the way.”
“Did any of your editors help you with your writing?”
“Yes. The first editor I had, with Midheaven, gave me a whole world of confidence, and she gave me specific ideas for revision. The mystery novels, I don’t think I got anything. For the most part, they just took them and copy edited them and published them.
“The best thing in the world for me, besides my family being healthy, would be to have an agent who was enthusiastic and who could give me good advice and to have an editor who would tell me when I’m going wrong. If I had that, I think that my career would take off. I’ve seen that happen to other people, and I think in many cases that’s the final touch that makes people become successful.
“For me it hasn’t been that hard getting an agent; it’s been hard getting an agent to do anything. One problem that I’ve had with agents is that if you give a book to an agent, then you’re going to sit back and presume that it’s being taken care of, and very often it isn’t. Very often it’s only lethargically being sent out. And to try to get anybody to push your reprint rights is just virtually impossible. I’m with my sixth agent now, and I like him, but as agents go, he’s not all that experienced. He’s a copyright attorney who took to agenting and mainly has dealt in nonfiction. I’ve had some of the best agents around, and they were so busy with people who were making them money that they didn’t have time for me. I’ve had five agents before, and not one sold anything for me. I sold them on my own, basically. With agents, you have to have one that’s well connected but also is enthusiastic about you. Just because a person has an agent doesn’t mean a whole lot. But on the other hand, where the market is now, you can’t get through to anybody without an agent.”
“When you go out in the world and people learn you’re a writer, what do they say?”
“Mostly annoying things. I have a gregarious friend who strikes up conversations with strangers. If we’re playing golf, he will be talking to somebody in the clubhouse and he’ll tell them I’m a writer. Then they try to find out if I am famous and if I make money. If I get in a conversation where I work, at State, I won’t usually let them know. If they see one of my books and say, ‘Oh, you’re a writer!’, I’m usually uncomfortable. Sometimes I’m not. Sometimes it makes me feel good. But other times I don’t like the way conversations go.
“Before I published anything, somebody would tell somebody at a party that I was a writer and so they’d ask, ‘What are you writing?’ I would say, ‘Novels.’ They’d say, ‘What novels?’ and expect me to say romance novels or history novels. At that point, I couldn’t put a category on the novels and that would seem to bother them. So I’d start explaining a plot and maybe it was more than they wanted to hear. And, too, when they found out that I wasn’t famous, didn’t make money, well, then they would drift away.
“A pet irritation is when people say, ‘When I retire, I’m going to write this novel and it will really be good because it’s about my grandma or my cat or whatever.’ They think they have a really interesting story, which is probably true. Any story, told right, can be gripping. But I don’t know if people have any idea how insulting it is to say that to somebody who has been writing as his primary occupation for many, many years. I commonly make some comment like, ‘When I retire I’m going to build a spaceship and fly to the moon.’ They don’t understand you have to learn the craft. You see this at writers’ conferences — hobbyists who have no intention of working enough to succeed at what they’re trying to do.”
I said that non-writers tend to regard writing, unless the writer writes best-sellers, as something of a charming hobby.
“People don’t realize how hard something is until they try to do it. You sit down at a piano and monkey around and suddenly your appreciation of somebody who can play Mozart goes way up. With writing, people tend to feel, ‘I can make a sentence. I can write.’ ”
“In the 20-plus years since Midheaven was published, the business of writing has changed, hasn’t it?”
“You bet. It’s more corporate and impersonal. When I first started publishing in 1979, I could probably get through to any editor I wanted to without an agent because I had some track record. Now, if I tried sending books out without an agent, they’d bounce them back. And this is even though I have had four novels published and several awards. They say, ‘Nothing but agented submissions.’ And what editors are looking for in fiction these days often is somebody who is not primarily a writer, but who is a policeman or fireman or bank president, to write the inside story of being a policeman or fireman or bank president. Writing skills are ranked pretty far down on the list.”
“Do you wonder about all the years you’ve spent writing, what you might have done instead?”
“I’ve thought about that. One thing I would have done is make more money so I wouldn’t always wonder where the next paycheck is coming from. But you have to choose. I can’t imagine doing anything different. I don’t know if it’s an addiction or something that’s built into me, but when I’m not writing, I get angry, I have a very sour disposition. When I am writing I get kind of crazy too, but in a different way. I get real intense. The last month, I haven’t written much because I’ve been trying to get the house painted. I’m starting to get on edge. I can give myself one more week, and then I need to jump back into writing again, or who knows what will happen. Maybe I’ll just go out and speed around in the mountains a hundred miles an hour. But I think it would be better for me to write. I can’t imagine not writing. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it so long.”