Reporter Ken Kuhlken interviews novelist Ken Kuhlken

Material witness

I had a big-time agent. He was going to make me rich. Laura — my ex-wife — and I went to Morocco and waited for the money. It never came.
  • I had a big-time agent. He was going to make me rich. Laura — my ex-wife — and I went to Morocco and waited for the money. It never came.

At the height of my ambition, I could write 12 or 14 hours straight. Afterward, I’d collapse and daydream while my mind decelerated. I might relive old times, check in on lost friends, brood about dark secrets, or travel to the future when I’d be famous and journalists would interview me.

Kuhlken: "What I most wanted, impractical fellow that I am, was to justify my dad."

Kuhlken: "What I most wanted, impractical fellow that I am, was to justify my dad."

Those were storybook interviews. Smooth. Comfortable. I never got fed impertinent questions or feared being misquoted. The topics were ones I might’ve chosen, like:

Ken: So what question do people most often ask about your being a writer?

KEN: They want to know do I make a lot of money.

Ken: That’s rude. I’ll at least open more gracefully. Let’s start way back when you first began to call yourself a writer. When was that?

KEN: Ever since I can remember. I figured that making up tales would be better than practicing law or teaching school, like most of my family. Besides, my dad used to say I was probably too lazy to hold a regular job, and I believed him.

During World War II, before he got drafted, my father was a partner in a San Diego nightclub.

During World War II, before he got drafted, my father was a partner in a San Diego nightclub.

In high school one year, the teacher told us to write sonnets. Nobody but me was corny enough to write one. So I wrote a bunch and sold them to other people in the class for $5 apiece.

4th and Broadway during the war. “Come on, buddy, it’s a war story. You want parlor dialogue or what?”

4th and Broadway during the war. “Come on, buddy, it’s a war story. You want parlor dialogue or what?”

Ken: You didn’t sell any stories?

KEN: Not for a long time. I wrote a couple three- or four-page stories in high school, then got led astray by rock and roll, writing songs, and playing with a band, which I did all through college and for a couple years after. Then I wised up and recognized I’d never write a good song. I didn’t have the music in me.

Ken: Did that hurt?

Downtown San Diego, World War II

Downtown San Diego, World War II

KEN: Not much, because I used the old trick — when your one love fails you, run to another. I started a novel. A year later I had a big-time agent. He was going to make me rich. Laura — my ex-wife — and I went to Morocco and waited for the money. It never came. He couldn’t sell the novel, thank God. I’d be embarrassed now.

Ken: After graduate courses in writing and literature at SDSU, then several years of proving you could hold a regular job, in 1974 you entered the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That’s a prestigious joint. Did you meet any famous writers there?

KEN: Sure. John Irving. Kurt Vonnegut. A lot of the people I went to school with have become damned successful. Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe got made into the movie Field of Dreams. John Falsey’s the producer of Northern Exposure. Sandra Cisneros, who wrote Woman Hollering Creek, my closest friend there, has shown up in People magazine, and she got a big spread in Time or Newsweek, I forget which.

Ken: You had a wife and month-old baby when you moved to Iowa City. How’d you intend to support them?

KEN: We had a few months’ worth of savings. After that, something would provide, I believed. Like always.

Ken: Back that up with examples, could you?

KEN: Sure. Laura and I landed in Athens, Greece, with 40 cents, stumbled around a corner, and bumped into a friend who had a house where we could stay. The next day we found work. A couple months later I was trying to figure how to get from Kennedy airport to Manhattan on the quarter I had left, when somebody I’d met six months before in Morocco noticed me and asked if I needed a ride. He was headed two blocks from my destination. A few years later, I’d tapped out all my resources, all the loans I could get, my mother’s savings. I sat wondering if I could quit writing for good. I was sick of eating beans and Swiss chard and feeling guilty about living marginally because of Laura and our kids. I trudged out to the mailbox and discovered that I’d won a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Almost a year’s worth of cash.

Last year my job at SDSU got cut to part time. I might’ve gone looking for another job, except I was trying to finish my novel, The Venus Deal. About the time of my first short check, a magazine editor called. She’d read The Loud Adios and wondered if I’d write some stories, for good money.

In Iowa we filled our credit card and collected bills until I finished my degree. Then we raced home to San Diego and I pleaded for my old job back, as an eligibility worker at the welfare department. Within a year. I’d sold a novel to Viking Press and sold a story to Esquire, and I was on my way.

Ken: On your way where?

KEN: Arizona, a teaching job for a couple years, then Chico, a tenured professorship. My mother’s dream for me.

Ken: And onward to oblivion?

KEN: Huh? Oblivion?

Ken: As a writer, I mean. In 1980 your novel Midheaven received praise and honors. Your next novel, The Loud Adios, wasn’t published until 1991. And in 1986, you became the only person you know — except one fellow who married a millionaire — to give up a tenured professorship. Drugs, right?

KEN: Nope. I’ve been sober, except on rare occasions, since about 1970. The year I started writing my first novel.

Ken: So if drugs didn’t keep you from publishing another book for ten years, what did?

KEN: Teaching, which can make you think you’ve got to write like Proust.

Also panic attacks. For about five years I was a stress case, thinking any second I’d have a heart attack, like my dad did. Then my marriage broke up. Around the same time, my mother got sick and needed care. Since I was an only child and my father died when I was a kid, my mom and I learned to depend on each other and never got over it.

But more than all the above, what stalled my writing for 11 years was the Dashiell Hammett syndrome. Ego. The desire to write this great Finnegans Wake of a novel, so that even the academics would grovel. See, Hammett, after writing a few detective novels, decided he ought to be more “literary.” So he worked on a book called Tulip for about 20 years until he died, and all he got was a fragment. In the fragment, a character named Tulip says to the narrator that he has a bunch of good tales that the narrator should make into stories. And the narrator says something like, “Forget it. Everybody has great tales, but to make a great story that’s not what you need. What you need is a structure.” Ironically, that’s what Tulip was missing. A structure.

My first published novel, Midheaven, I blundered into an effective structure. The next three novels I wrote, over those 11 lousy years, no such luck. I finally needed to call a detective to find a structure for me.

Ken: I get it. Your character Tom Hickey found you a structure. So was it luck, or do you see yourself having been destined to write mysteries?

KEN: I see destiny in everything. The plot that led me to writing mysteries started with my grandma, a storyteller who was also a painter. In her studio behind our house in La Mesa, while she daubed oils on canvas, she gave me her versions of Les Miserables The Last Days of Pompeii, A Tale of Two Cities, and her childhood on the Mississippi, where her father was a riverboat captain.

She taught me to read. Dickens. Sir Walter Scott. The Hardy Boys. When I grew too cool for the Hardy Boys, I also forsook the old bards in favor of girls, liquor, rock music. Beat poetry, Jack Kerouac novels, Dostoyevski, and eventually the fat, ponderous parlor novels they make you read as a literature major. For 12 years, as a graduate student, then as a professor of creative writing, I mostly read poems and contemporary experimental fiction. Sometimes, though. I’d hide in the closet with Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep, or The Long Goodbye.

Chandler lived a block or two from my favorite bodysurfing beach at the end of Marine Street and drank at my favorite dive, the Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel. Chandler wrote with care, humor, wisdom. He became a favorite of mine about 15 years ago. I might’ve written a mystery sooner except I doubted my ability to plot out anything quite so intricate.

In 1987, broke, divorced, unemployed, carrying around a novel about baseball in Mexico — a subject that didn’t make dollar signs flash in front of New York publishers — and 1500 pages of another manuscript that led from nowhere to nowhere, I thought, “Ken, you need restraint. Maybe you could dream up a mystery?”

Ken: What is it about the structure of mysteries that distinguishes them from other novels?

KEN: In most novels the drama’s built on the reader’s desire to know what’s going to happen next. Most mysteries also attempt to leave the reader aching to know what has happened, who killed whom, how this mess got started.

Ken: So you created Tom Hickey, a battle-scarred fellow who attempts to keep some integrity while a battalion of victims and antagonists, mostly female, try to rip him asunder. How autobiographical is he?

KEN: Never mind.

Ken: So Tom Hickey led you into the mystery, to The Loud Adios, and failure’s spell was broken?

KEN: Not yet. I sent it to my agent, who submitted it three places, none of which knew what to make of the book, since the first half read like a mystery, the last half like adventure.

Ken: And you learned from that?

KEN: Sure. I learned I was burnt out. I gave up. Quit my agent. Wrote nothing for a year. I scrambled for dollars, teaching part time anywhere that’d have me. In summer, though, I spent a few weeks revising, sent it off to the Private Eye Writers of America first novel contest, and took a two-week vacation. My kids and I visited friends up north and stayed a few days in South Lake Tahoe. With my kids and two of their sidekicks laying waste to the hotel room, I wandered the beach, where I got the idea for a mystery series featuring Tom Hickey’s son and a woman named Jodi, who was the narrator of Midheaven. If there’s a muse, I think she lives in Tahoe. Every visit there I’m besieged by ideas.

When we got home and opened the mail, I learned The Loud Adios was already a finalist. A week later, I was an official mystery author — after 11 years of nothing but rejections, some of them mean. One editor, after sitting four months on my baseball novel, opened her letter with, “Sorry you struck out with us.” Editors who think rejections are a chance to be witty shouldn’t wonder that they get bomb threats.

After 11 years of that, in three weeks I submit and win this award. The contract’s in the mail.

Ken: How’d you feel?

KEN: Giddy. And scared, because I knew very little about the genre. I ran out and bought a few bags full of contemporary mysteries.

Ken: Who are your favorites and why?

KEN: Right now, James Lee Burke, Michael Collins, Julie Smith, Tony Hillerman. Burke for his prose. Michael Collins because he’s an innovator — takes more risks than other mystery writers. You never know when he might switch point of view or interrupt the narrative to tell a short story. He gets away with things less skillful writers can’t manage. I’m a fan of Julie Smith, in her Skip Ungdon stories, because she’s wise and makes real, vital characters. Hillerman’s a master storyteller. Of the old guys, my favorite’s Ross McDonald. There’s a blurb in his books to the effect that Ross McDonald didn’t write about crime so much as about sin. That’s what I like most about him.

Ken: Sin, huh? A theologian said that what excited him about your books was the way they relate battles of good against evil. Is that conscious?

KEN: Partly. I don’t conceive my stories in those terms, but

I recognize this theme as it grows. I believe there are spiritual forces for good and evil. In most everything I’ve written there’s a character pursuing salvation from evil and a return to some kind of innocence. Usually the intervention, the saving grace, comes through another person. We’ve got to save ourselves, but we all need help.

Ken: Even a tough guy like Tom Hickey?

KEN: Oh, yeah.

Ken: Though he’s generally a good guy fighting evil, Tom Hickey, in The Venus Deal, has a fierce grudge against religion. Why’d you give him that?

KEN: He’s been abused by a “religious” person, as have millions of us. Before the grudge can fade and allow him to see clearly, a different kind of religious person needs to heal him, or at least encourage the process.

Ken: Where’d he get that silly name?

KEN: Hickey was my dad’s name, from the time his mother married his stepfather until he was in his 30s and changed it back to Kuhlken, which saved me a lot of adolescent grief.

Ken: So Tom Hickey’s your father?

KEN: At least they’ve got the same nose.

Ken: And you decided to write the Tom Hickey trilogy because it would’ve pleased your father?

KEN: Not consciously, I didn’t. And I didn’t decide to write a trilogy until it was half done.

Ken: It sounds as if the three books had different origins. Can you remember how they developed?

KEN: Sure. Long ago, my friend Steve, a cartoonist, suggested I write a short story for the erotic singles magazine to which he’d agreed to contribute a weekly strip. I phoned the publisher, who outlined the type of story he desired. “A hundred bucks if I get it by Friday,” he boasted.

On my way to the typewriter, I remembered a girl I’d encountered when I played baseball in Tijuana on Friday nights at Campo Benito Juarez, a ramshackle stadium in a part of town where dogs and drunks slept on the sidewalks and I saw the first dead person I’d ever viewed outside a funeral home. My friend Terry tripped over him as we walked toward Avenida Revolucibn. There was a nightclub, the Blue Fox, that might well have been the vilest establishment on Earth. On each of three levels, a young woman pranced or writhed on a stage around which drunken fellows crowded, leering as if they were lepers and the dancer had the cure.

One night Terry and I staggered in there and climbed to the third, nastiest level, where the clientele looked like psychopathic mercenaries loaded on goofballs. We sat on a stageside bench.

When Terry gasped, I squeezed my beer so hard the cheap glass cracked. Maybe one of those desperados hated ballplayers — we still had our jerseys on — and had stabbed him. With Terry’s second gasp, a word came out: “Wendy?”

She was a cheerleader at his high school. A homecoming princess, B student, and reputed virgin. Only a few weeks before, Terry had asked her out. She’d turned him down graciously, claiming that every weekend she visited a boyfriend who attended college up the coast. When she recognized Terry, she looked as though he’d lassoed her heart in barbed wire and yanked it tight.

About ten years later, I wrote a story about her, called it “The Blue Fox,” and decided not to give it to the singles magazine. The publisher probably would’ve turned it down. It wasn’t dirty enough — as I wrote it. I’d grown too fond of the girl to make her perform for that magazine’s horny readers.

A year or two later, after “The Blue Fox” appeared in Colorado Review, I sent it to the National Endowment for the Arts as part of a fellowship application. And they handed over to me a pile of money, $12,500 — on that day I mentioned, when I’d sunk into despair. A hundred and twenty-five times as much as the singles rag offered.

While writing about Wendy, I got intrigued by the idea of searching for someone lost in Tijuana. I was born near Tijuana soon after World War II. Older friends and relatives have told me dozens of stories about that era, when San Diego was possibly the largest military installation in the world.

When I considered writing a mystery, I decided to visit that place and time, searching for Wendy. Needing a detective, I chose Tom Hickey because he resembles my father, who didn’t live long enough for me to know him well, at least until Hickey and I went searching, in The Loud Adios.

During World War II, before he got drafted, my father was a partner in a San Diego nightclub. A place like Rudy’s Hacienda, where The Venus Deal opens. He never met Sylvia, the mother of my best friend who died two years after my father did. She’s the heroine of The Venus Deal A protege and pal of Tom Hickey’s, she keeps showing up in my novels. When she gets busted for arson in 1950, she pesters Tom Hickey, and The Angel Gang begins — it’s the third novel in the trilogy. I finished it last month.

Ken: Your Tom Hickey books have been praised for historical authenticity, for the way they can transport readers back to the ’40s. To achieve that, do you devote a lot of energy to research?

KEN: It’d be a lot if you counted the hours I’ve spent quizzing people who were around at the time. For each novel, I may read three or four books, gather about ten pages of old street maps, and spend a couple afternoons in the library. I minimize the research by using, in my stories, places and events I know about. And I work backwards; before I do much research, I compose a rough draft, which guides me to the exact research I need. Otherwise — a friend of mine has spent ten years researching for a novel about one of Freud’s patients. It’s easy to get distracted by research.

There are fascinating stories about San Diego and Tijuana. One of my favorites — during the Mexican Revolution some rebels fought the Diaz army in Tijuana. We had a trolley line that ran to the border, and tourists would pack lunches, ride down, and sit on the hillside watching the battle.

Finally, Porfirio Diaz wrote an exasperated letter to our president, complaining and petitioning him to make his people stay home so Mexico could wage its war in peace.

Ken: Does the research often conflict with your first draft?

KEN: Usually it corroborates or enhances what I’ve written. In The Loud Adios, I wrote about a room full of gold in the house of a friend of Lazaro Cardenas and about the Agua Caliente Casino. Then I learned that when Cardenas — as presidente, a few years before the book opens — shut down the casino, a room full of golden objects mysteriously vanished.

Ken: Does the world look different to you now than it did before you started writing? Maybe you observe or listen more closely?

KEN: I don’t observe as much as infer. I see something or somebody and build a story around it, her, or him. The biggest change is that, though I’ve always been a dreamer, since writing became my passion, I dream less about myself, more about other characters. That’s healthy, I think.

And writing, like any art, teaches you creative problem-solving. When I’ve taught, that’s been my goal. Most students weren’t going to be writers, even as a hobby. But all of them could benefit from learning to absorb data, then relaxing and letting their unconscious do the computations.

Ken: After the unconscious does its job, do you revise?

KEN: Over and over until I can’t see the story straight anymore; and later, when I’ve forgotten it some, I revise again. It’s my favorite part of the process. Writing the first draft is like running up the side of a mountain. Revision’s coasting down the back side.

Ken: Every review, so far, of The Venus Deal, has used the word “complex” or a synonym for complex to describe the book. Sometimes it’s a compliment, sometimes a complaint. Why all the complexity? Is that something you set out to do, or does it occur in revision?

KEN: No. When I revise, I simplify. Still, I like to have several things going on at once. When I was teaching at Arizona, I had one student, Perry Glasser, a wise guy. Over a beer, he asks how many short stories I’ve published Five, I say. He says he’s published six, so how come I’m teaching the class and he’s a student?

A couple weeks later, after I’d given a reading, when Perry commented that the story I’d read was so complex he’d have made four or five stories out of it, I suggested that might be why he’d published more than I had. Swell comeback, huh?

Ken: You’re a wit, all right. Suppose you give an example of how this complexity works.

KEN: Chapter three of The Venus Deal. Tom’s not just looking for Cynthia Moon, he’s also worrying about his wife’s loyalty and about whether he’s compromising his integrity. And the things he’s learning about Cynthia begin to reveal another entire story. I’m not trying to confuse anybody. But I want my stories to feel lifelike, and life seems plenty complex to me. How about we cram parts of chapter three in at this point.

  • A mile north of Old Town on the Coast Highway, Hickey crossed the bridge over the dry river and pulled into an all-night truck stop, Milly’s Texaco Beanery. He wanted a jolt of coffee, and a quiet place to read Cynthia’s book....
  • Hickey took the corner booth closest to the lamp, laid his hat and the book on the table, reached for his glasses and Titled them on, opened the book. Red, leatherbound, with ledger pages. From Woolworth's. The first six pages, numbered in the top right corner, beginning with “83," were filled with medium large feminine handwriting.
  • “The Bitch was trying to murder us. She hates cooking but she was happy, and Daddy thought it was swell to watch her in the kitchen, chopping the fish and vegetables with the biggest knife. She had brought her radio she got from a pawnbroker in trade for the one she stole from me, because
  • Daddy had got it for my birthday. He had to search all over to find the Motorola that could tune in the Dreamland show from LA., the only one that gives us Kenton live and all the great Negro bands. The Bitch hummed along with the radio, pretending to feel the music, which she never could, since she has no heart or soul.
  • “For dinner she changed into the green skirt and cashmere sweater she got from the Mormon Tramp in trade for my Pendleton suit she stole that I bought for church. I know because last Tuesday I saw the Tramp going into the Grant wearing my suit.
  • “She set the table with Daddy and Venus’s Haviland china and Miss V’s needlepoint tablecloth and the silver candlesticks. She waited until after dark, and she had brought candles to use so in the dim light we wouldn’t notice her only nibbling salad, not touching the chowder. She kept smiling the hateful way Daddy couldn’t see the hate in because he loved her in spite of everything, and she cleared the table fast, hoping we wouldn’t notice that all she ate was the salad and Mexican crackers, and she kissed Daddy and ran off before the poison hit us.
  • “It was about a half hour before Daddy groaned just after my stomach began to cramp. I had to lie on the floor and try to stretch and he lay beside me, writhing, both of
  • us feverish. Daddy’s face poured sweat and tears. Music came from nowhere, a string section and horns playing different tunes, so dissonant it made me scream. I tried to get up, I was going to drive us to the hospital, but my head spun so, I could hardly see to find the door. Daddy wouldn’t let me call anybody. He tried to convince me it was just bad fish and we would be sick a while and throw up then feel okay, but truly he was afraid the doctor would report to the police that the Bitch tried to kill us. He still loved her, even then. Daddy is so forgiving, and he knew I could live through most anything with Saint Ophelia’s help, or the Bitch would have killed me a hundred times. I prayed to Saint Ophelia and finally slept on the couch at Daddy’s feet.
  • “The next morning, when she returned to the scene and found us alive, the Bitch ran into my room and stole another dress from me.”
  • Milly showed with a mug of coffee. She set it in front of the ledger, between Hickey’s arms and under his nose. He hardly noticed. When Hickey got engaged in reading, laps could’ve raided the city by land and air without his catching on.
  • “After the poison, she visited a couple times a week, doing good deeds to make Daddy forget she had tried to kill us. She cleaned the house spotless, laundered our clothes and hung them neatly. For weejes she didn’t steal anything. If she missed a few days, she called Daddy to say she loved him, or he would bring home a postcard from his office, one she wrote from up north saying she was sorry because her job kept her so busy and sent her out of town.
  • “On June 5, she killed him. God forgive me. I was gone, even though a nightmare had warned me. The Bitch was a B-52 bombardier. She released the bomb, I looked up and gasped. It was big as a dirigible, falling straight at me. I jumped up and washed and dressed and rushed out of the house, restless with fright and because that day, Saturday, Bobby Wisdom’s combo held auditions. I didn't tell Daddy, so he wouldn’t worry. He knows horn players make me wild, so he would never trust musicians with me, even though I promised to stay a virgin until Saint Ophelia brings me the Man.
  • “The Bitch came to kill me. The first thing she asked for was me. When he said I was gone and she stomped into my room and he asked her not to take anything, she went berserk. First she threw a saucer. 'Then the Haviland teapot and the painting by Mr. Bair of the Indian rock and eucalyptus. So she killed him. She picked up the Remington typewriter. The cover was off because he had been writing a brief when she came. Strong as the devil, she lifted the big Remington over her shoulder and heaved it at him. He didn’t want it to break because Venus bought it for him so he tried to catch it in his arms and it hurled him back over the credenza.
  • “The doctors say broken ribs don’t give anybody TB. They lie because they’re afraid of the Bitch. Daddy still forgives her. Even after she killed him, he won’t help me destroy her. Father, here is why evil survives — because good people don’t have the heart to kill evil ones. So the evil ones keep killing the good.”
  • The story ended there, on page 89. Hickey sat brooding on the last few lines while Milly appeared, topped off his coffee, stood over him. Finally she set the coffee pot on the table and kneaded Hickey’s shoulders while he eased out of his trance.
  • “Tom, how you fixed for gas stamps?”
  • “I got a few.”
  • “That’s all, huh?” Milly leaned on the table and bent close enough to nibble Hickey’s ear. “Story is, you got pals on the ration board, is what’s making Rudy’s the hot spot —
  • you holding all the prime beef in town."
  • Hickey turned on her. “That’s a lousy story, babe,” he growled. “Don’t bother telling it to anybody else."
  • She jerked upright, glared defensively. “We’re pals, Tom. Only reason I asked was, you seen the fella up front.
  • Family’s been working their way from Kentucky, doing what they had to for little bits of gas. They got three dry tanks. Claims there’s a job of dock work in San Pedro his cousin’s saved for him, but only to tomorrow morning.”
  • Hickey already had his wallet out. He peeled off fifteen gallons, a month’s worth, of ration stamps. Milly took them, leaned close again and gave him a kiss on the bald spot. “What I like best about you, Tom, is you take off your hat when you step inside. You got manners. You oughta get the hat blocked, though. Losing its shape. I'm gonna bring you a hunk of banana cream pie.”
  • Hickey nodded and turned to his coffee, to shut her up before he lost his fix on the ledger.
  • Besides the general stuff he’d learned about Cynthia, such as she was several times wackier than he’d guessed, he’d collected a few details. She had a father who might be dead or alive, and she doted on the guy. If he was alive, he probably had tuberculosis. She believed in God, in some guardian saint and maybe in the devil. Also, it seemed she didn’t want to call anybody by name. Instead she entitled them. The Mormon Tramp, Miss V. And the Bitch who wanted her dead.
  • The Bitch, Hickey mused. A relative, neighbor, longtime friend, maybe her daddy’s lover or ex. He could check the pawnshops, see if anybody’d given up a Motorola radio in the past year. There wouldn’t be many. You could sell one on the street for ten times what you gave for it a couple years ago, now with all the new ones going straight to the forces overseas. He could ask around the U.S. Grant Hotel for a Mormon hustler.
  • The only real names besides Stan Kenton’s were of local personalities. Bobby Wisdom, a pianist, regular entertainer at the la folia Beach and Tennis Gub, Madeline's hangout, and Mr. Bair, whose paintings, one of which the Bitch had slung at Daddy, sold for plenty. The same guy that painted the portrait over Cynthia’s bed. Hickey would’ve bet Cynthia didn’t know either of them personally or she would’ve dropped their names in conversation. Maybe the only way she acted like a seventeen-year-old was in idolizing even the marginally famous.
  • The best odds seemed in hunting for Daddy. He’d been typing a brief. Could be a lawyer. Tomorrow Hickey’d call the County Bar Association, ask for an attorney named Moon. He wasn’t in the phone book. Clyde McGraw had called all the Moons who were.
  • Daddy might be dead or down with TB. Maybe in Greenwood, the mortuary where most Catholics got planted. Or Mercy Hospital. Dolores Ganguish claimed Cynthia attended a Catholic church, and the girl’s desk had held a couple pounds of crosses and rosary beads. Needing somewhere to start, Hickey'd try the Catholic angle. Cynthia
  • hadn’t mentioned being a Catholic — God hadn’t figured into their chats. She always steered the talk to music, gossip about jazz people and bigshots around town, and the war. In the Tribune and the L.A. Times, she followed every move as though she had a loved one in each battle. Her night off, she'd stand in line at the Spreckels, not so much for the movie as for the newsreels....
  • He turned left onto Grand Avenue, headed west on Pacific Beach Drive and cut into Parker Place that deadended on the bay. He pulled up by the posts at the dead end because his carport was already used. A blue ’39 Giddy. Paul Castillo’s.
  • Hickey locked the car and stood a while, Cynthia’s book tucked under his arm, breathing the salt air and fragrances of his neighbors’ orange trees and their trcllised wall of bougainvillea. He listened to the ripples from a motorboat lap against his pier, to the squawk of a parrot, somebody’s pet that had gotten loose and haunted the neighborhood, perching atop the eucalyptus, pepper and palm trees. Finally he started toward the house, restrained himself from kicking a dent in Castillo's chariot. He wondered why the sight of it riled him so deeply. Maybe it was just that the guy had swiped his parking spot again. Typical, for Castillo to act like every morsel belonged to him. Or Milly’s remark about the rationing could’ve piqued Hickey's conscience, which he’d been struggling to ignore. He didn’t know what kind of strings Castillo was pulling on the ration
  • board. Logic told him not to question, to stash the money away without looking to sec if it was dirty. That was the problem with money — you wouldn’t find much both clean and numbered higher than twenty.
  • So Hickey’d concentrated on his tasks. He’d decorated the place and now he was hosting, motivating and pacifying the employees. While Castillo procured supplies, created the menu, kept the books. Sure, he wasn’t Hickey’s first choice for a business partner. Madeline had brought Castillo to him. In some things she knew best, like which guy had the Midas touch.

Ken: A writer you admire, the late Raymond Carver, once commented that you explore characters most authors wouldn’t touch. Your characters are often bizarre—angelic, demonic, obsessed. What’s the fascination?

KEN: Everybody I know is at least one of those things.

Ken: Can you summarize your vision of human nature?

KEN: We’re selfish. When we get wounded, we respond with all manner of evil, unless we get saved from ourselves by a visitation of love. If, when love visits, we let it move in to stay, it gradually takes over as master. Where love comes from, that’s the real mystery.

Ken: Since you expose yourself through your characters, how does it feel to imagine somebody reading your work?

KEN: Mostly humble. It’s also cathartic, like a public confession. But other problems arise. Say I base a character on somebody I know. Maybe they’ll take offense. I had a teacher at Iowa — Robert Anderson — who claimed he lost three wives that way. In my first, unpublishable novel there was a character based on my mother. She objected, said the lady was a dingbat who usually spoke in cliches. “I’m not like that woman,” my mom argued.

“Who said you were?” I countered.

“Well,” she muttered, “it’s obvious."

Or you take one trait of a friend and play on it. Maybe he becomes an unscrupulous fellow, when that’s only one small aspect of the real person, but he thinks that’s how you see him. It’s risky. I’ve probably distressed people. Yet so far nobody’s socked or sued me.

Ken: How about your ex-wife. Is that why you lost her?

KEN: It might’ve contributed. In a novel I’ve been revising for many years, there’s a couple who are take-offs on me and Laura. When I started it, I was angry and frustrated over our marriage. So Denise, the wife character, became whiney, wretched, manipulative, unforgiving. The narrator, Otis — when I look back, he reads like a devoted misogynist. Since the marriage ended and I’ve gained some perspective, distanced myself from those times, Denise has turned into a sweetheart and I’ve cut nearly all of the misogynistic remarks. I left a few just to show that Otis isn’t in a state of bliss.

Ken: Did Laura value your writing?

KEN: At first she seemed to. I think my being a writer was what originally attracted her to me. Only that wears thin after a few years with a guy who spends half his life in fictional worlds, the other half earning a living. Finally, my writing probably threatened her. It kept me away from her too much, away from the kids. She knew I often used my stories as a place where I could retreat from our problems. She could watch me drift away. I’m transparent. When my daughter was four, I’d been working on a novel called The Gas Crisis but taken a week or so off. When I started back to work, my daughter walked in, saw my expression and yelped, “Daddy’s writing The Grass Crisis again!”

After the novel with Otis and Denise, the early, unkind draft, that’s when Laura stopped reading my work.

Ken: What about other people? Imagine a sexy woman’s reading a torrid love scene you wrote. How’s that feel?

KEN: Makes me shy. Like I’m a nude dancer or tongue-tied in front of a big audience. I want to grab the book and cut that part.

Ken: Suppose the reader’s your aunt who recoils from cuss words.

KEN: I wince. I’ve got two aunts like that, and The Venus Deal's their favorite so far.

Ken: Suppose your pastor gets ahold of your books and reads them.

KEN: I gave him a copy of Venus. Notice I didn’t give him The Loud Adios, in which Tom Hickey’s gone over the edge and indulges in lots of unsaintly behavior. The next one, though, the final book of the trilogy, my pastor ought to appreciate most, since it’s got real angels.

Ken: If, as it seems, you’d prefer not to offend, why is it The Venus Deal tells about rape and castration? The Loud Adios contains plenty of violence, has Satanic rituals. Why write that stuff? Because you think it’ll sell?

KEN: Sometimes ugly things happen. One reviewer panned The Loud Adios for its violence. I thought, “Come on, buddy, it’s a war story. You want parlor dialogue or what?”

Ken: Do you get a kick out of writing violence?

KEN: Emotional violence, yeah. Like the chapter in The Venus Deal where Tom Hickey takes Cynthia Moon to an isolated beach, ready to knock her around or whatever needs to be done to make her admit who she’s hired the hitman, Donny Katoulis, to kill.

Ken: What do we need to know to read it out of context?

KEN: Hickey’s been up to visit the compound near Mt. Shasta where Cynthia’s mother, Venus; her sister, the Bitch; and Master Pravinshandra whom she calls the Fiend, lead a cult of about thirty devotees, many of whom are pregnant. Hickey questions two pregnant women, who tell him that Cynthia’s godmother, Emma Vidal — Cynthia calls her Miss V — has died in an avalanche. Hickey’s trying to piece all that together with a drawing he found in Cynthia’s bedroom, of a naked woman lying dead or passed out on a floor with somebody hovering over her. On her hip is what looks like a tattoo.

  • The trail was a switchback, about two hundred yards bordered by ice plant and cholla cactus, that brought them to a small sandy beach at the base of the fifty-foot cliff. The waves crashed the rocks to their north and south. Cynthia paced back and forth in the sand, stumbling and snorting until finally she kicked the shoes off. One shot like a missile at the cliff. The other sailed, hovered and plopped about thirty yards out to sea. Hickey leaned against a boulder while the girl did a one-legged bounce, hoisting her dress to unhitch her stockings from the garters. “Now’s your chance, you old lech. Get yourself an eyeful?”
  • She bounced and wiggled out of the stockings, rolled them and stuffed them into her handbag and withdrew her Pall Malls and lighter. She lit up, took a couple steps toward Hickey, to see clearly into where he stood in shadow, out of the moon-brightened fog. The mist had beaded on her makeup, and it hung there like tear-shaped crystals dotting her face.
  • “You trying to scare me, old man? That why you brought me here?”
  • “Naw. Scaring won’t do any good, if playing ball with Donny Katoulis doesn’t scare you. And reasoning with you — hell, somebody pays a killer, I don’t figure they’re reasonable. Naw, those things won’t work. Guess I’m gonna have to hurt you.”
  • With tiny steps she scampered backward. “You won’t hurt me. It’d cost you too dear. You wouldn’t get another peep out of me, then you and Clyde might as well start peddling encyclopedias.”
  • “Seems I remember Clyde having an orchestra and me owning a restaurant before you flounced in. Who you trying to kill, babe?”
  • She paced a few steps toward the water, her heels drawing grooves in the damp sand, then she wheeled and flung her cigaret at Hickey. “Let’s see you hit me, tough guy, I dare you.”
  • “Maybe it’s laurel, the Bitch? Pravinshandra? Venus— you paying Mister Katoulis to eliminate your mother?” Cynthia had frozen with hands on her hips, her head cocked, nose wrinkled, perplexed once again by his mind reading. She strode closer, until the next step would’ve bumped him, and peered into his eyes. “Whal’d they tell you up there?”
  • Work her into a fury, Hickey thought, and she’ll drop her guard like an Italian boxer, “ladies I talked to both said you’re nuts."
  • “Ha!" She spun around, 360 degrees like a ballerina, and slung her handbag down. It hit her in the foot and she kicked it away, into the ebb tide. “And you’re stupid enough to believe the sluts. That’s what they are, the whole lousy brood. He didn’t have to rape them."
  • Hickey rolled his shoulders, wagged his head slowly, posing his most earnest bedside manner. “Meaning he did have to rape somebody, right?”
  • “Good one, Sherlock.” She backed a couple steps, slowly as if she were going to run, then lunged forward again. “You saw the picture, moron. If you couldn’t see that was a rape, who’d you figure was lying at Mary’s feet in the Pieta, her milkman?”
  • “And the one getting raped was?”
  • “The Bitch. The Bitch,” Cynthia growled exasperatedly as a snooty professor lecturing freshmen. Suddenly her eyes flashed like gems in a sunlit whirlpool, and a sly crack of smile appeared before she wiped it away with her arm. “You wanta hear the truth. I’ll tell you. Where do I start?” she asked, cockily as though certain that once he’d gotten her story, he’d see that justice deemed the murder her right and duty, so he’d quit nagging her about it.
  • Hickey reached for his pipe and tobacco. “How about you start with the picture. So it’s Laurel getting raped, who’s doing it?”
  • “The Fiend," she grumbled. “You read the note.” “The Fiend also known as the master?"
  • “Yes."
  • “So, who drew the picture, Emma Vidal?”
  • “Yes, yes, yes. Give me your coat."
  • After moving his glasses from the coat to his shirt pocket, he tossed it to her. She laid it on a flat, footstool-high rock a few feet toward the sea from the boulder Hickey leaned against and sat with her ankles crossed, chin in her hands, elbows on her knees, lip in such a pout her snapshot might’ve resembled the negative of a Watusi.
  • “Why’d Miss V send you the picture?”
  • The girl sighed as though resigning herself to his stupidity. “She sent it to Daddy, not me. But the Bitch already killed Daddy. Dead people can only do their work through the living, right? He gave the picture to me and begged me to stop the Fiend.”
  • “Your father asked you to kill a guy," Hickey muttered.
  • “The hell he did. Daddy wouldn't kill anybody. He wanted me to give the picture to Venus. He knew what she’d do.”
  • “What’s that?"
  • “I don’t know," the girl snapped. “Lash him to a redwood, squirt cat piss up his nose, slice off his eyelids and cover his head with a fishbowl full of red ants. Something like that. But it wasn’t so easy, Tom," she howled. “There are more damned people than one in the world. Why do I have to save everybody, smart guy? What about Miss V, when Venus found out she was a traitor, a spy, that she knew everything. What would Venus do then?” She clutched both sides of her hair, yanked them together in front of her face. “What did she do?” Parting the hair, she glared at Hickey, her bottom lip and cheeks sucked tight against teeth and bones.
  • “Venus started an avalanche?”
  • “Avalanche," Cynthia groaned. She stared at the ground a minute, probably looking for a rock to heave.
  • When she didn’t spot one she yanked off her earrings, double-helix patterns in silver, and flung them into the sea.
  • She whipped back around. “I was the only one who could save them. I bought the gun and went there to kill the Fiend, for Daddy and to save Miss V, and to stop him before he could breed a whole tribe of baby fiends."
  • “Whoa. You’re saying all those pregnant women...” Listening to the girl’s bizarre tale, Hickey’s brain was beginning to feel like soap bubbles....
  • Cynthia kept reaching behind herself as though to scratch or unsnap something. It looked as if any second the girl might leap out of her clothes and go bounding, screaming, into the sea.
  • “Even I don’t know which ones he raped,” Cynthia groaned. “It was the only letter from Miss V Daddy showed me, and up there she wouldn’t say much. She was trying to protect me. With the Bitch and Venus already trying to kill me, I didn’t need the Fiend after me too.” She caught a deep breath, blew it out and slumped, as though settling into an easy chair, and her voice began to shift from a lunatic’s whine to a storyteller’s introspective drawl.

Ken: Did you know beforehand how Cynthia would react to his questioning?

KEN: No. She just kept getting wilder and shedding her clothes right there on the computer.

Ken: Does that scare you, when a character flies out of control? Do you ever get worried about what they’ll do?

KEN: Sure. In The Loud Adios, for a minute I suspected Tom Hickey was going to shoot a fellow’s pecker off. And Tito the cabby, I worried he might blind a guy with a cigarette.

Ken: Do characters sometimes appear out of nowhere?

KEN: Now and then. Tito did. Tom Hickey and Clifford Rose needed transportation, so they looked around and there he was, a one-eyed cabby who ended up with his mug on the cover of the book.

Ken: Was the cover your idea? Did your publisher consult you about the book design?

KEN: No, and when my editor sent it, I thought, “That doesn’t look like Tom Hickey.” A day later, I realized it was Tito. I wouldn’t have put him on the cover. He’s certainly not the main character.

Ken: Now that your star’s rising, do you get more say about the book design?

KEN: The Venus Deal cover, I recommended the artist.

Ken: How do you like the business of writing? Dealing with an agent, editors, booksellers, fans?

KEN: I’ve had four agents, and so far they haven’t done me a lot of good. The first two novels I sold on my own. Selling The Venus Deal to the same publisher was no big trick. My current agent, I like her. I feel like we’re friends. We gab about lots of things. The last one, maybe in two weeks she’d return my call. An agent like that, she’s got a hundred clients, she’s biding time, just in case you someday write a blockbuster. She’s only a nuisance. You’re better off peddling your own stories.

With editors, you always want more attention than they can give. Like being married to somebody with 15 kids from a previous marriage.

My favorite business people are booksellers, especially those who run mystery and independent bookstores. Usually they’re thoughtful, intelligent, and better read than most authors. The same with mystery fans. Most are bright and charming. Even the lawyers amongst them. At a mystery convention you might find a corporate CEO goofing off with a gravedigger. If Bill Clinton showed, he’d be just another guy. They’re Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Christians, new-agers, atheists. A little of everybody.

Ken: How’d it feel when you were holding your first book, and was it different the second time, or the third time?

KEN: The first time, I felt justified. Like I’d been granted the right to keep writing. When I was unpublished, it felt as though everybody was ready to criticize or patronize me. Maybe I was paranoid. But it’s tough to feel justified devoting yourself to writing — I mean, the kind of devotion where every time you save enough money you quit your job to write — until you’ve published a book or at least something profitable. The money shouldn’t figure in, but most people see it as the bottom line. I’m not immune to other people’s opinions.

Since The Loud Adios came 11 years after the first book, I needed the justification again. It felt just as good, maybe better. More peaceful — as if now I’d found a place in the world. Midheaven had felt more like a ladder I’d been given than a goal.

Receiving my copies of The Venus Deal was as joyous, only mellower, like the same goodnight kiss except on the third date.

Ken: Then come the reviews. How do they feel?

KEN: They can make my day or bust it, no matter if I realize it’s only one person’s view and the next reviewer might love what this one criticized and vice versa. Most reviewers seem to lack the humility to admit that they, like everybody else, are subjective.

Ken: It hurts you when somebody criticizes your book?

KEN: Not much, unless they write about it in a way that might drive away readers. I don’t care if everybody appreciates my work. All I want is for my stories to reach the people who’ll enjoy them. That would give me a decent income, enough to buy time to write as much as I’d like to.

Ken: You don’t sound awfully ambitious.

KEN: I used to be. For years I thought it’d be tragic if I never became the best novelist who ever lived. One night, staring in the mirror, I actually got spooked imagining how broken I’d be whenever I realized that wasn’t going to happen.

Now I don’t long to be the world’s greatest anything. It simply doesn’t matter anymore who’s best. I can’t imagine why I ever cared.

Ken: What kind of readers like your books?

KEN: People who value character and style as much as plot, people who enjoy classic mysteries, and who’d rather know how a character felt when in danger than to witness a dismembering.

Ken: Okay, you go to a party. Somebody introduces you as a writer. How does the scene differ now from before you were published?

KEN: It goes like this. Somebody says, “So you’re a writer?”

“Yep,” I say.

“What do you write?”

“Novels, mostly,” I confess.

“Have you sold any?”

When I used to say no, my questioner would nod and stroll away. Now they stick around long enough to ask if any of my books are bestsellers. Then they stroll away.

Ken: How much money did you make per hour on The Venus Deal?

KEN: It took a year, part time, to write. Figure about a thousand hours. So far, all I’ve gotten is a $5000 advance. My agent took $750. I’ll invest about $2000 in promotion — posters, trips for book signings, a few T-shirts, mailing notices. I’ll net, before taxes, about $2.25 an hour off the advance. If it sells out the first printing, add about a dollar to that. A paperback sale might earn a few more dollars an hour.

Ken: Not a whole lot. The people you know who are making big bucks — how’s it feel to compare yourself with them? Say, when bills come due and you’re short, or when you have to break off writing to go to work?

KEN: Feds lousy, if I let myself compare, which is an ignorant thing to do unless at the same time I compare myself to people who’re my age, who’ve worked just as hard and had no success at all. I find making a living difficult. But it seems as though every time my needs get desperate, something’s provided. About money, I’ve got no right to complain.

Writers, like all kinds of artists, gripe about money. It’s a big theme at parties — how artists get the shaft, that nobody supports us. But we could’ve chosen to write ads, sell real estate, chase ambulances. Instead, knowing the rules, we chose to do what we wanted. Whining only gives us a lousy attitude, which perverts our stories, and that’s bad news, because what we write is contagious. If we’ve got time and energy to pursue our art, we ought to feel blessed, I think.

The first class I took at Iowa, )ohn Irving taught. One day he gave a sermon about how fiction writers, like poets, should accept at the outset that they’re going to have to work elsewhere to make a living. A year later, Irving got a million or so for The World According to Garp.

At a bar in Tucson, Leslie Silko swore she was going to give up novels and move to Hollywood, write screenplays for TV westerns. The next morning she got notified that she’d won a MacArthur Foundation grant for almost $200,000 over five years.

You never know — that’s part of the deal. Last week, a big-time producer called my agent, interested in considering the Tom Hickey books as the basis for a TV series. By next year, I might have to hire an assistant to keep track of all my money. The odds are slim. Probably only a few thousand times better than of winning the lottery.

Ken: Do you often dream of the big break, the one that’ll set you free?

KEN: When I’m broke or my personal life approaches collapse, I daydream a lot. Otherwise, I don’t waste much time on it. I’d rather be writing.

Ken: Where do you work? What’s the setting?

KEN: I’ve got a laptop computer, and two desks in my bedroom. One’s an old thing my folks bought when I was nine. The other, the one where my computer sits, is a board over two filing cabinets. I’ve got books all around, an old easy chair, some paintings my grandmother painted, a queen-size bed I can flop on. A friend who’s a therapist said the office in my bedroom must have a lousy effect on my romantic life.

Ken: Does it?

KEN: Who knows?

Ken: Okay then. What do you do when you’re writing and get restless?

KEN: Take a hot bath. I’ve been known to take three or four a day. Wash the dishes. Go out and check up on my kids. They’re teenagers and usually what I’m restless about anyway. The first half hour or so, my mind and sometimes my body are all over the place. It takes me that long to settle in. A novelist. Bob Downes, once told me he allows himself to write no more than an hour a day. If I did that, a novel would take 12 years.

Ken: You get distracted, then. Does there have to be silence where you write?

KEN: Silence is good, but if you can’t get it, you sit down to write anyway. I do pretty well in coffee shops with a notebook. My first novel I wrote in the dining room of a house where 15 of us lived. People would read over my shoulder. I’d tell them to get lost. They’d turn on the stereo. I’d beg them to leave it off for a while. Music with lyrics I can’t ignore, I find myself typing the words. My friend Don Merritt, though, always listens to ballads and folk songs while he writes.

Ken: Suppose you’re in this bedroom/office when in the middle of the night the big inspiration strikes. If that’s ever happened, what do you do — do you get up and write it? Even if you’re wrapped in somebody’s arms?

KEN: Doesn’t matter what I’m wrapped in. I’m not getting up. It used to be I took reams of notes using binders, a tape recorder, scrap paper, everything. But most every time I read the notes they either were junk or I remembered them without the notes. So I came to believe that if I tell myself to remember something, if it’s right for the story and important, it’ll be there when I need it. If it’s no good, it’ll disappear. I depend more on the muse or unconscious than access to my computer. But that’s me. About anybody else, I don’t know. Part of the reason it usually takes at least ten years for anybody to succeed even marginally as a writer is that each of us has to find our own method.

Ken: How does your average work day go?

KEN: I wake up about six, drink coffee. Only one cup. Two cups I’m so wired I can’t sit still. From about seven I write until I have to take my kids to school or go to work. I try to schedule my day job so I don’t have to get there until ten or so. Weekends the same thing, I write early then do whatever else needs getting done.

Ken: What do you wear when you sit down to write?

KEN: Old jeans, T-shirts, shorts, sweatshirt, depending on the weather. A few times, nothing. When I was real horny and wanted to write something that felt that way.

Ken: Did you keep both hands on the keyboard?

KEN: Most the time.

Ken: Can writing turn you on? Sexually, I mean.

KEN: Sure. Reading can too. Readers and writers of fiction aren’t that different. We can get lost in the other world, and whatever happens there happens to us, like dreams and “reality” do.

Ken: What’s the sexiest thing you’ve ever written — or what most aroused you while you were composing it?

KEN: I’ll confess this much — one thing awfully sexy is to write from a beautiful woman’s perspective. What other chance does a man have to get so far inside one of those strange creatures?

Ken: Do you commonly sexually fantasize yourself with any of your female characters?

KEN: Yep. Every character I write becomes me while I’m writing, so I try to feel it all, and I do it quite well.

Ken: Any scenes from The Venus Deal that felt especially sexy to you?

KEN: There’s one that might not be the sexiest but I find it especially poignant. When Tom Hickey and Madeline, his wife, are only hanging together by a thread and they make love for what might be the last time. Hickey’s recently killed a guy, about which he feels like hell:

  • For dessert they had kisses, short ones at first, while Madeline sat on his lap in the easy chair, before she led him to the sleeping porch. On the way she peeled the dress over her head, shook out her hair, bent to unplug the Christmas tree lights. She made a half pirouette and toppled gently onto the hammock where Hickey joined her. He’d kissed around her belly only for a minute before she invited him inside her. They rocked for a while, giggled and cooed, then for a long time they lay sideways where each could see the other and at the same time gaze across the bay, at the quavering water and foggy rainbow of lights. They lay coupled, sideways, then with Hickey mounted, then with Madeline riding him, for the longest time in almost sixteen years, since the week before their honeymoon, in Little Bear Hotel overlooking Lake Arrowhead, the night Hickey lay awake until dawn staring at her mouth, her eyelids, the flesh of her neck and shoulders, like a blind guy who’d only that minute got healed.
  • Madeline whispered, “Now make me scream, Tom.”
  • The hammock swayed. Once it nearly reached the ceiling.
  • The porch creaked and Madeline screamed.
  • Twenty minutes later, Hickey raced down Pacific Coast Highway, believing he might’ve discovered a natural law. It could be, he mused, that you can’t forgive yourself alone. First, you need somebody precious to forgive you.

Ken: What’s it feel like to write scenes and characters that seem to have resided in some distant part of your mind/psyche/spirit?

KEN: The only thing I can compare it to is having a child, only it feels more genuinely creative because characters become what you want and kids become what they want. The characters, though, can seem as real as anybody. Once, watching a Vietnam movie, I found myself thinking about and sympathizing with Charlie Walker, a character in Midheaven. Then I flashed on the realization that I should’ve been sympathizing with my friend Cliff, on whom Charlie was largely based. But since I hadn’t seen Cliff in a couple years, Charlie was more real.

Ken: Can you recreate the process of writing? How about describing what was going on while you composed a certain passage. Is there a day you can recall distinctly?

KEN: When I started The Loud Adios. I was living in an apartment on Lemon Avenue in La Mesa. I’d taken a place close to my mother’s so I could get there quickly in an emergency. She was 81 and nearly bedridden. The apartment cost more than I could afford. I was living on savings. I had no job, so I kept telling myself, “You’ve got to make some dough on this one.”

I’d just given up my professorship in Chico and moved down here because my kids were here with their mother, and my mother was sick. She was also upset because I’d given up my job. Wanted me to try to get it back. She always worried about my going broke because my dad used to do that and she figured I was like my dad. Impractical.

So as I sat down to write on an old Kaypro portable at my board-and-filing-cabinet desk in the bedroom, I felt pressured to do all the following:

To make the story read fast and furious, straight ahead, because the comment I most often received with rejections was that my novels didn’t stick to the main plot. On the wall was a big, hand-lettered sign — SIMPLIFY.

To introduce the problem, the mood, the setting, and to lay down some expectations that I could be confident of meeting, while at the same time — since it’s not opening with the main character, Tom Hickey — giving notice that it’s an omniscient voice, that I’m not limited to one point of view.

But what I most wanted, impractical fellow that I am, was to justify my dad. See, all through the ’80s I’d been hearing about this person being a winner, this other guy a loser, as if those criteria were all that counted. So I was determined to make Tom Hickey like my dad, a man whose beauty lay in the very things that were to assure his remaining a loser in the fiscal world.

It was 7:30 or so, a warm spring morning. April 1988. The apartment dwellers were revving their cars, heading off for work.

I was excited and scared. Everything was new. I’d determined to write what was for me a new type of fiction. I was beginning life as a single man, after a marriage of 17 years. With no job. Back in my hometown, while my mother was dying. For a while I paced, rinsed out my coffee cup, stared out the window, browsed The Atlantic. Finally I sat down and wrote:

  • As Clifford Rose came to, the first thing he recognized was the stink, like a drainpipe running out of hell. Then he remembered.
  • “Wendy,” he screamed. This time no one answered.
  • The big mestizo thugs dragged him through the doorway of the Club dc Paris into the fog, across the dirt sidewalk and down three steps to the muddy street. They flipped him over, threw him face down into the mud. The biggest one kicked him with a pointed boot in the neck. The chest. The forehead. Finally the one they called Mofeto, who had sliced the gash in Clifford’s cheek, sauntered out of the club. He looked like the runt of the litter, with a sharp face, pinched mouth, starved eyes. He wore a felt hat and a baggy dark suit. His hand with the switchblade swung beside him.
  • Through the fog you could hear invisible gringos talking and whooping, uphill toward the main boulevard.
  • Neon from across the street red-tinted the fog.
  • Clifford lay curled in the mud, waiting for the next blow. When he saw the runt step closer, he heaved himself up on one arm. Slobbering blood, he croaked, “You give her up now, hear. I got friends, you’ll see.”
  • The runt straightened his coat and gazed both ways again. From the side of his mouth, like a parrot, he squawked,
  • “Oh, you got friends. Sure. We don’t want trouble.” Lazily, he folded and pocketed his switchblade, reached beneath his baggy coat, then his hand shot out, gripping a long-barreled .45 revolver. “I better kill you now.”
  • Clifford dropped and covered his head with his arms.
  • He tried to push off with his legs, but they slipped in the mud and the biggest mestizo stomped and held his ankle down, while the runt bent closer until the gun barrel touched the base of Clifford’s skull. He let it rest there, then glanced up the hill.
  • The U.S. Marines came like a stampede. Their boots squished and sucked out of the mud, and one yelled, “Whee hoo!” while another tried to whoop like a mariachi. They materialized out of the fog just ten feet from where Clifford Rose lay pressing inward with all his muscles, as if he could make himself tiny as a soul. The runt drew back to a crouch while the mestizos snatched up their guns. They turned on the wall of gringos. The Marines skidded to a halt. All white boys, straight out of boot camp with burr heads and no weapons except the bravado a gang and tequila guarantee.
  • One of them snarled, “Move on, greasers.” His pals seconded with grunts and a volley of threats.
  • Beneath the biggest mestizo’s foot, Clifford started writhing. large drops of blood ran down his face, and he felt his mind trying to lift out of his body and lose itself in the fog. Holding onto life, he squirmed so frantically it looked like a seizure. Everybody turned to watch him.
  • A deep voice shouted from the door of the Club de Paris.
  • The patron, a Latino, in his cream-colored pin-striped suit, stepped across the sidewalk and aimed a finger at the runt.
  • Basta, Mofeto,” he commanded, and whipped his arm toward the door.
  • The thugs slowly packed their guns away. Glaring at the Marines, they kicked mud off their boots and disappeared into the club. The Latino folded his arms and gazed disgustedly from the writhing soldier to the Marines. Finally he said,
  • “You better keep that one out of Tijuana.”

I snapped out of my trance about noon, looked over the chapter, made a few changes, thought, “Not bad, Ken.”

I made a sandwich. While I ate I mused about introducing Tom Hickey, which was the next chore. It seemed too much for me, like writing chores always do. So I took a nap. When I got up, I brewed my second coffee of the day, sipped it while chewing a hunk of Nicorette gum and wrote:

  • Over both cities lay thick, drizzling clouds. No moon or stars shined through. Streetlamps stood dark. Old neon signs hung in disrepair. North of the line, even the headlamps
  • of cars stayed unlit or dimmed by thin coats of paint on their lenses. The only lights flickered from behind window shades.
  • From the border you couldn’t see either city. But you could smell Tijuana. As the wind shifted, smells would change from burning rubber to gasses, to nose-biting whiffs of chile fields, to sewage in the river, to whore’s perfumes. And though San Diego lay ten miles north, if you listened closely you could hear a steady noise, the low howl of wheels cutting over wet asphalt as trucks carried supplies to another day of war. It was April 1943.
  • Tom Hickey stood on the border under the shelter between a lane for cars and a turnstile and passway for walkers.
  • A sentry. His mouth was set in a scornful way. The blue of his eyes held no gleam. His blond, gray-flecked, scraggly hair inched over his cars, and his uniform was a mess. No top button on the shirt. The white helmet lying on the ground beside him. The gun and holster he wore shifted around behind so he wouldn’t get in the way. His sleeves were rolled up almost to the white MF band....

By now it was almost three p.m., and my son walked in from his school down the road. He was eight years old, third grade. He wanted to go downstairs to the recreation room and shoot pool.

I figured it had been a good day.

Ken: That was five years ago. What in your life is different now that the books are selling? How do you live today?

KEN: I live up the hill, in my mom’s old house. It was shabby when she died. I’m still fixing things. I’m also employed at San Diego State — on an extended break from teaching to counsel students in the advising center. So I need to crawl out of bed and write early mornings. My kids are both teenagers who require a lot of time and energy. Trying to balance the day job, the homemaker/parent stuff, writing novels and articles — by the end of most days I’m ready to crash and burn. So I don’t spend many nights on the town. On summer evenings, I like to walk down the hill to a coffeehouse, drink an iced mocha decaf, and listen to a few songs, then walk back home. A few weeks each year I’ll travel around the West, signing books and visiting friends.

Ken: If a genie appeared to give you three wishes, what would you ask?

KEN: For him to get lost and quit tempting me. I’m not wise enough to know the outcome of the stuff I’d wish for. Dozens of things I’ve wished for in the past — in retrospect, they would’ve been disastrous.

Ken: Like what?

KEN: Certain women. Or success before I spent a lot of years learning and growing because of failure.

Ken: Suppose that a thousand years from now, somebody’s reading one of your books. How do you imagine the person reacting?

KEN: With curiosity and dismay, to think that people from our age had to grope so blindly for answers. It’s like we’re walking in darkness, crashing into walls, tripping on junk, bumping heads with each other. One day soon, before we knock each other out, the light is going to flash on. Anyway, that’s what I believe.

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