Friday, September 19, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Ken Kuhlken

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Ken Kuhlken
with Ken Kuhlken

We are delighted to welcome novelist Ken Kuhlken to Omnimystery News today.

Ken's seventh mystery in his California Century series is The Good Know Nothing (Poisoned Pen Press; August 2014 hardcover, trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had a chance to catch up with him to talk more about the book and its lead character, Tom Hickey.

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Omnimystery News: Tell us how the California Century series came about.

Ken Kuhlken
Photo provided courtesy of
Ken Kuhlken

Ken Kuhlken: When I first discovered Tom Hickey, I had no intention of a series. The series came to mind after the success of The Loud Adios, when I found myself asking questions about where Tom had come from and where he was going.

OMN: The series spans over 50 years, from 1926 through 1979. How has Tom changed over that period?

KK: Tom is 22 in The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles, and 74 in The Vagabond Virgins. His character has principally changed in response to some of the things he goes through. But I think he's both the same guy and a different guy each book.

OMN: Into which fiction genre would you place your books?

KK: This question disturbs me. I mean the reliance of categories disturbs me, because I can't seem to make my stories fit into one or another. A story comes to me, and it grows, then I read it and it grows some more, until it's a book. Then, people call my books noir, mystery, hardboiled, literary, historical, suspense. My last agent called them thrillers because he figured thriller advances were higher.

Once a man offered $100 for a 1000 word soft porn story. I got an idea, and by the time I finished it was 3000 words and "literary" enough to win a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

OMN: Given that it is hard to pin down a genre for your books, do you see any advantage in trying to categorize them?

KK: For sure there are marketing advantages if you fit squarely into a certain genre and disadvantages if you don't. Because some readers have strict expectations of books in a genre, and if a book doesn't meet their particular expectations, they blame it on the book.

OMN: Give us a summary of The Good Know Nothing in a tweet.

KK: In 1936, years after detective Tom Hickey's dad vanished, evidence about his whereabouts appears. Maybe B. Traven, the Sundance Kid, or W.R. Hearst know the answers.

OMN: Are any of the characters in the series based on people you know?

KK: Often I start with a character based upon somebody I know, but it doesn't take long before the characters become more real than the people they were based on. A while back, I went to watch a Vietnam war movie with my friend Cliff, who spent a couple years in the thick of that war, and instead of sympathizing with him, I found myself sympathizing with a character from Midheaven who began with a vision of Cliff.

Actually, in one sense, both the Hickey series and another began with a cast of real-life characters. Anyone who cares to know details could go to my website and click "The Whole Story."

OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?

KK: Well, if I didn't take liberties, I'd be a mighty unusual writer. I attempt to keep them to a minimum, but I'm not likely to look up the weather on a certain day in 1936.

OMN: How important is the setting to the story?

KK: Mighty important. One reason, if Tom Hickey wasn't living through the depression, losing his job wouldn't worry his wife so severely that she becomes his opponent rather than his ally. If he weren't living in L.A., maybe the cops wouldn't be so corrupt. And so on.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research a setting for a book, where would it be?

KK: Russia, to visit the haunts of Dostoyevski and his characters. Not sure it would work as research, but I would be counting on inspiration.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

KK: Keep in mind, you're in it for the long run.

OMN: And the harshest criticism?

KK: When are you going to get a real job?

OMN: What might you say to aspiring writers?

KK: Read my book Writing and the Spirit, which is full of advice.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …".

KK: Here's probably the most published blurb about a favorite writer of mine: "Thompson's books are palpably evil ... Thompson loudly proclaims that he is damned and proud of it."

Well, I wrote a feature story about Thompson and in the process talked to his daughter, and she assured me that he was no such thing. She said he was a good Catholic and the gentlest man alive.

So, I'm going to complete the sentence like this: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also mighty damned aware of my dark side."

OMN: How did The Good Know Nothing come to be titled?

KK: I had written about a hundred pages and was at a loss for a title. I thought about The Book Thief, but remembered it was already taken. Then I read a quote by novelist Paul Auster. I believe it appeared in A Word A Day, an email list I subscribe to. The whole quote is: "For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing. They spend their lives forgiving others, but they can't forgive themselves."

Right away I knew it was the title I'd been looking for. I'd been wrestling with the same idea, that all we think we know is only opinion, and that people make hideous mistakes on account of confusing opinion with knowledge. Matter of fact, the world might end in some fiery apocalypse because of that sort of mistake.

Titles can guide the whole book, unify it, become a theme that keeps it from flying off every which way. My friend Sandra Cisneros once told me she wouldn't consider writing a story until she had the title.
Besides, picking a title for a book you've already finished is awfully hard.
Thank you, Paul Auster and A Word A Day guy.

OMN: If The Good Know Nothing were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see playing the key roles?

KK: The role of Tom, I have no idea.

But for Tom's sister Florence, who I sometimes consider the main character of The Good Know Nothing, I would cast a clone of Marion Davies, the actress who was also William Randolph Hearst's long-time beloved mistress. Or a clone Mary Pickford might work, since Tom's mother both works for and is a ringer for Pickford, and Florence resembles her mother. Scarlett Johansen might fit the bill.

And Harry Longabaugh, aka Hiram Beebe and the Sundance Kid, of course must be an aging Robert Redford.

OMN: You earlier mentioned your first novel, Midheaven. It is written from the perspective of a young woman. Did you have any trouble finding the right voice for her? And will we see her again?

KK: The narrator of Midheaven is a young woman named Jodi. I wrote from her point of view because the story that came to me was all about her and to tell it right, I needed to live inside her head. Which was quite an experience.

I felt comfortable writing, but when I began to submit, I feared the disdain of female editors. But the one who bought it, Maureen Rolla, convinced me I made a convincing young woman. That was a whopping relief. And no reviewers or anybody panned me for it. Or if they did, I repressed the memory.

And I mean to write another book with Jodi as the narrator, but this book will be mostly about the Hickey family, with whom she becomes tight.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

KK: My grandma was a landscape painter and storyteller. In her studio while painting, she would tell me her versions of great stories such as The Last Days of Pompeii, The Fairy Queen, The Tempest, and Ivanhoe. So I learned to love tales of high adventure, which later became my favorite reading, and what I write today has lots of the same elements.

OMN: What's next for you?

KK: One project I intend to complete is a series of five or six novellas, which I'll describe in 140 characters, since I got a kick out of that tweet-length question you asked.

"A baby conceived in rape gets snatched by the mom's evil sister. Believing the child is the biblical anti-christ, the mom raises her second son to be his brother's assassin."

And as I'm approaching my second childhood, I also intend to finish a young adult novel I started a while back. Here's the tweet-length version:

"Adolescent Skip fears for the sanity of his single mom who has moved them to a north Lake Tahoe trailer park and devoted herself to hunting for a portal into heaven."

This one gives me an excuse for a trip to Lake Tahoe, which is more likely to happen than the Russia trip.

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After borrowing time from his youthful passions, such as baseball, golf, romance, and trying to make music, to earn degrees in literature and writing from San Diego State University and the University of Iowa, Ken got serious (more or less).

Since then, his stories have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines, and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He has been a frequent contributor and a columnist for the San Diego Reader.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at KenKuhlken.net or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Good Know Nothing by Ken Kuhlken

The Good Know Nothing
Ken Kuhlken
A California Century Mystery

During the summer of 1936, destitute farmers from the Dust Bowl swarm into California, and an old friend brings police detective Tom Hickey a manuscript, a clue to the mystery of his father Charlie's long-ago disappearance. Tom chooses to risk losing his job and family to follow this lead. Even his oldest friend and mentor, retired cop Leo Weiss, opposes Tom's decision. Why so passionately?

Tom lures the novelist B. Traven to a meeting on Catalina and accuses him of manuscript theft and homicide. Traven replies that the Sundance Kid, having escaped from his reputed death in Bolivia, killed Charlie. Tom crosses the desert to Tucson, tracking the person or ghost of the legendary outlaw. He meets a young Dust Bowl refugee intent on avenging the enslavement of his sister by an L.A. cop on temporary border duty in Yuma. Tom frees the sister, delivers the boy's revenge, and becomes a fugitive, wanted for felony assault by the L.A.P.D., his now-former employer.

What he learns in Tucson sends Tom up against powerful newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. He hopes to enlist Leo, but instead Leo offers evidence that Tom's father was a criminal. For Tom and his sister, both victims of Charlie's wife, their crazy mother, what now?

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