David Ulin, Author, Critic, Editor
You’ve probably read David Ulin’s work in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Paris Review, Black Clock, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Zyzzyva, Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Ulin has also been a contributor to docufilms, such as Lost LA and the upcoming Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. As a former book editor and book critic for The Los Angeles Times for ten years, Ulin has a unique perspective that takes into account the current sociological and political sphere and his place within it. In 2002, Ulin won the California Book Award for the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, on which he was an editor. He was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and most recently was awarded a 2018 Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas. This year, 2018, also saw the re-release of Ulin’s 2010 book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, with a new introduction and afterword.
In addition to being a Guest Faculty member at AULA’s low-residency MFA program, Ulin is also an assistant professor of English at USC, and he also teaches in UC Riverside’s low- residency MFA in creative writing program.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with David Ulin and chat about all things writerly.
Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez: Okay. How are you this morning?
David Ulin: I’m fine and thanks for doing this in the morning, by the way. It’s always better for me to start at the beginning of the day, rather than the end so it doesn’t cut into the writing—or the non-writing—depending on what’s happening. [chuckles]
YDS: Let’s start with an easy question: What is your favorite genre to write?
DU: That’s a good question. I don’t think I have a favorite. At the moment, I primarily work in nonfiction. Although, I sort of dip in and out of other genres. It’s more of a progression. I started out as a poet. My first book was a chapbook of poems. Then, I sort of slid into fiction writing, what I thought I wanted to do. So, I did both for a long time, and then I became really interested in essay writing for a variety of reasons. I was working as a critic, and being a critic is actually being an essayist of a certain kind. The reviews I wanted to write and read most were ones that function as little essays in their own right. Then, I just became really fascinated with reading contemporary essayists and nonfiction. I wanted to play in that form. It felt like a natural move for me because the fiction I was writing was often autobiographical, and I’m very interested in personal narrative: how it is constructed, and what the relationship [of the narrative] is to actual life.
Because of the intuitive move of the essay, it reminds me of the intuitive and expressionistic flow of writing poetry. So, essay writing seems to pull in a lot of the elements that I find most exciting or attractive about fiction and poetry.
YDS: That’s interesting; I mostly write fiction and I began writing poetry when I was younger as well. But I am feeling my way into nonfiction more and more, so that really resonates with me.
The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.
DU: Yeah, you know I think we do ourselves a disservice as writers by thinking we have to do only one thing. I know plenty of writers who do one thing and do it really, really well, but there are also a lot of writers who move around [between genres], and I think sometimes the moving around can be really useful in terms of ideas that I can’t express in another way. Certain things just appear for one form, but the forms do talk to each other. It’s interesting to see how they resonate with each other.
YDS: So that transitions well into my next question: what’s your process of writing a book review versus writing a novel or story?
DU: It used to be quite different when I was starting because I felt like I had to say “this” about “this” book for “this” reason. As I continued to write reviews, though, I began to write them in much the same way I write everything else: to know as little as possible going in.
Obviously, I gather my material. If I’m writing a book review, then I’ve read the book. I’ve thought about the book, I’ve thought about my reaction to the book, and I might even have a sense of what things I might want to quote. While I’m reading, I’m taking notes or making comments in the margins or whatever, but I don’t necessarily know what the review is going to say or how I’m going to say it. The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.
In the act of writing, there’s something that triggers. Maybe it’s an incident or maybe it’s something I’ve observed. Maybe it’s something I’m thinking about or maybe it’s an issue—personal, political, or whatever—and then the writing becomes the exploration of that idea or that question. I don’t necessarily write to come up with an answer. I write to phrase a set of questions [rather than answers]. So when I started writing reviews this way was when my reviewing changed.
Going back to what I was saying earlier, I felt reviewing was about presenting a set of answers: you know, “Is this book good or bad?” “Should people buy it?” “How is this working or not?” I think those are a part of the reviewing process. If you’re reviewing for the newspapers, which is what I did for many years, you are writing an essay, but also, you’re providing a service. People are reading those reviews because they want to see what you have to say. They are also reading those reviews presumably because they’re trying to decide whether or not to put real money down and buy the book.
I think there’s something really interesting about the inquiry [of writing], so the long answer to the short question is that, at this point, the process is pretty much the same. There aren’t a bunch of things I’m thinking about. I sit down, and I just start writing to see where it takes me. Often, I’ll write a review and in the middle of it, I’ll think, “Oh, I had no idea this is where I was going to end up,” or, “I had no idea that’s what I was going to be talking about.” I’m very interested in seeing how the ideas emerge through the process of writing, rather than being predetermined beforehand.
YDS: So with this idea of process in mind, what was it like being a book editor versus being a book critic for The LA Times?
DU: It was complicated, to be honest, but I loved it. I didn’t love it all the time. I loved the work of it. I was there during a strange decade where the paper was constantly in a state of turmoil, constantly downsizing. Because I was a section editor for the first five years, I was responsible for trying to protect that section in some way. I had to figure out how to integrate [the section] into the paper at large and that came with a set of logistical challenges I hadn’t had before. Just on a pragmatic level, if they were downsizing a section, what did that mean? How much space could we get? How could I fight to keep that space? If I had half the space I used to have, how did we intend to use that space to try and have a wider range of coverage? And then, how could I use the web?
I became book editor in 2005, and web presence was pretty minimal. One of the things that I and the other editors were doing at that time was trying to build the website and build web presence. We played around with stuff, and we tried to mitigate the print space with increasing digital space, so those logistical questions were really unique to that experience and sometimes they were quite frustrating. At one point they did cut the section in half in terms of its print space so that was a difficult process. In the end, I think I was always a writing editor—I was a writer first and an editor second—so even when I was editing a section, I was writing a lot of pieces, and at a certain point, I just wanted to go back to writing. I didn’t want to be in charge anymore. I realized through that process that I don’t really love being in charge. So, when I had the opportunity to begin writing full-time as a critic it was great. I really enjoyed that, but then the other challenge of it was that the web continued to assert itself, and the paper belatedly tried to catch up on web strategy, the demand for volume. And, the amount of pieces you were supposed to write radically grew.
One reason [I left] was due to those kinds of demands. Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it. I think one of the important things to consider about those kinds of jobs—particularly for newspaper—is that they turn over. If you read my reviews for five years, you have a pretty good idea of who I am, where I’m coming from, and what my aesthetics are. So then, it should be somebody else’s turn, you know. That is how publications ossify, if somebody does that job for too long.
Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it.
YDS: So if someone were interested in becoming a book reviewer, how should they start?
DU: Well, at this point, I think I would start on the web. I think there are a lot of excellent web-based publications. I came up through alt-weekly media, like LA Reader, which doesn’t exist anymore, and LA Weekly, Village Voice. That kind of stuff. Some of those papers don’t exist anymore either. But at the time, what was great about them is that you could write, write at length, and they were always looking for stuff. You could really learn while you’re doing it, hone your chops. I would say for someone who wants to do it now, the same is available in terms of websites like The Millions or Lithub or Los Angeles Review of Books, sites like that.
Look around at those sites: see what you like, look at the outlets you like, think about what kind of stuff they’re publishing, think about whether you are doing that kind of work, and then pitch. There is a lot of opportunity on the web, there’s not a lot of money in that opportunity and that’s always the problem starting out; the paper/work ratio is, generally, pretty uneven.
In terms of getting work out and having the opportunity to learn in public, I think that’s really key because book reviewing is a kind of a public form of writing. I believe all writing is public, but book reviewing is public because nobody writes book reviews and then sits on them. I do it all the time when I write poems and stories, with no guarantee they’re going to get published. But nobody is sitting around writing book reviews for their own amusement. Well, maybe there are a few. [laughs]
YDS: It also seems like you’re more aware of your audience when you’re writing a book review than when writing for yourself.
DU: I guess we are aware that there is an audience. I mean I always tried to keep an awareness of the audience per say. Not right to the audience, but yeah, if you’re writing a review for a newspaper, you are aware that there is going to be an audience reading that review in a different way than if you’re working on a short story, or a novel, or an essay, or something like that. I mean the audience is less abstract in this case.
YDS: Does being more aware of that audience change your writing or voice in any way?
DU: You know, I don’t think so. Because once I’m in, when I’m sitting at the computer writing, I’m not aware of there being a difference at all because I’m not writing to please anybody, except hopefully myself. Again, I’m writing to kind of see what’s there and that’s the same no matter what form I’m working in.
YDS: I recently read Ear to the Ground, which you wrote with Paul Kolsby and is a really great read, by the way. I kept thinking about the process of collaboration. What was your collaboration like and how is that different than writing on your own?
DU: It’s very different than writing on your own. It’s not something I do very often, to be honest. It’s not something I love doing because I tend to be kind of solitary and I have my own sense of how things go, and I do think that writing is largely an individual process. But in this case, it worked really well. Although the book came out in 2016, it was originally published as a weekly serial novel in the Los Angeles Reader in ’95 and ’96. So, Paul and I were in our early thirties. We’d known each other since college, since we were like eighteen or nineteen, and we had collaborated in loose ways on other creative projects that were more performance oriented. He’s a playwright and we had done a radio serial drama together, like five or six years earlier. So we knew each other, we knew each other’s work. We weren’t best, best friends, but I think it’s better that we weren’t because there was less at stake in our personal relationship.
Because it was a series novel, we agreed to deliver a chapter a week for a year and it ended up running nine months because the story sort of arched in that block of time. So, this ties in with what we’ve been talking about because Paul and I had no idea where this was going to go. We had a general sense of what the arc of the story was; we knew that there was going to be the earthquake prediction and we knew how it was going to play out. We kind of mapped that out, but we didn’t know…well, we certainly didn’t know what was going to be happening in the news, and we wanted to weave that in. We didn’t necessarily know what was going to be happening with the characters and their relationships. A lot of that developed week by week. So the idea of writing a chapter a week on deadline was really daunting.
In that sense, collaboration was essential because what if I didn’t have an idea, but I still had to turn something in? With a collaborator, maybe he had an idea, or maybe I had one and he didn’t. And so the kind of interplay in the collaboration was really helpful because of the pressure of generating content at that pace. The other thing that was really useful is I’m not much of a plotter, but Paul is a great plotter. We didn’t realize this going in, but as we were working, it emerged that we kind of complimented each other. I was good on character and scene. He’s really good on big plot overview stuff. He’s funny; I’m less so. And so there was a balance that was important for the book. I think it was a really interesting and successful process.
The best evidence is that eighteen years later when we finally read it again and decided to try and publish it as a book, there were long stretches of the manuscript where I couldn’t tell who had written what. I remembered writing certain things myself. I remember certain things that Paul had written, but there were definitely stretches where both of us were like, “I don’t know, this could be either one of us.” That says to me the collaboration developed its own kind of voice, its own sensibility, which is all you can hope for. Even if there are two writers, there has to be a kind of unified voice to a narrative or else the reader doesn’t have anything to connect with. But, it was a fascinating process.
YDS: So, did you start off with one of you writing the first chapter and then the other would read that chapter and then write the next one back and forth?
DU: Yeah, the original idea was exactly that. One of us was going to be the writer every other week, right? And we would alternate, but then of course things happened. So Paul, at that time, was traveling a bunch, and I had a six month old son—my oldest—which is always, always a distraction. So there were things coming up where I couldn’t do it or he couldn’t do it, or I would direct three in a row or vice versa. So it became more fluid and flexible just because of life. The original plan, which we did sort of stick to for a while and kind of kept coming back to, was that we would alternate as a lead writer. If it was my job, then Paul would go through them. We would then get together and go over the revised version, and then do a final draft of it.
I think we probably ran through about half that way. Most chapters were 900 words long, but we did these three sort of pillar chapters that were much longer, that ran as cover stories. Those were about 3,500 words long each. We started with one of those. We had one in the middle and one at the end. That was a different process because we worked on them for a longer time, obviously, and they became a key way for us to make really big plot moves.
YDS: That’s a great example of process. I recently read an article you wrote for The LA Times back in 2009, “The Lost Art of Reading,” which seemed to be a precursor to the book.
DU: Yes, in fact, there would be no book without that article.
YDS: One of the main ideas, in the article and the book, is that the reason for the decline in reading for the average person is due to social media culture and our political climate and a sense of immediacy we increasingly desire. With that in mind and thinking of new types of storytelling—audiobooks, podcasts, etc.—do you think that these things influence or alter that type of mentality when it comes to reading?
DU: That’s a good question. I think everything that involves storytelling—with every storytelling medium or mechanism—affects the way we interact with and engage in storytelling. Just as a quick example, let’s look at Madame Bovary. In a lot of ways you could call it the first modern novel because it’s describing a modern sensibility, right? Middle-class bourgeois people. This is the first time you see this in fiction: people with a little bit too much time and money on their hands and the boredom that it provokes. It was very modern when it came out, with its morality moving away from traditional morality. Published in 1857, right? When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore. I don’t think our attention spans are wired to put up like that. We want to cut to the chase. If that novel had been written a hundred years later, chances are he would have adapted cinematic strategy like jump cuts. We no longer expect a novelist to ease us through transitions, but we can move through these kinds of abrupt transitions because we have internalized the vernacular of film just by virtue of the society we’re living in. Even if you don’t go to movies or aren’t a big movie person, we understand how that transition works in a way that 100 years ago or 150 years ago it would have been beyond our ability to imagine.
It’s the same thing with the Impressionists when they first were shown in the late 1800s and they were attacked because people couldn’t process what they were seeing. Whereas now you look at an impressionist painting and it looks like a realist painting. I think as a species we evolved our ability to appreciate various forms of expression and narrative as those forms come up and teach us new ways of thinking. And I think audiobooks are a great example. I think film is a great example. And I think video games are a kind of narrative mechanism, of digital storytelling, multimedia. All of these kinds of things have changed the way we interact. I’m interested in all of that stuff.
When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore.
What I was primarily trying to write about in The Lost Art, at least in that second edition with new material, was really about distraction and the fact that someone like me, who was an avid lifelong reader of hundreds and hundreds of pages a week, was now having trouble reading. This must mean that there was a kind of epidemic of having trouble reading. The reason the book grew out of that essay was because the essay got tons of response. Mostly people would write me to say, “Thanks, I thought I was the only one.” Then a publisher asked me if I would be interested in thinking about this as a book.
There’s a lot of political stuff in the book because there was a lot of political stuff going on at the time. In terms of the current crisis, it was just beginning with the tea party and Sarah Palin and all of that. Although, the roots go back much further, and we weren’t using phrases like “fake news,” but that level of lying was already part of the public discourse. One of the reasons it was working was because people were either too distracted or uninformed to know what the truth was. In that sense the political climate was sort of a subtext to the book. It was really a question about distraction and how we combat distraction. So it is a book about reading, but in a lot of ways reading becomes a metaphor for slowing down, for critical thinking, or for quieting our minds enough to be able to hear somebody else’s voice and engage with it. I really feel this is something that we have lost to our collective detriment. If we were able to actually sit and process information collectively as a culture and think about what it meant and then ask questions about it, we’d be a lot better off.
But the speed of everything and the soundbite quality of the Internet as an information source has created an environment where we are basically conditioned just to react. Just hit a button and read something and our immediate responses are like, “Yeah” or, “Fuck you”. And we’d never really get beyond that. And so I saw that happening in me, and I wanted to explore it.
YDS: I used to soak up books when I was young. Then I got into grad school and I was having the hardest time concentrating. So when I read the article and book it started to click. This sense of immediacy. I teach at a community college and I see it now with students and trying to get them to read.
DU: That’s absolutely right. I’ve noticed it more lately, and certainly since the election, as affecting writing. You know, on a big news day, I’m constantly interrupting my own writing to go see what’s going on, even though if I waited an hour, I’d be just as outraged, or weirded out or disgusted or horrified or whatever. But it feels like if I don’t know immediately, it’s like I will lose further control. And as I was saying earlier, writing is kind of about giving up control or losing control or seeing what happens when you let go.
Yet at the same time, the political environment and social environment is so chaotic and so disruptive of our impulses that we need to know everything that’s happening, so we can at least preserve the illusion that we have some control over what’s happening, even though we don’t. And so I find myself constantly caught between those two poles. Even when I’m writing, things that would’ve taken me a couple of hours—five years ago—now takes me all day, and things that would’ve taken me a day now takes me a week because I’m constantly pulling myself out of the writing and putting my head back into the real world.
YDS: That puts it into perspective. And speaking of reading, what are you currently reading?
DU: I am about to read a biography of the architect Philip Johnson, that a friend of mine wrote, which I’m curious about. I’m reading Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets from my Past and Future Assassins, which I think is completely remarkable. And I’m reading a book by Patrick Modiano, the French Nobel Prize winner, called Sleep of Memory, which is the first book he’s written since he won the Nobel. He’s a writer I’m really interested in because his work is so spare and minimal and also heavily memory-influenced. And so those are really important, at least in terms of what I do.
I’m about to start reading the last book by Canadian writer Helen Weinzweig. She’s a novelist, a short story writer. She lived into her eighties and died a number of years ago, but she wrote three books, starting when she was in her late fifties. I stumbled across the first book and I fell in love with it. I’m about to start reading her last book, A View from the Roof, a collection of shorts.
The other book I’ve been spending a lot of time with this summer is The Years by a French writer named Annie Ernaux. It’s a memoir that does not use first person singular, which I find absolutely fascinating. Basically, she’s trying to write her own story through the collective story of her generation. She uses a lot of first-person plural and she uses some third-person. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. It’s fascinating. I’m always looking for writers who are doing something that I haven’t seen or something vivid and compelling, particularly with voice because I do a lot of first-person writing and I’m curious about how to strip the “I” out of first-person writing.
YDS: You mentioned a new edition of The Lost Art of Translation is coming out soon, what else are you working on at the moment?
DU: I am working on a few things. I don’t normally talk about works in progress, but I will say the main project I’m working on, which I’m pretty well into, is a memoir that’s been kind of fascinating for all the reasons we were talking about in terms of a voice in narrative, of memory and storytelling, of the slipperiness of truth. I don’t really believe in truth. I believe in subjective truth, but I don’t really believe in our ability to comprehend objective truth. Different versions of stories—how the story can exist in different versions depending on who’s telling them—all that stuff fascinates me.
YDS: I look forward to reading that. Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give a working writer?
DU: Well, I’ve given this advice before, and I’ll give it again until I’m dead and can’t give advice anymore: don’t listen to anybody who tells you you can’t do it. As writers, once [you] declare yourself as a writer, everybody has advice and at least half of that is, “You’ll never be able to do this, so figure out something else to do.” And I don’t think it’s meant to be cruel. I mean, sometimes it is, but I think it’s meant to be practical. You’re going to spend your life doing this thing where there’s no money and it’s hard. So why, right?
Well, obviously, the drive is internal. So if you’re offered that advice and you listen to that advice, then you were probably not a writer to begin with. I say, “Be stubborn.” Everybody has their own sense of what good work is. It’s a completely subjective landscape. And if you believe, then don’t let somebody else convince you not to believe. There’s always going to be the opportunity to walk away. And if that’s what you want to do, by all means, you should definitely walk away. It’s hard work. But if you really feel that you’re a writer, don’t take anybody’s negative advice. Just be stubborn and keep your head down and show up to work. And work, work everyday.
All the writers I know are people who just never got up from the chair. They sit down everyday—or most days—and do their work. Maybe the work is good that day. Or maybe the work is bad that day. It doesn’t matter. They don’t get too high from the good work. They don’t get too low from the bad work. They sit down and do it again every day. It’s work. I don’t want to make it totally pragmatic: there are a whole bunch of really interesting, “soulful” things that happen when you’re creating, when you’re being creative. But also, this work, it’s actual practical hard work. You’ve got to show up to the job every day. There will always be people telling you negative stuff, and you gotta get those voices out of your head. Do whatever it takes to do that.
YDS: That’s really great advice. Thank you so much for that, and thank you for talking with Lunch Ticket.
DU: Well, I appreciate your questions and your close reading of the work. That really means a lot, so thank you for that.