No one knows books like David L. Ulin. On any given day, the Los Angeles Times book critic has an assortment of books within his reach, and each one is as different from the others as the hues of the rainbow. From The Best American Short Stories 2012 to Waging Heavy Peace, the meandering memoir by singer-songwriter Neil Young, Ulin’s personal and professional tastes for reading material run the spectrum. He counts iconic author Joan Didion as one of his greatest influences.
“One of the great things about my job at the paper is it’s just a kind of public version of my private reading life,” he said. “I pretty much read what I want and write about it.”
Ulin has also written several of his own books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and The Myth of Solid Ground: The Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, which was named a Best Book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. He has edited three anthologies: Cape Cod Noir, Another City: Writing From Los Angeles, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a 2002 California Book Award.
His most recent book, Labyrinth, is about a middle-aged man, now living in Los Angeles, who travels to San Francisco, his former home, to confront his geographic and social history. He seeks solace at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, where he walks the labyrinth and reflects on who he is, who he was, and the relationships between distance and belonging, memory and identity.
Ulin is also the author of essays and articles that have appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, The New York Times Book Review, LA Weekly, Black Clock, and Columbia Journalism Review. He also published a book of poems, entitled Cape Cod Blues. His essay, “The Half-Birthday of the Apocalypse,” was nominated for the 2004 Pushcart Prize.
Ulin teaches graduate-level writing courses at several Southern California universities, including the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Lunch Ticket editor Wendy Fontaine recently interviewed Ulin.
Wendy Fontaine: You’re a professional reader and a professional writer. Which do you like better?
I like having written more than I like actually writing. I started as a reader and I became a writer because of how much the books I was reading, and the writers I was reading, meant to me, and how much I wanted to be in their company.
David L. Ulin: Reading is a lot more fun. I like having written more than I like actually writing. I started as a reader and I became a writer because of how much the books I was reading, and the writers I was reading, meant to me, and how much I wanted to be in their company.
WF: What’s your typical workday like?
DU: I don’t have a typical workday, I don’t think. I like to do a lot of different things. It keeps me interested. A typical week would include teaching a couple of classes, reading a couple of books, and writing usually two things for the paper. Generally I write in the morning. I find that’s when my mind is freshest. If I’m really working on something, I’ll be writing by 6, but usually I’m writing by 7 or 7:30. I want the writing time to be as unencumbered as it can be.
WF: How do you decide what to write about?
DU: It depends on the project. It takes me a while [to write a book.] Writing even a short book will take me a while, so if I’m going to be engaged in a project, it’s got to be something I want to sit down and wrestle with. It’s got to be a relationship that I want to be in.
WF: Does the marketplace influence your decisions?
DU: I want the marketplace to like my books, but I have to like my books first. With shorter pieces, it’s a little different. You live with them for a shorter period of time. I’ve been lucky. I really haven’t had to do much work geared for the marketplace.
WF: Speaking of the marketplace, what are the literary trends coming down the pike, and should we, as writers, even care about the trends?
We do write for readers. That’s part of what the job is. You’re writing to be read. You’re writing to have a connection to the reader, so we need to be aware of the idea of writing as a public act.
DU: For a writer, trying to pay attention and tailor one’s work to trends—particularly to market trends but even to cultural trends—is kind of a loser’s game in a certain sense. By the time a book comes out, who knows what the trends will be then? It’s sort of like chasing smoke.
We do write for readers. That’s part of what the job is. You’re writing to be read. You’re writing to have a connection to the reader, so we need to be aware of the idea of writing as a public act. But we can never determine who those readers are or how they come to our work. So I think that your best bet is to find the material, the style, the voice, the writing, the story that speaks to you first. It’s only when we write out of that authentic center do we produce work that is going to connect with the reader.
I’m much more interested—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a writer—in trying to find that essential core and trying to create something that will actually speak to someone, beginning with myself.
WF: Do you think that kind of authenticity is what gives a book or an essay its sticking power?
DU: Absolutely. That other stuff just doesn’t resonate as deeply. If we’re not trying to express ourselves deeply and directly then we’re wasting our time and we’re wasting readers’ time. I don’t want to say writers should isolate themselves and not worry about the marketplace. You have to worry about the marketplace because you have to survive.
There is always that conversation about author platforms and how to position yourself, and I think that is important for writers to think about. But in terms of trying to market the stuff, or thinking about its marketability, all that can be centered on after the book is finished or after the writing is done. Otherwise it gets in the way.
WF: When you get to read for pleasure, what do you choose?
DU: I love hard-boiled detective novels. I read essays, cultural criticism, literary fiction. I read pretty much the same kind of stuff that I read for the paper.
WF: Is there a book that you’ve read recently that surprised you?
DU: Yes, Neil Young’s memoir. It’s the weirdest rock star autobiography I’ve ever read in my life. It’s authentically Neil Young’s voice, which is good and bad. It’s messy, it’s long…but it’s also kind of weirdly beautiful because it’s so much a representation of him.
WF: Last June at Antioch University, you spoke about the ethics of nonfiction, specifically about how facts are defined and treated by certain authors, like John D’Agata. (D’Agata wrote an essay in 2002 about the suicide of a Las Vegas teen, having taken liberties with certain details of the story to heighten its literary effect. The fact-checking process for the essay is the subject of D’Agata’s 2012 book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Some say D’Agata’s method deceptively blurs the line between fact and fiction while others say it redefines the parameters of creative nonfiction.)
What are the rules of creative nonfiction, or are there any rules any more?
DU: I don’t really believe in rules, in general. I think there are certain ethics. I’m not a D’Agata apologist, but I think he threw a really interesting bomb into the middle of the room. You don’t need to agree with him, but I like the idea of art and literature as a provocation. One of the things we are supposed to be doing, as readers and as writers, is shaking up our preconceptions, so whenever a writer provokes us into something, I think that’s a good thing.
Nonfiction is an interesting and really complicated territory. You can tell by the way there’s no good way for us to talk about what it is. Fiction is fiction. Poetry, you have a really good sense of what that is. But nonfiction means everything. It’s across the board, and then we subcategorize it as creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction or literary journalism or whatever you want to call it. None are satisfactory umbrella terms for what it is we are trying to do. We start to think that, because we are using the word “nonfiction,” that what we are dealing with in this kind of writing is fact when what we are really dealing with is truth—and they are not always the same. What D’Agata is trying do, though sometimes a little heavy-handedly, is create the space for us to discuss this.
WF: Books are difficult to write. They take focus, passion and commitment. That said, is it difficult for you, as a critic and as an author, to give a bad review?
DU: It’s really hard to write a book, even a book that’s a complete disaster. But the critic’s job is to tell the truth about that book as he or she sees it. I can’t do the job if I’m not willing to say this book didn’t work and here’s why. It’s harder now because I have had that same experience [of receiving a bad review]. What I think has changed since I started writing books is that I’m much more aware of the subjectivity of the reviewer.
The ethical requirement of the critic is to be honest from their perspective, to say whether they think a book works or doesn’t work for them. The ethical requirement of the critic is also to be respectful of the process.
WF: Do authors ever call you afterward and complain?
DU: Very rarely.
WF: What advice do you have for those of us who are aspiring to be working writers?
Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t be a writer. Don’t listen to their negative bullshit. The people who became working writers are the people who didn’t quit.
DU: Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t be a writer. Don’t listen to their negative bullshit. The people who became working writers are the people who didn’t quit. The lack of perseverance is a guarantee of failure. But if you can’t be dissuaded, then you will be a writer.
WF: Lunch Ticket is a literary magazine with a special interest in social justice. What social issues do you wish more people cared about?
DU: My social justice begins close to home. I start with the things that affect the people I care about and then I move from there. The big issues that I’m involved in are issues of gay rights and women’s rights.
The key, to me, is empathy. I think we, as a culture, lack empathy. We are generally selfish and self-focused, and we tend to think of the “other” as “other” instead of being of the same human dynamic. But creating empathy is at the center of our literature, whether it’s for actual people in nonfiction or invented characters in fiction, whether it creates empathy for people who are very different from us in terms of point of view or in terms of culture. How can we not have empathy when we read our way into the life of another human being? That is the social value of art.
Also, empathy cuts both ways. We have to be empathetic toward those who are not empathetic. There has to be a meeting ground in the center, a place where we all share a set of common experiences, and where disagreement is tolerated as long as it’s civil.
WF: What book should every writer read?
DU: I don’t know if I can boil it down to one book but to me the essential text is Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Another book I find really, really important is The Confessions of Saint Augustine for precisely these kinds of empathy questions that we were talking about and the idea of empathy stretching across millennia. To read that book, you enter into Augustine’s head. The stuff that he’s wrestling with—questions of meaning, questions of love, questions of experience, questions of fear and mortality—are all the same things we’re dealing with now. Everything has change but nothing has changed.