An Interview with
David L. Ulin
on his new book
Ear to the Ground
Writer and book critic David L. Ulin discusses his book Ear to the Ground with our website editor Kristin Henley. Originally published as a serial novel in The Los Angeles Reader in the 90's, the book has recently been released by Unnamed Press. A rollicking satire of Los Angeles, the film industry, and the West Coast's favorite natural disaster, Ear to the Ground follows a motley cast of characters as they anticipate a giant earthquake (and in some cases try to capitalize on it.) Here, Ulin discusses co-writing the novel with Paul Kolsby, serial novels as an art form, and the thrilling nature of earthquakes.
You originally wrote Ear to the Ground in the 90's as a serial. Could you talk about what it was like to bring it back into print now?
It was always in the back of my head to try and have it published—although for a long time, there was no conscious plan. A serial novel is a strange beast because it appears in print, but piece by piece, and I wanted to be able to present the book as a whole. But it wasn't until Paul called me a couple of years ago to ask if I still had the novel that something more concrete began to emerge. We read the book and got excited about the possibility of it coming out. Then we began to see how that might work.
As for bringing it back now, it's interesting. The book is very much a product of its moment, which was the intention when we were writing—and indeed, I think, is one of the keys to a serial. So it comes into the present as a slice of time, or time past, which gives it a certain resonance. From a writer's point-of-view, the distance has a leavening effect; in reading it, I often don't remember who wrote what, which means I am approaching it more as a reader than as a writer, if that makes sense. It's an experience I haven't had in quite this way before.
You co-wrote Ear to the Ground with Paul Kolsby—could you tell me about that process?
Paul and I were friends from college, and in the mid-1990s, I was an editor at the Los Angeles Reader, a now defunct alt-weekly, and Paul was doing some writing for us. We cooked up the idea together, as something of a lark. I'm not a collaborator by nature, but I thought then, and still think now, that the book couldn't have been done any other way. In the first place, we were writing it on deadline—a chapter a week for 38 weeks—which was a lot of pressure, especially in regard to crafting a narrative. Also, each of us brought different things to the project. Paul is a great plotter; I work well on the interior, character stuff. We didn't really plan that going in, but as we worked, we began to see how we complemented one another.
The novel is a snapshot of 1995 with references to Jerry Garcia's death and the OJ Simpson verdict—how do you feel about that topical-ness now? I really enjoyed those moments in the book, but it seems like a hard thing to do. Do you ever wish that you saw it more?
As I said above, topicality is a big part of the serial novel, which unfolds and is published in real time. I really liked the serendipity this brought to the project, the need to be responsive to events. I think, in general, that books should reflect their moment—there is no such thing as timeless writing, how could there be? The more specific it is, the more resonant and (paradoxically) universal. We live in time, after all, and will be consumed by it, which means that every act of expression has no choice but to reflect the moment in which it is made.
What were some of the challenges of writing a serial novel? Are you ever tempted to do another one?
I have not been tempted to write another one. But I love the form and am happy to have had the chance to play within it. For me, one of the joys had to do with the antecedents: Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, first and foremost, but also Cyra McFadden's The Serial and Peter Cameron's Leap Year. Then, of course, Dickens, Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities was originally written as a serial for Rolling Stone)...there is a long lineage. Many serial novels are also social novels, which is as it should be, given the immediacy of the form. The challenge for us, and I suspect for others, was one of balance: how to give our characters, our narratives, their own space, while also making room for the events of the world.
I was amused that the characters seem to enjoy earthquakes as a sensation—do you feel the same way? What's your own relationship to them?
Enjoy is a bit strong, although I do like the small ones. But thrilled, transformed, compelled? Absolutely. Earthquakes are a reminder, for me, of uncertainty, of chaos, of our insignificance in the face of great forces that we can't control. This seems like a code for living, and it has for me since I moved to California 25 years ago. After Ear to the Ground, I spent several years writing a nonfiction book about earthquakes: The Myth of Solid Ground, which Viking published in 2004. I don't know that there is a direct link between the books, but this is something that I thought about quite actively during the first decade or so I lived in Los Angeles.
Ear to the Ground definitely has a satiric edge to it, but a large part of the book deals with morality—Ian's possible plagiarism, Sterling Caruther's commodification of the earthquake—can you talk about that?
Well, satire is by its nature moralistic, don't you think? Especially when one is dealing with an industry like Hollywood. With Caruthers, the moral line was very clearly drawn—he is trying to cash in on a catastrophic natural disaster, after all. With Ian, I think, it was much less so—hopefully, one comes away from the book not disliking him so much as seeing him as confused. He gets into trouble because of this confusion... and also his ambition, which can be a corrupting influence. He's too feckless to be manipulative in the way Caruthers is. More to the point, he's someone who got what he thought he wanted, only to realize too late, how complicated and compromised are his desires.
Can you tell me about the character of Emma Grant?
Emma was a late addition to the novel—we didn't have her in mind when we began. That's another challenge of the serial: that at various points in the writing, you find yourself needing, or wanting, to add elements. She was one of those. We wanted to portray a family who was not involved in Hollywood or science so we could show the effect of the impending quake on the city's life. Emma and her family play that role in the narrative. It is also the case that they live at 1939 Topeka Drive (1939 is the year The Wizard of Oz came out, and Topeka is in Kansas) and her husband is named Henry and her daughter Dorothy, so there is an homage at work. We made similar moves in a few places in the novel: The studio therapist is named Ehrich Weiss, which was Houdini's real name, and there is a cop named Eric Blair, which is the birth name of George Orwell.
Besides being an author, you're also a book critic—what are you excited to read this year?
The books that have most struck me this year (so far) include Lydia Millet's novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Dana Spiotta's magnificent Innocents and Others, and John D'Agata's The Making of the American Essay. I've also loved David Means' novel Hystopia and Dorthe Nors' So Much For That Winter, which collects a pair of novellas that play with form in really interesting ways.
Are you working on any projects now?
I am far too superstitious to discuss specific work in progress, but the short answer to your question is: Yes.
David L. Ulin is the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was a finalist for the PEN/ Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, his other books include The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and the Library of America's Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, winner of a California Book Award.
Seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the inventor of the Richter scale, arrives in Los Angeles to begin work at the newly created Center for Earthquake Studies, a shadowy new agency that seems more interested in the entertainment potential of large quakes, than hard science. Charlie moves into an apartment next to Grace, a young script-reader working for a tyrannical Hollywood producer. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Ian is a deadbeat stoner "writer" who spends his time rubbing elbows at the Formosa and pitching the only script he has--a major earthquake disaster film.
When Charlie predicts that the "Big One" is going to hit LA, and shares it with his colleagues at the Center, he is in for a big shock: the Center's main priority is to determine how they can leverage a major earthquake into Hollywood gold.
Suddenly everyone is looking to produce the next disaster blockbuster, Ian's script, Ear to the Ground, is plucked from obscurity by Grace's boss and given the fast track, complete with demanding stars, an irrational European director, and the now hot commodity of Ian, who grows as insufferable as he is amateurish. As Grace and Charlie grow closer, Charlie realizes that he is LA's only hope and devises a death-defying plan.