Author Podcast: Kem Nunn
Summer is here and all the folks at BookBuffet who have surfing on the brain decided to re-post an earlier interview [Nov 13 2004] with Kem Nunn, the legendary surf noir novelist. In addition to his own novel adaptations, Kem has a successful streak of screenplays to his name, Wild Things and his newest collaborations are with HBO Producer David Milch on the show "Deadwood" and he co-produced the HBO series "John from Cincinnati", a surfing series set in Imperial Beach, California which premiered on June 10, 2007. Kem spoke to BookBuffet about the third book in his surf-trilogy, Tijuana Straits, Random House (2004)
July 24, 2008 —
With five novels rolling out with a rough periodicity of every five years, and some interesting screenplays surfacing in between, (see list below) Nunn has made a name for himself capturing a new genre of The American Novel, which conjures up the truth, beauty and sense of place evoked by classic Faulkner, and the fast paced plot with morally ambiguous characters of a Raymond Chandler crime thriller.
In possibly every review of Nunn’s work in the literature, a different prominent author is compared to illustrate his style. My pick is a cross between T.C. Boyle (Tortilla Curtain) and Larry McMurtry (Comanche Moon). Each are exemplary story tellers: Boyle, for his convincing depiction of the plight of Mexican immigrants seeking the Hispanic version of the American dream in Southern California; McMurtry for his command of the epic in literature and creation of some of the most memorable “bad guys” ever encountered. Who can forget Blue Duck in Lonesome Dove? Well, Nunn’s Armando Santoya is a toxic villain reminiscent of the evil Ahumado.
Even if you’re not a surfer, Tijuana Straits is a novel that works on three levels: it provokes an environmental consciousness of our rivers and oceans, profiles the weird economic and cultural schism of the disparate border community; it presents an unorthodox romance between two unlikely characters looking for validation and redemption. You cannot escape the driving plot contrasted with the subtle inner conflict.
Nunn first became interested in writing the story when he lived for a period of time on the Tijuana border, a region formerly known for its natural beauty, cultural flavor and simple lifestyle. The environmental detritus resulting from the Machiladoro factories positioned on the Mexican border by a Corporate America seeking weaker industrial restrictions and the effect on the local labor force eager for paying jobs and naïve in their expectation of safe working conditions begged to be told. When the news began reporting stories of missing factory girls, who were being murdered. Nunn wondered about the underlying socio-economic factors. Then surf friends and Navy Seal members told of degredation of the sloughs and loss of one of the best surf locations, and all the elements for Tijuana Straits began to gel.
When interviewing Kem, one is immediately struck by his gentle, lilting voice, and careful speech—each word selected for clarity and a degree of understatement. He downplays his writing accomplishments and his own surfing ability, although one doubts that a person could be nominated for the American Book Award on their first novel or infiltrate the culture and hang ten with the big guys without some keen ability; he writes for Surf Magazine and has become a voice in the surf community as a veritus knostic.
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BookBuffet: You grew up in Southern California and have gone on to write three novels involving surfing, as well as [contribute to] Surf Magazine. What about your own surfing career and affinity for the sport?
Kem Nunn: (Laughs) Well I don’t know whether I could call it a career. I got interested in surfing when I was nine or ten. Our family used to be able to camp on the beach at a place called Salt Creek where now there’s a big Ritz Carlton. I remember camping there as a child and waking up one morning and there were these surfers out on the point. That was the first time I remember seeing someone surf, and I just thought—whoa, because I’d always loved the ocean and loved the beach and it seemed to me this is what you do with it.
It was right about that time—I swear, it was like a month later, that the movie Gidget came out and the whole explosion in the sport that followed Gidget took place. It was all really in the atmosphere… the Beach Boys and… so I was really just a part of the group of people that discovered surfing at that same time.
I lived inland in the Pomona Valley, about an hour to the beach… I had a couple boards and we would tie them to the car and I would come down with my folks or someone old enough to drive. I fooled around with it, but never got really proficient at it. As you know surfing is something you really have to spend a lot of time at.
It wasn’t until after high school when I started living along the coast, pretty much everywhere from Santa Barbara to Dana Point and San Clemente. I had a friend who had a cabinet shop who was a pretty good surfer; he’d lived in Australia and Hawaii. I started working with him a couple days a week at his shop and he would knock-off early for the day and go and check out the surf down at Trestles, and so I started going with him. I got into long boarding. I was in my twenties by then, which was when I really got into it and began to work at it.
For me it’s always been fun, a way to get exercise, a way to commune with nature.
BB: Are you still connected to the surf culture in some way?
KN: Well my writing is what has connected me to the surf culture. I’ve met a lot of people that I would never have met through my kind of surfing, you know.
BB: Your kind of surfing?
KN: Well I’ve ridden all kinds of boards, but my kind of surfing is—you try to find a place where there’s nobody [else] out. If you have to give up wave quality and go find a place along the beach, that’s what you do. I don’t even try to surf at Trestles anymore—it’s just too much of a scene and I don’t enjoy that, so...
But because of my writing and the writing I’ve done about surfing I’ve met all kinds of legendary figures. When I was researching Tijuana Straits I went down to Mexico… down to Cabo with Mike Doyle, who has a house down there, and spent a couple days with him, which was pretty exciting because he’s a hero from my generation; the big guys. I spent some time with Greg Noll when I was working on Dogs of Winter. So it’s the writing that I’ve done about surfing that has sort of connected me to the surf establishment.
BB: You seem to have an academic knowledge and a nostalgic reverence for the sport.
KN: Surfing for me as far as the nostalgia part, has always served a kind of metaphorical role for me in my books, I think, because it’s a way to connect with nature. When you think about interacting with nature as an individual, and you take a step back from that and you think of interacting with nature as a culture, and then you think about what we’re doing to nature – especially under the George Bush administration, we’re not doing very well by it; the ocean’s are getting dirtier, we’ve killed-off a lot of the sea life. Just where I live in South Laguna, you talk to the old timers and they used to just go down to the end of the street and run their lobster traps and they used to get a lot of their food right out of the ocean at the end of the street, [which is] something that you can’t do anymore.
Also growing up in Southern California where so much natural beauty has been lost to mindless development and endless greed, that ‘s kind of where the sadness comes into it for me; what’s been lost in terms of the natural beauty of this place. I think that’s what a lot of surfers felt.
You know what they used to say about Mickey Dorie, that once the popularity of the sport mushroomed he spent the rest of his life trying to duplicate Southern California. And Southern California was a pretty unique place, it’s pretty hard to duplicate. You can go south but you get into a completely different thing, different climate: different country. You go north and again, you get into different climate, different country. Southern California has this Mediterranean climate and beaches with pretty gentle surf for the most part, (nothing really compared to the North Shore of Hawaii, although more than what they got goin’ in Florida) but really perfect, for me. I grew up there and so it’s been sad to see so much of it get destroyed. I think more about that—the nature side of it, than I really think about it as a sport. Surfing as a sport doesn’t interest me all that much—the culture, that interests me.
BB: I noticed you’d done a signing of the book for the Wild Coast International Conservation Organization. How much has your book TS been influenced by your environmental concerns?
KN: Well, I got interested in the border poking around out in the desert, kind of inland. I hadn’t really thought about writing another book about surfing right away. I had just gotten interested in the border, and read some stuff about the murdered factory girls of Juarez, which has been a big story and gotten a lot of press in a lot of different places. I got interested in what was happening along the border with the coming of the factories and what that was doing, not only to the environment, but what it was doing to the culture, what it was doing to the people who came to work in the factories.
So I decided to go kind of explore my border which is of course Tijuana, and in exploring Tijuana along the coast there, I discovered the sloughs, which was a spot I remembered hearing about when I was a kid. It was not a place I had ever surfed, but I remembered hearing about the sloughs. Now if you walk along the sloughs you are really in the shadow of the [border] fence. You look one way and you see the Tijuana bullrings; you look the other way and you see the hills of Point Loma, and so you really are between the worlds.
Then I discovered there was all this interesting surf lore connected to the place. When I discovered that, I thought all these elements, all these things I’m interested in were coming together in one little piece of geography. There was the border, there was this surf spot, there was this issue about the environment because people don’t surf the sloughs much any more because the water has gotten so dirty because of the stuff that flows out of the Tijuana River.
BB: Is the part in the book where the Navy Seals are getting flesh eating disease true? Did your research find incidences of that?
KN: Well actually no, I worked on a project in Hollywood with a guy who had spent twelve years in the Navy Seals and he did his “buds training” down in the Tijuana River valley, and they don’t use it anymore. It’s kind of a perfect place for “sneekin’ and peekin’” like they like to do, but they’ve stopped using it because of all the disease there. And the Border Patrol has begun to ask for high-risk pay because of the polluted environment; so pollution is a huge issue there. That [environment/pollution] feeds into a theme that runs through all of my work, whether there’s surfing in it or not. Maybe the only one of my books that doesn’t have obvious environment concerns is Unassigned Territory. But all of the other books, even Pomona Queen is kind of concerned with the environment, what’s happened in that part of the state.
BB: Tijuana Straits is your fifth novel, (list at end) which averages out to one book every five years roughly. And I thought that was interesting, because I know that on top of writing the novels, you are also writing screenplays, and I’m interested in your thoughts on the evolution of your writing, how it’s matured over time, and the interplay between the demands of screenwriting and the effects or association with that. How do you see your work evolving; do you think it’s changing, getting better?
KN: I’m probably not the best person to ask about how my novels have changed because for me it’s a continuum. [As an author] you’re always trying to get better. You’re always trying to improve. You always think the next book will be your best book. When you’re young and you begin to think that you might want to write, you imagine that what ever you write will be some kind of masterpiece.
BB: (Laughs) Do you really?
KN: Well I mean if you come at it from a love of literature, you want to emulate the best stuff you can think of, because you loved Lord Jim, you loved The Great Gatsby and you loved Moby Dick and you like to think in your fantasies that you too will write a book like that. Then when you finally publish your first book it’s kind of a humbling experience, because you realize, “Well, gee – I did the best I could and, guess what – it ain’t Moby Dick”, you know? It’s not as good as the best stuff I know, but then you think, maybe if I keep working on it, try to hone my craft… If you look at a writer like Fitzgerald, unlike a writer like Faulkner; one of the things you appreciate about Faulkner is the sheer mass of work, this huge body of interconnected pieces, even though some are going to stand out more than others. But with a guy like Fitzgerald, you know, he might have just been a footnote if it hadn’t been for The Great Gatsby. That was the book where it all worked for him, the book where it all came together, and it really is just a kind of perfect novel. So you hope that maybe if you work hard enough, and honestly enough, that at some point you’ll get to the point where everything comes together.
BB: Well I spent several days researching and reading all the reviews on your work and you’re getting fabulous reviews; being compared to Faulkner, Peter Dexter, credited with defining a new genre of The Great American Novel…
KN: (Laughs) Well I think its best not to pay too much attention to reviews whether they’re good or bad. I mean its obviously nice to get good ones, because every now and then you’ll get a good one that helps you think you’re not nuts. But I think it was Burls who said when they decided to induct him into [The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters], or whatever it's called, he said, “Twenty years ago all these people wanted to put me into jail and now they want to make me part of the club – it didn’t make any difference to me then or now.” In some sense you always are just out there with the work. It’s certainly nicer when they say nice things as opposed to bad things…
BB: So you’re not letting it go to your head.
KN: Well you can’t pay too much attention to that, you just have to keep trying to do the best you can do.
BB: When you begin a novel, you alluded to this for TS, you have a very strong sense of place or identification with a landscape in each of your books, and your characters are very distinct, they’re these ambiguous heroes who are kind of quirky. So my question is, do you begin your novels with the place or with the character?
KN: It can go either way. In the case of Tijuana Straits it really began with the place. I got interested in the border and then I discovered the sloughs, and then I began to spend time down there. I began to hang out with people I met there. The characters began to grow out of, basically, the kinds of people I was spending time with. And then with characters there’s a level at which you are writing about yourself too.
BB: There’s a bit of a softening to your work because of the romantic involvement between Sam and Magdalena, and there are some very poignant and tender moments, and [I just wanted to point one or two out]. For example, Sam sleeps with the light on…
KN: [Laughs] Uh huh. I knew a guy who was schizophrenic and I knew he always used to sleep with the lights on… and I just threw that in there.
BB: Well it’s an interesting [detail] that really caught me.
KN: You have to be kind of screwed up to sleep with the lights on.
BB: There’s always some reference in your work to drugs and abuse and people coming back from some margin of society and struggling. I’m interested in this as [a factor] in the complexity in your characters and why they hold such interest.
KN: I think when you invent characters you’re always looking for access to your own experience. Not experience in an obvious, literal sort of way, but access to how you experience life on planet Earth, how you experience the human condition. I think the human condition has us all at a disadvantage. I mean we’re all kind of up against it in some way. We struggle with mysteries we can’t answer. So I guess somehow I try to invent characters that are up against it in some way. It’s trying to make the existential predicament palpable in a fictional construct—if that makes sense? Sometimes I’m asked “Why are your characters always losers, or people that have been beaten up by life?” and I don’t think of them like that. I think of them as people like me—not that I’ve had so many drug demons to wrestle with, but just in the sense that it’s this dilemma.
BB: That’s right it’s your vulnerabilities that define you. Armando Santoya is a dark, distinct character. He’s sort of evil incarnate who starts off as this good guy gone bad. He reminds me of a Larry McMurtry character in Comanche Moon called Ahumado [the "Black Vaquero", a Mexican warlord practiced in the creative arts of torture.]
KN: I don’t know that book.
BB: What do you think would have happened in the novel if the bank didn’t give way?
KN: Boy, that’s a tough question. [Laughs] I like to think that Armando, that was his own kind of moment of redemption. I mean he had a lot to redeem himself for, but the fact that he hesitates when he does, is his own moment of redemption. That’s about as far as I’d like to speculate.
BB: You have the ability to get the plot up to a feverish pitch. From Part Three onwards through the rest of the novel, the reader is really on their toes. Where does that come from, the ability to develop this tension? Who’s writing do you compare or admire?
KN: In terms of contemporary writers who I admire, I have a lot of admiration for Robert Stone’s work. I have a lot of admiration for the work of Cormack McCarthy. In contemporary writers I admire those two as much as any. And then I read all the usual suspects: Joseph Conrad, Melville… [Laughs] But in terms of tension and the plot, it’s just something that I’m drawn to as a reader. When you write, part of what you want to do is to keep people wanting to turn the page. Truly I can’t say exactly where it comes from.
BB: So if you wanted to write this into a screenplay and cast some people do you have anyone in mind?
KN: Oh well, not really. I tend to work in Hollywood a lot and they ask “Who do you see as this person, who do you see as that person?” I kind of have already created the person in my mind and on the page. I tend not to get overly worked-up about what actor or actress might or might not want to play the part. I’m sure a number of people could do it. You just hope that if they make a movie they make a good one.
BB: I know you’re working on Pomona Queen: the screenplay. Do you have any idea where you’re going from here?
KN: I’ve got a couple of ideas in my head. I’ve spent enough time kicking around Hollywood that I might be ready to write my Hollywood novel.
BB: Really? That will be interesting…
BB: …thank you so much for speaking with me today.
KN: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
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