By Rick Reed
Ken Kuhlken’s short stories, features, essays and columns 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.
His novels have been widely praised and honored by awards such as the Ernest Hemingway Best First Novel, the St. Martin’s/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, and the Shamus Best Novel.
His latest Tom Hickey California Crime novel, THE GOOD KNOW NOTHING, is the seventh in a series of Tom Hickey novels and will be released on August 5:
During the summer of 1936, destitute farmers from the Dust Bowl swarm into California, and an old friend brings L.A. police detective Tom Hickey a book manuscript, a clue to the mystery of his father Charlie’s long-ago disappearance.
In his relentless effort to find out what became of Charlie, Tom lures the novelist B. Traven to Catalina Island and accuses him of homicide. Traven’s tale is that the Sundance Kid, having escaped from his reputed death in Bolivia, killed Charlie.
Tom crosses the desert pursuing the legendary outlaw. What he learns in Tucson sends him up against newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.
Kuhlken recently answered a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
Tell us about Tom Hickey? What kind of person is he, and how did you create his character?
Tom is a dreamer with an artistic nature who grows up quite aware of the darkness around him and whose essential motive is to help lighten the darkness. He sets out to become an architect and a musician, but circumstances lead him into police work and later to private investigation.
What prompted you to write private eye books?
I heard stories about San Diego and Tijuana during World War II. San Diego housed the country’s largest military community, and Tijuana was a refuge for Germans who had emigrated and landed in Mexico. After I discovered that Tom served as an MP on the border during that period, the story came to me, part by part, and became THE LOUD ADIOS.
I didn’t consider it a genre book, only a good story. Then I gave a manuscript to my friends Dennis and Gayle Lynds, and they read it and suggested I send it to the St. Martin’s first private eye novel contest. I did, and it won, and presto, I was a P.I. novelist.
How did the Tom Hickey series come about? Was it planned from the beginning?
Not planned. If I’d planned, I might’ve started from the beginning, rather than write them in no particular order. What happened was, once I got immersed in the drama of Tom’s life, stories just kept coming.
Is Tom Hickey based on a real person?
He’s based on the father of a close friend.
As the author of six previous Tom Hickey novels, how difficult, or easy, do you find it to keep coming up with plots, characters, and endings? Where do your ideas come from?
I don’t really think in terms of creating anything except structure. Plots, characters, endings and the rest just come to me. At least that’s how it feels.
A few centuries back, Fabre d’Olivet wrote The Hermenuetic Interpretation of the Social States of Man. It’s a crazy book, a quite comprehensive history of the world from way back in pre-history. Wherever he got his information, I suspect is the place mine comes from, book learning and other experience aided by imagination and also by what some of us call inspiration. I made some sense of inspiration in my book Writing and the Spirit, but I still think of it as a mystery.
Did you always know the career path that you would take?
As far back as I can remember, lots of careers have intrigued me, but writing was always one of them. I knew I wanted to write stories but didn’t always think of it as a career. I mean, a career implies a steady income, right?
What is a typical day like for you?
Wake up, which takes about an hour and two cups of coffee. Read and respond to emails and such. Hang out with my Zoë, (she’s twelve), take her to school. Write. Get hungry, go for a walk, eat lunch, get sleepy, read.
Then pick up Zoe. Take care of business like answering these questions. Do chores and errands. Respond to phone calls or emails. Take Zoë to a softball practice or game and help coach. Eat. Hang out with Zoë. Read. Sleep.
Without giving your ‘special’ place away, is there a special type of place that you like to work? Do you require quiet and solitude, or do you need to be near activity and music?
For a few minutes after I sit down to write, I crave silence. But once I’m deep into the story, a bomb could go off right outside the window and I might not notice.
What author(s) have influenced your writing style the most?
Style, I don’t know. I’ve always simply tried to find my own voice, which is not as easy as it sounds.
I admire and love to read a whole array of novelists. Lately I’ve been most captivated by John LeCarre and Dashiell Hammett. Right now I’m reading Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and Patricia Highsmith. Last night I watched a play about Raymond Chandler, who has long been one of my favorites. The play made me think that maybe I don’t drink enough.
What advice would you care to share with beginning writers?
I put together an eBook, called WRITE SMART, for Perelandra College. Anyone can get a free copy by subscribing to a newsletter, The Scoop.
And, I’d advise that new writers develop patience, keep writing, reading, studying the craft and seeking to discover who they essentially are, or were before they got civilized.
Here’s a quote from a favorite writer of mine: “A person with originality comes along, and consequently does not say: one must take the world as it is, but: whatever the world may be, I remain true to my own originality, which I do not intend to change according to the good pleasure of the world. The moment that word is heard, there is as it were a transformation in the whole of existence . . .”
What’s next for Ken Kuhlken?
I’d like a trip to Lake Tahoe. Lots of ideas come to me there.
Ken Kuhlken’s short stories, features, essays and columns 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. His novels have been widely praised and honored by awards such as the Ernest Hemingway Best First Novel, the St. Martin’s/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, and the Shamus Best Novel. His latest, THE GOOD KNOW NOTHING, a Tom Hickey California crime novel, will be released on August 5.
Get the whole story on Ken’s website.