is thought to be a solitary enterprise: Picture Ernest
Hemingway, sleeves rolled up, banging out manly
sentences at his desk against a backdrop of snow-capped
mountains. But within the myth, the truth is a little
more complicated. In this occasional series,
Collaborators, we’ll talk to writers about projects
they tackled with a partner.
one started in Philadelphia. David L. Ulin and Paul
Kolsby had been classmates at the University of
Pennsylvania. Years later, in the 1990s, they ended up
in Los Angeles. Ulin (whom Times readers will recognize
as our former book critic) was an editor at the
alternative weekly the Los Angeles Reader. Kolsby, whose
produced screenplays include "City Unplugged"
and "Spread," was then a struggling
screenwriter. Although co-written novels are rare
beasts, they decided to write one together; it appeared
serially in the Reader over nine months.
to the Ground" is out now as a paperback original
from Unnamed Press. The story of earthquake scientist
Charlie Richter and the Hollywood players who want to
maximize his earthquake predictions — including his
attractive neighbor, Grace — is part satire, part
screwball comedy and part social novel. Ulin and Kolsby
sat down to talk about the project and what it was like
working together. Their conversation has been edited for
length and clarity.
L. Ulin: I don’t remember whose idea it was; we had
this idea and we pitched it to Erik Himmelsbach, who was
the managing editor of the Reader and our friend. At the
Reader, there was this real sense of camaraderie. We
hung out together.
Kolsby: We played softball.
It was a really cohesive unit. A lot of story ideas got
generated because we were sitting around talking, either
at a bar, at a party or playing softball, and something
would get created.
Originally, it was going to have a "War of the
Worlds" feel. We were hoping that the Reader was
going to allow us to present it as though it were the
truth. Not a work of fiction, but there’s this guy,
there’s this Center for Earthquake Studies. We were
thinking, like, bus shelters: The big one is coming!
We started cooking up the idea in early ’95. We were
going to do three big cover story installments, and
everything else would be 900 to 1,000 words, a weekly
column but as a work of fiction. The idea was to do it
for a year, but we ended up wrapping it after nine
months. Everybody kind of lost steam.
It was every … week. We wrote into a blizzard. A lot
of the time we didn’t know where the story was going.
My main memory of the experience of writing it was a
state of midgrade panic: What are we going to write
about this week?
Things that would happen — Jerry Garcia died, the O.J.
trial — ended up in the story. Part of the original
design was to try and tell something that felt like it
was real. I’d go out with [Hollywood] executives one
night and there’d be pretentious people and genuine
We were complementary — a lot of the plot mechanisms
you pushed and developed, and I was good at the interior
character stuff; we balanced each other. I’m not a
good plotter, but you’re a really good plotter.
Like tentpoles, there should be a shift around there.
The retro-shock idea [the scientist tries to stop the
coming earthquake] I came up with on a drug binge.
I was not going to bring this part of the equation up.
I was alone. I was living in Echo Park. I remember
pacing, and I remember exactly where I was in the room
when I had this idea: Oh, wow, he’ll try and save the
world by shooting explosives into the earth.
The original idea was that we would alternate chapters.
Each of us would write a draft of a chapter, then we
would edit and work back and forth, and that would sort
of take the heat off. If I hit a wall, or wrote myself
into a corner, I could call up Paul and say, I don’t
know what to do with this. We would throw out a couple
of suggestions, and maybe they would work or maybe they
wouldn’t, but they would trigger something. The
conversation was useful, and the shared responsibility.
We were writing on computers and handing each other
3.5-inch disks. We were using shuttle disks.
The hard floppies. I remember a lot of notes sessions
with you on phones. Pay phones.
woman at the next table: I hate to eavesdrop, but you’re
writing something about the Grateful Dead?
Sort of. We wrote a novel, it takes place in L.A. in the
1990s and Jerry Garcia’s death is part of it.
Oh, OK. There’s a role I — I thought you were
involved — I can’t talk about it.
What is it? About the Grateful Dead?
I can’t talk about it. [Gets up and walks away.]
I love it here.
And that would be a scene in the novel.
I remember being influenced by [Charles] Bukowski’s
"Hollywood." The way we inverted the first
letters of a first and last name — we stole that from
Bukowski. It’s a way to write about people.
The model for me was always Armistead Maupin’s
"Tales of the City." Which I love. He wrote
that daily for a newspaper, weaving things into the
fiction that were speaking to the moment. In terms of
thinking about a serialized novel in a newspaper, that
was one of the charms of doing the project. You could
make it really topical to the moment. The three direct
antecedents were "Tales of the City," a serial
called "The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin
County" that a writer named Cyra McFadden published
in the late ’70s, and Peter Cameron’s "Leap
Year" that he wrote in the late ‘80s for [the New
York] weekly 7 Days. All of them were sort of social
novels, right? I liked the idea of the serial novel as
social novel in the sense that it reflected life in the
city. It was about these characters, but it was also
about the city they were moving through. That was the
main creative draw of it. That was fun.
It turned out to be, quite by accident, a good mix of
ingredients for a fun, upbeat novel. We were celebrating
The tail end of our youth.