David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby capture a slice of L.A. history in ‘Ear to the Ground’

May 16, 2016 

Writing 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.

This 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.

"Ear 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.

David 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.

Paul Kolsby: We played softball.

DLU: 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.

PK: 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!

DLU: 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.

PK: It was every … week. We wrote into a blizzard. A lot of the time we didn’t know where the story was going.

DLU: My main memory of the experience of writing it was a state of midgrade panic: What are we going to write about this week?

PK: 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 people.

DLU: 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.

PK: 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.

DLU: I was not going to bring this part of the equation up.

PK: 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.

DLU: 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.

PK: The hard floppies. I remember a lot of notes sessions with you on phones. Pay phones.

A woman at the next table: I hate to eavesdrop, but you’re writing something about the Grateful Dead?

DLU: Sort of. We wrote a novel, it takes place in L.A. in the 1990s and Jerry Garcia’s death is part of it.

Woman: Oh, OK. There’s a role I — I thought you were involved — I can’t talk about it.

PK: What is it? About the Grateful Dead?

Woman: I can’t talk about it. [Gets up and walks away.]

PK: I love it here.

DLU: And that would be a scene in the novel.

PK: 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.

DLU: 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.

PK: It turned out to be, quite by accident, a good mix of ingredients for a fun, upbeat novel. We were celebrating our youth.

DLU: The tail end of our youth.



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