where the writers are
Ulin interviews Mamet


I've been asked by the Santa Monica College Literary Series to speak about my work on December 1. I'm part of a series of authors who discuss what they do and read from their work. The events are free and open to the public. The director of the series, English professor Hari Vishwanadha, asked me for the title of my presentation, which suggests that, like all good speakers, I should have a focus.

This drew me to check out what other authors in the series are doing, and I came to see David Ulin speak on April 30. Author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, Ulin is also the book review editor at the Los Angeles Times. I've seen him interview authors on panels, including wrestling with David Mamet once at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.

Ulin came to the Times post as a highly regarded journalist and reviewer who believed that a book section in a newspaper should create a conversation in the city about what books are and can be. He took over the post from Steve Wasserman, who seemed to be best known for a focus on celebrity authors.

Ulin has loved mixing in less-known authors, In fact, he assigned my first short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, for review before I'd ever met him or before the book had been reviewed elsewhere. That positive review helped launch my life as a fiction writer.

With a boyish face and gray hair parted nearly down the middle, Ulin began his talk entitled "The Engagement of the Writer" by saying that "The writer is engaged in three ways. Writers are connected to the public sphere, to their material, and to their selves."

With many examples and quotes, he cleanly covered each of the three areas. I teach Freshman composition at SMC, and I was wishing my students could witness how the rules of composition worked right that very minute. There was his thesis. What followed was his support.

"We live in a culture of noise, of crap, of things that don't matter," said Ulin. "How do we get to things that do matter?" For one, he sees the writer has an ethical responsibility to use the bully pulpit. Writers can be public dreamers, public skeptics, but most importantly, they need to bring up in public things that matter.

"We need to be exposed to the things that scare you-the stuff that goes against preconceptions of the society." He spoke of how he read things as a teenager that his parents probably wouldn't have wanted him to read, but "that was the value-that they were dangerous." He said that kind of exposure was important and that right now literary culture was at an extreme transition, what with talk of "author platforms." He quoted from a column he wrote (which you can read by clicking here.)

"Writers must get into the fray, get messy, even be uncomfortable," he said.

As for how writers connect with their material, he spoke about how he became involved in writing about earthquakes. Living in California, he's always been anxious about them, and so writing about seismic events, he figured, would help overcome his fear.

The San Andreas Fault is visible on the ground. You can walk into it, witness "rupture lines like striations in a piece of marble, each one representing a different event."  He read from his book about where he did that very thing in the Central Valley. What he learned from writing the book was that there was no such thing as earthquake predictions. While his fear wouldn't go away, he could live with it in a Zen-like approach. Writing is a way to learn things.

To connect with "self," Ulin's third subject area, is what I found myself talking about in my fiction writing class last night. One of the writers, who has mostly worked on screenplays, turned in a piece full of action, turns, and big events-even an explosion-but none of the people felt real. He's great at structure, which most beginning writers are not, but there was no heart.

Ulin said that while writers validate their existence on the planet by writing, their goal needs to be to speak of truths and strip away the noise. This is a point I came to understand when I'd read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I was mesmerized by the stories of young soldiers in Vietnam. I could have been one of those soldiers because I was in the last draft lottery when I was a freshman in college. I was reading what could have been my reality.

O'Brien's stories felt to be 100% nonfiction; they radiated the truth of both the horror and beauty of fighting that war.  Yet toward the end of the book, he explained how so many of the stories were made up. He explained how story-truth has to sometimes supercede how things really happened to reveal the deeper truth.

"The deeper, more engaged writing," Ulin said to end his speech, "is what will survive. Find the silence to connect."

Playwright Brighde Mullins, director of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, spoke yesterday in the series, and journalist and author Ken Winkler will speak on May 28 at 11:15 a.m. in SMC Art Room 214. The fall's lineup with be announced soon. The title of my talk may be, "The Pursuit of Truth Through Fiction."