To mark the publication of his new book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, Narrative has a few burning questions for David Ulin.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
Oh, what a question. Favorite character? It’s like choosing a favorite child. My favorite characters, probably, are those who hew closest to their authors: the quietly desperate men and boys of Raymond Carver; the wide-eyes alter egos of Jack Kerouac. I love the unnamed narrator in Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; also, Meursault and the corrupted “judge-penitent” of The Fall, Clamence. I love the detective heroes: Philip Marlowe, Easy Rawlins. I adore Mildred Pierce. And St. Augustine, always Augustine, wrestling with the curse of his humanity, so contemporary and relevant over nearly two millennia. I respond to characters who are not creations so much as expressions, impressions, self-portraits, in a sense. As for life, well . . . that’s a harder question, or maybe it’s that life has never offered me such clarity.
2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote)?
“My mother is a fish.” —Faulkner, As I Lay Dying. I’ve loved this line since the first time I read it, in eleventh-grade English. It says it all—loss, longing, disassociation, and a desire to make sense of an insensible situation. All that in five words.
3. The story, novel, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time.
The Catcher in the Rye. Not because it is such a touchstone text for me—although it has been, and it ages better than it is given credit for—but because I remember vividly the white-hot experience of reading it for the first time, of feeling that it was speaking for me, out of me, and that sense of identification, of electricity. I would love to go through that again.
4. Best part of the day?
It used to be late at night—the quiet stillness, family asleep, dog curled on the floor, barely vigilant, feeling the slowness of the moment, tired from all that waking, as if time had arrested itself. More and more, however, it is early in the morning—the quiet stillness, family asleep, dog curled on the floor, barely vigilant, feeling the slowness of the moment, tired from all that sleeping, as if time had arrested itself. I like the in-between moments, I guess is what I’m saying, before or after, the reflection of them, the solitude.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
The real answer? I pace and plan and talk to myself, illusion of control, of order, the illusion that I have a say about what happens, that I can influence events in any way. A fiction, and I know it, but it settles me to pretend otherwise. This is the MO, large or small trouble, a story I like to tell myself in which life, the universe, makes sense, is not indifferent to me and my desires. A little bit of that fine self-deception, and I feel as if I can continue, as if I can muddle through.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
Page: I, me, mine, I, me, mine, I me, mine, I . . .
Life: I, me, mine, I, me, mine, I me, mine, I . . .
7. What’s your current obsession?
To be honest, I am more than a little obsessed with a baseball game I play on my iPhone, replicating an entire season, 162 games, and also the three playoff tiers. It takes about twenty minutes to play a full nine innings, which is perfect, a break, a timeout, a way to diffuse writing, reading, family dynamics, when that becomes too much.
Oh, and I am also a bit obsessed at this point with the Republican presidential clown car, and what it means for the rest of us.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
The obvious answer is “kill your darlings,” which every writer, every human, ought to heed. But even more, I think, is not to take no for an answer, not to let other people’s fears and expectations determine how you operate in the world.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten, and/or what do you know now you wish you knew then?
I knew how to be bold, how to be ambitious, how to dream, how to laugh and act like a fool. I am relearning those things now, have been for many years now, but for a long time, I forgot. Worried too much about what other people thought, whether or not I was ready (ready for what? I don’t even recall). If I could go back, I would tell that kid: Don’t lose sight of your wildness, of your hunger; don’t subsume it for anyone.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
I’m all ears also. This is not something I pretend to understand. But: in my experience, the greatest impediment to love is the inability to see a loved one for who he or she really is. This is a lesson my children taught me, perhaps more than anyone else. I had to learn how not to fold them into my own expectations, to demand from them what they couldn’t give. I know this feeling from their side very well, the sensation of not being seen by one’s parents, by one’s family, the feeling of being viewed not for who you are but for who someone wishes you might be. If love has a currency, it must, it has to be, the ability or willingness to recognize that our obscure objects of desire really are obscure to us, and that all we can offer them, then, is empathy and honesty and room to grow.