Interview with author Kem Nunn

Kem Nunn is not only one of our favourite authors, but also probably the leading light in the ‘surf noir’ genre. Although calling it a genre maybe pushing it, as no one else quite matches the work that Kem has done. We were grateful to have Kem spend some time with us talking about his books and his involvement with the Hollywood TV and film scene.

Firstly, we want to say thanks for taking the time to speak to us. We’ve noticed that you don’t do many interviews or indeed have a huge online presence. Is that deliberate?

I tend to avoid it whenever possible. I don’t know, I’ve bank rolled my novel habit working in Hollywood so that’s how I’ve made my living. The books have often been optioned by studios and I’ve made my money that way. The latest novel “Chance” was made into a television show for Hulu which ran for a couple of seasons. So, it’s that kind of thing that has gotten me through rather than book sales.

Is that kind of disappointing, that the books don’t make the money, or is it just the way the world is?

Yeah, it’s just the way it is. I’m not unhappy with it, I’m OK with how things have worked out. I’ve written the books I wanted to write and get them out there. Hollywood has been pretty good to me and I’ve met a bunch of interesting people. I’ve also done ‘some’ interesting things and some stuff that was done just for the money! The years I spent with David Milch on Deadwood and John From Cincinnati that was very rewarding.

We loved John From Cincinnati, it was almost ahead of it’s time with its mix of genres and non-lineal storyline, how did that come about?

Well, it was a kind of perfect storm that came together to make that show possible, although it was those same things that in the end made it impossible! I was working with David Milch on Deadwood and we were approached by a producer with HBO who’d been in contact with a family of surfers that were interested in telling their story. David said that Kem’s working with me now and he knows a lot about the surfing world, so he pulled me into it. We met with the people and listened to their story. David came up with his own take on it and tasked me with writing the pilot for it, which I did, and he liked it. I don’t know all the ins and outs, but Deadwood was a critical success but wasn’t pulling in huge numbers of viewers. The head of production at HBO was looking for something to pull in more viewers. Also, because of contractual agreements David had, Deadwood was needing to share revenue with Paramount which is where David had been under contract. So, that’s a long-winded way of saying they pulled Deadwood and green lit a show they didn’t really know a lot about – John From Cincinnati. So, all of a sudden, literally within about a month, we were told Deadwood was no more and we should write 10 episodes of this new show (actually they wanted 12 episodes). But we had about a month to get it all going, which actually we did. We managed to get through the season making it up as we went along. But it became a hugely expensive show because we were shooting all our exterior scenes on the Tijuana river valley, which is on the border of Mexico and California, but we were shooting all the interior three hours away. It became logistically a nightmare and expensive, so we only got one season. But it was a lot of fun and it was an adventure and I think what we were trying to do was very worthwhile.

So, the Surfing family was based on a real family?

Well, I hesitate to say it was based on them, they were very unhappy with the show. But, going to David Milch with a story is a bit like going to Frank Lloyd Wright with the plan for a house. If Frank Lloyd Wright was building you a house, you just had to shut up and let him do what he wanted to do and that was kind of how David was. If you took him a story, he would do what he was going to do with it, and you were either happy with it or you weren’t. They were NOT very happy with it!

Presumably there was no ‘John’ in their story?

No, there was no John!

As a viewer, we had our own theory on the character and thought he was meant to be Jesus, is that right or was that just our imagination?

No, he was something like that, but no one ever quite figured out what. That was ok and it occurred to me that something you can do with an episodic television show is open a dialogue with the audience. Maybe it’s something you don’t completely understand yourself but it’s worth exploring. So, what John basically comes to say to people is that they are not seeing what’s right in front of them. They’re missing the miracles right in front of them because everything is filtered through the pains of the past… past pains, real and imagined, and it’s preventing them from seeing the miracle in front of them. I thought that was a really worthwhile thing to build the show around. To try and define John, I’d say he was some kind of spirit from the Universe. But I don’t know if we ever fully defined what he was. You know life is a kind of mystery that we never solve and that’s the way the show was.

Going back to Tapping The Source, that is now an iconic ‘surfers book’ – did you think that at the time?

I was living in Huntington beach at the time and it was an interesting place then, a very odd mix of subcultures. Most of Orange County was becoming pretty homogenous and upscale. Huntington Beach was this weird little throw back where there was still biker bars and head shops. This kind of run-down main street very close to the beach. It also struck me that no one had really written about surfing in a realistic way, about what the culture is really like. It had always been beach blanket bingo and ride the wild surf. It was always very Hollywoodized, and no one had set a story in that culture. So that’s what I set out to do..tell it the way it really was.

I was working with a friend who was doing furniture refinishing and we came across a guy who was living in a big box he had built for himself in a vacant lot. He started working with us and he was a really good surfer. He had a younger brother who turned up one day with a black eye and he had been ‘procuring’ run away girls for this drug dealer biker who lived in town. This kid was street tough but also had a sweet, innocent side. A real odd mix of toughness and innocence, he gave me the idea for the character of Ike Tucker, and I began to build the story around the idea of that character.

Is it right that Tapping The Source was picked up to be a film but that it eventually morphed into Point Break, the Patrick Swayze film?

It’s not exactly right, but that’s the story you hear get told a lot! There was a movie sale and it was absolutely a pretty big deal at the time. Marty Bregman, the producer who had made Dog Day Afternoon and Platoon, was involved and one of your country men, Michael Apted, signed on to direct it. So it really was an A list group of people involved in the project and yet, somehow, they weren’t able to get it going. That was strange, given the people assembled, you’d have thought it would’ve been a slam dunk. A few years later, somebody sent me a script, Point Break was originally titled Johnny Utah, and said they’re ripping off your story. But I said that it’s not really my story anymore, talk to Marty Bergman, as Universal now own the film rights.

But in my mind the only inter connection is a guy trying to infiltrate the surfer world to find out something. I don’t think there’s too much of a connection between my book and that movie, but it gets mentioned all the time.

Going back to the books, a lot of them do have that counterculture idea but picking out people with good hearts In those environments.

I mean, I grew up amongst many of those subcultures. Often my characters start out in some kind of position of isolation. Like in Tijuana Straits he starts in isolation, dead to the world, but then something happens to bring him back from the dead. I do believe that it is only in community that we find the highest expression of our humanity. I often begin characters in a place of separateness and through some occurrence of events I bring them into a sense of community. That’s a pattern that’s in some of the books and a theme that is important to me.

That’s pretty apt today given here in the UK we are in lock down and you can’t congregate in groups, we’re not sure what it’s like in California?

It’s been similar here; my wife has asthma and I’m over 70 so we consider ourselves to be pretty high risk, so we’ve been staying pretty isolated. We live in an area where it’s kinda hilly so it’s nice to walk around. I did a thing just last night, a friend of mine, Maddison Smart Bell, a novelist here in America has written a biography of Robert Stone and they did a virtual book launch on Zoom. There was about 30 of us who ‘zoomed in’ and Maddison did a reading, and everybody got to ask questions. That’s the first one of those that I’ve done. That’s people trying to have some community even though we all stayed in our homes.

Going back to your involvement in TV, you also worked on some of the later series of Sons Of Anarchy, how was that?

I did, I was on the last three seasons and it was a fun job, but it wasn’t my own material, so it was first and foremost a job. But it was fun, and I enjoyed the people that I was working with. I enjoyed the other writers and actors, so it was a good atmosphere.

How did you become involved in it?

There was a young woman I had worked with on Deadwood and John and she’d gone on to Sons of Anarchy. She’d be trying to get me involved as she thought I’d enjoy writing on it and the hours were good. I had a book contract for Chance, and I had to get that book written so the hours were such that I could get the book written when I was working on the show.

It’s interesting that authors still need ‘regular jobs’ to allow you to write the books.

Yeah, well I didn’t go back to school until I was about thirty. My twenties were spent in ‘a variety of ways’ but at the age of thirty I went back to school because a man named Oakley Hall was running an MFA programme at UC Irvine. So, the first writers I knew were those that combined writing with some sort of academic career, they wrote books but also taught. I thought maybe I can do that, and I thought my MFA degree and a combination of published work and an advanced degree would see me doing that. I did teach for a little while, but didn’t like it very much, it didn’t take long for me to get tired of my own voice! Because of the interest of Hollywood in Tapping The Source I had an agent and because I was moaning about teaching so much, she said why don’t you write a script and I’ll sell it and you can stop teaching, so I did! I wrote a script, but she didn’t sell it! I knew another guy who did sell it. It seemed like each time I wrote a book I’d meet a handful of new people so when I wrote that second book Unassigned Territories (which had mostly zero interest from Hollywood!) one of those people helped me sell the script which then got me into the writers guild. That was the early eighties, so since then I’ve gone back and forth between novel and script writing.

You mentioned your last novel Chance, how does it feel when you see your book made into a successful series? Does it match your expectations or is it hard to see your work put into a TV series?

It’s a kinda combination of both. It’s always disappointing in a way, not because of the actors but because of the studios and the way they try to direct you and the way that you’re working. I think it was Evelyn Waugh who said that any book that is sold to Hollywood has some special quality about it or else they wouldn’t be interested in it. It’s the job of the Hollywood development person to discover that quality, isolate it and obliterate it! In some ways you are always fighting that fight to hold on to what was most original about the book. That’s usually the very thing that they are trying to get rid of. My experience with Chance was a little like that. But we had some really good actors, I mean Hugh Laurie is a terrific actor and he was very good as the Doctor. We had a guy called, Ethan Suplee play Big D and he was really great as that character. I was able to introduce him to the real Big D who was a consultant on the show and now Ethan is like a real-life Big D! He goes off into the mountains and trains with guns and knives.

Who are your own favourite writers?

One guy that was really important to me, that I’ve already mentioned, is Robert Stone. He was a really important writer to me and then became a friend. He helped me in getting Tapping The Source published but sadly passed away about five years ago. In terms of contemporary writers, he was someone that I admired a lot. The other writers are the kind of same people that everybody else admires I would imagine. I grew up on people like Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Those important American writers, I don’t think my reading is too much different to anyone else.

Going back a bit, you mentioned you didn’t go back to school until your thirties, what did you get up to in your twenties is that when you were ‘researching’ your books?

Well, it was a mix of things… my parents were Jehovah’s witnesses so in my late teens and early twenties I was still part of that community. It was necessary at some point to break from that and distance myself from that community. That wasn’t an easy thing to do, not because they were domineering or controlling but just because I cared a lot about them. I grew up with a very strong sense of community and some really good people…it was painful to disappoint them! To become something other than what I was expected to become. It was necessary to make that break and once that did happen, I spent a fair number of years just kicking around working flunky jobs. I’d always loved the beach so got myself down to the beach and spent a lot of time working on boats. I wanted to work on boats as I thought it would be a good way to travel. I played Mandolin in a bluegrass band. It was just a bunch of odds and ends and I always lived in very cheap places. You could do that then; you could still live cheaply at the beach which you can’t anymore. I had been hanging around with a bunch of crazy people up in the Pomona area for a while and at some point, I started writing short stories about these characters. Finally, I started wondering if my writing was any good and I wanted someone to read them. I started taking night classes in Orange County and I met a guy who was a substitute teacher and he read some of my stuff and he said you should really try and meet Oakley Hall who runs the course at Irvine. He said he was a published writer and maybe he’ll take some interest in your work. So, I contacted Oakley and he wound up helping me get back into school and it all went on from there. I’ve been fortunate to sometimes be in the right spot at the right time.

I went back to school as a studio arts major as my first love in life was visual arts, painting and drawing. But you didn’t find too many Jehovah’s witnesses that were painters and artists so that wasn’t anything that was encouraged in my family. But when I went back to school, I’d started working on Tapping The Source and I wanted to keep working on the book and didn’t want to get caught up in writing lots of critical papers for English classes. By doing the studio arts major I could paint and draw whilst I worked on my novel. I’d heard that this guy Robert Stone, who was a pretty big deal at that time, was coming as a visiting writer. I’d read one of his books called Dog Soldiers which I really liked, and I thought I should really try and get my book finished and maybe he’d like it. I worked really hard to get it finished so I had a finished manuscript when Bob turned up. Ultimately, I managed to get Bob to read it, he liked it and recommended an agent and they sold the book.

So, what does the future hold for you, will we see another book?

I hope so! I’ve got two or three book ideas that I’m bouncing around. I sold a television show recently, I collaborated with an LA based artist named Alex Israel on an animated show. We’ve sold that to Fox, and I’ve written a pilot which I think is a lot of fun. Now we’re just waiting to see what happens next. So, as usual for me, it’s a combination of things. I have a couple of irons in the Hollywood fires and a couple of book ideas I’m trying to push along.

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