Skip to content

From my interview archive: consummate Los Angeles man of letters David L. Ulin (2008, 2011, 2012, 2015)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

I took the path I took, such as it is, in large part because of book reviews — not articles that review books, but the standalone newspaper book-review sections containing them. Remember those? The New York Times Book Review still exists, of course, and I’ve even subscribed specifically to it now and again, but I drew more formative influence from the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Something about the combination of a smartly curated selection of book-related articles unified by tasteful graphic and layout design fired me up, especially from a paper based in a city that so fascinated me, and the content introduced me to a fair few of the topics I’ve pursued ever since. It first caught my attention under the editorship of Steve Wasserman, who got the boot (or he gave it the boot, or he gave himself the boot, I don’t really know) in 2005 and a couple years later published a 10,000-word Columbia Journalism Review essay about the decline of book reviewing that I printed out (like most book review-lovers, I wasn’t an early adopter of the smartphone) and obsessively read and re-read.

Shortly thereafter I launched The Marketplace of Ideas on KCSB-FM, an interview show but also a forum for talk on some of the topics I’d started to get interested in through book reviews: economics, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, wine, Los Angeles, even book reviewing itself. At that point I had more experience writing than interviewing, so in order to keep my hand in that game I sent some samples out to Wasserman’s replacement, a certain David L. Ulin. If memory serves, I bugged him more directly a few times afterward until he shut me right down, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds but almost always results in my declaring the shutter-down, however influential, officially dead to me on principle.

But I didn’t do that this time, possibly because I sensed something of a kindred spirit behind the rejection. Instead I invited him on my new show for a talk about books, book reviewing, book-review editing, Los Angeles (David had at that point edited a couple anthologies of the city’s writing and written a book on the highly Angelenous topic of earthquake prediction), and so on. The Times shut down the Book Review the very next year, which might explain some of my lack of success in writing for it. (The positive spin held that it would make the paper’s book coverage more relevant by bringing it out of its pull-out isolation, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t consider it a loss.)

Even post-Book Review, I found reasons to keep interviewing David: not only did we record a couple of conversations before I moved from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, we talked again on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture right after I moved, and again on the Los Angeles Review of Books podcast (about Sidewalking, his Los Angeles book we’d all been waiting for) right before I took off for Seoul. He now stands as the individual I’ve interviewed the most times, unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. And though I live on the other side of the Pacific Ocean at the moment, I’m not done with Los Angeles — I’ve barely even started with Los Angeles — and so, even from this distance, I keep as close an eye on David’s work as ever.