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A Santa Barbara Literary Journal Interview with Shelly Lowenkopf

Coffee with Mr. Lowenkopf is a lively affair. Sitting on the patio of his favorite Santa Barbara café, I am hard pressed to name a writer he doesn’t know or hasn’t read extensively. Passionate about writing, publishing, and teaching, he is someone whose opinion I listen to. When he suggests switching the order of the first two paragraphs in my vampire story, I do. A subtle change that makes a world of difference. And telling also, that a man who has been writing and teaching his entire life, still has the patience to read yet the millionth story from the millionth writer and offer feedback.

Of course, having read my vampire story, he also adds, “You’ll notice there aren’t many Italian vampires.” I let that sink in. Garlic. Italians. Vampires. And then I burst into laughter. His humor is dry like a martini olive, and we are off to the races, talking about Black Panthers, Bakersfield, and the dearth of remaining bookstores. He tells me his father took him to Vroman’s Bookstore as a kid, and he looked around at all those books and thought, “I’ll have a book in here someday.” And guess what, he was right! In particular, Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out at Night and The Fiction Writer's Handbook: The definitive guide to McGuffins, red herrings, shaggy dogs, and other literary revelations from a master. 

My almond croissant has disappeared quickly, and it’s possible that Shelly poached a bite or two. He already has a bad-boy reputation for absconding with fries, but I can hardly hold it against him. Especially as we land on van Gogh, and which ear the painter cut off or whether he lost it in a bar fight. “I’d lop my ear off,” Shelly says, “if it would make me a better writer. It’s always the goal with me to push forward to places I haven’t been before, some place that’s not safe.” And really, it is those unsafe places where amazing stories live. What wouldn’t we all do, the writers I know, to improve our craft? Shelly grins. “I haven’t started telling my students to cut off an ear.” 

And that, I think, is introduction enough for Mr. Lowenkopf. Max Talley, our Associate Editor, has kindly agreed to step in for the serious task of an interview.

-Silver Webb, Editrix


Shelly, 1974


I attended one of Shelly Lowenkopf's fiction classes over the summer at the Schott Center, in Santa Barbara. He teaches his students with a mixture of aplomb and good humor, stressing the basic pulse of the narrative, the beat, and momentum. Lowenkopf spoke of the importance of the attacking sentence. “Fiction is tension, not stability.” He urged new and experienced writers to create characters of unusual proclivities, strange habits and tastes. He mentioned Ahab from Moby Dick, and certainly Sherlock Holmes would fit that bill.

Max Talley: I know you were an editor at august publishing houses in Manhattan for many years, along with the unstoppable Fred Klein. When did you begin to write short stories with the thought of publishing them?

Shelly Lowenkopf: Began writing short stories in high school, but it took the chemistry of UCLA, where I met other writers, to get me into the world of collecting rejection slips. School publications? Of course, even though I had a weekly serial going in The Daily Bruin, and placed a few in the then humor magazine, they don’t count. Couple of ventures in the now defunct True Confessions, and a hit in Amazing Stories while still an undergrad.

MT: How has your short story writing style changed over the years? More expansive, or more streamlined?

SL: In a way, both. I grew up in the days of the pulps, idolized the pulp Westerns and such mystery icons as Black Mask and Dime Detective. My high-school writing teacher gave me my first writing book, published by the prestigious U of Oklahoma Press. Still have the book. Still remember Herman Quick telling me, “You gotta shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.” I was plot-driven by design. So were my writer heroes. Radical changes for me one night in the 70’s at the home of Dennis and Gayle Lynds. On my left, a guy who I knew to have published a story or two by Dennis. Asked me to send him stuff. I did. He wrote back and said he guessed he should have specified “good” stuff. So, I wrote a story about a guy who’d planned to kidnap his best friend’s dog. Never looked back. I’m so not plot-driven anymore. My favorite short story writers evolved my taste. No one in my estimation writes a better short story than Deborah Eisenberg. No one. A close second, the late, much lamented Lee K. Abbott, who redefined humor for me.

MT: I love your story “I've Got those King City Blues.” There is a line about the jilted suitor who sings outside the female protagonist's house even after the police are summoned. “But Lyle persisted, moaning a country western lament that sounded like the nasal skirl of bagpipes.” Perfect. Where do you get ideas for stories like that, driving by, or from a gas stop memory? Can we expect a sequel: “Broke Down and Busted in San Ardo”? 

SL: The question puts me in mind of a time Leonard Tourney and I, on our way to sign up to produce a mystery play to be performed at a buffet dinner, found ourselves driving through downtown Bakersfield, past the campus of what I believe to be Cal State Bakersfield. Leonard was, at the time, not long away from Tulsa, where he was tenured in Elizabethan Lit. He shuddered at the similarity between Tulsa and Bakersfield. I took matters to the height you describe in your question. “Imagine getting a deal we couldn’t refuse to teach here.” Not even a sumptuous dinner in one of the Basque restaurants made that shudder go away. A more direct answer: The story doesn’t come to me first; a particular character with a particular goal and a particular flaw come barging in on my dreams of writing literature and my fascination with women who are closet anarchists.

MT: You have been writing a number of stories about a character named Bender, a struggling actor willing to do almost anything (including donning a chicken suit) to eke out a living. Do you imagine a collection of interconnected stories based on his shenanigans?

SL: At the moment, Bender #8 or perhaps #9 has managed to interfere with a mystery novel set in our adopted terrain here. The answer to your question is not only a resounding yes, it is in many ways triggered by Mr. James Joyce, who geared his triad of memorable characters to Odysseus, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, an uproarious account of Odysseus’s travels homeward to Ithaca from the Trojan Wars. By accident, after I’d written my second Bender story, the discovery that a translation of Odysseus’s name works out to be “a man of many turns.” Bender is no stranger to inner and outer turns. Piece of cake to have him returning home, not to Ithaca but Santa Barbara after having done the lead in Troilus and Cressida off-Broadway.

MT: After teaching for over thirty years at USC, most of us would relax and have a beer, or watch the grass grow. Yet you teach three days a week at the Schott Continuing Education Center in Santa Barbara, as well as hosting Saturday writing workshops. Can you teach good writing? And why do this when you could be reading classic novels and pursuing your own writing achievements? 

SL: Please understand. I came to teaching by accident. Took one course in education at UCLA for the expressed purpose of having three hours a week in which to endear myself to a young lady named Janet.  Turns out that education and Janet were youthful indiscretions. The key here is accident. At the time I was running the LA office for Dial, Dell, Delacorte, my chief rival was Charlie Block, who had a similar role for Bantam. Charlie had a sales meeting coming up. Asked me to take his classes at USC while he was off somewhere in the Caribbean, doing things people do at sales meetings. Charlie wasn’t back a week before the Dean was after me to promise I’d do two courses following semester. And so it was for thirty-four years there, then Antioch, and then the College of Creative Studies at UCSB. The direct answer to your question: I do this for the same reason you practice guitar, musicians practice. I do it for what I can teach myself.

Photo by Gary Lambert

MT: Do you think veteran writers have a duty to pass on inspiration to newer writers?

SL: They have the duty, but, alas, many are so involved with their own sense of destiny that they can’t make the time. By virtue of having a growth spurt that put me over six feet tall and an ingeniously forged ID, I took to hanging out at The Garden of Allah, hoping to pick up some scent of Fitzgerald’s ghost. Ran into all sorts, including a guy who not only knew Fitzgerald but was a character in The Beautiful and Damned. Also met Borden Chase, who got his start as a sand hog on The Holland Tunnel. Told me the “secret” of his biggest screen success. “Kid, if I hadn’ta been a reader, wouldn’ta got anywhere. I took Mutiny onna Bounty, put it on horseback, you unnerstan what I’m saying here. John Wayne as Captain Bligh. Montgomery Fucking Clift as Fletcher Christian. You gotta promise me, you’ll read everything you can get your hands on, okay?  After a time, you learn as much from the bad stuff, you unnerstan?”

MT: Who were the writers that first inspired you, and made you think, this is an insanity I want to pursue?

SL: Rainy day in the fourth grade. No recess. Teacher began to read. “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book as made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” Had an inkling at the time of what it meant to be fucked, but not even in later years, when I had a job at Twain’s early newspaper gig, The Virginia City Territorial-Enterprise, did I realized how fucked I’d been that rainy afternoon.

Five or six years later, a teacher assigned a book, said I could stop anywhere I wanted, didn’t have to read beyond where I wasn’t interested. Knew a little more about the nuances and implications of the concept of fucking. Certainly knew enough not to use it to any teacher, even this one. In consequence, I didn’t say, “You fucking kidding me?” the day after I began to read Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and indeed read it straight through. The narrative device Ms. Cather chose, making herself a character, having an invented character she grew up with as the narrator.

Twain. Cather. Then Fitzgerald, Katherine Mansfield, John O’Hara. John Cheever. Charlotte Bronte. Bernard Malamud. Anton Chekhov. Philip Roth. Francine Prose. Cynthia Ozik. Nadine Gordimer.

MT: And are there writers from the past twenty years that have surprised or enthralled you?

SL: Alice Munro. Zadie Smith. Lorrie Moore. A. S. Byatt. Jhumpa Lahiri.

MT: My father once admitted to me that as a very young editor he had passed on Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. His excuse was the book was really a collection of stories and he needed to buy novels. But deep inside it crushed him because he soon became one of Bradbury's biggest fans. Are there any novels or writers you rejected as an editor that went on to fame and glory, or are you a man with no regrets?

SL: Coincidental you mention Bradbury. Or maybe you’d planned it all along. When I was at UCLA, he’d use the typewriter in the room below the Powell Library. Coin operated. I’d watch him feed quarters into it, then take over, arms and legs twitching with the energy of his stories. Christmas holidays, I was a temp mail deliverer. Knew what those thick envelopes were. Carefully slit them open, got to read him before they appeared in the magazines he wrote for. Probable statute of limitations on my federal offenses.

But on your question. I’d already published five or six books of William F. Nolan on that day he came into my office with George Clayton Johnson and their collaborated work, Logan’s Run. Wanted it. Seriously wanted it, but I also knew WFN had the hots for a shiny new Porsche. No way I could get the publisher to cut loose with the advance WFN and GCJ were looking at. Besides, GCJ didn’t like me nor I him. Others adored the man. He’d never make eye contact with me. Out they went from my office, the glint of the future beckoning. Before they left, I called out one bit of advice I didn’t think they’d heed. In the original draft, you got to be thirty before the light went on in your hand and the Sandman came around to put you to sleep. “For what it’s worth, boys. Thirty is too old. Think twenty-one.”

“Yeah, yeah,” GCJ said.

Had Vince Bugliosi in my office with the MS for Helter Skelter. Great chemistry with Vince. Not so hot with his collaborator. I wanted the book. Vince wanted to go with me. Needed serious revision and a good deal of promotion. Lost out to W.W. Norton.

Yet another time, when I sat in the office of the agent for Robert Towne, a check for $50,000 as an advance for the novelization of the stunning screenplay, Chinatown.

Because I knew and respected the agent, I started with the top offer. No messing around.

“Shelly,” the agent said. “Bob Towne doesn’t even get out of bed for $50,000.” Always regretted that project never made it to book form.

MT: Besides Amazon's dominance and editors no longer doing line editing, what do you see from your experience as the biggest change or changes in the publishing industry?

SL: Self-publishing. If the publishing industry has anything resembling an albatross, that albatross is the fact of self-publishing and the downward spiral it has brought to reading in general and the difficulties inherent in bringing a worthwhile project to publication.

I was still getting salary paychecks when the late Alfred Knopf said there were too many books being published. Trouble is, he was right. Even back then. Too many books and relatively the same percentage of the population buying them, meaning some of those wonderful mid-list books never get a chance for exposure, libraries are forced into taking only the top titles, reviewers are less likely to review fresh new talent. And to be sure, there is fresh new talent, will always be so.

Won’t name names, but one of the Big Six actually has a self-publishing line. You pay for everything and they publish it. Now comes the other shoe dropping. You have to manage the promotion and much of the distribution. Reminds me of the old publishing joke where a literary agent tells a client, “There’s good news and there’s bad news.”

 “We’ve already had the good news. I’m being published. So what’s the bad news?”

 “You’re being published.”

MT: There is an urban legend that you left a badly managed small publishing house by setting a waste-paper can on fire. You've dismissed this as rank hokum, but what a good myth to keep your students producing their best work. Don't turn in any garbage writing to Mr. Lowenkopf or the “Trash Arsonist” will render your story into cinders and ash.

SL: … ...


Shelly Lowenkopf and Max Talley will be featured in the two-story book Dames & Dopplegangers, forthcoming from Borda Books in October 2019.

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