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Tapping Nunn's Source

August 09, 1987|SUSAN SQUIRE

KEM NUNN SPENT 1978 hanging out at Newport Harbor, sanding decks and living in somebody's garage. But it was what he did at night that his family found a little odd. He attended a class in writing at Orange Coast Community College. "In my family, getting educated meant learning something practical," says the rangy, self-effacing plumber's son. "The idea of being a writer was not only exotic but completely farfetched."

One night the teacher didn't show up, but a substitute, Roger Angle, did. Angle, who happened to be an alumnus of UCI's graduate writing program, read a piece of the novel Nunn was then working on and told Nunn to send it off to Oakley Hall.

Hall was taken with Nunn's vivid yarn spinning and appealing characters. He urged Nunn to come to Irvine. Nunn, who had only a high school diploma, would need to get an undergraduate degree before officially entering the MFA program, but Hall would let him sit in on the writing workshop.

During Nunn's last quarter as an undergraduate, Robert Stone happened to be the writer-in-residence. Stone liked Nunn's novel-in-progress, a mystery centered in the surfing culture of Huntington Beach. He suggested Nunn try to sell it and recommended two agents. At this point, Nunn was sick of living in the town where "Beyond the Planet of the Apes" was filmed. "I needed a radical change," Nunn says. "When Stone told me he thought my novel was marketable, I decided to go to New York and shop it around."

He applied and was accepted into Columbia's graduate writing program. The first week he was there, in the fall of 1984, "Tapping the Source" was sold by agent Rhoda Weyr to Delacorte for the extremely respectable sum of $17,500. (It was later nominated for an American Book Award.) "It put me in a very strange position," he says. "I had nothing to bring into the workshop." He did show his colleagues a piece of "Source" and began work on a new novel, "Unassigned Territory" (published in June by Delacorte), an absorbing tale of spiritual disillusionment and ambiguous redemption, set in the Mojave Desert. When Hollywood producer Martin Bregman purchased film rights to "Source" that summer, Nunn decided to return to Irvine and to his mentor, Oakley Hall--to whom "Source" is dedicated--for his final year of graduate school.

Today, Nunn, 38, steers his VW van through Huntington Beach, where he lives in a modest bungalow with his wife and baby daughter. As he drives, he points out the surf shop that served as the model for the one in "Tapping the Source." "Writers I talk to here worry about whether they're on the wrong coast to play the literary game, but you can't spend too much time agonizing about whether or not you'll be taken seriously because of where you live," he says. "I think you have to put yourself into your work and hope that something's there and that people will recognize it."

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