Ten Years After Being Vaulted to Not-Quite-Stardom in the Pages of City Paper, Author Michael Kun Returns With his Baltimore-Based Oddball Novel The Locklear Letters
As anyone who has navigated through an "Origin of the Novel" course in college can tell you, the epistolary format peaked, oh, slightly more than two centuries ago, a few decades after Samuel Richardson launched the literary movement in England with his Pamela in 1740. Nipping at that story-in-letters' heels came Richardson's more popular Clarissa (1747) and a boatload of entries by others, from Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778) to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's suicide classic Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Jean Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), although the genre probably hit top-of-the-pops status with Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' titillating Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1782, which, after being adapted for the stage, famously crossed over to the movie screen in 1988, with Glenn Close and John Malkovich.
Michael Kun has read none of them. "I'm embarrassed," he admits with a laugh, speaking over the phone from his home in Marina del Rey, just outside Los Angeles. "And I'm going to be very embarrassed if one of them is about a guy writing to a TV star," he jokingly adds.
That particular premise constitutes the basis of Kun's comic epistolary novel, The Locklear Letters (MacAdam/Cage, $19.95), which hits bookstores this week. Here, the letter-writing "guy" is Baltimorean Sid Straw, whom Kun describes as a "late-30s, early-40s, single, stuck in one of those soul-draining jobs," in this case a middle-management marketing/sales schlimazel for a Greenbelt-based software firm; and the "TV star" is small-screen stalwart Heather Locklear, who traces her career from Dynasty through T.J. Hooker to Melrose Place and Spin City. Sid's innocuous letter requesting an autographed photo of Heather, with whom he attended UCLA 20 years earlier, triggers a set of increasingly absurdist events that costs him his job, nearly destroys his parents' marriage, torpedoes a nascent relationship, and, besieged by restraining orders, hostile co-workers, a dunning attorney, and a spelling-challenged florist, sends him careening into despair--with all of the "action" conveyed through Sid's relentlessly oblivious short letters to his friends, family, colleagues, and the blonde starlet herself.
"Among every group of friends, there's always the one person for whom things never seem to work out," notes the 40-year-old Kun, a trial lawyer who handles employment litigation. "Also, I've known a lot of people who are lacking in self-awareness, who don't realize the way that they're coming across, the way that their words are perceived."
Kun determined that the epistolary novel might provide the best format for chronicling Sid's downward spiral--and ultimate reversal of misfortune. "It lets the reader get into a character in a different way than you would with a straightforward narrative," he explains. "I was concerned that if I did it in the third person that I wouldn't really convey his character well enough, and if I used a gimmick like the diary--like, say, in Bridget Jones's Diary--the first thing that most readers would say is, 'Hey, hang on a second--no 40-year-old guy keeps a diary.' And I wanted to see if I could write a book that people literally could not put down. So I kind of put those couple of things together and decided to do it as an epistolary novel."
If he sheepishly confesses to forgoing Richardson and Laclos, Kun points out that "there've been a number of epistolary novels that I've really loved," specifically citing Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al (1914)--"about a baseball player completely lacking in self-awareness"--and Gordon Lish's Dear Mr. Capote (1983), about a serial killer who beseeches author Truman Capote to write his biography.
Kun fashioned the first draft of The Locklear Letters as a challenge to himself three years ago while vacationing in California. "I always had it in the back of my mind a story that may or may not be true, which was that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in a week," he recounts. Accordingly, he knocked out his book in one week while driving up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco, inserting the name Sid Straw--inspired by the singer/songwriter Syd Straw, a woman--"as a place holder," he recalls, "always with the thought that I'd change it later." Eventually, though, he concluded that it was "the perfect name for this character."
The Locklear Letters arrives 13 years after the publication of Kun's first novel, A Thousand Benjamins (Atlantic Monthly Press), and 10 years after his second, Our Poor Sweet Napoleon, which was serialized in the pages of this newspaper. (Invoking full disclosure, I struck the deal to publish Our Poor Sweet Napoleon in my capacity as editor of City Paper at the time.) Back then he lived in Baltimore and worked as an attorney at the mega law firm Piper and Marbury--now Piper Rudnick--after obtaining his undergraduate degree in political science from Johns Hopkins and his law degree from the University of Virginia.
So the Baltimore setting for the new novel comes naturally, although Kun points out that "it's not meant to really convey in any way Baltimore as a city. But if I need a place to set a book or set a story, it's always easy to put it in Baltimore, because it's home to me"--despite the fact he was born on Long Island, N.Y., and moved with his family a dozen times while growing up before landing at Hopkins in 1980.
While not drawn directly from personal experience, Kun's lacerating depiction of attorneys in The Locklear Letters--Sid contacts a handful of lawyers after being slapped with two ridiculous restraining orders-- certainly benefitted from his 15 years of courtroom toiling. "Our legal profession has a terrible, terrible reputation, and it's well-deserved," he says. "It's inconceivable to me that any other profession--the medical profession, for example--would put up with 40 percent of its membership being dishonest, unethical, or incompetent. But that's what the legal profession does. What happens to Sid in dealing with lawyers is not in any way atypical."
As for the choice of Heather Locklear as the principal recipient of Sid's epistolary blizzard, that decision stems from a smidgen of authenticity and some unscientific personal research. While living and working in Atlanta from 1994 to 2000, Kun and his then-girlfriend, a UCLA alum, spent a Christmas in L.A., where she guided him on a tour of her old campus, including her former sorority house. Kun takes up the story: "She said, 'And Heather lived over here.' I said, 'Heather who?' She said, 'Heather Locklear.' And my first reaction was, 'I've known you for three years, been dating you for two years--why is this is the first time you mention to me that you went to school with Heather Locklear?'"
When Kun began brainstorming the novel, he cast around for the perfect celeb for Sid to contact. "It occurred to me that for the book to do what I wanted it to do that the celebrity had to be somebody who the reader knows," he explains. "It had to be somebody who everybody had positive feelings about. It had to be somebody who didn't have any baggage that would add any unnecessary subtext to the book; for instance, I didn't want somebody who'd spent time in jail or somebody with drug problems. Last, I wanted it to be somebody who, for whatever reason, people could imagine helping an old friend, somebody who they hadn't seen in 20 years."
After detailing these required attributes, Kun then quizzed his friends: "I asked 20 people. It was the oddest thing: 18 said 'Heather Locklear.' Right off the top of their head. The other two said 'Katie Couric.' I had to run with it after that."
Thoughtfully, Kun's editor sent Locklear an advance copy of the novel. "The story that I have gotten secondhand is that she liked it so much that she has already lent her copy to her father," Kun notes with a aural beam. "I take that as an endorsement."
Michael Kun signs copies of The Locklear Letters on Saturday, June 21, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Ivy Bookshop (6080 Falls Road). For more info, call (410) 377-2966.