Kem Nunn (1948 – – ) has pioneered a “surfer/noir” variation of the detective in a trilogy (Tapping the Source, 1984; Dogs of Winter, 1997; and Tijuana Straits, 2004) that pursues the environmental themes to which Ross Macdonald, an avid birder, turned in The Underground Man (1971), set during the 1964 Coyote Canyon fire, and Sleeping Beauty (1973), whose central event is the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
From The San Diego Tribune, by Terry Rodgers, August 17, 2004
“America’s most accomplished surfer novelist grew up as an only child in Pomona, a once-idyllic college town dominated by orange groves and fairgrounds. “Surfing plays this metaphorical role for what we had here and what we have lost,” he said in an interview.
Nunn, 56, recently relocated to South Laguna after living for years in the Northern California dairy town of Bodega. The sharky beaches in the north require from surfers a “serious commitment,” he noted. Now divorced, he desires to be close to his 19-year-old daughter and elderly parents in Palm Springs. He acquired his first name when his parents, intending to name him after his grandfather Kemp, dropped the last letter.
He’s a tall, soft-spoken man who seems more comfortable listening than talking. Although Nunn was a skinny, not-so-athletic kid who didn’t swim very well, the allure of being propelled by waves was irresistible. His first rides were on air mats and crude homemade surfboards. He merely dabbled with surfing as a youth. It wasn’t until he was deep into his 20s that he became immersed in the surfer’s life.
Actually, Nunn closed out his second decade with a flourish of pivotal personal achievements. Living in a converted garage overlooking the Newport bluffs, where he could assess the offshore winds by watching the flags at Hoag Memorial Hospital, he became a serious surfer. Under the mentorship of Oakley Hall, former director of UC Irvine’s writing program, Nunn transformed himself into a man of letters and completed his first novel, “Tapping the Source.”
Published in 1984, the provocative California noir mystery, a story centered on a naive teenager swept up in surf culture’s Mafia-like underbelly, was nominated for an American Book Award. The unique novel – imagine Surfer magazine editor Sam George getting a brain transplant from Raymond Chandler – has attracted a cult following. Flush with confidence, Nunn moved to New York City to live a writer’s life and study at Columbia University. Within a year, he was back in California living near the ocean, his true muse.
In 1997, Nunn finished “Dogs of Winter,” a darkly absorbing Gothic tale about a surf photographer’s quest for a mythical big wave spot in Northern California. He researched the novel by staying at Surfer magazine’s condo on the North Shore of Oahu and hanging with photographers Art Brewer and Jeff Divine. Now he has closed the circle on his self-described “California surfing trilogy” with the release this month of “Tijuana Straits,” whose protagonist is an aging surfer who holds the secrets of the Tijuana Sloughs, a formidable deep-water reef off Imperial Beach formed by cobbles flushed for eons down the Tijuana River.
“Tijuana Straits” also focuses on environmental degradation along the U.S.-Mexico border, a no-man’s land of conflicting national priorities where undocumented aliens dodge border patrol agents along dirt roads that scar a terrain replete with endangered species.
While researching the novel, Nunn picked the brains of Serge Dedina, an environmentalist surfer who founded Wildcoast, and Baja surfing guru Greg Abbott, a state parks ecologist. He also spent time in Cabo San Lucas with ’60s surf legend Mike Doyle, who, like Nunn, is skilled at drawing and painting.” – San Diego Tribune