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Obituaries

Chet Cunningham, author who defied writer’s block by churning out 450 books, dies at 88

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Chet Cunningham is seen in 2003. (Roni Galgano / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chet Cunningham didn’t believe in writer’s block.

The San Diego author’s catalog of 450 published books — Westerns, thrillers, military history, medical guides — included one that he wrote in less than a week because a publishing house was desperate to fill an unexpected hole in its production schedule.

“That’s what I do,” Cunningham once told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I write books.”

Cunningham, who died March 14 at 88 of complications from a fall, also nurtured other writers. He founded the nonprofit San Diego Book Awards in 1994 as a way to honor local writers, both published and unpublished. In the organization’s lean years, he would seek donations from people in the literary community, telling them that an anonymous donor had offered to match their gifts.

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He was the anonymous donor.

“Chet’s legacy to beginning writers lives on in our hearts, and he will not soon be forgotten,” said Toni Noel, an author who served with Cunningham on the board of the book awards.

Born Dec. 9, 1928, in Nebraska, he grew up in Lake Forest, Ore., where he attended Pacific University and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Drafted into the Army, he was a mortar gunner in a heavy weapons company in Korea.

Home from the war, he got a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York, worked for small newspapers in Michigan and Oregon and then came to San Diego in 1960 and worked at Convair on various audio-visual projects, including a training film for fighter pilots.

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When he lost his job in a round of cutbacks, he turned to writing full time. To pay the bills, he churned out magazine articles, many of them about cars and trucking, but he had his heart set on becoming a novelist.

In a methodical approach that would set the stage for his prolific career, he studied the book market, learned that Westerns were the lowest-paying and figured he’d have less competition there. He bought a couple dozen used paperbacks, jotted interesting facts onto index cards — the price of gold in 1837, for example — and created his own research library.

His first book, “Bushwhackers of the Circle K,” came out in 1968. Despite a less-than-enthusiastic note from the publisher — “While this is not the best Western we’ve ever seen, we’ve decided to publish it” — Cunningham was on his way. The floodgate opened, book after book after book, an average of one every month in his prime.

“I fell asleep to the sound of his manual typewriter for years and years,” said his daughter, Christine Ashworth. She grew up to be a writer, too, of romance novels.

Cunningham didn’t have the time or inclination to rank his own books. His favorite was usually the one he had just finished. But some were more personal than others. “Hell Wouldn’t Stop,” his 2002 oral history of the World War II Battle of Wake Island, was a nod to his brother, who was on Wake when the Japanese invaded just hours after bombing Pearl Harbor.

He credited his output to his daily deadline training as a journalist and to a work ethic that usually had him in his home office for 10 hours a day. Writer’s block? “I don’t believe it exists,” he wrote on his website.

“Ever heard of a carpenter not going to work because he has ‘carpenter’s block’? If a writer can’t write, it’s because he doesn’t really want to, he isn’t ready to get it on paper or he’s just plain lazy.”

Cunningham was preceded in death by his wife, Rose Marie, and a son, Scott Cunningham, who wrote New Age books. Survivors include a son, Greg Cunningham; a daughter, Christine Ashworth; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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