Flashback: The John Fante Tapes [Five]
By Ben Pleasants.
Ben Pleasants: When was the last time you spoke with Bukowski?
John Fante: It’s been months.
BP: You want to talk to him today?
JF: No, not necessarily.
Joyce Fante: You’re testing, aren’t you, Ben? [laughs]
BP: Yeah [laughs] Well, that’s okay. I don’t know how much stamina you have today, John, so we can just go for a little while; then we can stop, if that’s all right.
John Fante: Yeah. I can’t go all the way through it.
BP: Okay. What I want to start with is Brotherhood of the Grape, and I want to get now what happened with that book. I just touched on it with the last piece, but I didn’t really get into the whole thing. So let’s start. You wrote the thing when, originally? What year did you write it in?
JF: [To Joyce] Do you know, honey?
Joyce Fante: I think it was ’75.
John Fante: Published in ’77.
BP: By Scribners?
John Fante: No, Houghton-Mifflin.
BP: That’s one thing I got wrong; glad I got that straight. So Houghton-Mifflin published it in hardback, but it was published originally before that by Coppola and City Magazine?
JF: No, no. Originally it was purchased by Bob Towne, and I got $75,000 for it.
Joyce Fante: It was published in an abridged version in City Magazine.
John Fante: Oh yes. Then Coppola got a hold of it and he published the whole thing in his magazine, City, published in San Francisco.
Joyce Fante: After that, you expanded it and added a whole section at the request of your publisher. Do you remember that?
John Fante: Yes, that’s right.
BP: What was the section?
Joyce Fante: It was a flashback.
John Fante: Flashback to my arrival in Los Angeles.
BP: Also the part about the cannery and all that?
Joyce Fante: That’s all added.
BP: So that was all added, too. How about the part where he walks through the town and sees all the masonry that his father did?
Joyce Fante: That was there originally.
BP: Okay. When you wrote that as a book, and it was published, Towne originally planned to do a screenplay?
John Fante: Yeah.
BP: Did he know who was going to produce it?
JF: I suspect that he wanted to produce it himself, but he hesitated about letting me write the screenplay.
BP: Why was that?
JF: I don’t know. He had his own reasons for doing that, and then Coppola got hold of it.
BP: How did that happen?
JF: I guess Bob gave it to him.
BP: So in other words, there was sort of an agreement or a discussion about Coppola producing, directing it and Towne writing the screenplay; is that what happened?
JF: No. Towne wanted to hire a screenwriter for it, and while he was debating the choice, Coppola gave the book to a writer by the name of Shaughnessy. Isn’t that right, honey?
Joyce Fante: It was an Irish name.
John Fante: And he wrote a screenplay, which Towne eventually saw and hated, and rejected. And the result was that he and Coppola could not agree on the screenplay, and the thing was left in abeyance; nobody had it. And to my knowledge, that’s where it is now – Coppola not particularly interested in it, not manifesting any interest, and Towne refusing to use Shaughnessy’s screenplay. So there’s the book, out in limbo.
BP: Was there ever an attempt by Coppola to ask you to do the screenplay?
JF: Yes, Coppola asked me to do the screenplay, and I agreed to do it, and I wrote him a letter and asked him to put it down on paper, what he intended to pay me and the terms of the contract. And I never heard from him.
BP: Tell me about the – I would like you to jump in on this, too, Joyce – about the thing in San Francisco with the opera and so on. I just vaguely remember that, but it was very funny. Does this have to do with when he published the thing in City?
JF: Yeah. He invited me up to his home in San Francisco.
BP: Which was what, a 35-room mansion or something?
JF: On Pacific.
Joyce Fante: A beautiful, restored Victorian mansion on Broadway and Pacific. But we were picked up at the airport by limousine and taken to the hotel, which we paid for.
BP: Sounds like Coppola – classic with a capital Q.
Joyce Fante: Then we went to a theater in downtown San Francisco to hear his father rehearsing La Boheme. And we sat in this cold, drafty theater – John had been very ill just previous to this – all day, listening to the stops and starts of the practice of La Boheme. And at some point during all this, Coppola arrived in the theater and he was hovering around in the back, we saw him now here and now there. And finally he came down and spoke to us, but this was after many hours of being acutely uncomfortable and bored.
BP: Why did you go up there originally? Did he ask you to come up and talk about the book?
John Fante: I guess he just wanted to meet me and gauge my character in terms of what he wanted.
BP: Did he know your work as a film writer?
JF: I don’t know.
BP: Did he ever mention it?
Joyce Fante: Oh yes. John was invited to dinner – the dinner was in honor of John – and after the dinner at his home that night, he showed Full of Life, which he admired.
John Fante: The mayor of San Francisco was there.
Joyce Fante: Yes, Alioto was there and a number of other prominent people.
John Fante: And his lawyer.
Joyce Fante: Alioto’s daughter, his father – I don’t remember all the people – his wife. And he had a beautiful dinner for us.
John Fante: After his dinner, he took us down to the projection room, and we didn’t know what we were there for, and the screen darkened, and there it was, Full of Life.
BP: By you about your wife, really.
JF: Yeah. It was very nice.
Joyce Fante: He had a beautiful home.
BP: He sold it.
Joyce Fante: Oh, did he sell that?
John Fante: Where’s he living now?
BP: He’s living down here because he owns a studio called Zoetrope, somewhere in Hollywood. I think it’s Burbank.
JF: He’s fragmented, hasn’t he?
BP: I think he’s having the problem that all people when they go into production have. They just have tremendous money problems, and they never really seem to know how to deal with it.
JF: Especially if you think big all the time like Francis.
BP: I’ve been reading that huge book on Selznick. My God, there was a guy who was tremendously successful, he was having terrible financial problems.
Joyce Fante: Was he really?
BP: Yeah, he was just good at hiding it. Coppola isn’t good at hiding it.
Joyce Fante: Coppola also had a vineyard and still does, I imagine, because we got a bottle of wine.
BP: Those are hard to sell. [laughs] So he never made a hard and fast commitment in terms of doing it. Is that right, John?
John Fante: No, he never did. But the reason for that is that he could not get squared away with Robert Towne. He and Robert Towne differed so radically about the screenplay that there was no point in even discussing anything more about it.
BP: I see. I didn’t realize that.
JF: And then it appeared that Robert Towne was no longer interested in it. And then he had his lawyer write me and ask me if I would do the screenplay, and of course I agreed to it, and I told him to send me the terms and all.
BP: Who had his lawyer – was it Towne or Coppola?
Joyce Fante: Tom Sternberg.
John Fante: Tom Sternberg, yeah.
BP: And what happened at that point?
JF: The whole thing kind of floated away. Nothing more was said about it.
BP: When you tried to reach Towne, what happened?
JF: He was never home to me.
BP: Have you heard anything about it since?
JF: No, no. Towne is mad at me because the section of Dreams from Bunker Hill seems to cover the same period as Ask the Dust. Whereas in Ask the Dust there was no mention at all ever of working in the studios, whereas in Dreams from Bunker Hill, that was its main concern, but they’re actually quite separate books. But Towne once during our discussions about it said that he would be interested in buying, or interested in my writing Ask the Dust if I would include Dreams from Bunker Hill.
BP: In other words, buying the whole thing together?
JF: And I wouldn’t do that.
BP: Yeah, they’re two very separate books. Of course, they do have the same character in them. I guess that may be one of the reasons why it feels you could put them together.
JF: I think he was trying to get something cheap.
BP: Going back to Towne, he was originally interested in Ask the Dust?
JF: Oh yes, he was.
BP: And wasn’t that the book that got him started on the whole business about doing a thing –
JF: Yes, yes. He read that book when he was up north, he had his agent contact me, he took a couple of options on it, and when I wrote the novel, he gave me $75,000.
BP: That was for Brotherhood of the Grape?
BP: Now, what happened with the publication of that book? Bukowski mentioned, and several other people mentioned that it was very difficult for them to get it.
JF: What book was that?
JF: I’m not aware of that. It was not a very good sales job on the part of Houghton-Mifflin.
BP: Were you aware of that, Joyce, that it was hard to get?
Joyce Fante: Yes, I’ve heard a lot of people say that. Friends say they couldn’t get it.
John Fante: And I’ve heard people say they’ve seen it in Fedco and in Thrifty Drug Store.
BP: Is that the hardback?
JF: No, the paperback.
BP: I think the paperback is getting around, but the hardback, nobody could find it.
Joyce Fante: Yes. I went to Pickwick two or three weeks after it was published, and they had already moved it from the counter to the shelf.
BP: Anyway, so as far as Brotherhood is concerned at this point, concerning Towne and Coppola, there isn’t anything happening?
John Fante: No.
BP: I mention that because if I write this, I don’t want to spoil anything for you. If you’ve got something out there, this is not going to help it, let’s put it this way.
Joyce Fante: I thought it was totally dead until we got the bottle of wine in January. So maybe he’s still interested, I don’t know, or maybe it was just a friendly gesture.
BP: It would appear that the heavy in the thing anyway was not Coppola, anyway – that it was Towne.
John Fante: Yeah.
Joyce Fante: Yes.
John Fante: It’s just a disagreement about the screenplay. Coppola thinks it’s a bad screenplay, I don’t think it’s very good, and Towne thinks it’s all right.
BP: I see. So the screenplay as it exists, the one that Towne had written, he would go ahead with it, Towne would?
JF: I presume so, if he’d had some kind of approval from Coppola.
Joyce Fante: Towne bought it, you see, but obviously, he had some kind of a deal with Coppola.
BP: So that’s where the problem is. He owns the thing outright?
John Fante: I guess he does.
Joyce Fante: He owns the screen rights.
BP: Okay, let’s move on, get out of that morass. About that time, what were you doing in terms of your own work after you finished Brotherhood of the Grape, besides looking around for getting the production of it done?
JF: It was at that time that I decided to write Dreams from Bunker Hill.
BP: That was ’79?
Joyce Fante: Yes.
BP: And there, again, you reintroduced the character of Bandini, which you had not used for quite some time.
John Fante: That’s right.
BP: Because as I recall, you didn’t use him in My Dog Stupid, which still remains unpublished, you didn’t use him in Brotherhood, and you didn’t use him in Full of Life. He was used only in Wait Until Spring, Bandini, and Ask the Dust, and I think a few stories, if I’m not mistaken. Or am I wrong? That book I loaned to Bukowski, I know I can get it back.
Joyce Fante: I think that’s about right. In My Dog Stupid, it’s Henry Molise.
BP: Which is the same name in Brotherhood. What was the reason for going back to Bandini, first of all?
John Fante: You mean the name?
BP: Yeah, or back to the character of Arturo Bandini.
JF: I don’t know. There was no particular reason.
BP: Why did you go back into the world of the ’30s?
JF: Because that was the era of the books, incidents, right there. I wanted to write about that period, and that period actually was prior to Ask the Dust.
BP: Ask the Dust was as a young man, wasn’t it? He’s like 22, 23?
BP: So that would be in the late ’20s, wouldn’t it, or early ’30s? I guess you have to go back to that question of when you first came to Los Angeles. Was it ’31 or later?
BP: So Ask the Dust really took place about that time. Another linkup is the work that Towne did on Chinatown. I won’t put that in, but he lifted some of the atmosphere.
Joyce Fante: That was how he came to read Ask the Dust. He was researching the period and found Ask the Dust in the library.
BP: So Ask the Dust really takes place over a period of about a year, 1931, and when that book came out, it was your second published novel. Shortly after that, you began to do work in the studios, so it was maybe ’32, ’33?
John Fante: Uh-hm.
BP: And that gave you the background of writing Dreams from Bunker Hill, which really covers a period of how many years, would you say?
JF: A couple years.
[Phone call for John – tape stops]
BP: Let’s see now, I’m a little lost, not doing my job here [laughs]. I know where I was. So we go back into, let’s say ’32, ’33. Are you all right, John? I don’t want to push this too hard.
JF: I’m all right.
BP: And you started working at what particular studio?
JF: Warner Bros.
BP: And you worked there off and on for the next ten years?
JF: No, I worked there, RKO, Republic and Fox.
Joyce Fante: Universal?
John Fante: No.
BP: How about MGM, did you work there?
JF: Yes, I worked at MGM.
BP: So the film writing starts in the ’30s and goes all the way through the ’70s?
JF: Yes, that’s right.
BP: Writing the book – this is the hard part in terms of being an interviewer and asking you these questions delicately – you wrote the book because it was an experience you knew and enjoy –
JF: Yeah, it was basically autobiographical.
BP: You took the character of Bandini, returning again to your youth, really, pre-Full of Life. What was it like to write a book having lost your vision, writing a book without being able to see and without being able to type?
JF: It didn’t bother me any. Naturally, I miss my sight and regretted not having it. But I didn’t – I wasn’t depressed about it. I was philosophical.
BP: The book is not depressing. It has a lot of humorous passages.
BP: How exactly did you do your work?
JF: I dictated it to Joyce, she put it down in long-hand and then typed it out. And there it was.
BP: How did you feel about doing it, Joyce?
Joyce Fante: I was delighted he was doing it, and I loved the material, and I was very enthusiastic. I wasn’t quite sure how to set out fiction because I’d never written fiction, but I looked at John’s previous work, saw how he did it, and tried to set it up as close as possible to his style, as to paragraph breaks and so on.
BP: The whole bit of what chapters?
Joyce Fante: Yes, short chapters. John would tell me when he wanted to make a paragraph and when he wanted a chapter break.
BP: So you had to read the whole thing back to him constantly?
John Fante: Yeah.
BP: Was there a great deal of rewriting?
JF: Very little.
Joyce Fante: Almost none.
BP: That’s amazing.
Fante’s son: Can I say something here, Ben?
Fante’s son: Mom could work as an editor. She has… a great feel for literature. So that’s how they work, they’re very simpatico with each other.
BP: I do think that’s an amazing part of the story, it really definitely is.
Joyce Fante: I don’t want you to overemphasize what I did. It’s completely John’s work. All I did was write it down.
BP: I know that. I saw some of it at times after you had finished writing and what you had done. I saw the notebooks, the tablets; you worked on yellow tablets.
Joyce Fante: John’s way of working is highly individual, I think, because he does most of his work before he begins to write, so to speak, and he knows exactly that it’s going to be like before he starts to dictate.
BP: The fact is that the novel was really in your head?
John Fante: Yeah.
BP: You said one thing – this I did have in the other piece I wrote – that you were tougher on yourself than you had been when you were simply typing it out. Why was that?
JF: I don’t know, except that I recognized the fact that I was blind and I wanted to overcome that, so I devoted more attention to the work.
BP: What part did Bukowski play in this, in terms of bringing the work along?
BP: I don’t mean in terms of the writing. I mean in terms of the publishing.
JF: Nothing. [Pause] I’m trying to relate Bukowski to John Martin.
BP: What I would say – I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but Bukowski had been a tremendous fan of your work for many years, and he began to mention your work in print just about this time.
JF: That’s a great idea.
BP: Especially in Women, but there are other places, also. I also think by writing the introduction to Ask the Dust, which was the book that was a tremendous influence on his own work and his own life, that was to me a very significant breakthrough, and it was perhaps one of the reasons why Martin read the book. It wasn’t the reason he took it, but it was one of the reasons he read it.
JF: That’s true, that’s true.
Joyce Fante: Bukowski called frequently, and we had very friendly conversations, but nothing about the book.
BP: The other way around, you can make a very good case that your work has had a tremendous influence on him, and he’s not ashamed to say that, especially in terms of the style, in terms of the short chapters and in terms of putting a tremendous amount of energy into short chapters to make them lively and readable. How do you see the Bandini saga now as you look back on it? Is it something – did you think it would go in this direction when you started it years ago and you wrote the first book, Wait Until Spring?
John Fante: No.
BP: Did you perceive it as something that would have a continuum?
JF: No, I didn’t.
BP: When you wrote Ask the Dust, did you see it as something that would have a continuum?
BP: So you simply used the character of Bandini in Ask the Dust because it was autobiographical?
JF: I just used chunks of my life, and they fell into place time-wise.
BP: I see. Now as you look back on it, do you see it as a continuum?
BP: The Bandini saga, starting with Wait Until Spring?
JF: No, I don’t see it as a saga. But somebody who was publishing it might see it as that; it’s a good gimmick.
BP: Is there a missing chunk in there somewhere?
BP: So you think it pretty much goes along the way you wanted it?
JF: Yeah. I could get another book out of it, though.
BP: If you were thinking in that direction, where would you go? Or do you think about it?
JF: I would go into the period before I got married, before I came to Los Angeles.
BP: So that would be somewhere in between Ask the Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini?
BP: In your teenage years?
BP: How old were you when you came out here?
JF: 21. No, 20.
BP: Okay, I think that’s probably a good place for me to stop, unless you have anything for me to add.
JF: No. But now that you’ve sort of planted the course, I’ll think along that way, and I may be able to come up with some more material.
[February 17, 1981]
There was a sixth tape in the last year of John Fante’s life. He was at the Hollywood Home in the San Fernando Valley. I went to see him twice with Marlene Sinderman, my girlfriend at the time. Marlene was also diabetic and losing her sight. John had met her for lunch at the house on Point Dume when I completed the fifth tape. At the end of his life, John was sad and a little delusional. He told me there was an orderly at the home who wanted to kill him with a poison dart.
He said he was not often visited by anyone. He was glad to hear (he couldn” see) Marlene and me again. He asked a few questions about Black Sparrow. Would they give him an advance? I had to laugh. I felt I had done my little part and the rest was in the hands of the gods. I told him about my idea for a Bukowski book when Bukowski was a nazi in college. He laughed at that and encouraged me to write it. I did.
Every agent who ever read it told me they would actively make sure my novel never got published. That was what John Fante told me would happen. It’s called it The Victory of Defeat and it will be out on the internet next year. Life goes on, mostly without agents.
Hope you enjoyed these tapes as much as I did. Bukowski liked to call me his Boswell, but I think I did a better job with John Fante that I did with Bukowski. Buk was a great self promoter. Look for the Bukowski tapes to appear soon. Amazing stuff you’ve never heard of.
The last John Fante tape I destroyed. It was the right thing to do. Yes, life is a dream here on the Hamakua Coast, where the land is slowly returning to what it once was when the Hawaiian monarchy ruled here. There’s peace everywhere . The sugar cane grows wild up the hillsides and all the refineries are long gone. I have never met a Hollywood agent anywhere between Hilo and Honoka’a. Yes, life goes on here. There’s so much to discover. So aloha and mahalo.
May these tapes allow you to hear the true voice of John Fante, and see before your eyes, at least in dreams, Camilla Lopez and Arturo Bandini. They will live forever.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Ben Pleasants is the author of Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers and the play The Ghosts of Pumpkin Park, on the joys of literature and death and about special collections librarian Jim Davis and the famous Westwood ghosts. You can find more of Ben’s work here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 5th, 2010.