Tainted by the Town: The John Fante Tapes [Two]
By Ben Pleasants.
Ben Pleasants: Mencken is sort of the father figure in that book. He keeps coming to your rescue with the checks.
John Fante: Yeah, that’s true. Incidentally, I have a letter, a note, from Mencken among these that I’m going to show you in which he said to me, “Why do you write so much about your family?” He said, “You should branch out and try something else.” And then he explained that he couldn’t possibly buy all the material I sent him, that the magazine only used one or two stories a month and I ought to branch out to other markets. So I guess he was a little pissed off at all the material I was sending him, basically.
BP: I think sometimes you’re writing something, there’s only a couple of people who are on the right wave length to understand it.
JF: That’s right.
BP: It’s kind of nice to have a Mencken out there.
JF: I used to send my material to 1524 Holland Street, Baltimore. I never sent it to the Mercury in New York. So there must’ve been quite a bit of dismay in New York when he’d come down and he’d have a story by me. They’d wonder where the hell he got it.
BP: What were some of the stories he published of yours? I guess most of them were in Dago Red.
JF: Yeah. ‘Altar Boy,’ ‘First Communion,’ ‘Home Sweet Home,’ which I think is the best short story I ever wrote.
BP: How about the one about the earthquake?
JF: That was published in the – let’s see, where was that published? … I don’t remember. But I think Paul Palmer, when he became editor, bought it for the Mercury.
BP: Did you ever publish in Story magazine? That was the first place Bukowski published.
JF: Yeah, I published in Story.
BP: Those were rough days, I guess. You didn’t get much money out of them.
JF: Yeah. Twenty-five dollars.
BP: You got paid by the word, the old pulp rates. Was there really a Camilla, was there really a girl? That’s a bad question to ask, but –
JF: Oh, there was. I told you about her. I told you that after the book was published – I gave her a copy of it. She read it, she said, “Is that me?” I said, “Yes, that’s you.” You see, the theme running through Ask the Dust is very subtle and it might even escape other people because I never hit it head-on, and that was the fact that I never screwed this girl.
BP: I was looking for that.
JF: The reason I never screwed her – I found out from her, not from me, I never learned it myself – I found out from her she was a lesbian.
BP: I see. But there’s a section in the book where you did.
JF: Oh, is there?
BP: As far as I know, that part with the marijuana, where you put her down on the bed.
JF: Oh yeah, yeah, that’s right. I don’t know what happened during that. I thought the heightening of the marijuana experience might give him the reveries and the imaginings.
BP: Oh, that’s possible. Because it isn’t clear.
JF: No, it isn’t.
BP: I just got the impression; I figured because of the censorship in those days, you had to do it subtly.
JF: No, that didn’t bother me.
BP: Did you have any problems with censors? Did some of the Puritans come out?
JF: I had it with another book of mine which I never got back from Viking Press, a manuscript which I gave to Pat Covici. He gave me an advance on it.
BP: Pat Covici?
JF: You know, Covici-Friede.
BP: He was Orwell‘s publisher, too.
JF: He was the president of Viking Press, and he said he couldn’t publish it because then he’d go to jail.
BP: What happened to the manuscript?
JF: I never got it back from him.
BP: Have you asked for it?
JF: He’s dead. But I’ve asked for it. They don’t have any knowledge of it.
BP: That’s really a shame. Ask the Dust took place mainly – was it ’37? I’m not sure of the year, but I’m trying to figure when the earthquake was. It was either in ’33 or ’37.
JF: It was in ’33.
Joyce Fante: Ask the Dust was in ’39, wasn’t it?
John Fante: Yeah, but it was before I was married, naturally.
BP: So you put together various things, but actually if you were going to put that book in a time scheme, it technically took place in 1933 because of the Long Beach earthquake.
JF: That’s right, yeah. That’s a different girl, by the way, the one in the earthquake.
BP: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s the girl who lived in Long Beach. I forget her name, but the Jewish girl.
JF: No, she lived in Venice.
BP: But in the story she lived in Long Beach.
JF: What was her name?
BP: Jeez, I just looked at it yesterday. It was something like Resnick. I’ll take a look over here and find it. Chapter 13 is when you came back to Los Angeles, and Chapter 12 is the whole thing about the earthquake. Oh, Vera Rivkin.
JF: Vera Rivkin. That girl – that’s strictly autobiographical and true. I don’t know what those scars were, those burns on her body.
BP: Oh yeah, I recall that, where she was so horrified by it, and it didn’t bother you at all, you told her not to worry. Is she still alive?
JF: I don’t know.
BP: Did she ever read the book?
JF: I don’t know.
BP: But she lived in Venice, because you set that in Long Beach.
BP: That was a rather nice scene, the crazy scene in the evening where you went out with her after being flung over by the other girl.
BP: I was looking at that yesterday. Did you ever think when you got to the end of that book that you could do another one, a continuation?
JF: It never occurred to me, Ben.
BP: The characters live on in your other books, but it’s not quite the same thing. Especially I think one of the most exciting things about the book is the image of the writer – this is something I know Bukowski picked up from your books. You might have gotten it in turn from Hamsun. There’s some of that in his work, I know – the guy in Hunger, where he shows up at the newspaper office and he’s broke and they give him a story.
JF: Yeah. Oh, I love that book.
BP: That’s a wonderful book. That element that seems to go through the whole book, the whole business of being young and being a writer and living in Los Angeles, carries through to the absolute last page of the book, where he goes out into the desert and flings the book into the sand when he can’t find the girl.
BP: By the way, the absolute last words of the book are Los Angeles. Did you do that on purpose?
JF: No. Something like, “I turned and walked back -” Anyway, he goes back to Los Angeles.
BP: That’s wonderful. The whole thing just reads like a poem really. What was the manuscript that’s missing? What was that about?
JF: That was about a boy who lived in Colorado, and it starts in the winter with snow on the ground, and he’s pitching –
BP: It sounds like it starts like Bandini.
JF: – pitching baseball with another guy, and the two of them are mad for baseball, and they decide they’re going to hitchhike to Los Angeles and then go across to Catalina Island and train with the Chicago Cubs.
BP: That’s where they used to train. And when did you write that book?
JF: I wrote that [long pause], let’s see… right after Dago Red was published.
BP: Let’s see, Dago Red, that was a Viking book. I think it was 1941. Was it that old? I have a copy of that in my car.
JF: I’ve got one around here, too. My background, my history is so fragmented because there was a great deal of fragmentation in my life. I had to eke out an existence, so every opportunity I got to work in films, I took. Invariably it happened, I’d start a novel, and I’d get into it a couple of chapters, and I’d get an offer of a job. And I’d go to the job and I’d be on it for three months or four months, and I’d come back to my manuscript, and I had a big bank account then, I made a lot of money, and I had to sit down to this thing that I was writing, and I never could put the two together. I could never step out of one character and be another. I was always the same character and the same discontents were haunting me. When I started a book, it was invariably dissatisfactory to me. I was not pure. I was tainted by the town. I wish I had had sense enough to take my money and go somewhere and sweat it out.
BP: What were the circumstances under which you wrote Bandini?
JF: Well – just a minute. Honey, what did he say?
[Joyce says something about a phone call involving small claims court.]
John Fante: What was your question, Ben?
BP: Under what circumstances did you write Bandini? You were talking about how you had to keep going back to –
JF: After I published a few short stories in the Mercury, Alfred Knopf, who was the publisher of the American Mercury –
BP: He made all his early money through Mencken, didn’t he?
JF: He offered me a contract for a novel and he gave me a $500 advance. And … Honey! When we were married, was Bandini published?
Joyce Fante: No, you wrote it and published it after we were married. We were married in 1937, and it was in 1938, or ’39.
John Fante: In any case, I got married. And I thought it was a good omen that I got this money to write a novel, so I wrote a novel for Knopf, and he turned it down. So I sent it to William Soskin of Stackpole, and he asked me to make certain changes which he suggested, and I did, and he published it.
BP: Stackpole was a New York house, too, right? I mean, I’m doing a little bit of research on that because of that crazy story you told me, which was amazing, the whole thing about what happened to Ask the Dust. It’s really a remarkable story, although it’s sort of sad, considering what it did to your novel.
JF: Stackpole was – you’ve probably never heard of it and most literary people never heard of it because it was a military house.
Joyce Fante: A light?
John Fante: Yeah.
BP: As a matter of fact, I read military books; I’m sort of a nut on the First World War. Did you ever hear of a guy by the name of Thomas Boyd?
BP: He wrote I think the greatest war book I ever read. It’s another good book, it’s just no one will ever read it. It was called Through the Wheat. It was about World War I, and it is just a remarkable book about war. Scribners published it and King Vidor used it when he made The Big Parade. He hired Stallings to do the thing for him, but he said about 80 percent of the thing came from Through the Wheat.
JF: I’ll be darned.
BP: That’s an interesting story about Tom Boyd. In fact, his editor was Maxwell Perkins, and the guy who wrote the book about Perkins that came out about six months ago, I was very upset about it because he hardly mentioned Boyd at all. His whole story is, after he wrote that book, is even more interesting than what happened to him before.
JF: Who was this guy with Perkins?
BP: Well, see, Perkins was Boyd’s editor, and then this fellow who wrote this book about Perkins –
JF: Yeah. What’s his name?
BP: Abel, I think, or something. Anyway, it was very well written, but it left out so many things, and it just took it basically straight from Fitzgerald’s point of view, which was very –
JF: Who was that guy?
BP: Perkins? Perkins was the guy who was the editor for –
JF: For Scribners.
BP: Yeah. He was the editor for Hemingway, he was the editor of Tom Wolfe – which is the great story, how he saved Wolfe’s writings – and he was also Fitzgerald‘s editor. And for a while he was Edmund Wilson‘s. He was a remarkable man. He really was incredible. But what the guy did was in writing this book, in my estimation, he just retold all the stories instead of going out and investigating all the other things where he could’ve found out a lot more about Perkins – for instance, the Tom Boyd thing, which I think is very interesting.
JF: I remember Tom Boyd. He was of the ’20s, wasn’t he?
BP: Oh yeah, he was. The only book he ever made any money on, which was Through the Wheat, was published I think in 1920. It came out the same year or the year before Fitzgerald’s first novel, so they were compared a lot, which was sort of a ridiculous comparison. But Fitzgerald had a high regard for him, and years after he had been forgotten, he would write back to Perkins and say how’s Tom Boyd doing, and when are you guys gonna publish another one of his books. He was a curious guy, Fitzgerald, and a very lovely man in a lot of ways.
JF: Yeah, I met Fitzgerald once.
BP: You did?
JF: I met him in probably the Four Star Theater.
BP: That was when he was doing film, huh?
JF: Yeah. I went to the movie there with a girl and he was in line getting a ticket and somebody he was with knew me, so I shook hands with him. But I remember him distinctly, and I remember his pale, fragile, feminine hands when he shook hands with me. He wasn’t a fag, it was just that he had a very gentle hand. You felt that you could crush it, because he didn’t apply any pressure at all. It was just limp.
BP: By that time he may have drunk himself to that situation.
JF: It’s possible. But I remember whenever I went to Hollywood and had to be around for a time, working in a studio, I checked in at the Garden of Allah – that was the hotel on Sunset Boulevard. The reason I went there was Fitzgerald used to go there. It was kind of a pilgrimage to me. I loved that old hotel.
BP: He was another one of those writers of the ’20s, they tried to bury him, too. It was kind of tragic. They managed to bury him, but they didn’t bury his writing.
JF: Yeah, that’s true.
BP: Did you ever meet Faulkner?
JF: Oh yeah, he was a good friend of mine.
BP: Really? Do you have letters from him, too?
JF: No, no.
BP: You could publish a book of your correspondence, along with the other things.
JF: I never wrote to Bill and he never wrote to me. But I used to meet him at Musso & Frank’s and we used to go out and get drunk together, he and I and a guy by the name of Al Bezzerides.
BP: What was Faulkner like?
JF: He was a nice man. Distinguished. Southern gentleman. Very kind. Giving. Low-key wit.
BP: Sharp sense of humor.
JF: Yeah. Charming guy. I remember he told me one story about himself, speaking of mail. He lived in Oxford, Mississippi – no, Al Bezzerides told me about this, because Al went down to Faulkner’s plantation. In the kitchen in the Faulkner house, there was a huge, 100-gallon barrel, open at the top, and it was full of fan mail, absolutely full of unopened fan mail. Every once in a while, Bill would get very, very drunk and he’d sit down beside the barrel, and if he had a guest there – Al was with him – and he’d say, “Well, I guess I’ll open some mail.” And he’d reach in there and he’d grab the first envelope his hand touched and he’d open it and blow in it, and he’d peer into it and see if there was any money. And if there wasn’t, he’d just toss it aside. He never answered his mail. God, the fun I used to have with him!
BP: He was quite a character out here, I understand.
JF: Oh yes. Bezzerides took care of him. He was working for Warner’s, and there was a clause in his contract that he would be dismissed if he was drunk during that period of the contract, and he was drunk all the time, and Bezzerides used to whisk him in and out of the studio, out of the sight of the window which was Warner’s office. He used to live at the Highland Hotel, and when he was took drunk, Al would take him home to the hotel and put him to bed and hide all the whisky bottles that Bill had there to drink. And he would get up from the bed and go lurching into the bathroom. One time he found a bottle of hair tonic in there. He came around and showed it to Al and said he was going to drink it. Al said, “No, no,” and they fought over the bottle. Faulkner said, “Well, then you’d better get me some whisky.” Bezzerides went out and got him a bottle of whisky just to keep him from drinking the hair tonic. And then every once in a while Bill Faulkner would get so drunk that he’d have to get dried out. Al would take him to a hospital for drunks in town.
BP: You don’t know where that was?
JF: No, I don’t, but the pattern was always the same. They’d give Bill – he’d come staggering into the hospital – they’d give him a glass of orange juice, and he’d drink it down, and he would get drunk all over again.
BP: They used to call those jags.
JF: I think so.
BP: You take water to make you drunker.
JF: Yeah, he was a nice man. He was … When he wrote a screenplay it was something to behold, because he wrote everything. He wrote it like a novel, and when he finished with it, it would be about 350 pages long. And he wrote it for Howard Hawks, the director. Hawks loved him. Everybody at the studio, all the writers, the staff there, knew about what his screenplays were like. They were always trying to get at them just because they were so amused by him. But Hawks would take this manuscript of his and would just pluck out the good parts of it to use in a film.
BP: Didn’t he do The Big Sleep? That was one of Faulkner’s. I’m pretty sure he did.
JF: Was that Faulkner’s? Well, that’s Ray Chandler‘s novel.
BP: Did you do any of that hard-boiled detective stuff?
JF: No, I never did. I never did.
BP: It seems like you could’ve done that beautifully if you’d had a shot at it.
JF: I worked on a gangster story at Warner Bros. and got fired.
BP: What was it like being over there in the writers’ compound? I’ve heard so many stories about it.
JF: It was a lot of fun, it was an awful lot of fun. I was living on Bunker Hill in those days, and one night I met Joel Sayre, who was a New Yorker writer, and he was under contract at Warner Bros. We got drunk together, and he asked me what I was doing, and I said I wasn’t doing anything, I needed a job. He said, “Well, I’ll take care of that, John.” A week later, I got a phone call from him and he told me to come out to Warners. I went out there and he introduced me to a producer by the name of Bob Lord. Bob Lord assigned me to collaborate with Joel, so we had adjacent offices and we were going to do a gangster story for Edward G. Robinson about racketeering in the olive oil business in New York.
BP: Oh, jeez.
JF: In any case, I went into that office, and I just was on fire because I was determined to make good. I’d failed so many times, and this time I really wanted to make a success of it. So I sat at the desk and I wrote a treatment, and I worked all day, eight hours I wrote, the manuscript kept piling up and piling up. Sayre would come in at the end of the day and he’d say, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “I’m writing this treatment, I want you to read it.” He said, “No, no, no, no, don’t write anything. Just let me handle it. You don’t have to do anything. Just sit there and get your money.” I just simply could not do that. I didn’t feel any compunction about taking the money or anything like that. I felt that someone should read my stuff, and I didn’t dare go over Joel’s head and give it to Bob Lord and let him read it, so I just continued to write. Finally, it got so bad that I’d go in to see Joel, and he was in there playing poker with three or four other writers, and that’s what they did all afternoon, was play poker. I’d call him aside and say, “Don’t you think we ought to see Lord and tell him what we’ve got? We’re gonna get fired.” He’d say, “Don’t worry. Stop worrying about it, I’ll take care of it.” Then Lord called him up one day into his office and asked him what he had to show for five weeks on the script. He wanted to see how we were getting along, and Joel told him, “I haven’t written anything.” Instantly, Lord fired him, just fired him out of hand. Then the next thing I knew, Lord was standing at the door of my office. He just opened it, stuck his head in and said “John you’re fired!”
BP: You had no recourse at all?
JF: No recourse at all. I had this big pile of manuscript. I just lifted it up and threw it in the wastebasket.
BP: I guess it was a really crazy business, wasn’t it?
JF: Oh God, was it.
BP: How serious was Nathanael West about doing his scripts?
JF: He was cynical, very cynical. He wouldn’t talk about it. He was quiet, a bit tall and –
BP: He’s sort of a sad guy. Whenever I read West, in spite of the fact that he’s terribly funny, he always moves me to tears in some ways. I’m very much of a cynic myself. If anyone ever calls me that, I’m flattered. I know where he was coming from. What you mentioned, which I also think is his greatest book, Cool Million, to me that is the best book that was ever written about the Depression. Great.
JF: He was a very melancholy fellow, and you had to listen very carefully to realize that beneath this gloom that he was pouring at you, there was a streak of the most diabolical humor, you couldn’t imagine.
BP: I wonder if he read Nietzsche, too. I never saw anything of that in him, but –
JF: I wouldn’t be surprised. He came to town with Miss Lonelyhearts. Remember that novel?
BP: Oh sure. Well, there’s only four. I’ve read everything I could find about him, including his stories, which by the way are not very good. He wasn’t a short story writer.
JF: Let’s see. Which one – they made a movie out of one of –
BP: Day of the Locust.
JF: Day of the Locust. That was a colossal failure.
BP: I didn’t think so.
JF: Did you like it? The picture?
BP: I thought it was pretty damn good.
JF: Who was in that?
BP: That blond girl, Karen Black. I don’t remember any of the others, but I sure as hell remember that last scene. God, that was incredible. Did you see the film?
BP: To me – the critics didn’t like it, but I never listen to the critics any more at all, because half the time they don’t know what they’re doing. I thought they handled that beautifully. Burgess Meredith played the father of the girl. He was tremendous, a drunken old guy who went around the hills selling patent medicine. Just tremendous. There were some things, I’ll tell you, John, I thought it was really a great movie. To me, it was a great tribute to West. I really felt that the people who did that knew what he was doing and they really tried in every way they could to present a fair rendition of his novel.
JF: Well, that’s nice. I’m glad to hear that.
BP: I don’t know, the other books, I think they did do a film of Miss Lonelyhearts somewhere along the way.
JF: They did Miss Lonelyhearts. I saw it. Paul Muni was in it.
BP: Of course. Well, The Dream Life of…, there was no way they could do that one. That’s about the guy wandering around inside the Trojan Horse. Then the other one was Cool Million.
JF: Cool Million would be – well, you could do it.
BP: You couldn’t capture the flavor. It’s Voltaire.
JF: Yeah, Lemuel –
BP: Pitkin, the dismembering of Lemuel Pitkin. When you worked with him, was he nearby? Did you guys all habitat in the same place?
JF: You mean Nat?
BP: I meant when you had your offices.
JF: It was the Writers’ Building. It was a two-story building. There was an outside balcony and all the offices upstairs – I would say 30 of them – were writers. A lot of great writers.
BP: Were you around when they wrote Casablanca?
JF: Yeah, I was around.
BP: Were you in touch with the guys who wrote it?
JF: Well, I knew the Epstein brothers. But I didn’t expect them to write such a fine screenplay.
BP: It was a remarkable thing. Partly I guess the acting helped considerably. When you have a cast like that, you can’t lose. Do you know a guy by the name of Daniel Fuchs?
JF: Oh yeah, I know Danny.
BP: He’s still alive. He lives over in Beverly Hills.
JF: He lives in Beverly Hills.
BP: Yeah, he has not a big house, but a medium-sized house over there, on the wrong side of the tracks. I talked to him once about five years ago when I was doing something on Fitzgerald. He seemed real annoyed. He said, “I never knew Fitzgerald, never wanted to know him.”
JF: He’s a very dour fellow.
BP: Is he? Yeah, he seemed to be. I liked his novels. He wrote this trilogy of novels. They brought them back, I don’t know, about ten years ago. They weren’t very successful. They were tied into that whole Jewish renaissance.
JF: He had an office next to mine at Fox. [Lights a cigarette] He got into the habit of picking me up at lunch time. Then we’d step outside, I thought we were going to go to the commissary and eat, and he’d say, “Let’s take a walk first,” and we’d start walking, and that guy could walk your ass off. I got so that I was ducking him all the time. I’d go out the other door so that he wouldn’t catch me and make me take a walk. But he was a sour guy.
BP: I guess he still is. I never met him, but as I said, I talked to him a couple of times on the phone, and he seemed very put out by the whole thing.
JF: I don’t think he’s worked in years.
BP: I really don’t know. I know that about five years ago he issued a novel called West of the Rockies.
JF: Oh, did he?
BP: Which had pretty decent critical evaluations, but no real sales. It wasn’t a very interesting book. I think the books he wrote in the ’30s were damned good, those three books.
JF: What was West of the Rockies about? A writer in the West?
BP: It was basically about the movie business, working in the movie business, that kind of thing.
BP: You might look at it. You might find yourself in there, I can’t tell, I don’t know. But it was a novel. It didn’t hold my interest very much. He did write some things about Nathanael West, I know that.
JF: Yeah, I think they were good friends.
BP: Anyway, I was working on something related to West, I wanted to check some facts that I thought were erroneous, and they were erroneous. Somebody had mentioned that he was a great friend of Fitzgerald, and he said, “I’d never met Fitzgerald.” That was a lot of crap, he’d never met him once in his life. You know the way these stories get around.
JF: Danny wrote a lot of stuff for the New Yorker.
BP: He did? I didn’t know that.
JF: Yeah, short stories.
BP: I guess when he was in the film industry, he was pretty hot there for a while.
JF: Yeah. Yeah.
BP: But I don’t think he’s done anything in films for maybe 20 years.
JF: That’s right. That’s right. You wonder how in the hell he lives. Maybe he was a rich guy when he came in the business.
BP: I don’t think so. Maybe he made so much – he might’ve made so much in the business that he lived off that.
JF: I doubt it.
BP: I don’t think he had money when he went in. At least if the book is true about his family, he certainly didn’t. That’s rather a good book. I was rather surprised when I read it.
JF: That’s West of the Rockies?
BP: No, not that. That was –
JF: Williamsport or Williamsburg?
BP: Yeah, the book he wrote about Brooklyn. They were very hysterical, sort of neurotic and crazy like a lot of the Jewish writing is, in my opinion. But there were things there that I thought were very funny.
JF: What do you think of the writings of the guy that won the Nobel Prize last year?
BP: Oh, I think he’s terrible. To me, he’s one of the worst writers. You mean Saul Bellow?
JF: Yeah, Saul Bellow.
BP: I think he’s a horrible writer. I couldn’t understand how they could give him the Nobel Prize.
JF: I think he’s dull. I just wondered whether you concurred.
BP: I think I sat down about eight times with Augie March and I couldn’t get beyond the first 15 pages. I tell you one thing that Bukowski definitely learned from your work, and that is to keep the chapters short. I don’t know where you picked that up, but that is a technique that’s stuck with me, too. I’ve learned – I’ve written a couple of novels, none of which have been published, but I have learned that if you write long chapters, they’ve got to be absolutely brilliant. Otherwise, the audience is going to go to sleep.
BP: If you check Factotum – Joyce will show you when she reads some of it to you – the chapters are short. You have elements of that kind of style that you came out with in both of those novels, the Bandini book and Ask the Dust.
JF: The reason that I did that is that one day I discovered that if you open a novel, let’s say, and the chapters – the paragraphs – are short, and there are many breaks within the text, and you appeal to the eye before the eye gets to the subject and begins to read it, you get a much more interesting presentation than to crowd it all together without any break in the paragraphs and long, endless chapters. Somehow or other, they work against the eye appeal.
BP: Yeah, I think only the most boring idiots will read a book like that, where the thing is very long. There’s got to be something wrong with them. I don’t know.
JF: Irving Wallace will do that sometimes. God, he will write endlessly.
BP: Oh, well, he’s a terrible writer, in my opinion. You don’t have to say a thing, but I think he’s a terrible writer.
JF: Well, I do, too. He’s a sweet guy, but –
BP: You know – Knut Hamsun again – some of his books, he did use short chapters. The one he wrote, Pan, I don’t know if you ever read it –
JF: God yes, Pan is probably my favorite novel.
BP: That’s got clipped, beautiful, sort of erotic and lovely chapters.
JF: And Victoria.
BP: What was the thing about Hamsun? Did you talk about him and then people said you’re not allowed to like him, or what? I’ve very interested, because when you talked about Bukowski, you said he should write a book about being persecuted, and I had a feeling you might have had the same problem. Did you ever write about Hamsun at all?
JF: I only used him where you saw it in Ask the Dust. That was the only time that I mentioned him, but I guess that’s enough.
BP: What happened?
JF: [Pause] Well, one night at a Guild meeting, there was a strike vote or something like that. It had something to do with the labor problem. I aligned myself with – the thing that happened was as follows. There was an extreme left sector of the Writers Guild that voted to go out on strike and I voted with them to go out on strike. And then suddenly a meeting was called and the same guys who voted to go out on strike were appealed to and asked to vote against it and repudiate it because they should not go out on strike. And they did. The vote carried and they repudiated the previous vote. It just stunned me. Some of the real Trotskyite guys in the Guild – you know what I mean by that?
BP: Yeah, I know what Trotskyites are. Can you name some of them?
JF: Well, let’s see. I have to think of these guys.
BP: I don’t know what Trumbo was.
JF: No, I don’t think Dalton was. But… I can’t think of this guy’s name. But as we walked out of that meeting, he passed me and he said, “You fucking Fascist.” I couldn’t understand why he said that to me. It was Lester Cole – Lester Cole. I liked him and I thought we were friends. Then he let go with that diatribe, and I could never understand why he said that about me. I kept scanning my career and wondering where he could’ve gotten it, and then I remember the reference to Hamsun in my novel, and I thought well, maybe that’s why he did it. Because you know Hamsun was notorious among the literati as the guy who told the Norwegians not to fight the Nazis. He said let them come in; what the hell’s the difference?
BP: Of course, he was 83 when he said that.
JF: But his son, you know, was a Golighter [sic] in Norway. His son was a bad egg. But I didn’t know anything about his son. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know that ol’ Knut was a Nazi. All I remember about Knut was his beautiful prose.
BP: That’s enough. So they held that against you?
JF: I think so. I don’t know.
BP: Did anybody ever mention the Mencken thing? Did they say what are you doing –
JF: Maybe that had something to do with it, and the Eta Piesgarten [sic] thing. God, was I a fan of Mencken’s, and I would mention him at the drop of a hat. He was in my conversation all the time.
BP: Did you ever meet him?
JF: I never met Mencken.
BP: That’s a shame. It wouldn’t been great. But I know what things were like in the ’40s because I’ve read his letters, and I know very well that they were on his back all the time, especially the Stalinists. And one of the things he said was, “Look, you guys, back in the ’30s when you were having a helluva time getting published, I defended you, your right to freedom of the press, and now you’re saying that he can’t write and she can’t write and you’re not allowed to publish him.” That’s one of the things that always interested me about that era.
JF: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.
BP: Did you find that you had trouble publishing stories at that time, or weren’t you writing? I’m talking about early war years.
JF: No. As a matter of fact, I had no trouble getting into print. You know, I would come to slack periods where I wouldn’t sell anything for six months, but I was – you know, if I had applied myself and just stayed to the business of writing short stories all the time, I would’ve had a big market, because I got into the Post and I wrote one of the best stories ever published there.
BP: Which one was that?
JF: One called ‘Helen, Thy Beauty Is to Me.’ Did you read that story?
BP: I’m not sure.
JF: It’s about a Filipino boy.
BP: I don’t think I did. Is that in Dago Red?
BP: I haven’t read it, then.
Joyce Fante: You must read it. It’s a great short story.
BP: Maybe you could send me a copy of it. I don’t know if you have facilities to Xerox around here.
Joyce Fante: Yes, I do. There’s a Xerox machine right up here.
BP: I would appreciate that. I’ll reimburse you for it.
John Fante: I sold that damn story to Phil Yordan. I met him one day and I was busted, and he said, “You want to sell that short story?” I said, “How much will you give me?” He said, “I’ll give you 2500 dollars.” I made a deal with him right there.
BP: You mean the film rights of it?
JF: Sold everything outright. God, I wish I had that story.
BP: You know, he may have lost the rights to it by now.
JF: It’s possible.
BP: When was it published?
JF: It was published in about 1941.
BP: Yeah, the rights, they should’ve reverted to you by now. I think it’s 25 years is the full extent that you can buy. You can’t buy something outright forever.
JF: But you can renew the copyright.
BP: I don’t know. I don’t think you can renew the copyright without the permission of the author. Is he still alive?
JF: I don’t know where Phil is. He was in Spain the last I heard.
BP: It might be worth investigating. I’m so amazed – God, the agency, it seems like they did nothing for you.
JF: Well, they renewed the copyrights on all of my books.
BP: That’s good.
JF: What’s that woman’s name in that office?
BP: You mean Shirley Fisher?
JF: Yeah, Shirley Fisher, she did that. That’s a simple procedure.
BP: Yeah, that’s just a legal thing where they fill out a form and send it to Washington or something.
Joyce Fante: Easy to forget, though.
BP: That’s true. And once you do forget it, you lose something. That’s probable, that he’s neglected it or forgotten –
John Fante: I think so. Uh, excuse me, Ben, because I want to ask my wife something. What did the lawyer say, honey?
Joyce Fante: He said a lawyer from the Roseville District Judicial Court was probably in Small Claims Court, because anything over $5,000 would fall into another district. Ben, do you know where you’re going?
Joyce Fante: So he said pick it up. I explained why I hadn’t paid my half of her expenses, because she had sued in Small Claims Court…
John Fante: Is there any more coffee left? Give Ben some more coffee.
BP: I wanted to ask you something else. Bukowski writes when he drinks a lot. Did you do that?
JF: No, I can’t do that.
BP: That’s funny. It seems to be two schools – one group of writers who can write when they’re absolutely plastered and one who can’t write at all when they drink.
JF: I really – well, of course there’s a lot of writers who were drunks, so I can’t say that it’s impossible. To me, it’s an achievement that I don’t understand.
BP: I know Fitzgerald always said that he was sober when he wrote, but I doubt that. I really don’t believe it.
JF: Oh no, he was a souse. He had to have something to get up in the morning.
BP: Right. There was never a time when he was sober except for the last couple years of his life when he really was, because he was so sick he had to be.
JF: What killed Scott Fitzgerald?
BP: Well, there were a lot of different things. I really take him at his word. I think he had tuberculosis and that’s what killed him. He died of a heart attack, but I think the tuberculosis weakened him. He always said that he had that. No one ever believed him. But Sheila Graham, who really was a very good friend of his, besides being his mistress, always said that story was true. She believed it, and I believe it, too.
Joyce Fante: [setting down coffee] Fitzgerald?
BP: Yeah. One of my small projects is to get a little plaque put on the building, I think I mentioned that, where he died. It’s the last place he lived. It’s still in Hollywood. You know, I think it’s terrible that one of our greatest novelists – you know, I spent a lot of time in Europe and I like what they do, the fact that they celebrate that these guys were here.
John Fante: Yeah. Where did Fitzgerald die?
BP: The last place was on Laurel, right around the corner from Schwab’s Drug Store, 609 North Laurel, which is about a half block down from Schwab’s. You know where that is?
JF: You mean Laurel Canyon Boulevard?
BP: No, it’s Laurel. If you go south, you make a right turn. It’s on a street called Laurel.
JF: Oh yes, it’s a short street, isn’t it? Doesn’t Hollywood Boulevard tail off? Isn’t it a left turn off Hollywood Boulevard?
BP: No, it’s a right turn off Sunset if you’re heading east. You’re going east, you go just beyond Schwab’s Drug Store, you make a right turn down Laurel, and it’s a half block down.
JF: I see, behind Schwab’s.
BP: Right. He used to go there. He’d go take a walk every morning to buy cigarettes at the drug store. The book that she wrote – from what I can see, I’ve done a little research on it – it’s pretty accurate, Sheila Graham. And I think that one of the tributes to that book is the fact that Edmund Wilson thought it was pretty honest, too, and I think that’s a good test because he was pretty smart and he knew a helluva lot about Fitzgerald. He went to Princeton with him and was his friend all his life when most of the other people turned their back. He never gave up, along with Perkins. But I don’t know, I talked to Seidenbaum about that and he said, “Oh yeah, it’s a great idea, but I don’t like plaques. I don’t think they’re good.” So what’re you going to do?
Joyce Fante: I think that would be very meaningful to a lot of people.
BP: He told me, he said, “You get Budd Schulberg to come out here, and we’ll do it.” He wants to make a promotion out of it. I don’t want to make a promotion out of it. You know, Schulberg wrote The Disenchanted about Fitzgerald.
John Fante: Yeah. I heard – My son has a friend who was a drunk and they took him to a hospital to dry out, and in this alcoholic ward, the next bed from my son’s friend, was Budd Schulberg.
BP: No kidding. Jesus Christ, I didn’t know that. I guess he took Fitzgerald seriously.
JF: That was just two weeks ago.
BP: Really? Oh my God. Out here, huh?
JF: Yeah. So I didn’t know Budd was a drunk.
BP: Well, that’s a very beautiful book he wrote. It’s a beautiful tribute to Fitzgerald, and I’m sure that if Fitzgerald read that – of course, he died and it came out after he died – he would’ve been very pleased with that book. It would’ve rankled him in a couple of ways, but it was a book written with a great deal of fondness, and it was the best thing Schulberg ever did. I doubt he’ll ever do anything as good. I don’t know if you ever read it.
JF: I never read The Disenchanted. I read What Makes Sammy Run, which I think is a good book.
BP: It was a very amusing book. I run into so many people like that, like Sammy Glick, especially working for newspapers.
Joyce Fante: I brought out the Mencken letters. I’ll Xerox them.
BP: That would be wonderful.
Joyce Fante: It’s quite a stack of them.
BP: That is amazing. What did you think of Mencken as a man?
John Fante: Oh, I liked him very much.
BP: He’s sort of the saving angel in your book. He keeps coming – you get into disastrous straits, then there’s another letter and a check, and he doesn’t even know what’s going on.
Joyce Fante: When we were married, he wrote to me a letter with a black border sending me his condolences because I had married a writer. [Laughs] Do you remember that?
John Fante: Yeah. Do you still have that letter?
Joyce Fante: No. Unfortunately, I don’t.
BP: Well, you know, I’m almost certain that these could be republished without any problem at all. It’s just a matter of how to do it. You don’t know if any of the letters you wrote to him would be on file with his archives?
John Fante: I don’t know.
BP: It would make a fascinating book, a young writer establishing his career.
JF: Yeah, it would. But I’m sure Mencken didn’t save my letters.
BP: I’m not positive about that. He was pretty scrupulous about that kind of stuff. Did he go to bat for you in terms of publishing a novel when you went to Knopf?
JF: Yes, he did.
BP: That was a fine group. There was another guy before him – I’ll tell you, I shouldn’t say that. There was another critic whose work – but there was a guy before him, Huneker. Remember him?
JF: Oh yeah, James Huneker.
BP: Right, right. He was also that kind of critic who went to bat for people he believed in.
JF: Mencken admired him. Mencken admired Huneker.
BP: Yeah. Huneker published a pornographic novel somewhere along the way.
JF: He did? Oh, and another guy that Mencken liked very much and I couldn’t stand him was a guy by the name of Joseph Hergesheimer.
BP: Oh yeah. I came equipped today. I’ve got another tape, if you don’t mind talking a little more. I don’t know anything about his work. You remember a guy by the name of Paul Rosenfeld?
JF: Yeah, he was a music critic. Another guy I didn’t care for at all was Nathan.
BP: I always wondered what he was like. They just had something on him on television last night called The Bishop’s Wife, which was sort of a film classic. They always show it around Christmas time.
JF: By George Jean Nathan?
BP: Yeah, he wrote that.
JF: Once I wrote the first act of a play, and I was so unsure of continuing it that I decided I would send it to Nathan, and he sent it right back and told me – I remember the phrase – “Put it behind the clock.” And I think he also said to stick to fiction.
BP: Did you ever do any essays, criticism?
BP: What do you think of the book Full of Life? Would you call that fiction or non-fiction, or what? It’s always stuck in the non-fiction section.
JF: It shouldn’t be.
BP: It’s a Bandini book.
JF: It’s based on a germ of truth, but I don’t know, you’d have to call it non-fiction.
Joyce Fante: I think it was published as non-fiction.
BP: I know in the libraries – as I say, I have a copy of it which I liberated from the library, I paid for it, but that was the only way I was going to get it – in the library it’s always listed as non-fiction.
Joyce Fante: I recall it was published a non-fiction, I can’t remember why, though. They thought it would sell better.
John Fante: Yeah, that was it.
BP: And it did sell pretty well?
JF: Yeah, it sold pretty well. Well, I don’t know how well it sold, but I tell you, I got an awful lot of money out of that little book. I got about $150,000 – sale to pictures and reprint rights and paperback, Reader’s Digest. And then I went to work on the screenplay. So I picked up a lot of money from that book.
BP: It’s like a bridge from your early work to the book you just finished. Because I would think that a person reading Brotherhood of the Grape could go right back to that book and put it together and find a lot of parallel, or find a lot of what begins in Full of Life that comes to a conclusion in Brotherhood.
BP: Would you say that was misconstrued?
JF: No, I think that’s accurate enough.
BP: I could start with Bandini and go all the way through, as I say.
JF: Well, you’ve got some very elaborate plans, Ben. Take a baby step, as they say on the radio.
BP: I’m just thinking of how the books fit together, that’s all.
Joyce Fante: Maybe they could be published in a set.
BP: Well, that’s what I was thinking. I talked to John about that. Of course, I think the basic thing is to stick with Ask the Dust first. Then after that we’ll see what will happen.
Joyce Fante: What did you think of the section in Brotherhood of the Grape about his early life as a writer, the crab episode? [laughs]
BP: Well, that brought me right back to some of the things in Ask the Dust.
Joyce Fante: Yes, yes, it fits right into Ask the Dust.
BP: I think the four books run parallel, and then also I suppose the stories themselves. But I think the four novels themselves are a fine chronology. Of course, Ask the Dust is really not in that – it’s really not in with the other three, it’s just Arturo, but there are endless references to that kind of fellow. I’m a great fan of that kind of writing. My two favorite French writers are Zola and Balzac. The idea of writing this massive series, even though a lot of time they’re pretty boring, there’s something about doing this whole body of work. Faulkner, of course, did that, too.
John Fante: I haven’t read anything of Emile Zola’s in, God, so many years.
BP: I haven’t either, to tell you the truth. But as a kid, I read almost everything, everything I could get in translation, and almost all of them were translated.
BP: Yeah. Well, that’s his masterpiece, you can pick that up today. Books like Germinal are tough to go through, pages that are not too exciting, a lot of dull things in there. He wrote one book about the stock market that was incredible. Have you read a book called The Myth of Sisyphus?
JF: Oh yeah, that’s by Camus.
BP: He’s another great writer. He was a very destructive influence on my life when I was young.
JF: He was?
BP: Camus to me was a very suicidal character. I got that way myself when I read a couple of his books. Talk about depression. I was a 21 year-old loaded bomb for a while there, running around. But they are powerful books. There’s a story about a guy in Santa Monica who read The Stranger, went down to the beach, the Santa Monica beach, and shot a guy in the head. They brought him into court and said, “Why’d you do that?” He said, “Well, I did that because I read The Stranger. I never met the guy before. I wanted to see what it felt like.”
BP: I’ve done some teaching in my time, so there are some books that I’m always a little worried about, because I think they’re really dangerous. Some of Camus’ books are dangerous. You have to put them in the right hands, especially for a young person. I’ve known people when I was a kid back in the ’50s, the late ’50s, who were destroyed by Camus’ work, because they were so powerful and the times were right to read them. He wrote another book called Rebellion, Resistance and Death that was also very powerful.
Joyce Fante: What other books would you say were dangerous for young people?
BP: I don’t know. That’s a complicated question. I think Goethe‘s The Sorrows of Werther is another book that’s very dangerous because it’s a book –
John Fante: That’s a famous book for that reason, it had such a bad influence on youth. It caused a wave of suicides in Europe.
BP: Well, Camus, I have the same feeling. I know for a fact a number of people who were destroyed by a couple of his books, especially The Stranger, because they were capable of understanding what he was really saying. I think they came to a kind of nihilistic awareness of life; they saw nothing of any value at all. That was the end, when they came to that realization that there was nothing there for him. I think he says in the first paragraph of The Myth of Sisyphus that sooner or later, man has got to realize that he must live or else he must commit suicide. Yeah, he said that in that book that suicide is the fundamental question of philosophy in the 20th century. That’s the way he put it. See, now for a young kid at 21, especially when he respects a guy like Camus, which I think a number of writers and young people who are interested in literature do, that’s a very tough thing to get around.
JF: You know, that reminds me of something that’s very contemporary. That’s the kind of book that Jimmy Jones would read.
BP: Yeah, I think so. You mean the guy who wrote From Here to Eternity?
JF: No, I thinking of the guy who committed all of those suicide-murders in Guinea.
BP: Oh, oh, oh. That’s probably true, I would imagine he would. I guess one of the problems of the whole Existentialist thing is the question of whether you’re going to exist or not. It’s a 50/50 thing. All those guys would say, Sartre and Camus and the others, that sure, we’re going to exist, and they did exist. But when you give an argument that’s so weighted, that’s got such a double-edged sword to it, a lot of people are going to take the other side. They’re going to say, “Well, you didn’t convince me.”
Joyce Fante: Young people are prone to suicide.
BP: I think when they’re sensitive, when they see the things that are happening in the world, and they realize they can do nothing about them. One of the nicest guys I ever met, who was the best man at my wedding, he was a minister, a really beautiful person who tried to help the world, because of a couple of reversals, committed suicide. He had two kids and a wife. I always tried to figure out why. He was a great fan of Camus’, as a matter of fact.
John Fante: Do you remember a film called La Dolce Vita?
BP: Oh yes, I saw that.
JF: Do you remember the suicide in that? This guy was a good friend of Marcello Mastroianni, and in the film Mastroianni gets the news that the man has committed suicide, and he had everything to live for –
BP: Oh, I do remember that scene. That’s right, it was the guy with the German name.
JF: Yeah, yeah.
BP: And they show him in the bedroom with his children.
JF: Yeah, yeah.
BP: That was a strange time, after the war, let’s say 1946, ’47. You were living in the Wilshire District? You wrote about that – the house was falling apart; I assume that was the house.
Joyce Fante: Yes.
BP: What was it like, working then? Were you getting a lot of film work, or was that a rough time?
John Fante: Oh no, I got all the work I needed.
BP: Do you remember some of the things you were doing?
JF: Well, I worked for Orson Welles for a number of months. And I worked at Warners, I worked at RKO, I worked at Paramount.
BP: You worked at RKO when Hughes was there?
JF: Yeah – no, no. Hughes bought it after I left. It was right in that time.
BP: You know that was the old studio that Mabel Normand used. You know that?
JF: Yeah. I had an amusing story about that time. A writer friend of mine named Frank Fenton was hired by Howard Hughes, and Hughes wanted a scene at 10:00 at night at the studio. And Frank went over there, and he was wearing tennis shoes, but he didn’t bother to change because it was too much of a bother. And he went up to Hughes’ office. Hughes was sitting at his desk, he had a secretary and everything. He only came to work at 10:00 and he worked until 3 or 4. And Frank walked in there with his tennis shoes on, Hughes got up to shake hands with him, and Frank noticed that Hughes had tennis shoes on, too. And Hughes excused himself and disappeared into the bathroom. When he came out five minutes later he had taken off his tennis shoes and was wearing another pair of shoes. [laughs]
BP: When the blacklisting came, how did that affect you?
JF: Well, it annoyed me and it left me very unhappy, because I discovered that the trade unionism that I hoped for in the Guild was bisected by the politics of the day, the Trotskyites versus the Stalinists. And I was – these guys were fighting that battle and all the time I was naive, hoping for the best terms of the trade union, so they fooled me. And they also – they solicited funds from me for the strike, and I gave a few bucks, which was all right. But when I discovered that I was supporting the Trotskyites, these naysayers in that group –
BP: They were a rough bunch.
JF: But I’ll tell you, I found out later, and I didn’t even know this, that if I hadn’t cooperated with these guys, I wouldn’t have been working.
BP: Did you ever know Odets or Lillian Hellman?
JF: I knew Clifford Odets, yeah.
BP: What kind of a guy was he?
JF: He was a nice man.
BP: Politically, were you aware of his affiliations? Stalinist or Trotskyite?
JF: I don’t know where he was politically. I never talked to him about politics. He bought a story of mine for a television series that he was editing. Richard Boone was the master of ceremonies.
BP: Back in the ’50s?
BP: I imagine he had a tough time because of all that stuff.
JF: I don’t know much about it.
BP: I don’t know politically what he was either, but I know that he was used by the Stalinists especially during the ’30s, when he did Waiting for Lefty. Did your father have views about trade unionism? Was he interested at all?
JF: Oh yeah, my father was a strong and blind to all else.
BP: Did he have any ties to the Socialists in Italy?
JF: He just felt that the trade union was good and that it was something he should attach himself to.
BP: So that was his left identification?
JF: Yeah, yeah. Of course, he was always a Democrat and he was always anti-Fascist. Got into some fights with some Italian Fascists in Roseville. Every Italian community had a little segment of Fascists – they weren’t Fascists, they were just patriots, you know; they wanted the best for Italy.
BP: They were probably Fascists. [laughs]
JF: Probably, yeah.
BP: Your father liked this country, though, I guess.
JF: I don’t know whether he did or not. I think he was disenchanted as he got older, because all he did was work until he dropped.
BP: Did you ever see the film – we mentioned it the last time I was here, I think – it takes place in New York, the guy starts out in Texas – Midnight Cowboy?
BP: Did you identify at all with that Italian kid when he says about his father that he worked all his life, he had to shine shoes, he wasn’t going to do that any more – the part that Dustin Hoffman played?
JF: No, I didn’t identify with him, although that character moved me.
BP: Your father took pride in his work, though, didn’t he?
JF: Oh yes, he did.
BP: It’s an odd thing, about bricklaying. It’s a beautiful thing, and when you’re finished with it, if you do it right, it stands there.
JF: Yeah, he did a lot of fine things. And he was a stickler for perfection. A hard man to work for for that reason.
BP: You’ll notice in that review I wrote, one of the things that bothered me a lot about that particular book – this is a book, John, that I reviewed for the Times – was the attitude that the guy had toward his father. He had no empathy or feeling for him whatsoever. I just can’t understand it.
Joyce Fante: John always had great love and admiration for his father, along with, I think, a little bit of anger.
BP: Yeah. Well, there’s always room for that. But the love comes through, that’s for sure.
John Fante: The only thing about my father’s life that angered me and still upsets me was the way he treated my mother. He was very abusive. Cruel. And cold.
BP: When did your father die?
JF: He died around 1950.
Joyce Fante: Yes, he died right after Jimmy was born – five days later.
BP: And your mother?
John Fante: She died… ten years ago?
Joyce Fante: 1963.
BP: And that was both of them, up there in northern California?
John Fante: No, my mother died here.
BP: What was it that got them out of Boulder?
JF: Well, it was just the position of my mother’s relatives. She had to leave Boulder because my father took up with a woman and left town, and she didn’t know where he was, and there she was, straddled with four children and herself and no money. So she had some brothers out here; we came out here.
BP: I see.
JF: And lived in Wilmington.
BP: What about your brothers?
JF: Let’s see, my oldest brother lives in Roseville now.
BP: Is that an accurate picture of them in the last novel?
JF: Somewhat. Mario? Yeah, that’s something like him. And then my brother Tom is an extremely successful man, one of the vice presidents of Southern Pacific. He’s about to retire. I talked to him yesterday. He just got back from Taiwan. He’s about to retire, and they called him in, and even though he’s going to be retired, they want him to stay with the company. And they told him that he could have any job he wanted, any position he wanted, and at any salary.
BP: What do your brothers feel about your books?
JF: They’re pretty much noncommittal.
BP: Joyce, what is your background?
Joyce Fante: Well, you read The Brotherhood of the Grape. [laughs] What shall I say about my background? I went to Stanford, and my mother and father were Anglo-Protestant stock. My family came –
John Fante: She’s really kind of a remarkable thing in this day and age, because she’s about a sixth generation native Californian.
BP: Yeah, that’s remarkable.
Joyce Fante: Well, my grandparents came out in [inaudible] and my father went into the lumber business, settled in Roseville [inaudible], and he died when I was about 17. And my mother was much more rigid kind of personality than my father, and she was quite alarmed when I met John and uneasy about his background. And she wasn’t quite as bad as the woman in Brotherhood of the Grape, but she gave us a lot of trouble. My whole family gave us a lot of trouble. I really don’t understand it to this day. But she was a frightened lady. She was in her late 60s and very nervous about what was going to happen to her daughter. [Inaudible]
BP: How did they get along, John, your family and Joyce’s family?
John Fante: They didn’t speak. Her family was dead when I met Joyce. But I had a rough go of it with my mother-in-law. We didn’t get along.
BP: Did she doubt your abilities?
JF: No, she just didn’t trust Italians, didn’t trust them at all. That was all right, I didn’t trust Germans.
[Joyce and Ben laugh]
Joyce Fante: Well, actually, before she died, all of this was made up, and we lived with her for a time. It all worked out with my mother. All the rest of my relatives [inaudible].
BP: Black sheep. What was the roughest time after you got married in terms of your career?
John Fante: Well, it was immediately after we got married. When we decided to get married, we wanted to get married in Reno, because that was the quickest way to get married, and I had to borrow $10 to take us to Reno in my wife’s car. That’s how poor we were. We got married, and then I stayed in town for a couple of weeks, and then I got some money from my mother and I came down here and I lived with a friend for a year, trying to put things together so that my wife could come down. And then she came down, and she got a job on the Writers Project, and she made $90 a month.
Joyce Fante: Ninety-four.
BP: What year was that?
Joyce Fante: ’38.
John Fante: And that’s how we lived. We had a lovely apartment for $21 a month.
BP: Where was that?
John Fante: That was on New Hampshire Street in Los Angeles. That’s where I wrote Wait Until Spring.
Joyce Fante: I was a poet, a published poet. That’s how I happened to become interested in John’s work. I read his work and admired it greatly, a short story. And I learned that we had a mutual acquaintance which happened to be a relative of mine, and she introduced us because I wanted to talk to him about his work.
BP: What were some of the poems, and where did you publish them?
Joyce Fante: I published one in American Mercury, and Ladies’ Home Companion – at least they bought one, I don’t know if they published one. I was the poet of the month at [inaudible]. Before that, I worked at a magazine in San Francisco.
BP: So you might obviously have helped John in terms of occasional editing, typing?
Joyce Fante: I was an editor at the Bureau of Stanford writing, and very active in campus writing. So I had a background in criticism.
BP: Did you ever know a woman by the name of Peggy Harford? She also worked at Stanford. She’s a woman I know who would be just about your age who also was at Stanford and was active in writing. Might’ve been a couple of years after. She’s at the L.A. Times now.
Joyce Fante: I graduated in ’35.
BP: Oh, she would’ve been after you.
Joyce Fante: Jimmy Sandall [sic], he’s a critic. Eleanor Harris, who wrote a great many articles and married into [inaudible].
John Fante: What is that guy’s name?
Joyce Fante: Clifton Fadiman. I haven’t seen any of those people for years, but I still have many friendships from Stanford. Are you through with your tape?
[December 18 1978]
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: Thursday, April 8th, 2010.