The Dust & Fog of L.A.’s Streets: The John Fante Tapes [One]
By Ben Pleasants.
From December 12, 1978, until the last month of John Fante’s life, I did a series of six tape recordings discussing a wide variety of subjects. Snippets have appeared in book form and in articles, but the entire manuscript, put together by Frank Spotnitz for a documentary film he never finished, has been unavailable to the public.
Recently, Beat Scene published a tiny section of the second tape, which makes what I did seem like something of no importance. Kevin Ring never sent me the text they had assembled until it was in print. It was a complete waste of time.
Since I have already dealt with a group of gangster academics who did the same thing years ago, I have decided to release all of the tapes, both in written and audio form so the fans of John Fante can get to know him the way I did. My experience with John was a very happy one. I think it was of some importance to his career, but I’ll allow you to decide that for yourselves. Here are the tapes in their entirety. Hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did making them.
Ben Pleasants, 3-10-10, Kona, Hawaii
John Fante: … well received. I had some, really some rave reviews on some of them.
Ben Pleasants: Did Edmund Wilson ever review your books? He was very interested in California writers.
JF: Yes, I know, I’m not in that volume that Edmund Wilson…
BP: The Boys in the Back Room.
BP: That’s why I told Bukowski that I was sure he was wrong – I was positive that you would’ve been in there, but I guess Wilson wrote that before your first book came out.
JF: Or about that time. The man who admires me and has most persistently applauded my writings is Carey McWilliams. Do you know anything about him?
BP: I’ve read some of the things he wrote, I think. Was he a film writer?
JF: No, he was a lawyer. He’s a great critic.
BP: Was he part of what they called the California School back in the ’40s and ’50s? Does he live out here?
JF: No, he lives in New York, he went back there and edited The Nation for 15 years.
BP: Oh, that’s right.
JF: But now he’s left The Nation and I think he’s giving some thought to coming back here.
BP: I just want to read you some of the things that Bukowski said about you.
Joyce Fante: Who is Bukowski?
BP: Well, Bukowski is a curious figure in the sense that he’s famous worldwide, but in the United States his career is very similar to yours, in the sense that a lot of the things he said were extremely tough and hard type writing. He’s considered by many to be a street writer, although he rejected the term, but anyway the French and the Germans published him widely in the last few years. I’ve been a friend of his for 15 years and I’ve written in the L.A. Times about his work and so on and so forth.
Joyce Fante: How old is he?
BP: He’s 58, he was born in 1920. He was born in Andernach, he read your work when he was 20. Anyway, Bukowski was the one who first had me read your stuff. Believe me, it is hard to find it. The L.A. Public Library has put away a lot of your books, so you can get them but you’ve got to go through all kinds of rigamarole. You came originally from Denver?
JF: Yes, I was born in Denver.
BP: And that of course is in Bandini.
JF: Denver may be mentioned in there, but the locale of Bandini is a town called Rocklin, which is a euphemism for Boulder.
BP: Who was the fellow with the white beard, the one who wrote ‘Johnny Got His Gun.’
JF: Oh, Dalton Trumbo.
BP: Did you know him?
JF: I knew Dalton. He’s dead now.
BP: He had cancer. A friend of mine, Jeanette Pepper, who was married to a guy by the name of Pepper, who was a producer back in the ’30s or so, he was a very close friend of Trumbo’s, so I got introduced to him.
JF: He was a nice fella.
BP: When did you start writing films, John?
JF: I started in 1933.
BP: Oh you actually began before the novel.
JF: Yes, I had published some short stories.
BP: Those are all in Dago Red.
JF: Yeah, yeah.
BP: When did you come from Colorado to Los Angeles?
BP: The beginning of the Depression.
JF: Right, although I wasn’t aware of the Depression. To me, whatever condition there was at that time was par for the course. We had no reason to be as poor as we were, but we were poor. My father was spendthrift.
BP: What was his profession?
JF: He was a bricklayer and a contractor.
BP: I remember, especially from Full of Life, that business about how he rebuilt the floor.
BP: Did you have any problems because of your Italian ancestry in Colorado?
JF: I ran into some prejudice in grade school. I went to a Catholic school, and as you know there’s always a nice division of Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics, and there’s always battles. I was very sensitive to being called a wop and a dago. I got into some pretty good fights because of that. I don’t have any more to say on that score except that it suddenly stopped – I wrote a short story called “The Odyssey and the Wop.”
BP: I recall. It’s in Dago Red.
JF: I think so.
BP: Your father moved up to somewhere in northern California for a while, didn’t he?
JF: Yes, he moved up to Roseville. And then my mother came out to southern California where I was living and I got the job in a cannery and so we all moved in together in an apartment in Wilmington. And my mother stayed there with me and my three brothers and sister – with two brothers and a sister – until they effected a reconciliation, she and my father, and she went up to Roseville.
BP: I once did an interview with King Vidor – the guy’s an expert on all kinds of electronics, so he took the tape recorder apart for me. He was quite a fellow. Who were some of the people that you worked with, John, when you came out here and started in the film industry?
JF: In the film industry, well let’s see. I worked with Frank Fenton. He’s now dead. Ross Willis. Who’s now dead. And Joel Sayre, who used to write for the New Yorker, and Robert Lord, one of my producers who is now dead, and Sam Bishoff was my producer, he’s now dead. That just about covers it.
BP: When you started working at the studios, did you have it in the back of your mind to do stories or had you done those before? I mean, short stories.
JF: No, if I had any projection at all it was to make as much money as I could as a screenwriter because the pay was very good.
BP: What got you then from that into prose fiction?
JF: Oh, I suppose it was my failure at writing motion pictures. I just fell back on the only other thing I knew and – but then originally I wrote a short story which was in the American Mercury – Mencken‘s magazine. Yeah, and it was called ‘Altar Boy’ and as a result of this sale, an agent got me a job at Warner Bros. doing the screenplay of an original story that Frank Fenton and I had composed together. He didn’t take Frank but he took me because of what looked like my more mature writing experience.
BP: Did you write for any of the New York magazines of the time?
JF: I only wrote for the American Mercury.
BP: It was pretty hard to get into those magazines, I guess.
JF: Oh boy, it was really tough, yeah.
BP: When you started doing novels, did you have the idea of turning them into films, or were you just concentrating on writing novels?
JF: I think I must’ve been concentrating on writing novels because nobody in his right mind would think of turning Wait Until Spring, Bandini into a screenplay, at that time, at any rate. Now it looks more feasible.
BP: Who were some of your mentors in terms of fiction, prose fiction? Who were the ones you looked up to?
JF: Well Sherwood Anderson. [pause] Knut Hamsun.
BP: That’s interesting. One of Bukowski’s favorites, too.
JF: Is that right? The curious thing about my admiration for Knut Hamsun is it brought me quite a lot of trouble when I joined the Guild in 1938 because –
BP: Because of his politics.
JF: Yeah, because of his politics. And I knew nothing about Hamsun’s politics, and I’m glad I didn’t know, otherwise I never would’ve read his marvelous works.
BP: It’s kind of a shame because he was an old man when he did that and they dumped all that crap on him.
BP: Another writer that Bukowski admires is Céline. Of course there’s a tremendous hated of him, too, but he’s still a helluva good writer.
JF: Yes, I like Céline, too. Céline is a marvelous writer.
BP: Did you have anything you were trying to prove when you started out as a writer in Los Angeles as a novelist?
JF: No, no. The only thing I wanted to prove and that was hardly conscious was that I could write a good story.
BP: What was the critical response to Wait Until Spring, Bandini when it came out?
JF: It was very good. Critics loved it. A guy by the name of Joseph Henry Jackson, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, boosted it to the sky. And he made it a success in California. I put that word “success” in quotation marks because it truly didn’t have a great success, but critically it was very successful.
BP: You wrote about that in Full of Life in mocking terms about your success as a novelist in terms of the sales?
JF: Oh did I?
BP: Yes, it’s all in there. I love writers who can laugh at themselves. It’s a wonderful thing. Why do you think you had so much trouble, writing a book like that, which got good reviews, not having it receive acclaim across the country and good sales?
JF: I’ll tell you why, and it’s rather sad. [pause] No, I can’t tell you because what I was going to tell you relates to Ask the Dust more than Wait Until Spring, but I do know that in the Chicago Tribune bestseller list, my book Wait Until Spring, Bandini was among the first five all the time.
BP: I hate to bring up this cliché again, but it seems to me frequently West Coast writers have really had a hard time getting pushed by the East Coast critics?
JF: That may be possible, yes. I think that condition existed until maybe the emergence of John Steinbeck. Steinbeck got the respect that his works seemed to demand.
BP: You want to tell me the story about Ask the Dust. I heard part of it on the telephone. I was telling it to Bukowski, he said he couldn’t believe it, he said that’s amazing.
JF: What was that?
BP: The story about how your publisher was sued.
JF: Oh yes. That was what I was going to tell you, so you already know that’s amazing.
BP: Well, let’s get it down, though, just for posterity. This is an amazing story.
JF: Ask the Dust was reviewed by somebody at the Atlantic Monthly. E.B. Garside was his name. And he gave it a rip-roaring review. Just flipped about it. And the result was that it immediately went into its second printing. And then there was a cry for more books on it, and suddenly the book disappeared from the shelves. And I couldn’t understand why. And I don’t know who told me this. It was one of their salesmen told me that the publishers, what’s the name of the publishers?
JF: Stackpole, yeah. Stackpole & Sons had bought out Mein Kampf without getting Hitler’s permission. And he promptly sued. To me, that didn’t seem like anything because how could Hitler sue and win a case in the United States? But sue he did and win he did and so they kept pushing this cause célèbre right up through to the Supreme Court and it took over a year and all of the publisher’s money, all of the exploitation money for their whole season that year, was absorbed by this litigation. And not a word was said about Ask the Dust. So it was just canceled out because there were other, more important books to fight for.
BP: Of course, the war coming on, I imagine that buried it.
JF: Yes, it did. It certainly did.
BP: Can you tell me some of the things you were trying to say? I’ve never read a book that told me more about Los Angeles than Ask the Dust.
JF: I don’t know. It was my gut. It was an easy book to write. It just poured out of me. The love affair in that book is a true love affair, and there’s only one thing missing from it that failed to mention and I didn’t mention it because I don’t think I could’ve handled it and that was the fact that the girl in it, Camilla, was a lesbian. And I didn’t know it really until after the book was published.
BP: It also was one of the first books to deal with drug addiction.
JF: Yeah, I suppose it was.
BP: Was that something you had observed first-hand?
JF: Yes, because she introduced me to marijuana and we used to buy it for 50 cents a Prince Albert can down on Central Avenue.
BP: Do you think Towne learned something from this book when he wrote Chinatown?
JF: I think he did, yes.
BP: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me –
JF: I think he did. I think he picked up the flavor of it. He optioned the book and he had an option on it for over four years and he never quite got to the writing of that book as a screenplay. He wanted to, desperately, then after the fourth year, he told me that he wasn’t going to take up with it again and if I wanted to proceed with it, I should. Well, I had no thought of that, so I told him, ‘Well, since you’ve held it for four years and gave me quite a lot of money I’ll just hold it for you in case you want it.’ That was agreeable with him. But he paid me, I don’t know, about $10,000, and never even touched the book.
BP: It seems strange. It has an odd record, doesn’t it, this book?
JF: Yes, it does. Yes it does.
BP: In fact, when I talked to Bukowski about it, I asked him, well what did I think about bringing the book back. He said, well, first of all, he thought the book was very viable and it could come back immediately without any problem at all. But he was worried because – he didn’t exactly say this – but he said I got an awful lot of ideas from this book. I have a feeling that that might be one of the reasons. It’s a kind of writing that no one had ever done before. Some people have done it since, but I don’t think anyone had ever been that factual, that tough.
JF: Well… [pause] You mean he’s written a novel that is comparable –
BP: He wrote a book called Post Office. See his life is not unlike yours. He was a first generation German. He came over here, they made fun of him and called him Nazi and everything. And when the war broke out, he didn’t want World War II, so he ended up in prison for a little while.
JF: In Germany?
BP: No, in the United States. He came over when he was only three years old and they stuck this on him. He had a slight Fascist, oh I don’t know, a slight amusement you might say with Fascism until he saw what it was then he decided it wasn’t a good idea. But the anger of people making fun of him because he was German, I guess that’s the way he reacted. He went to one Bund meeting, they blamed him, ever since then all the Jews everywhere have called him a Fascist, which is ridiculous to me. He was also a Roman Catholic. He frequently calls you Bandini, by the way, that’s a fondness for your work. “Bandini’s handling of women made me think of the real women. Magic, female, distant and close at the same time. I am thinking of his mother-father fights and his waitress in Ask the Dust. ” Bukowski was very moved by that book. He writes also about – believe me this guy does not write letters – but he wrote a very lengthy, complete analysis of all the things – I asked him eighteen questions and he answered every one about your work because he said that you were the first writer that he read who wrote the truth, that’s the way he put it.
JF: That’s very nice.
JF: You asked me about how Bob Towne got into it. Bob was in Seattle and he was looking for a property about Los Angeles. And he went to the librarian up there and she said that he might find something about Los Angeles fiction in a book by Carey McWilliams. So Bob looked up Carey McWilliams and there he found a reference to Ask the Dust. And he got it and read it. And then he got in touch with me on the phone and we worked out an option agreement.
BP: But he never really got into –
JF: No, he didn’t. Let’s see, what did he write that –
BP: Well, his big film was Chinatown.
JF: It was before Chinatown. It was about the Navy and the kid that was – The Last Detail.
BP: Oh yeah, that was quite a fine film, about the kid they were taking away to prison.
JF: That was an exhibition of his screenwriting and it launched him in a real sense because from that point on he had nothing but fine assignments and he’s just finished one that he’s directing, as a matter of fact, called Tarzan. I don’t know, it’s going to cost something like $35 million, the price tag on it. So anyway he’s been riding pretty high and when he thinks about something to do, his head is immediately turned by these rococo rich projects and he doesn’t even remember Ask the Dust.
BP: Yeah. Bukowski has a friend who’s coming over from France whose name is Barbet and he did a film on Idi Amin. And I mentioned to Bukowski that this might be something he might be interested in looking at. I don’t know, in terms of films, turning a great novel into a movie doesn’t interest me very much because frequently they totally ruin the thing.
JF: I’ll tell you, there is something, Dan –
JF: – Ben, in taking a European director and giving him a novel that is from the past, like Ask the Dust, and telling him to go ahead with it, because he would have a fresher point of view and a closer proximity to the inherent work than an American would. An American director would Americanize that. And although it is an American work, it is not an American piece of film. I don’t know what it is, but it’s closer to being European in a way.
BP: Yeah, that’s another point. I’ve been curious why the Italians haven’t been more interested in your work, is it just that it never made the hurdle or what?
JF: I don’t know why. The book was published in Italy. I was in Italy. I wrote a couple of films there for De Laurentiis and gave the book there to a couple of producers. Of course of Italy all they want is the box score, you know, and if the book hasn’t sold as many copies as they would like to feel is necessary, they’ll drop it, I don’t care how good it is. They’re very, very materialistic, those Italians.
BP: You mean the film industry.
JF: Oh God yeah. It’s just embarrassing.
BP: When you were finished with the book, when you sat down and looked at what you’d done, saw it in print, even with the disastrous problems with the publisher, how did you feel about it?
JF: Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me. When I finished it, I gave it to a writer, a mystery story writer by the name of Dan Mainwaring, he’s dead – I’m sorry I have to put that little clause out there – but Dan read it, and he just looked at me and kind of laughed. He said, You can’t mean it. This is terrible. How could you possibly do this? And he berated me and ridiculed me until he actually talked me out of the whole goddamn thing. And I dismissed the thing from my mind for about two weeks. And then I went back to it and in one fell swoop I wrote it. It took me, oh, I don’t know, about a week, and it was all done. And I couldn’t tell you what Dan said to me, but he got me awful mad.
BP: When you finished the book and it was all done and published, did you say to yourself, I think I’ve made a significant achievement here?
JF: Well, I said this is good, yeah. I said, I’ve really done something good here.
BP: If you compare the two books, the Bandini book and Ask the Dust, how would you compare them?
JF: I think Ask the Dust is a much finer and much more artistic and versatile piece of work than Bandini. Bandini has the clumsiness of a guy who is learning to walk, kind of stumbles and is a little bit too obvious in the way he steps. He struts a little and there’s a little bit of macho in it even though it’s about a little kid or a little boy and it doesn’t have the humor and the wit that Ask the Dust has.
BP: Did you feel when you finished that book, Ask the Dust, that you’d captured Los Angeles in a certain way?
JF: I never asked myself that question, but I think I never asked myself that question because it was a loaded question and I knew what the answer would be.
BP: That’s one of the reasons why Towne went back to that book, obviously, and came up with – it seems to me he’s pulled an awful lot of things out of that book and put them in the movie Chinatown. Not the whole thing about the water, but all the other things – the neighborhood, the downtown neighborhood.
JF: Maybe so.
BP: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
JF: No. It’s the nature of the writer to steal.
BP: There’s an interesting question that I think a lot of people are gonna ask, especially when this book is reprinted. The question is what happened to John Fante after Ask the Dust came out.
JF: Well, he pissed away a few years of his life playing golf, reading, dallying with another novel and then another novel. And sometimes selling a short story. His life was pretty much fragmented. And then he – at about the time that World War II broke out, he was working for Orson Welles, writing a picture for Orson, with Norman Foster, they were collaborating together. And Orson bought a story from John. And this was scheduled to be filmed immediately that particular Sunday, this was about 1940. And Orson Welles went to Brazil to film another segment of the picture. He was doing a picture called It’s All True, they were four short stories he was going to film, and on this particular night in Brazil when he just arrived, he was standing on the balcony watching some great festivity that goes on in Brazil once a year, like at a carnival, and he stood at the edge of the balcony and peed on the people down below. And he was arrested, thrown in the clink, and ordered out of the country. And that was the end of that particular project.
BP: By the way, there was a scene in the life of W.C. Fields when they showed him doing that, but obviously it wasn’t Fields – exactly what you describe.
JF: Is that right? What do you know about that.
BP: You said you’ve written six books. Now I know five. Wait Until Spring, Bandini. Ask the Dust. Dago Red. Full of Life. Brotherhood of the Grape. I don’t know the other.
JF: I’ve got one published unpublished book, it’s called My Dog Stupid.
BP: What is that about?
JF: That’s about me and my dog.
BP: What was the response? Was there an interest in that book?
JF: My Dog Stupid? There’s always been an interest in it. There’s a guy by the name of Bill Asher in town. He makes situation comedy television. He’s been after that book for years, but he can’t make up his mind to buy it, I don’t know why. I’ve had offers – this last year, I had an offer on it, then the thing cooled off. And, Eddie Dmytryk, he’s a director, you don’t know him, he asked me if he could take My Dog Stupid and rework it as a movie. And I gave it to him and he did a brilliant job on it. And nothing happened to it.
BP: Let me ask you this. What is the situation in terms of the paperback rights of Ask the Dust? In other words, I did talk to Ferlinghetti about it and he hasn’t gotten the book yet, I’m in the process of getting it up there. Who owns those?
JF: I own it. Because I had the copyright renewed.
BP: Would you object to someone doing a mass paperback?
JF: No, not at all. What do you want Ferlinghetti to do?
BP: Ferlinghetti publishes City Lights and he is Bukowski’s publisher. I asked Bukowski after I read Ask the Dust, I said Look, will you do an introduction to this, because his name is very hot now and as I said, it would get it immediately into France and Germany. He said, I would love to do an introduction.
JF: That’s fine.
BP: So then I talked to Ferlinghetti on the phone and he gave me the same thing I had given Bukowski several years ago, you know that if he’d never heard of your name, it was impossible. But I know if I send him the book, first because he’s an Italian and second because he knows good literature, it’s going to knock him off his chair when he reads it. And that’s just the beginning. I mean, there are all kinds of other backup things we can do. With Bukowski’s name and a book like that –
JF: That’s fine, Ben, that’s great. I just wonder, Bathalt [sic] –
JF: Buthalski [sic], do you think he has a name really?
BP: Oh yeah, believe me. He was reviewed in every major French and German magazine in the last year when his books came out and he was on French television and all of the major reviews in Europe wrote material about him. He’s ignored on purpose in the United States.
JF: On account of his German background.
BP: I have my opinions as to why but I’ll keep them to myself. But I have done as much as I could in terms of the United States to get his books reviewed and I have been somewhat successful. For instance, the one book that came out in Germany last year sold 100,000 copies in six months.
JF: That’s fabulous.
BP: That’s just a pure case of a group of people sitting down and saying we don’t want this guy to be published – or to be read, he is published. The Bukowski books that Ferlinghetti has published in City Lights have sold a quarter of a million, so that’s up there.
JF: Is that right?
BP: But the fact that you’re not reading about him, is that there are a group of people – one I would say are the feminists, who despise him because of his attitude, some of the things he writes about women. But he also takes it on the chin from the New York critics. They choose not to write about him.
JF: Why? Because he’s German.
BP: I don’t know. Basically that’s it, yeah.
JF: And he has a history of being pro-Nazi, however untrue that is.
BP: It was a very minor thing, but they manage to tar him with that brush and he’s had a hard time throwing it off.
JF: That’s too bad.
BP: But it hasn’t hurt him because the amount of money that he’s made from Europe has been so significant that he doesn’t need the American money.
JF: That’s good. But he ought to seize the bull by the horns and write a novel about persecution.
BP: That’s a good point. He’s mentioned it, but it’s like getting into a sand trap. The more you get into it, the deeper you go.
JF: It’s a book that would be well received. I’m assuming that he has no Nazi feelings now.
BP: No, no. I don’t think he ever did. For such a short time, it was just an angry reaction to all these people putting their finger up to their nose and calling him Hitler. He just doesn’t like governments period and thinks they’re all pretty much the same. But if you’d like I’d be happy to send along his books.
Joyce Fante: I’d love it. I’ve never even heard of him. How do you spell his name?
BP: B-u-k-o-w-s-k-i. Charles. There’s one little thing here. I can’t seem to find. Oh, I mentioned the stuff about Hollywood and he said, ‘Yes, I understand he went Hollywood. He vanished into Hollywood and it’s hard for me to know why he did, he seemed to have so much, but maybe he just got tired, maybe he wanted to drive a new car. Maybe he fell in love with a whore who stripped his spiritual chances, I don’t know.’
JF: That’s pretty close.
BP: I guess his attitude was he had read two of your books that really jolted him and he couldn’t understand. When you did Full of Life, what was the response to this book?
JF: That book was – again, critically it was a very successful book. I don’t know how many copies it sold, but I think it was around 8,000. It was reprinted in the Reader’s Digest. They publish a novel every issue and so that took some of the cream off the top as far as I was concerned. However, I got $10,000 for it. I got another $10,000 from Bantam Books.
BP: It was published by Viking, wasn’t it?
JF: No, it was published by Bantam.
BP: I’ve got it right in front of me, let me see. I guess you’re right. No, Little Brown & Co.
JF: Little Brown.
BP: I guess the hardback was Little Brown. It was 1952.
JF: I did financially very well on that book.
BP: Was your father still living when you wrote that?
BP: What did he think about your career and what did he think about the writing you did about him?
JF: He never said anything about it. I never brought the subject up because I knew that he was just coiled and ready to spring if I ever brought it up. My intuition told me to beware so I never did, but I saw him leafing through the book, reading it, but he was not a reader and so I had a feeling that I was protected. But he never – we never discussed it.
BP: You had children, I think.
JF: Yeah, we have four children. They’re all grown up.
BP: Any of them turn to writing?
JF: No. We have one son who is in Hollywood now, who is trying to produce some music, some recordings, with a young singer that he’s bringing along, and he writes lyrics, but as far as I’m concerned he has quite a long way to go.
BP: John, when did you come out here to Malibu?
JF: I came here in 1950. [To Joyce] You’ve been here that long to?
Joyce Fante: Yes.
BP: I don’t get the relationship, this is your wife, I assume, right Joyce?
Joyce Fante: [laughing] Yes.
BP: After all those and four kids.
Joyce Fante: Yes, we’re married.
BP: Well, these days, I never ask those questions. I’m afraid to.
JF: Well, we should’ve – that was so stupid.
Joyce Fante: Yes, we were married in 1937.
BP: So you have followed the career all the way along. Did you live for a while in Beverly Hills or around there?
JF: We lived in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles, pretty close to Van Ness and Wilshire. You know where that is?
BP: Did you help, Joyce, with manuscripts and things?
JF: Yes, she did. You helped me.
Joyce Fante: John always read sections of his work as he was writing, we discussed it. And yes, I’m a better speller than John. He’d say how do you spell something and I’d spell it for him.
BP: Could you figure out what the hell happened with Ask the Dust? Did it make any sense to you?
Joyce Fante: No, no, I just never could understand why it wasn’t more successful than it was. I always felt it deserved to be. I think it’s the best work ever written about southern California, I mean with that background.
BP: It’s also one of the greatest books from the late ’30s. I don’t know if you know Nathanael West, I’m sure you did –
JF: Oh yeah, I knew Nat really well. He was dour.
BP: It’s funny, after all that proletarian garbage that came out of the ’30s, West is really one of the only novelists, really, you can read him, pick him up today and he’s funny as hell. Ask the Dust is right up there with the best he ever wrote.
JF: To me, Nat’s best book is A Cool Million.
BP: I love that too, ‘the dismembering of Lemuel Pitkin.’ Think you could make a movie out of that? America’s got to know the value of a dollar forty nine. Did you work with him, at all?
JF: No, but we worked at the same studios and I used to meet him all the time at Stanley Rose’s bookshop and we’d go down to the Los Angeles Chinatown and have dinner together with Stanley Rose.
Joyce Fante: I don’t know if you’ve seen the November issue of Westways, it has quite a long section about John.
BP: No, I didn’t know that.
Joyce Fante: This is the only copy I have.
BP: That’s okay, I can pick it up. I can just look at it.
JF: Let him have it.
BP: No, that’s alright. I’m sure I can get a copy in a bookstore.
Joyce Fante: It’s called ‘Writers of the West.’
BP: I’m sort of surprised that Wilson didn’t pick up on it.
JF: Maybe he never read it.
BP: Well, he wrote his book in about 1935, so obviously that wouldn’t have been in there, but he was always interested with California writers. He was fascinated with Robinson Jeffers who was also fascinated Bukowski.
Joyce Fante: Carey McWilliams was interested in Jeffers, too, and he mentions him in this piece.
JF: It seems to me you’d have a very difficult time trying to enlist the support, the enthusiasm, the applause of the critics around here. They are such a dumb breed.
BP: That’s true. I’ve lived around them for many, many years, and I certainly can attest to that.
Joyce Fante: It’s such a fantastic work and seems to me that it would just be marvelous if it could be recognized and read. I think it would be very successful because it was way ahead of its time, it was 30 years ahead of its time, it could almost have been written in the ’60s.
BP: That’s true. I really do think the combination of Bukowski, Ferlinghetti and yourself would be enough to get that book back on the track where it belongs. Of course, I may be wrong, but I think I’m right.
JF: I’ll tell you somebody that I’d like to give it to and that’s Digby Diehl.
BP: I know Digby, but I’m not sure he’s the right guy.
JF: Is that right?
BP: I went to UCLA with him. It seems to me he’d be one of the guys who could fumble the ball the worst?
JF: Is that right? I don’t know him personally.
BP: He’s a very nice fellow. I know him. He’s now at Harry Abrams, he’s the editor of a house.
JF: Oh, I see.
BP: If you could just give me your permission to just have Ferlinghetti read the book anyway, I would just like to see his response anyway. For instance, he was one of the first people to publish Céline. And he also published some of Pound‘s things that nobody else would publish and he published a lot of other writers who the New York publishing houses were afraid to take on.
JF: Uh-huh. Sure, you could go ahead, Ben. You proceed with it anyway you want.
BP: Pocket Books is doing my biography of Bukowski and I’m in touch with them, so as I said, if the one thing didn’t work out, I could always go to them, but there’s a problem with that in that I’ve got to deal with my idiot agent, and I don’t want to do that, go through him.
JF: Who is your agent?
BP: Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of him. He’s just an idiot. I have a good agent in New York, but she doesn’t handle much of my stuff anymore, that’s Macintosh & Otis.
JF: Oh, well that’s my agent.
BP: Really, is that right? Macintosh & Otis is your agent?
JF: Well, they were my agent, they’re not anymore.
BP: Did you know Shirley Fisher?
JF: Well, I get letters from her.
BP: Really? She was my agent.
JF: Is Elizabeth Otis still alive?
Joyce Fante: That’s incredible. She was an old lady when I first met her.
BP: She just did a book on Steinbeck’s letters, which include a tremendous amount of letters to her. A very fine book, it was last year I think it came out.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Ben Pleasants is a writer and the author of Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers. You can find more of Ben’s work here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 29th, 2010.