Undertow: The John Fante Tapes [Three]
By Ben Pleasants.
John Fante: Who are you associated with at the Times? Who’s the editor?
Ben Pleasants: The only guy I really work with is Seidenbaum. Seidenbaum is the book editor. I worked with Digby for many years, and Digby left.
JF: Where did he go?
BP: He went to New York to take over Harry Abram, which is a publishing business which is owned by the Times.
JF: Did you ever run into Carolyn See?
BP: No, I never ran into her. I mentioned to Seidenbaum the fact that she hadn’t read your books, and he said [inaudible].
JF: That was a very stupid piece.
BP: I’m referring to the books [inaudible] Dago Red.
BP: Ask the Dust is [inaudible]. I wish you had been consistent with your names. I wish you had used Bandini.
JF: Yeah. Well, that is a little bit – could be a little bit confusing. Maybe someday they’ll bring all four of them out and I’ll just change the names.
BP: I think that would be [inaudible].
JF: I think, incidentally, that John what’s-his-name, the publisher, John Martin, is asking too much at ten dollars a copy.
BP: Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all.
JF: You don’t?
JF: Why? Why should one spend ten bucks for –
BP: Because this is a very special book and it’s been out-of-print for so long.
JF: He intends to sell a lot of copies to colleges.
BP: Absolutely, he’s going to sell them to colleges, he’s going to sell them to young people, he’s going to sell them to –
JF: He knows what he’s doing.
BP: He knows what he’s doing in some things. I would say in this area he knows exactly what he’s doing.
JF: He knows how to sell books.
BP: I’ve been playing with the idea of what would be more effective, running the Bukowski foreword in the Times or running the full background. I haven’t seen it.
JF: It’s nice.
BP: You like it? [inaudible]
JF: It’s up to you, Ben. I haven’t seen what you’ve done, but if it’s pertinent to your article, more pertinent than Bukowski, then you should use it. Did my wife bring some coffee out?
BP: You want to tell me a couple things?
BP: I wanted to ask you, when you think back on your life in terms of your work, what kind of feelings you have now. You’re how old now?
JF: I’m 70.
BP: Looking back over almost – looking back over the whole century –
JF: Fifty years.
BP: What do you think about when you think of your work, the time you put in as a writer?
JF: What do I think of my work? I’m not satisfied with it.
BP: I mean as a writer, what is it like to put in the time and effort into those six books?
JF: Well, what I think is that I didn’t spend enough time. I went at it in a very leisurely way and I never went to a book so much as that the book came to me. I never waited around or sat with my chin in my hands and tried to think of the novel. The novel usually came to me full-blown and I just sat down and wrote it. But I deliberately avoided sitting around and trying to write books. I got into the habit of expecting them to show up, the ideas.
BP: You only wrote by inspiration?
JF: I think so, yeah.
BP: You seem to think there’s something wrong with that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. Have you ever looked at the second novels of most writers?
JF: I’m very suspicious of such buzz words as “inspiration,” “aspiration,” “ambition” – you know, these things like that. I think that’s all bullshit.
BP: In other words, when you had a book in your head, you sat down and said –
JF: Yeah, I wrote when I had a beginning and an end. And I knew I’d have to get the middle.
BP: I’ve always described it this way: to me, that’s the best way to write: it’s like taking a shit; you just can’t help it.
JF: That’s right. That’s very true. There’s no stopping it.
BP: Did you consider once upon a time, saying, “Well, I’ve got to sit at the typewriter a certain number of hours a day?”
JF: Yes, I did. I did that dutifully for maybe a week. And then I just threw up my hands, played golf and let it go.
BP: By the way, where did you play golf?
JF: Well, I played at Rancho, and I played at River Park, and I played at Sunset Fields. I played at Fox Hills, I played at Riviera. I played at many, many golf courses.
BP: It’s a game you enjoy?
JF: Oh, I loved it. It was great. My wife’ll tell you how I loved it.
BP: You and Oliver Hardy.
JF: Oliver Hardy? Was he a golfer?
BP: He used to play golf, 18 holes every day.
JF: Is that right? I didn’t know that. Well, good for him.
BP: This is another question I have to ask. If you were going to give advice to a young writer, what [would] you tell him about the writing game?
JF: Well, it depends on who the young writer is. I advised one of my sons about writing, and I was extremely technical with him, right down to the importance of small paragraphs, things like that. As far as the overall philosophy of a writer, I’m grappling with that, and I really don’t think I have one. I wouldn’t suggest to a son of mine who, for example, was a very successful real estate man and who was also talented as a writer, I wouldn’t suggest to him that he give up real estate.
BP: What do you think about when you analyze your style? You know your style better than anyone. What contributions have you made in style? When you were trying to write a book, how did you construct it in terms of style? There’s a conscious effort on your part, I think, in a simple way.
JF: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. I got my style from admiration of other writers. And the first great stylist that I ran into who had a persuasion on me was Sherwood Anderson.
BP: What do you admire about him? What was the influence of his writing?
JF: I admired the simplicity of his sentences and the almost naive approach he had to the work. There was a certain innocence about Anderson and a certain determination not to be fancy, and I liked that.
BP: It’s been described frequently as kind of American language. You feel that? You think they were consciously getting away from the kind of writing that [inaudible]?
JF: Oh yes, I think Anderson was. And also I think he discovered that he was really unique, and so he hammered away with that particular style, and the simpler the better. In his later books, he seemed to dissipate into a kind of childish babbling. What ever happened to Anderson?
BP: I don’t think he [inaudible]. He had a lot of financial problems in the latter part of his life [inaudible].
JF: What is that –
BP: Winesburg, Ohio.
JF: God, that’s a beautiful book.
BP: The one about the egg.
JF: The Triumph of the Egg. Those two are just the richest things in the world.
BP: Does a writer have to write 25 good books?
JF: You’ll have to ask William Saroyan. He’s written 50.
BP: There aren’t too many good ones. Do we expect too much of writers – do critics? I was reading a guy by the name of Exner. The second book he wrote was a crazy book about Edmund Wilson. It was a very strange book, but it was a good book [inaudible].
JF: I don’t know. I don’t think the writing trade, the writing profession in this country is really highly regarded or highly respected, I think to the diminution of the writer’s reputation. For him to describe the Hollywood writer casts a shadow over the whole profession of writing.
BP: But that’s kind of a cliché. There are a lot of great writers in Hollywood. I give Hollywood a lot of credit for keeping F. Scott Fitzgerald alive the last four years of his life.
JF: Yes, but he wasn’t born a screenwriter. He came out here and got the money.
BP: Well, most of them did.
JF: So did Ben Hecht, and so did a lot of writers, and so did I, as far as that goes. Although I didn’t come here to make money. I just came here because I wanted to write and I wanted a place different than Colorado.
BP: Not New York?
JF: I didn’t have the money to go that far East, so came West. [To Joyce] Honey, get me a smoke.
BP: Did you ever regret not going in another direction, like Chicago or Philadelphia?
JF: I’ll tell you what I regret. I regret that I didn’t see more of the United States. I wouldn’t liked to have lived in New Orleans. I’d like to have lived in New York for a longer period than I did.
BP: How long did you live in New York?
JF: I lived there about six or eight weeks. That was in 1960. I went there and wrote a screenplay for De Laurentiis.
BP: In 1960? What was that?
JF: I don’t remember the title of it. But we had a falling out. He didn’t like what I wrote. He fired me.
BP: How would you compare the work of – what is it like to be a novelist starting out, writing a first novel now, in comparison to your days when you wrote in ’36 or ’37? ’37.
Joyce Fante: ’38.
BP: It was published in ’38, somewhere around there, ’37, ’38. If you were starting out today, would you do it different? If you had that finished novel, Bandini?
JF: Uh. Well, the economic and moral and technical facilities at that time were such that there would be no way of my entering into the picture except exactly as I was, so I’d probably do it exactly the same. I don’t know what I’d do. I really have no – it’s such a wild and undisciplined kind of art form. I don’t think there are many rules that are set down. Every rule is from a man’s gut.
BP: Has the publishing industry changed since that time? If so, in what ways?
JF: Yes, it has. When I first began to write, there was an interest by the publisher in me, he knew the progress of the work, and a communication that went on during the writing. Today, it’s not that way. For example, when I was writing Brotherhood of the Grape, I never consulted with the publisher; I consulted with an editor at Houghton-Mifflin. This guy’s name was Sal, and I only had one letter from him, so that there was a distance between us that has prevailed even today. We’re perfect strangers, and I would’ve liked a little more intimacy in our relationship.
BP: So that’s changed. What was it like having a man like H.L. Mencken, after you had succeeded in publishing stories in the American Mercury?
JF: I liked him very much. I would’ve done anything to get the praise of H.L. Mencken. I adored the guy. I often, when I think [inaudible] writing problem, a question which way I should go, as a final decision I ask myself what would Mencken do? And my best thoughts on that was the way I’d go.
BP: Actually, he was – by the time he had published you, he was a very bitter man, especially by the end.
JF: Oh yes, by the end of the ’30s, he became embittered. The Roosevelt administration really turned him around.
BP: I think it was also tragic that his wife died. He really loved her –
JF: Yes, Sara Haardt.
BP: That would make a wonderful book.
JF: Yes, it would, it would. I didn’t know Mencken personally.
BP: But you knew about that?
JF: Oh yes, I did. I picked that up from the papers.
BP: What is the role of bitterness and anger in any writer’s life?
JF: I think the one thing that a writer must avoid is bitterness. I think it’s the one fault that can destroy him. It can shrivel him up.
BP: You think so?
JF: Well, I’ve written books or started books that turned suddenly bitter, and I failed at them. A number of times I launched a novel and had gotten into 50 or 60 pages, and come to place in them that displeased me and angered me, and I continued with them and set it aside and went back to it, and was just horrified by what I’d wrote. Just ashamed, and furious and destructive, throwing them away. I think bitterness is the one thing a writer must fight. I’ve fought it all my life.
BP: How about anger? Can a writer do something when he’s angry?
JF: No, he can’t. Because if he’s angry, then he’s betraying the real – it really shouldn’t be a part of his ability [inaudible], even though there are some great books written in anger or rage.
BP: I kind of figured that most of Hamsun‘s stuff was written with anger, but it was said in a certain way, with a tremendous sense of humor.
JF: Yes. Well, the same is true of Céline.
BP: Well, that’s a perfect example. [Inaudible]
JF: Another guy that has written in anger is Camus, and also Cocteau.
BP: You read any in Italian?
JF: No. I’ve read it when it’s translated.
BP: You read a lot of European writers?
JF: Yes, I did.
BP: You spend a lot of time in the L.A. Public Library?
JF: Yes, I did.
BP: What was that like in the ’30s?
JF: It was wonderful. It was a wonderful place to drop in, forget your troubles, get lost.
BP: Were there a lot of writers that went there?
JF: There might have been. I didn’t go there particularly to meet writers. [Inaudible]
BP: You ever go back there? When was the last time you were there?
JF: I haven’t been back in 40 years. It was a wonderful oasis for writers.
BP: What were some of the drinking spots that writers used to go to?
JF: I can only think of Hollywood. That would be Musso & Frank’s, and Cock ‘n’ Bull.
BP: Cock ‘n’ Bull, was that one? When you started to work on Brotherhood, which was your last novel, what was it like coming back to the novel after all that time?
JF: Well, I must say this about Brotherhood of the Grape. It was the one book that I took a tremendous joy in writing. It seemed to direct me. And it was effortless, and my phrasing sometimes pleased me very much. At times, I thought I was simply brilliant. Sometimes I cried when I wrote that book.
BP: But it was years. Even though Full of Life was a novel, that was the last book you had published. That was about 1950, so to come back to it 20 years later?
JF: Yeah, I don’t know why I did come back to it. Maybe it was because I was disgusted with screenwriting. I never got any happiness out of screenwriting.
BP: Why is that, John?
JF: Well, because when I first went into writing a screenplay, I approached it as a novelist, and my prose in it was the prose of a novelist and it didn’t fit the art of a screenwriter.
BP: Did they understand that?
JF: Well, it’s a question of whether I knew exactly how to put it down.
BP: Which wouldn’t been the screenplay that gave you the most satisfaction?
JF: It’s one I wrote for the King Brothers. What’s the name of it, honey?
Joyce Fante: King of the Wind.
JF: King of the Wind, yeah.
BP: That was when?
JF: It was about 1958, ’60. That’s a beautiful screenplay.
BP: I never saw that.
JF: It was never made.
BP: So the one that you had the most pleasure out of was never released?
Joyce Fante: There was another one that was absolutely beautiful, The Roses.
JF: Oh yeah.
BP: Let’s start with the King Brothers. What was that about?
JF: That was about an Arabian horse and a little boy who grew up with it, went to England with the horse, and took care of the horse through all of its years, and finally went back to Arabia as a 25 year-old man. He’s devoted all of his life to this horse, following the orders of the Arab king. He returned home when his duties were completed.
BP: The boy was Arabian?
BP: Gee, I’d think there’d really be a market for that kind of thing. Do they still own the rights?
JF: Yeah, they own it. It’s very expensive to make, but God, it’s a beautiful screenplay.
BP: You’d think if there’s anybody who has any money, it’s the Arabs, and they might be interested.
JF: It’s true.
BP: Yeah, really.
JF: Geez, that’s a good idea. If we could get a hold of that, and get in touch with some Arabs –
BP: I’m getting so cocky.
Joyce Fante: There’s only one King brother left alive, isn’t there?
JF: Yeah, Frank King. There were three of them.
BP: You wrote that totally by yourself?
JF: Yeah. You ought to get in touch with Frank and talk to him about that. [Inaudible]
BP: What happened with it? Can you give me the details of how a screenplay doesn’t get made?
JF: It doesn’t get made when a prudent producer, very happy over the script he’s got, goes out and tries to get financing for it, finds out that the budget is far more than he can afford. The King Brothers, in addition to that, the King Brothers were frightened, insecure, illiterate, stupid, vicious and dishonest. Two of them have died since then, but there’s one left.
BP: What were some of the films they did make?
JF: Well, they made a picture of mine called Maya, M-A-Y-A.
BP: You wouldn’t happen to have another tape?
Joyce Fante: I believe I do. Is it the same kind?
BP: And that was about what? Was that about Mexico?
JF: That was about India.
BP: How did you do all those things, write one about Arabia, and one about India?
JF: It’s a matter of researching.
BP: Did your wife help you in researching?
BP: Did you have a researcher?
JF: No. I had a novel that a woman had written, I turned in into a screenplay. Also, there’s a tradition in Hollywood, if you’re going to write a story about an Arabian scene, an Arabian background, your prior knowledge of films about Arabia, Arabian horses, you have a kind of buildup of past screen stories, and you – I think you write from that.
BP: You mentioned another one called The Roses.
JF: The Roses, yes, that earned me a contract with Warner. And I had an unfortunate experience with that. Harry Cohn loved the script, and he sent Dick Quine, the director, and me and an art director to Naples to find locations and to do some additional writing. And we were in Naples about six weeks. And during that time, Quine had pledged to –
BP: What year was that?
JF: About ’60. Quine had promised Harry Cohn that he would report to him about the progress we were making in preparing for this picture, for shooting. And the days went by, and I remember we were in a hotel in Naples, and I used to say to Quine, “Maybe you ought to get in touch with Cohn, tell him how we’re doing,” because we were doing very well. Quine would say, “Aw, fuck him.” So with this “Aw, fuck him” retort every time I asked him about it, we went on our way. And one day we got a telegram from Harry Cohn. He asked us all to come home. When we got home, he said he had abandoned the picture because we had not responded to his requirement that we would report to him on what we were doing. So that killed the project.
BP: That was an original screenplay?
JF: Yes, it was.
BP: What was the subject matter?
JF: That was about an American sailor who was stationed in Naples, and he goes into the Naples ghetto, meets a girl and falls in love with her, and marries her. And that’s it. It’s just a young American sailor and a very poor Italian girl. It’s a Cinderella story, and it’s beautiful, just beautiful. And everybody at Columbia has taken a crack at that since I left it.
BP: But it’s still sitting there?
JF: Still sitting there, yeah.
BP: Do you speak Italian?
JF: No. I used to speak Italian when I was a boy of ten.
BP: Could you pick up enough –
JF: Yeah, I picked it up very quickly.
BP: What does that do to a writer, when he puts the effort into something like that and the results come out –
JF: It makes him want to go and write a novel, that’s what it does to him.
BP: Is there also the problem that we hear time and again, and then the director gets it and mangles it?
JF: Yes, there certainly is.
BP: Did that happen to you?
JF: Yes, it happened to me in Full of Life. Quine took my script and made some changes in it that I didn’t like. He made some changes and Judy Holliday made some changes.
BP: That was early ’50s, wasn’t it – ’51, ’52?
JF: Something like that. No, it was later than that. ’57, wasn’t it, honey?
Joyce Fante: I don’t remember the year.
BP: What was the studio?
BP: So at that time you were working mainly with Columbia and Harry Cohn?
JF: Yeah. I liked Cohn. I got along fine with him.
BP: When you did Full of Life, that was your book, your script. How were you treated on the set when they were shooting it?
JF: I was treated all right.
BP: Did they come to you and say, “How do we do this?”
JF: Oh no, that doesn’t happen to writers – at least it didn’t happen in those days. Once you finished the script and delivered it and the changes were made, they turned their backs on you. And then they didn’t want to see you; they preferred that you weren’t around because you knew that they were making changes, continuing to make changes, and they didn’t want any abrasiveness from the writer about it, any objections. Because writers object to changes, you know, and Quine was changing it all the time.
BP: How did you feel when you saw the actual finished film?
JF: I didn’t recognize it. It was cast so differently than what I had in mind. They had – the father in Full of Life was Salvatore Baccaloni – you remember the opera singer? He was a huge fat man, and the character, the father that I was writing about was a small, wiry, determined and rather adventurous and romantic Italian.
BP: But that’s one of the things that you objected to with the cover of Brotherhood that used the same stereotype –
JF: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
BP: What was the least satisfying experience you ever had with a script that they used? There must be one where you just have nightmares about it sometimes.
JF: Oh yes. There was one called Mama Ravioli.
BP: [Laughs] I know we’re in trouble from the beginning on that one.
JF: Yes. That is a hideous embarrassment to me. I caught it one night many years ago on television, and I turned the set off immediately. I couldn’t stand to look at it.
BP: You want to tell me a little bit about it, John? I promise I won’t put it in there.
JF: No, I’ll vomit if I talk about it.
Joyce Fante: I don’t even remember it.
BP: Was it a comedy? I hope.
JF: It was about New York Italians and their mother, and of course these New York boys all became gangsters and cops – you know, all these Hollywood prototypes, the Pat O’Brien syndrome, you know, with John Garfield in it.
BP: John Garfield was in it?
JF: I think so. I think so.
BP: You remember which studio?
JF: That was Warner Bros.
BP: Which do you prefer the most of your films? No, let’s not deal with it. Let’s deal with when you were working at your desk. I kind of like that, it’s the old Paris Review kind of thing. How do you set up in the morning when you’re writing a book?
JF: Well, you do what any writer would do. You sit down at the typewriter, and you put a clean sheet of paper in there, and you look off, and then you start to write. I don’t know what the hell to say about that, Ben. That’s kind of a silly question.
BP: No, it really isn’t. Do you know where you’re going? When you sit down, you say, “Okay…” I mean, for instance [F. Scott] Fitzgerald used to make a whole wall and he’d put his chapters up and his outlines all over the wall, hang them up on a big piece of –
JF: Storyboard, they call it.
BP: That’s right.
JF: No, I never did that. It was all in my head.
BP: It was all in your head? You knew the beginning and you knew the end?
JF: That’s right, uh-huh.
BP: And you had to fill out the middle?
JF: I had to traverse the middle, rather than fill it out.
BP: What is it like to traverse the middle, as you put it?
JF: Well, that’s the hard part. There’s … when you start to write a novel or when I start to write a novel, and the pages pile up, you discover before long that there’s a charge from within the work, there’s an undertow that carries you out to sea, as it were, and sometimes you’ll drift away from that undertow and you’ll get out into calm waters, and you’re stuck, and then you become dull. So you have to come back in and find the undertow again so it continues to carry you, hopefully, to the other side or to the other shore. And when you’re sitting at a typewriter trying to write, what you’re trying to do actually is swim back to the current so it’ll pick you up again. And that feeling, that current that you feel, is actually a gut feeling that you must get, and it’ll strike you right – it’s a visceral thing. And when you’ve hit upon it, and you start to write, you know you’re right. You know that what you’re doing is correct and that your direction is correct, and you stay with it.
BP: And when you have a novel that you abandon, somehow the current doesn’t hit you?
JF: Yeah. Then you’re out in dead water and you might as well give up.
BP: You say something’s wrong here, I’d better try something else.
JF: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
BP: Did you ever do a novel like that and go back to it and say, “Hey, this might’ve worked out?”
JF: No. But I’m working on a book now that I’m dictating to my wife, and I never did this before, but I’ll take out whole sections of it and redo it.
BP: What is that like, doing that? Now you’re in a position where you can’t work at the typewriter.
JF: Well, it’s difficult for me because I have to keep everything in my head, and I sometimes forget. But I’ve never been so finicky as I am now. With my blindness has come a certain determination to be much more accurate than I used to be.
BP: What do you mean by that specifically?
JF: Well, when I write a scene and my character does something I don’t like – for example, if the scene ends with him getting very angry and, for example, throwing something and then walking out of the room, if I don’t like that, I have to go back to it and rewrite that scene so that he doesn’t throw anything and walk out of the room. He may sit down and begin to think about his past. And as I write that, it’ll give me the kind of motion I need to get me into the next scene.
BP: That’s one of the things I was going to ask you before when you said it was a silly question, but I don’t think it is – that whole business of getting from one scene to another, or from one chapter to another.
JF: Oh jeez, that’s hard. That’s hard.
BP: Maybe that’s a secret that every writer should keep to himself, I don’t know.
JF: Well, even if you reveal the secret, it’s not so easy to do. Because it’s hard to describe.
BP: A lot of the time when you write a novel, you really don’t know where you’re going. People never believe you.
JF: Yeah. Now, this book that I’m writing, I find it very difficult to get my character from one room to another. I find myself resisting a phrase like, “He got up and went to the next room.” It seems to me that I’ve said that on the previous page. Then I ask my wife to reread it, and then I discover that it’s not true, so then I’m free to use the words, “He got up and went into the next room.” That sounds fresh to me, then.
BP: What do you think people want in a novel now? What are they looking for?
JF: I don’t know. I don’t know.
BP: Do you care? Does it matter to you?
JF: No. It’s only what I want. I don’t care what anybody wants. I used to almost sense the presence of readers looking over my shoulder. Now I don’t give a shit.
BP: You think there’s a difference between that and screenwriting, because you kind of have to say what they want to sell it?
JF: Yeah. In screenwriting, you have to be aware of the audience because it’s like a play. You can’t ignore the audience; they have to participate.
BP: You know anything about a man by the name of B. Traven?
JF: Yeah, he wrote – didn’t he write Treasure of Sierra Madre?
BP: Yeah. Was his style of writing, his style of filmmaking –
JF: I didn’t like his work. I found him very difficult to read. And I also don’t know whether he’s an authentic character or not; I don’t know whether B. Traven existed or not. He could have been a New Yorker writer, you know, with a pseudonym.
BP: What is the book that you’re working on now?
JF: It’s called How to Write a Screenplay. It’s my early period in Hollywood, my first experiences as a writer in pictures.
BP: From the late ’30s?
JF: Yeah. It’s about 1935.
BP: Oh, you started screenwriting in ’35? I didn’t realize it was that early.
JF: ’35, yeah.
BP: And it went through ’til when? Well, you’re still doing it, but in terms of the book.
JF: It’s one year.
BP: Oh, that’s really interesting. So you’re going back into the ’30s, just in terms of film writing?
JF: It’s the story of a writer who comes out here from Colorado and has no thought of becoming a screenwriter. He comes out because he wants to be a writer and get away from home, and he more or less falls into screenwriting.
BP: What comes to mind when you work on this in terms of your own personal flashbacks or reminiscences?
JF: Well… [pause] you mean my memories of the time, of the past?
BP: Yeah, without picking them clean, because I assume you want to use them. What are some of the things that have been revitalized in your memory?
JF: I take episodes in my life that have happened before and after that, and I just help myself to any reminiscences or observations that gathered over the course of my whole life. For example, I finished a scene in this book that I think is extremely funny, and so does Joyce, where the character in the novel, Arturo Bandini –
BP: Oh, you got back to Arturo Bandini?
JF: Yeah, where he’s down in Pershing Square one night, and under the streetlamps a number of men are playing chess. Do you play chess?
BP: Yes, I do.
JF: And they’re playing a game of “rapid transit,” where one guy, a chess whiz, is challenging eight guys who are sitting there at the table, and each of them has a chess board. And he goes around, he moves, you know, and then goes to the next player and moves, and in the course of going around three or four times, he checkmates everybody. And anyway, it’s the story of the writer getting involved with this chess expert, and the chess expert keeps beating him and beating him, because he becomes more and more humiliated because not only does the chess expert beat him, but he insults him. And the evening gets later and later, and suddenly the cops appear and they grab the old man and the writer, Arturo, and they book them for loitering. And he goes to the city jail with this old man and they’re in the drunk tank, and the old man has a chess board with him, and so they play chess all night in the drunk tank. And they begin to bet on the game – you know, from two bits they bet 50 cents, and 50 cents a dollar, and the thing ends with Arturo owing the old man $30,000 [laughs] and falling asleep on the drunk tank floor.
BP: That’s pretty powerful.
JF: Anyway, now, that episode never took place, but I did play chess and I did play in Pershing Square, and I knew a chess master who used to play that sort of chess and beat everybody, Herman Steiner, who was an absolute chess genius, one of the fourth ranking chess players in the world. Well, you know, combining all of that, I got that scene out of it.
BP: That’s interesting. It’s something like what Fitzgerald said about – he described it as composite. I think you’ve heard that term before. In other words, you take three or four different events that have happened to you and put them together –
JF: That’s right.
BP: And that creates the tension, the humor, whatever.
JF: That’s right, yeah.
BP: If you wrote down the things that happened in everyday life, like say you go back to the naturalists or whatever, what kind of writing would that be?
JF: What kind of writing would that be?
BP: Yeah, if instead of putting things together in a composite, if you said I’m going to write down exactly the way I remember it scientifically.
JF: What kind of writing would it be? I don’t understand the question. It would be simply a diary, wouldn’t it?
BP: Yeah. Is it interesting enough?
JF: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. It would be assembling these facts and this information for your own personal use.
BP: What are some of the things that a novelist has to add to make a novel biting?
JF: Mostly a peculiarity of style.
BP: How about characterization? How do you do that? How do you deal with a character? That’s a difficult question. You don’t use a lot of descriptive writing in your characterization.
JF: No, no.
BP: It’s very lean.
JF: It’s keeping a character mobile, I think, making him unique even though he may not be.
BP: Let’s take, for instance, the character of the woman in Ask the Dust, the one from Long Beach. Remember her name?
JF: I can’t remember.
BP: What were the things you added? Like for instance, the obvious thing would be the mark on her body. How do you build a character like that?
JF: Well, I met that woman. I met that woman in Venice. And I didn’t have to do much more than describe her and keep within the framework of my own observations to get that character. She was a woman who repelled me. She was starved for affection, cloying, and a little bit frightening – and unforgettable.
BP: In contrast to the lead female character?
JF: Well, the lead character, Camilla was –
BP: I mean, I would’ve liked to have met her, to have known her.
JF: Yes, well, something I learned about her long after I knew her was that she was a lesbian. That’s one of the reasons I –
BP: Do you think there was an objection to the fact that a heroine – I hate to use that term – that the leading female character in that book was a Mexican? I mean, she was a poor, Los Angeles Mexican. There’s almost no precedent for that. I can’t think of one book before Ask the Dust that did that.
JF: Well, she may have been a poor Los Angeles Mexican, but in that time in my life, I though that Mexican girls were extremely beautiful. I thought they were just gorgeous.
BP: But I mean the critics might’ve been a little troubled by that.
JF: That’s possible.
BP: You think any of them knew any Mexican girls?
JF: No, I don’t think so.
BP: Did she ever contact you after the book came out?
BP: You don’t know what happened to her?
JF: No, I don’t. I often wonder about her. No, I did see her briefly. After the book came out, and she had read the book, and I remember what she said to me.
BP: What was that?
JF: She said it’s not true.
BP: Was it true?
JF: I told her it was true. And she said it’s not true, it didn’t happen. And it didn’t, but much of it did. And she, that woman, on paper, was true. She was true. She was my truth.
BP: So she saw it through her eyes, but you saw it through your eyes?
BP: Was she angry about the book?
JF: No, she was rather pleased.
BP: In what way?
JF: Well, she was flattered that I had written it.
BP: Was it a surprise to her to read a book about herself?
JF: Yes, uh-huh.
BP: Was she capable of appreciating the book?
JF: No, no, she was a wildcat. She was ignorant, illiterate.
BP: How about the friend of yours in that book, Heilman?
JF: Oh yes, uh-huh.
BP: Was he drawn from life, too?
JF: No, he was an absolute invention.
BP: So that’s a part of it. You take part of it from life, and where you have to, you invent?
JF: Right, that’s what I did there. I think I did it there because I needed some relief for the character of Arturo when he was in his room, in the hotel. He had to do something, you know.
BP: Right. You were pretty much alone at that time.
JF: Yes, I was.
BP: What about Mencken? Did he read the book and did he write to you about it?
JF: No, Mencken never read the book.
BP: That’s really a shame, because he plays a very important part in that book, apocryphally.
JF: Yeah, J.C. Hackmuth. In this book I’m doing now, I’ve got a similar character, and I call him H.L. Muller. [laughs]
Joyce Fante: I was just thinking you should change it to Hackmuth.
JF: I think you’re right, honey. I must do that.
BP: Why not? That would be a nice consistency.
JF: That’s good. That’s a good idea.
BP: What did he think of your film writing? I have a Xerox of all the letters, which I’m going to use some of them, by the way.
JF: I don’t think he gave it a thought. Mencken knew a lot of people who’d done that, so just because a man was writing in pictures –
BP: I didn’t mean it that way. Did he give you any advice?
JF: No, he never did. It was very remote from him and his life, his entertainments.
BP: That’s a good place to stop. We’ve got a lot there.
[May 22, 1979]
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: Monday, April 19th, 2010.