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Traversing the Middle: The John Fante Tapes [Four]

By Ben Pleasants.


Ben Pleasants: It’s a good machine, but I have been having a little trouble with the batteries.

John Fante: Honey, would you get what we have done of How to Write a Screenplay and bring it out here and read a few pages to Ben?

BP: Has that book given you pleasure, John, going back into your mind?

JF: I’ll tell you, I just took a leap out into Bukowski country. I wrote it fresh off of Bukowksi’s book, Factotum. It’s pretty wild.

BP: It looks like the teacher is learning something from the student. It’s funny, when I did all this work, Bukowski and I had talked about your work many times, and I didn’t realize he was going to mention you in the novel. And when I was in the middle of this, I read the novel, and I was really shocked.

JF: That’s nice.

BP: And I was pleased, too, because it gave me a little bit of leverage with Martin. All I had to say was turn to page 200 of the book you just published.

Joyce Fante: [Reads from Dreams from Bunker Hill] “On the way back to Bunker Hill I went through Perishing Square. It was a warm night…”

BP: You really got into it now?

John Fante: Yeah. Do you have the episode of the striptease, honey?

BP: This is the world of Los Angeles in the ’30s again.

Joyce Fante: [Resumes] “I went to a movie…”

BP: You are a master of irony. As a matter of fact, I quarrel with that headline, because I didn’t think that was what the article was about. I didn’t write the headline.

John Fante: What headline?

BP: On the headline in the article. Do you remember what it was? Something like ‘Stories of Irony.’

JF: Oh, I see.

Joyce Fante: There’s more about Ginger Britain. “One day…”

BP: Have you gotten into any of the stuff at the studio, or is that later?

John Fante: That’s next.

BP: That’s going to be a real adventure. Do you remember what it was like when you first started out? What was the first studio?

JF: Warner Bros.

BP: That was the early ’30s?

JF: It was 1934.

BP: And that was – what was the assignment?

JF: Just a minute. Honey, can you find that section about the beach? That’s good stuff, though, isn’t it?

BP: Yes, it’s very fine. I don’t think it’s Bukowski at all, it’s Fante. Some of the scenes are a little reminiscent. Remember that thing in Bandini, the first book you wrote, with the father in the winter laying next to his wife and the cold? I don’t know if you remember that.

JF: No, I don’t.

BP: God, that was good. That’s really great writing. It they want to make a movie out of something, that would be the book. It would take a delicate touch to do that book.

JF: Yes, it would.

BP: It’s so visual. There’s so many things in that book you can see with your eyes, the mind’s eyes.

JF: The material was very close to me at the time. After I finished that novel, I was convinced I would never be able to write anymore because I had written everything I knew.

BP: It must’ve been painful to write that book.

JF: It wasn’t painful for what was down there; it was painful for what I had omitted.

BP: What do you mean?

JF: There were scenes between my mother and father that were just brutal, and I couldn’t bear to write them. I toned them down. My father was in many ways a beast.

BP: I sense some of that in there, more in The Brotherhood than in any of the other books.

JF: Yeah, he was one of those hard-bitten Italian peasants who arrived here and didn’t find any gold on the streets at all, just found scrap iron. And it wasn’t long before he just gave up and settled into a routine that was even worse than when he lived a peaceful life in Abruzzi.

BP: In Italy?

JF: Yeah. It was hard going in this country.

BP: Why did he settle in Colorado, of all places?

JF: The only explanation I have for that is that it was mountain country, and Abruzzi was mountain country.

BP: And he worked with his hands in stone?

JF: Yeah, yeah, he was a fine craftsman, really an artist.

BP: Did he see your house here? He came to this house?

JF: No, he never saw this house. He came down when I lived on Van Ness.

BP: That’s in Full of Life.

JF: Yes, that’s right.

BP: The whole business with the floors rotting out.

JF: [To Joyce] You find it, honey?

Joyce Fante: Yeah. He’s working for a literary agent now, and he’s going to see this girl. [Joyce resumes reading.]

BP: That’s fine stuff. How many chapters do you think the whole thing will run? Do you have any plan?

John Fante: It’ll be a short novel.

BP: 50,000 words?

JF: Less than that, Ben, I think. It all depends on how it develops. It’s very easy to write. That’s the difficulty with it, it’s like quicksand, you know – you go plunging in and before you know it, you’re in over your head, and you’re down a path that you don’t want to go down.

BP: Are you “traversing the middle?” A number of friends of mine said that’s a very helpful analogy to think about how you do it – beginning and the end, and then traversing the middle.

JF: That sounds very good, don’t you think?

BP: Oh, it does indeed. The most interesting one, though, is the one with the chess. I refer to that I guess in the article I wrote because we had talked about it.

JF: Yes.

BP: It’s an odd thing about writing a novel. It’s an interesting experience because it brings out a lot of things in your head that you hadn’t really solidified about people and things that happened in the past, and then they begin to acquire definition.

JF: I had one small worry about this. I sense the fact that I may be running out of material in this thing.

BP: I don’t think you’re right at all, John. In fact, I could say unequivocally that you’re wrong. You’ve got a lot of material. If your health holds you, you could put out a number of books. It’s a matter of conquering these problems.

JF: I have a magnificent scene where he encounters Sinclair Lewis. Did I ever tell you that scene?

BP: No.

JF: It happens after he’s been working in picture for about, oh, eight weeks. He has a friend now by the name – it’s Frank Fenton, but I’m going to change the name, and they’re sitting at the bar in Chasen’s. Chasen’s is, as you know, a famous Hollywood restaurant.

BP: Yeah. It’s about four blocks from where I live.

JF: And he and Fenton are sitting at the bar, and beyond the bar through a door is the dining area. And as they sit there drinking, the door from the street opens and in walks a tall red-headed man with two women on his arms, and they pass them and they go into the dining room, and the head waiter signals them to follow him. And Arturo plays no attention to the guy, but Fenton –

JF: So Sinclair Lewis, of course, is an everlasting association with H.L. Mencken, and he feels that it’s altogether right and just that he should meet Sinclair Lewis.

BP: Since he’s a protégé?

JF: Yeah, since he’s a protégé of Mencken’s. So he says to his friend, “I’ve gotta meet that guy.” And with that, he just turns and goes down into the main dining room and walks down to the first table, which is far away down the main aisle. And there sits Sinclair Lewis and these two women, and they’re having a drink. And he walks up and he says, “Mr. Lewis?” and Lewis just looks up at him. and here’s this gaunt, red-haired, steely blue-eyed cadaver kind of a guy, and he just stares at Arturo. And he says, “My name is Arturo Bandini,” and he offers Lewis his hand. And Lewis just looks at the hand, and the two women just look at him, look at Arturo, but nobody acknowledges him or in any way offers him any kindness or courtesy. And they leave him standing there for perhaps two minutes with his hand like that. And suddenly he just turns, enraged and humiliated, and walks out. And he goes back to the bar where his friend is, and he’s just furious. And he calls to the bartender and he says, “Get me a piece of paper, I want to write a note.” And the bartender gives him a piece of paper, and he writes, “Dear Sinclair Lewis: I happen to be a protégé of H.L. Mencken, and I was under the impression that you were, too. I’m sorry that I interrupted you in this way, but I want to tell you that you can go fuck yourself.” And he gives it to one of the waiters and gives him a dollar, and the waiter goes down with it to Sinclair Lewis’ table. And Arturo stands in the doorway to watch Lewis’ reaction. And Lewis opens the note, and he no sooner opens it than he stands straight up and looks around. Then he spills out of that niche where he’s seated and he comes toward them. And with that, Arturo is so panicked, he runs. He runs out of the restaurant and out into the street, Beverly Boulevard, and he runs down a half a block to where some cars are parked, and he jumps into a car that’s parked there and lies down on his belly. Now he can hear the footsteps coming down the street, and the guy is saying, “Fante! Where are you? Hey, Fante! Where are you?” And he just lies still and quaking. And Lewis looks around and looks around, and finally turns and goes back to the restaurant.

BP: How much of that happened?

JF: That all happened.

BP: It did? [laughing] Do you remember when that was? Must’ve been the ’30s?

JF: Must’ve been about ’34.

BP: That’s great. So it’s right in your time scheme. The description is marvelous. I guess his eyes really were –

JF: Oh yeah, they were bleak eyes. Bleak. Cold, blue eyes. He looked exactly like the writer. Cadaverous, steely-eyed writer.

BP: His wife wasn’t around?

JF: No, she wasn’t. He had two starlets with him. They had to be starlets.

BP: I guess he did a lot of that.

JF: He did a lot of that and a lot of drinking.

BP: Fenton was there at the time?

JF: Yeah.

BP: Was he a comrade of yours?

JF: Yeah, he was my best friend.

BP: Oh. I think I may know his son. Does he have a son by the name of Frank Fenton who’s a stockbroker?

JF: No, no. He has a son named Mark and a daughter named Joyce.

BP: But you never got to talk to him, huh? Why did you run away?

JF: I don’t know why. I don’t know.

BP: Because he’d take a poke at you or what?

JF: I don’t know. I just don’t understand –

BP: He probably would’ve wanted to talk to you.

JF: Oh, I’m sure he did. I’m sure he wanted to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know who you were. Sit down and have a drink.”

BP: It’s funny. Lewis, I think, he always overwrote. He put about ten pounds of hamburger meant on one bun, somehow.

JF: That’s possible. I loved his Main Street. To me, that’s his best book.

BP: I guess for my generation, it was awful hard to read his stuff. The only thing I could read with any interest is Elmer Gantry. That’s an interesting book.

JF: Yes, Elmer Gantry is a good book.

BP: Main Street and Babbitt, maybe because they were trying to change the country and they changed it. Therefore, it’s really not too interesting because the kind of Babbitt America that existed at that time I don’t think is a threat. It’s still there, but it’s not as much a threat as it was then.

JF: Did you ever read Arrowsmith?

BP: Yeah, I read that in high school. It was assigned reading and I didn’t like it, either. There’s something wrong with it.

JF: Yes, it didn’t have his sting, his sarcasm.

BP: I’ll tell you this, if I’d read Mencken in high school, I would’ve been a lot more enthusiastic. But they never would’ve taught him in high school. It’s funny, too, because my grandfather was a personal friend of Mencken’s, and yet my father didn’t have any of his books in the house because he was a very loyal lover of Roosevelt, I guess for that reason [laughs].

JF: That’s a parting of the ways. Mencken used to just love to take after Roosevelt.

BP: I’m sure my grandfather wasn’t fond of Roosevelt, either, but my father was and so was my mother. They’d tell stories about him, because my grandfather told a lot of stories about Mencken. But when it came to politics, they always disliked his viewpoint.

JF: He was a Tory.

BP: Yeah. There was something tough about the guy and you’ve got to admire that.

JF: He also had great sensitivity in some areas. His skill at treating the English language is something to behold.

BP: Yeah, and he was really influential. I think he made his – his effects were felt most in the ’20s, when he wrote that thing called ‘Sahara of the Beaux-Arts.’ I mean, that was a devastating attack on the South, and yet a lot of young Southerners thought he was right, and he was shocked when they came to his defense.

JF: He wrote some beautiful pieces about William Jennings Bryan, sarcastic pieces.

BP: Yeah. I guess you’ve seen the film Inherit the Wind. It makes Mencken out to be a devil, which is ridiculous, because he was very much admired by Darrow, too.

JF: True.

BP: But in the film they make it out that Darrow thinks of him as this cynical bastard who doesn’t care about anything, which is inaccurate.

JF: It’s true.

BP: But they had to. I think they’ve used Mencken as a scapegoat a lot of times, and I would love to know what happened at Knopf when somebody, whoever it was, made a decision not to reprint any of his books anymore. Because you can’t get ’em; they’re just not around anywhere. The only thing is a little paperback book that has about five of the Prejudices in it.

JF: Is that right? Aren’t they printing his books?

BP: You can’t get his books anymore.

JF: Well, there’s something deliberate about that.

BP: Yeah, I know. The only thing you can get is The American Language. No, that’s out of print, too. This friend of mine was telling me the other day that they were going for astronomical sums now because that’s out of print. I think the only thing that’s in print are his three autobiographical books, but nothing else.

JF: I’ll be damned. He’s getting the brush, huh?

BP: Some of his things do date, there’s no doubt about that. He mentioned in, I don’t know, 1948, just before he had a stroke, when they reprinted ‘Sahara of the Beaux-Arts,’ that he thought it was an amusing piece, but it no longer applied. That’s like reprinting the things about the Scopes monkey trial, that’s only of value historically, but it’s still very funny. But a lot of the things he said in the Prejudices are still very vivid, especially the biographical portraits he did. Those are really wonderful and they’ll stand up for a long time.

JF: His attacks on the American Academy and education.

BP: Those are wonderful. But the problem with those is they’re complicated, and you have to know a lot about the period, Moore and those guys –

JF: That’s right.

BP: – and you’ve got to know who they were. That’s one of the problems with Sinclair Lewis. That’s why that novel Ask the Dust is so beautiful. It’s not a profound novel in the sense of trying to make a brilliant statement. Those are the novels that almost always date. But it’s an accurate, careful portrait of a young man at a particular time. And that’ll last, John. It just stands up solid. It’s the same thing about the other books. They’re not attached to things; they’re not attached to philosophical concepts or things that’ll fall apart later on, you know what I mean?

JF: Yeah.

BP: Like Zola‘s stuff on realism, okay, it’s pretty interesting, but you can’t read that today without getting bored after a while. There’s too much scientific stuff there. I think that’s the problem with Sinclair Lewis – there’s too much involved, in contrast to [Sherwood] Anderson, who just told simple stories in a beautiful way.

JF: Uh-hm. He wrote [inaudible].

BP: I think you could say that about [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, too. He didn’t have any real concept of what a novel was. He just knew that he had to write things and tell stories, and they hold up.

JF: Uh-hm.

BP: I think some of Hemingway‘s stuff is beginning to date, too, although a lot of it’s really solid.

JF: I like The Torrents of Spring.

BP: Oh yeah. That was a savage thing to do that to Anderson, who was his friend. I always thought that was a little bit presumptuous of him. That was his second book, Anderson was his friend –

JF: I don’t remember that in The Torrents of Spring.

BP: The Torrents of Spring was his satire on Anderson. It was making fun of Anderson.

JF: Oh really?

BP: Yeah, that whole thing was just a satiric shot at Anderson’s later work. I think The Sun Also Rises, though, which is his first book, is just incredibly beautiful. It’s remarkable.

JF: Yeah, it’s a lovely book, a lovely book. And then, what was the next one?

BP: Well, the next one was The Torrents of Spring, but then after that came his book about World War I. What was it, the one with Captain Henry? I blocked it. It’s a book I’ve never quite been able to –

JF: It’s a book with a character by the name of Robert Cohn in it.

BP: No, that’s The Sun Also Rises.

JF: Oh, that’s Sun Also Rises. Oh, Farewell to Arms?

BP: Farewell to Arms, that’s the one with Major Henry, takes place in Italy. That’s basically autobiographical. I don’t know when you get to read. Like the book he wrote about Spain, it seems to me it doesn’t hold up as well as Orwell‘s book, which is just honest.

JF: No, I don’t think his book on Spain is much.

BP: I can’t remember the name of that. For Whom the Bell Tolls. But then you read a book like The Old Man and the Sea, and it’s just sheer beauty. God, I read that book every year, and it just seems to get better and better. It just sparkles.

JF: Uh-hm.

BP: But it’s so simple. He stripped everything out, all of the pretentious stuff. He tells a story simply and beautifully. I think that’s what was so good about the first novel. Maybe guys write better when they don’t know what a novel is, just sit down and say, “I’m going to do it my way.”

JF: Yeah, yeah. I think there’s something in the reluctance – not the reluctance, but in being insecure about a novel, that you can step out and have every single incident worked out. I think you can flounder over a thing like that because you find yourself writing things that you really don’t want to write, but they fit into that outline.

BP: Yeah, it’s almost like somebody giving you a pattern and saying, “Okay, this is the novel we want you to write; now write it.”

JF: That’s right.

BP: You get to the point where you say, “I’m not going to do that. I want to go off in my own eccentric direction, to hell with you.” When you worked with Brotherhood, did you have an outline on that, or did you just sit down and write it?

JF: No, I didn’t have an outline.

BP: And the editors in New York, did they say, “What the hell are you doing, John?”

JF: No, they didn’t question me. Although one of the editors at Bantam, a woman, wanted to know which way I was going in it, and I had only indicated a general direction. She wanted it more particular. I told her I couldn’t do it.

BP: It’s a hard thing. I once saw a French composer, Darius Milhaud – have you heard of him?

JF: Yeah.

BP: Well, he was at my college. I was about 18. Some jerk ass got up and asked him, “How do you write a symphony?” Milhaud was about 80 years old. He still had black hair. He was totally yellow. He had some kind of jaundice disease, and he was a strong man. He was sitting there in a wheelchair, as a matter of fact, but he was strong. And he said, “Well,” – he didn’t insult the guy, but he said, “Well, I’ll tell you. It’s like the cook giving away his recipes. You don’t do that.” He said, “I don’t know how you write a symphony. If I did know, I wouldn’t tell you.”

JF: That’s a very good comparison, because you turn a cook loose, and he doesn’t know where he’s going, he’s just improvising every step of the way. And he never measures anything. He just seasons everything to what he regards as his taste. He doesn’t measure a teaspoon of salt, he just tosses it in, stirs it up, and somehow or other it’s… it’s incredible [inaudible].

BP: Maybe the only thing you have is your instinct, something that interests you and you want to go in and write about it. The first novel I wrote was a comic study of a terrorist, a guy who was a failure as a terrorist, he couldn’t do it right. Everybody said, “You’re crazy, no one’ll buy that novel. It’s just a crazy idea.” They were right, nobody did, but I still had to write it. It was in my head and I had to write it.

JF: It sounds like a good idea.

BP: I think it’d make a helluva funny movie.

JF: It sounds like a great Woody Allen.

BP: I doubt that he’d be interested. I don’t know. I’ve given up on that. But I had the idea in my head, and I just stuck with it until it was finished.

JF: How long did it take you to write it?

BP: I wrote it over a period of about a year. It’s been sitting around for five years. It went to about five publishers. Two were interested in it; one was New Directions. James Laughlin wrote me a very nice long letter, and I would’ve been happy to have somebody like that do it. It just wouldn’t have been right for a regular publisher.

JF: Is that New Directions, are they still in business?

BP: Oh yeah, he’s doing well. You know, Laughlin Steel is owned by his family. He sold his interest out of that.

JF: Oh, is that right?

BP: I talked to him a couple of times on the phone. He’s a very nice man. I was doing some things on Kenneth Rexroth, who he publishes, and I wanted some information. So I called the office to talk to his secretary, and she said, “Oh, well here, talk to him.” I was really surprised. So he came on the phone. About two years ago, I asked him if I could do an interview about New Directions, and he said, “Sure.” He was going to invite me to his place in Connecticut, but I couldn’t make it out there at the right time. He publishes Kenneth Patchen.

JF: I used to know Kenneth Patchen. Joyce knew him, too.

BP: Is that right?

JF: Did he die?

BP: Yeah, he died a terrible death. I never met Patchen. I read him a lot. I always liked his work. But he was in a tremendous amount of pain the last ten years of his life.

JF: What was that?

BP: He had some kind of god-awful spinal illness that wasted him away. He was in bed. It was an arthritic spine condition.

JF: Oh God.

BP: That’s one thing I’ll never forgive Bukowski about. He wrote a story about his death, and it was terrible, and Rexroth said if he ever saw Bukowski, he’d go after him with a telephone pole, and I don’t blame him, because it was a terrible thing to write.

JF: How did he write it?

BP: See, evidently the last ten years of his life, Patchen’s wife was very protective of him. I don’t know, I don’t even want to go into it. I’m very good friends with Bukowski, but I told him I thought it was in very bad taste. He laughed and said, “Well, you got to write what you got to write.”

JF: You mean it was something to do with his sex life.

BP: No, he described him – it just makes me sick thinking about it. It had to do with the last days of his life, but it had nothing to do with his sex life, but it was just pretty terrible. I was really surprised that he did it, because I know he liked Patchen and admired his work, and I just couldn’t understand why he would do that.

JF: I’ll be darned.

BP: I don’t think it’s something he’s overly proud of now. When he wrote it, he was writing for the Free Press. He was turning out one story a week, and so sometimes things got into his head. Whether he wanted to write it or not, he wrote ’em.

JF: Bukowski wrote for the Free Press?

BP: Oh yeah, he was there for about three years. In fact, that’s really where I re-established our friendship. Because we had known each other years before and then we sort of drifted apart because of various commitments in his direction and in my direction. They hired me to do an editorial job there, so one of the first things I did was do a long interview with Bukowski and his friends.

JF: How long – when did Bukowski publish his first novel?

BP: Let’s see. Post Office, that was published about 1967, ’68, somewhere around there. He wrote stories when he was younger, much younger. He had a couple published. One as published in Story magazine, and a couple other places. Then he gave up and sort of went on a drunk for ten years. Then he came back to it by writing basically what I would say is his poems – are almost stories. That’s basically what they are, but he had to find a format where he could tell the stories and get them printed, so he did it as poetry, and damned well. It’s only after he’d become really successful as a poet that he began to go back to prose again. This guy gave him an assignment with a newspaper called Open City, where he’d write his Notes of a Dirty Old Man, which is the first prose book he wrote. So he wrote those every week for about two years. Then when that newspaper folded, the Free Press hired him to do the same thing. It was pretty funny stuff. He did cartoons and all kinds of crazy things. [inaudible about Patchen] What do you remember of Patchen?

JF: Well, when my wife and I first got married, we were very poor, and were living in the Wilshire district, and she got a job with the Writers Project. You know what that was?

BP: Oh yeah, the thing the government had.

JF: Yeah. And Kenneth Patchen also worked on the Writers Project with my wife, and she knew him pretty well. She liked his poetry.

BP: Yeah, he as a good guy. I liked him a lot. He was a wonderful writer. In fact, I wrote a poem recently about him. It’s going to be published somewhere. I don’t even keep track.

JF: You need a good agent.

BP: Oh, I’ve given up on the whole business of working with agents. I’m too much of an individualist. Anarchists don’t deal well with agents.

JF: I agree with you. I agree with you. I don’t think sane writers do, either, unless they’re industrialists.

BP: Irving Wallace types.

JF: Like cartels.

BP: I don’t think he writes half the books he writes. Doesn’t Saroyan assign some people to write some of his books?

JF: I don’t think so.

BP: I heard that.

JF: Really?

BP: He had a couple of people write books under his name.

JF: I can’t believe that about Bill. Although I once heard that the most successful novel he ever wrote was written by an editor at Doubleday.

BP: Oh, that’s basically the same story. In other words, Saroyan didn’t write it?

JF: No.

BP: I think that’s true.

JF: What was the name of that?

BP: The Human Comedy?

JF: The Human Comedy, yeah.

BP: I would find that hard to believe, though, because I read that book and it seems pretty much like Saroyan stuff. It’s pretty autobiographical, living out wherever it was.

JF: I don’t think so.

BP: Really? It takes place during World War I in a telegraph office.

JF: Yeah, it was made into a picture. [To Joyce] Honey, who was that? What did he want?

Joyce Fante: [Inaudible] How about more coffee? I just made another pot.

BP: Is Nick named after your dad?

John Fante: Yeah.

BP: He is?

JF: Honey, would you put some more of that ointment in my eyes?

BP: [regarding the dog] I gotta remember not to wear white pants over here.

JF: Oh God, you shouldn’t encourage him, he’ll just drive you nuts [the dog].

BP: I know. I love dogs, though – well, not little ones.

JF: You want to wash your hands?

BP: No. Have you done anything more with My Dog Stupid?

JF: No.

BP: It just sits there, huh?

JF: Yeah. It’s a good book.

BP: Have you talked to an agent about it recently?

JF: It’s been on the back burner with more people. A guy who really want it is – he’s the star of – you remember the Mary Tyler Moore Show? Lou, Lou something.

BP: Oh, Lou Grant. You mean Ed Asner?

JF: Ed Asner.

BP: No kidding.

JF: He wants to do it.

BP: What is it basically about?

JF: It’s about a writer who –

[July 20, 1979]


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: Tuesday, April 27th, 2010.