“Los Angeles, give me some of you!” No one but John Fante (1909-1983), the American novelist and screenwriter, could have written those words. At the time, the 1930s, he was hungry and poor, living in a downtown L.A. flophouse, struggling to win recognition as a writer.
Encouraged by the critic H.L. Mencken, he continued to write fiction sporadically throughout his life, often taking time out to make money writing for Hollywood. His novels, including Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, and Wait Until Spring, Bandini, went virtually unnoticed until the late 1970s, when poet and novelist Charles Bukowski convinced Black Sparrow Press to reissue them. Thus began a tremendous resurgence in popularity for John Fante, now widely recognized as one of the best authors ever produced by Los Angeles and a major Italian American novelist. Now, his son Dan Fante, 67, a poet and novelist, gives us Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving. The absorbing, pull-no-punches memoir describes a difficult father-son relationship and offers an inside view of the celebrated John Fante’s turmoil as a serious literary novelist who could not resist the lure of Hollywood. It also recounts Dan Fante’s turbulent life as an alcoholic, his recovery, and the experiences that have inspired Chump Change, 86’d, and his other novels about the seedy underbelly of the American dream.
RWR: You refer to your father’s “searing bad luck” as a novelist. How important is luck in a writing career?
Fante: “Luck” is the difference between a book that sells 3,000 copies and one that sells 50,000. Ask the Dust sold 2,000 copies in 1939 and was forgotten. Had John Fante’s publisher spent the money to publicize the book it might’ve sold the several hundred thousand it did on re-issue in 1980.
RWR: Your father returned to screenwriting again and again for 45 years, driven by “poverty and love of the good life.” And that, of course, took him away from his fiction writing. Isn’t it ironic that his mentor, H.L. Mencken, who encouraged him in his serious writing, was the one who told him to “Take the money” when John Fante was first offered a screen writing job?
Fante: Mencken had utter contempt for screen writing but he understood that my father needed to make money. What’s ironic is that John Fante kept going back to a poisoned well and kept drinking from it.
RWR: Why did the Hollywood Ten blackball your father?
Fante: My father was at a meeting of The Writer’s Guild (before it was recognized as a union) One of the (later-known) Hollywood Ten, Lester Cole, reversed himself on a vote he had put before the group. When Cole asked for a re-vote and John Fante refused to change his ballot he was called a “fucking fascist” by Mr. Cole. Suddenly my father stopped getting screen writing work in Hollywood. A coincidence? Hardly. Mr. Cole had a low regard for dissenters.
RWR: You write that you felt “fear and awe” of your father. Why was your relationship so difficult?
Fante: John Fante was a volatile man, full of passion and rage alternately. As a boy when I would come home from school and open our front door I was never sure which of those personalities would spot me on the way to my room.
RWR: In reading your book, I was reminded of the father-son relationship described by Andre Dubus III in his memoir Townie. His father was distant too, over the years, but in the end the son came to love the father. Have you read that book, and do the younger Dubus’ experiences resonate for you?
Fante: I admire Dubus’ memoir and there seem to be many similarities. I might add that there has to be something odd about men who spend most of their waking hours alone in a room tapping on a keyboard. Having an artistic temperament apparently comes with the territory.
RWR: You write that you knew in your teens that you “had to be a writer” after seeing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” How did O’Neill’s play affect you?
Fante: In watching that play I saw the explosive power of the spoken word for the first time. It changed my life. It was an earthquake in my heart and in my mind. I was never the same after that day. Watching a great play being performed can be magical–transformative.
RWR: Your father felt tremendous self-hate over being “a stinking sell-out artist,” and your own “ruminative, self-talking, obsessive mind” seemed to spring from a lack of self-esteem. Growing up, you felt like “the family dunce,” and became “snarling, angry, and uncommunicative,” like your father. Whence the shared rage?
Fante: I’m not sure. Boys—children–are like sponges. It’s fairly easy to understand. I took on or emulated the personality of my dominant parent.
RWR: Most of us think of Charles Bukowski as having sparked the renewed interest in John Fante’s work that continues to this day. But a number of Hollywood figures, notably Ben Pleasants, as well as Alvah Bessie and Budd Shulberg, played roles. Tell me about that.
Fante: Bukowski’s mention of John Fante of course was a great boost to my father’s career. But the road to that mention was paved a stone at a time by Ben Pleasants, over a period of years. Pleasants, a good friend of Bukowski’s, had been pestering Bukowski for years about giving a boost to my father. Pleasants can be a relentless man.
RWR: You have been sober for 25 years. In discussing AA and other factors that have been a vital part of your recovery, you recall a moment of epiphany at a retreat run by a man named Bob Anderson, who said the way to recover from alcoholism was to heal your mind. What happened, why was it important to you?
Fante: Alcoholism is a disease of thinking. It is a kind of mind set acquired over years. Drunks share very similar personality traits. Bob Anderson was the first man to tell me that my thinking was my problem, that I had the mind of an alcoholic–in recovery. It was like a punch in the nose. I knew that I had to learn to change my thinking. It can take years but it is possible.
RWR: Your novels are not feel-good reads. They draw on your own life of alcoholism, drug use, poverty, and suicide attempts. Who do you think your typical reader is?
Fante: I’m not really interested in winning popularity contests with my books. My mail tells me that the people who read my work see themselves in it. Those are the people I write for, the ones interested in going beyond what’s pretty or clever–into the realm of the human condition.
RWR: The scenes in your memoir are extraordinarily vivid. Are you sure you didn’t make up that blinking neon sign on a cross (“Sin Will Find You Out”) outside the window of your New York rooming house in the 1960s? How did you learn to write like that?
Fante: I don’t know. I write from my heart and not my head. I don’t know any other way. But I do wish I had made that goddamn sign up.
RWR: If someone was reading your fiction for the first time, which novel would you point him to?
RWR: You were first published in France, in 1996. What is it with the French? They seem very receptive to darker American writers.
Fante: The French have a long history of going beyond the superficial in their reading preferences. God bless the French.
RWR: Harper has since brought out many of your books here, including this one. Do you have a champion at Harper?
Fante: My editor at Harper Perennial is a woman named Amy Baker. For my money she is the best editor in America. She’s encouraging when that’s needed. Then she’s a critic who sees beneath the lines with unusual perception. Then she’s a taskmaster. Finally, she’s a judge and jury. But mostly Amy Baker is a brilliant and remarkable woman. I count myself very fortunate to know the likes of Amy Baker.
RWR: Years ago, when John Fante was unknown, being his son would have meant nothing. Now, one suspects, it can mean everything. Or does it?
Fante: I’m not so sure. Maybe someone with my name might get one book into print. But that’d be about all if the book wasn’t any good. Ultimately a writer must stand by his collected words. That’s the real test. The reader is the one who makes or breaks the writer. No one else can do it.
RWR: Like your father, you say writing is “an extraordinary and precious calling.” What do you mean by that?
Fante: Writing is not drudgery for me. I don’t face my keyboard in angst or some dark night of the soul. That’s piffle. I love what I do. It provides passion and strength and purpose to a life that once had none of those things, only blackness. I feel like a kid when I sit down to write every morning. And when I get up (most days) I feel like the luckiest man in the world.