Can you recall the first thing you had published and how you felt about it?
No, I can't recall. Can remember my first major publication, a short story in Whit Burnett's and Martha Foley's Story magazine, 1944. I had been sending them a couple of short stories a week for maybe a year and a half. The story they finally accepted was mild in comparison to the others. I mean in terms of content and style and gamble and exploration and all that. Got another story accepted about that time in Carese Crosby's portfolio and after that, I packed it in. I threw away all the stories and concentrated upon drinking. I didn't feel that the publishers were ready and that although I was ready, I could be readier and I was also disgusted with what I read as accepted front-line literature. So I drank and became one of the best drinkers anywhere, which takes some talent also.
Why did you leave it so long to go into writing full time, I guess there are a few reasons?
Yes, the drinking. And in between, the bumming between cities, the low-level jobs. I saw little meaning in anything and still have a problem with that. I lived a rather suicidal life, a half-assed life and I met some hard and crazy women. Some of this became material for my later writings. I mean, I drank. There was a bit of a death scene in a hospital, charity ward. I was spewing blood out of my mouth and my ass but didn't go. Came out and drank some more. Sometimes if you don't care whether you die or not, it can be hard work going. Then two and one half years as a letter carrier and eleven and a half years as a postal clerk didn't exactly give me a zest for life either. At the age of 50, twenty years ago, I quit my job and decided to become a professional writer, that is, one who gets paid for his scribblings. I figured either that or skidrow. I got lucky. I still am.
Tell us a little about your friendship with John Fante, you love his books and you became his friend...
As a young man, I hung around the libraries during the day and the bars at night. I read and I read and I read. Then I ran out of things to read. I kept pulling the books out of the shelves again and again. I could only read a few lines and I felt the fakeness and I put them back. It was a real horror show. Nothing related to life, at least not to mine and the streets and the people I saw in the streets and what they were forced to do and what they became. And one day I happened to pull out a book by somebody named Fante. The lines leaped at me. Fire. No bullshit. But I'd never heard of Fante, nobody spoke of Fante. He was just in there. A book. It was called Ask The Dust. I didn't like the title but the words were simple and honest and full of passion. Holy shit, I thought, this man can write! Well, I read all of his books that i could get hold of And I knew that there were still some magic people on the earth. It was decades later in my writings that I mentioned a 'Fante'. Now all of my writings are not published but they are all sent to John Martin, Black Sparrow Press, and he asked me once, I believe it was over the telephone, 'You keep mentioning a 'Fante'? Is this a real writer?' I told him that it was and that he should read this fellow. Soon I heard from Martin, he was very excited, "Fante is great, great! I can't believe it! I am going to republish his works!" And then came the stream of Black Sparrow Fante books. Fante was still alive. My wife suggested that since he was such a hero to me that I go visit him. He was in a hospital, dying, blind and amputated; diabetes. We made visits to the hospital and once to his home where he was briefly released for a short time. He was a little bulldog, just brave without trying. But he was going. Still he wrote a book in that state, dictating it to his wife. Black Sparrow published it. He was a writer to the end. He even told me about his idea for his next novel: a woman baseball player who made it to the big leagues. 'Go ahead, John, do it,' I told him. But soon it was over...
Do you know anything about this film being made from one of his books, is it 'Bandini' that they've filmed?
I'm not sure about the movies. I think at least five of his books are being made into movies. A strange turn. He worked for Hollywood, you know. That's where he vanished to. That's where his other writing stopped. "Why the hell did you go to Hollywood, that slime pit of nowhere?' I asked him. 'Mencken told me to,' he said, 'go ahead and take them.' Mencken, that son of a bitch. He sent Fante to hell. H. L. had published many of Fante's stories in the old American Mercury. Fante met Faulkner there. Faulkner would enter his cottage in the morning sober and come out dead drunk each evening. They had to pour him into a taxi cab.
We heard reports that you were moved by the Dominic Deruddere film Crazy Love based upon your writing. What are you feelings about this film?
I liked Crazy Love. As I told Deruddere, 'You made me look better than I am.' He oversensitized me. But it came out nicely and much of it was actually me.'
How is the biography of you by Neeli Cherkovski progressing? Have you had much contact with him over it? How do you feel about someone writing about your life?
The biography is just about finished. Well, I've know Cherkovski since he was 14 years old or maybe it was 16. He's got me on tape drunk, many times, babbling away. Photos, all that. He seems to have been around me a long time, has seen many of my women, has seen me vicious, kind, foolish and all that. He wrote a book about some poets called Whitman's Wild Children and it contained such humor and easy writing that when he approached me about writing one on me, I said, 'Go ahead." I asked not to see it. I also told him not to go easy on me. It should be worth some laughs. Really can't do much harm. If it does, I'll write my way out of it.
You are very popular in Europe, France, Germany, Switzerland and other places, some of your stories even being translated into comic book form, why is this do you think? Is it Carl Weissner's influence?
Carl Weissner's influence on my work, getting it translated, getting it around, getting it seen, well, it just can't be discounted. The comic book things are really rather well done. I don't know what causes this comic book stuff. Maybe it's a sickness.
City Lights put out Shakespeare Never Did This, did you enjoy that trip to Germany?
Actually Shakespeare Never Did This is about two trips to Europe and I put it together as one. I do get them mixed up because of all the heavy drinking. I really gave some hotels over there a very rough time but they never called the police which, I think, is real class.
How important has Black Sparrow Press been to you? You seem to have been very loyal to each other.
Black Sparrow Press promised me $100 a month for life if I quit my job and tried to be a writer. Nobody else even knew I was alive. Why shouldn't I be loyal forever? And now the royalties from Sparrow match or surpass all other royalties. What a flashing heaven of luck.
You show tremendous kindness and loyalty to small presses, why is this?
The small presses always published things of mine that the larger presses were afraid of. They still do.
Do you have a favourite book of your own?
Each last book that I write is my favorite book.
It's well known that you like classical music, who is your favourite, any particular reasons?
Sibelius. The long deep tonality. And a passion that knocks your lights out.
Do you still go to the races much? Is that something that you've done for a long time?
I went to the racetrack in an attempt to find a substitute for drinking. It didn't work. Then I had drinking and the track. Nobody bothers me at the track. And planning your plays, placing your bets, you find out a great deal about yourself and also about the other people. For instance, knowledge without follow-through is worse than no knowledge at all. It's a good school, although sometimes a boring one, but it keeps you from thinking that you are a writer or whatever you are trying to be.
Do you have ideal conditions under which you write? Do you write most days?
The ideal conditions are between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Bottle of wine, smokes, radio on to classical music. I write 2 or 3 nights a week. It's the best show in town.
Will you ever come to Europe again. A few years ago you were billed as coming to the London Book Fair!
I don't think I'll travel anymore. Travel is nothing but an inconvenience. There is always enough trouble where you are.
Can you give us any clues on your next book?
Usually one book a year. I know that it sounds awful to say so but I think that I am writing better than I ever have.
What lies in the future for you? Will you keep writing?
If I stop writing I am dead. And that's the only way I'll stop: dead.
From Transit magazine, 1994
Appears in Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews