Behind the Mask?
Dan Fante Interviewed by Rob Woodard
Burning Shore Interviews, January 2006
On a warm fall morning in 2005, Dan Fante sat down for an interview/conversation with fellow writer Rob Woodard on the outdoor patio of a coffee shop in El Segundo, California, just south of Los Angeles. Though many topics ended up being covered, plays were the main focus of the discussion, as the interview was planned to coincide with the publication of Dan's latest drama, Don Giovanni. During their talk, artist Michelle Murufas clicked away with a borrowed Nikon, taking breaks only when Dan needed to bum a smoke off her and stopping only when she ran out of film. The following is a slightly edited version of the proceedings illustrated by Ms. Murufas' photographs.
RW: Were plays important to you when you first started writing, when you first started becoming interested in literature? Or was that something that developed along the way?
DF: That's a good question. I remember seeing Long Day's Journey Into Night when I was a kid of about twelve. It was a film version with Dean Stockwell, Jason Robards, and Hepburn, and I'll tell you it had such an effect on me, such a profound emotion effect, that I knew that that's what I wanted to do. It was one of those moments. I was twelve-years old and I knew I wanted to be a playwright.
Left to Right: Dan Fante and Rob Woodard
RW: So before you never thought about novels or anything, plays were --
DF: [Interrupting] Oh yeah. There was an interim of many many years where I didn't write anything and I began to write poetry when I drove a cab. Then when I quit driving a cab in my early forties and started to write prose again, it was Selby who influenced me as a novelist. But as a playwright I was most influenced by Oneill.
RW: I've heard that you were an aspiring actor. Is that true?
DF: Yeah. Mostly in New York -- not in Los Angeles -- I studied acting. I was a failed college student, but I went to UCLA. I didn't flunk out of Santa Monica College, I just had so many incompletes it would have been miserable to go back. So I went to UCLA extension, an acting course at UCLA, and I did very well at it. The guy said you're a brilliant actor. So I went to New York thinking I wanted to be an actor when I was nineteen.
RW: So you made the full round of the auditions and all that?
DF: Yeah, I did. But the amount of the energy and commitment some of these actors have is really stunning. I mean, what they'll do, the ends, the lengths they'll go to was something I didn't have in me. And then, it's interesting, because of my acting history -- in 1969 or 1970 while I was driving a cab -- I started writing. I was involved with a theater company and I started writing little pieces for them. Then I met a guy at a rehearsal studio who had airtime at one of the stations the FM stations in New York and he offered me an airtime slot at 4:30 on Sunday morning if I would write original plays. So I did original theater on the radio for a couple of years. I came up with a radio drama called Smoke and the tagline was "They called him Smoke but his game was fire"; it was this black James Bond. It was this first kind of superhero, a black superhero, and it got a little flash of success in New York. Finally it made it to the biggest black station in New York, WBLS, and it was a syndicated station that had a really strong following. And then I got drunk and pissed off at somebody and I just chucked it, just walked away from it.
RW: So were you writing plays before this -- when you saw the Oneill play at twelve -- or did it come much later?
DF: I was involved with theater, so if there was some need for an original play and somebody said, "Hey we need this or that," I'd say, "Oh shit, I'll just do one." I mean, I had no resistance to writing. So I wrote a short piece and the guy really liked it and from that somebody else offered me another chance to write, and you know one thing leads to another ... I wasn't a writer or an aspiring writer or anything of the kind. Then I started a theater group on the west side of New York for a couple of years and taught acting. I had no business whatsoever teaching acting. But I would get drunk and then get up in front of these people and pontificate and I managed to bluff my way through it and charge them a monthly tuition. I was drinking pretty heavily at the time, so I would walk to the Blarney Stone at Fifty-Sixth Avenue and drink for an hour. Since I could only drink for an hour I would only drink, like, four or five drinks, so I wouldn't be wacko but really loose. So I could conduct this class ...
RW: Interesting. So you came through from acting to playwriting?
DF: Yeah. And then in, I guess it was '71 or '72, I just chucked it all. At this point I was really having a hard time with alcohol. I just couldn't sustain anything. Then I had some kind of a nervous breakdown. Some kind of a thing that involved drinking and just so much physical exodus ... driving a cab eleven hours a day and drinking all night and sleeping four, five hours and getting up and doing it six days a week for a year or two years in a row, never taking a vacation, never taking any time for myself, and I just kind of collapsed. Right around that same time it just cleared, and I saw that I was screwed physically and emotionally. Something happened to me-it was bad. I was crazy. I was living in the East Village with a black chick I really loved and we split up because she couldn't put up with me anymore. She just couldn't stand it. And that was the end of my playwriting career until I came back to California. I came back to California in '75 and so it was '85, '95 ... twenty-two years until I wrote another play.
RW: Would that be The Boiler Room?
DF: Yeah. I wrote [The] Boiler Room after I wrote Chump Change. Chump Change took me three years and it was just really ... just the amount of energy and preoccupation with those characters living in my mind, and then the revisions ... so it was just draining for me and I didn't want to not write but I didn't want to write another novel.
RW: I thought they came the other way around.
DF: No. But the plays, writing the play was like a vacation from writing a novel; it was a joy. I don't think it took me ... it didn't take me six months to write that play.
RW: How much revision was involved? Was it one of those pieces of writing that just flows out of you in almost one piece or was it --
DF: [Interrupting] Well, it was a lot longer originally, another sixty pages. Remember, my main theatrical influence was Eugene Oneill -- and fucking Ice Man Cometh is a three-hour-fifty-minute play! So what we did -- my friend Jolene Adams and the actors at the theater where we put the play up -- was get it down to a manageable hour and a half. But it was very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable ... because I had monologues that were fifteen minutes you know? It just went on and on and on and I thought it was brilliant and she thought it was too long. But what was there was the essence of a really good play. That's a really good play.
RW: While we're on the subject. You were kind of comparing Chump Change to Boiler Room. Did you approach them differently? When you write a play or a novel do you have different goals? Do you have any goals?
DF: It's such a different --
RW: [Interrupting] Because I've never written a play in my life and I have no idea what the process is like, how it compares --
DF: [Interrupting] Yeah. I wanna give you an intelligent answer and I'm not sure I have one. It's very different for me. It's as different as writing poetry is from writing a novel.
RW: Very different then. Let's talk about Boiler Room for a minute. Mainly I want to discuss how The Boiler Room and the novel Mooch compare, because they're obviously covering similar ground. I was just curious, was it a situation where you wanted to say more, or just approach it from a different angle-
DF: [Interrupting] I'm trying to think which one I wrote first. I think I wrote the play first. I wrote Boiler Room first and it was good enough as a play, but there was something I wanted to say about it as a novel. There was another way of telling the story that I wanted to experiment with. So that's why I did it. I wrote Mooch because it is from two different points of view. Mooch is from Dante's point of view, as Chump Change is, but Boiler Room is really from Eddie Kammegian's point of view. So they are different protagonists, therefore they are different, quite different pieces, you know?
RW: Let's talk about Don Giovanni, your latest full-length play.
DF: I wanted to write a play about my father [John Fante], and it's interesting that my mother said to me, after she read it -- my father had been dead many years -- and she said: "Oh my god, it's like having your father sitting here next to me!" His style of delivery is kind of wry, cynical, and his ease at antagonism was, is captured in that play. I also really wanted to capture my father's personality, to kind of give a glimpse of in real time the kind of person he was. He comes alive again, and that was very important to me because I wanted ... It's kind of a biography of my father.
RW: So would that be a representative portrayal of life in that house at that age for you?
DF: Yeah, the characters are different. My brother wasn't gay but there was something I wanted to show ... My brother was a great disappointment to my father, as I was. I mean, I was a complete failure, but my brother was a genius and got art school scholarships when he was a kid and was really just, artistically he was a genius and he just didn't give a shit. He was just a drunk and he drank himself to death. My father never let go of the fact that my brother had all that promise and just did nothing with it.
RW: So making the character gay is a way of showing the disconnect?
DF: Well yeah, and also it gives more opportunity to show his contempt, to show conflict.
RW: OK. I think Don Giovanni is really strong, I mean, really strong. I'd rate it over The Boiler Room.
DF: Thank you.
RW: I'm just curious, you mentioned something about it being performed, or maybe being performed --
DF: [Interrupting] Two theater companies are considering it now. The Odyssey on Sepulveda, a big theater company, and another one in Burbank.
RW: I know you're probably tired of these questions, but we're talking about Don Giovanni and it is so based around your father and he has this increasing presence in American literature, which is really fascinating. Was he an influence growing up, as far as your writing goes? There is a certain similarity in your styles. For instance, if your dad would have been born at the time you were I could easily picture him writing similar types --
DF: [Interrupting] Yeah, he was a modern novelist and I'm post-modern; but if he had written post-modern literature as say, Bukowski, if he had had that freedom of expression, which he never adopted, he would have written much more like me.
RW: I think you get a little hint of it in [John Fante's last novel] Dreams from Bunker Hill.
DF: And you get it in Ask the Dust, too. That self-deprecation and the rage and the judgment -- it's so alive and so personal. It transcends modern literature, it transcends Holden Caulfield ...
RW: When I read Ask the Dust, or any of his novels, I am always kind of struck by how far ahead of their time they are, as far as language. I was just curious if you think that may have hindered his success.
DF: No. The knock against my father was that he wrote about his family too much. And he was also his own worst publicist. My dad was not an easy guy. He was very defensive and he would take offense to things that would bother nobody else. I remember [screenwriter] Robert Towne called him once -- this is in the early seventies -- when I happened to be in California visiting him [John Fante], and my father said, "What are you doing? You've had the novel for a year and a half. What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?" You know, he's like, attacking him on the phone, and Towne said, "John, John, don't be paranoid." "Paranoid? Fucking rarara." He hangs up, "Cocksucker! What does he mean by paranoid?" Just ranting. And I said, "Jesus, pop, the guy is just trying to make a movie." He'd just get unglued.
RW: So he wasn't really a specific influence since you came to writing later.
DF: You know what, he wasn't. People say, "What's it like to be the son of the great John Fante?" Well he wasn't the great John Fante when I was a young man, a kid or a young man or an adult -- until I was in my late thirties/early forties he wasn't anything. He was just a cynical, angry old screenwriter. You couldn't come near him because he'd cut you off at the knees if you said the wrong thing to him. His sensibility toward literature, toward writing, was what filtered, was what impacted me, his judgment of literature and his extreme sensitivity and passion for it was, you know? ... You live with somebody like that and you can't help but assimilate his headspace; it can't help but rub off on you. That's it, he was an influence that way, his artistic authorial sensibility was something that he communicated. But not in regards to my actual writing.
RW: Let's talk about influences. You mentioned Oneill earlier and you also mentioned Selby. At what point did you start reading Selby?
DF: I read Selby when I got sober in '86.
RW: So that's when you first started reading Selby?
RW: Wow, that late?
DF: I tried to read him before that and couldn't. But when I got sober I was hyperaware emotionally and then I read Last Exit to Brooklyn and I was like -- wow! Last Exit to Brooklyn did for me what Ask the Dust did for the half a million people who have read it.
RW: Just a bedrock.
DF: It just blew me away! This guy told the truth about his experience and it was post-modern fiction and it was brilliant. First person narrative, post-modern, you know? I'll genuflect to Bukowski because of his influence as a poet, but Selby just smoked him as a novelist -- he was better than everybody.
RW: What do you think of his later works or his other works?
DF: I don't think much of them, actually. I've tried to read his later stuff, but it's not worthwhile. That group of novels, The Room, Last Exit to Brooklyn, there was one more, the one they didn't --
RW: [Interrupting] Requiem for a Dream?
DF: Requiem for a Dream wasn't bad, but it wasn't a great book. But then the one he wrote when he was in jail, um, it's one word, he wrote a book about a guy in jail, incarcerated, and it was just brutal. That was so intense, I mean, Selby was really a nut, and he could just go ... but those were ... that was Selby at his best, he was at his peak.
RW: You met him --
DF: [Interrupting] I met Selby. I even wrote an open [on Selby] for a British magazine.
RW: How'd that come about? Meeting him.
DF: I was a Selby groupie. I heard he was reading somewhere and friend of mine, who'd just written a novel, said he'd read in the L.A. Weekly that Selby was doing a reading on La Brea Avenue and I said, "Oh cool!" So we went and I said hello and then subsequently I went to a number of his readings and every time I wrote a book I found him. I knew where he hung out. And I went to these places and I would find him and give him a book.
RW: So he was very approachable.
DF: No, he was not very approachable. But he did read my book and he actually called me after Chump Change and said he really liked it. And that really changed me, changed my life. He called me about three months after I gave him the book and left a message on my answering machine about how great he thought this book was. I kept that message. I must have played it about three hundred times. And I would play it and walk around the house. And then I ran into him at some joint on the west side, and he was with a famous actor, whose name I can't remember, we were all talking, and the guy [Selby] said wait a minute, that's Dan Fante, he wrote Chump Change, let him talk. So cool, so cool ...
RW: That's a good life moment, isn't it?
DF: He liked my stuff, Selby liked my stuff!
RW: Well, who else?
DF: Well, probably, Oneill, my father, Selby, some Bukowski ... People are so enamored with him, they treat Bukowski like a fucking rock star and its just --
RW: [Interrupting] I've always thought he was a very strange phenomenon, how his career worked out.
DF: His stuff is very uneven. It's Ben Pleasants who knew Bukowski very very well; for years they drank together. So Ben really has a legitimate right to speak about Charles Bukowski. I was talking to Ben one night, I don't know where we were, a reading or something, and I said, "Frankly I don't see it about Hank. I mean, I like him, we got along well when I met him a few times, but I'm not a ... I don't see him as that ... Post Office is a decent novel but its not a great novel. Factotum is OK ..." But he said, "Dan, he was a poet, his contribution was poetic. He changed modern poetry." As a novelist, he was just a decent. But really his contribution was through poetry.
RW: That's interesting, because I think Factotum, whatever its worth, is incredibly influential. I read so many books by, I don't know, underground writers, if you want to call them that, small-press-type writers, who send me these books that have the same cadences, the same kind of extremely aloof perspective ... I keep running into Factotum over and over, essentially.
DF: That's too bad, because people confuse stylistic element with content. Bukowski wrote the way he did because he had to -- but his content, that's the important part. People don't understand his subtlety and they just think if you write about people puking in their beds and having sex with hookers and vomiting that you've made it -- and there's so much more to it. Because it's the novel that's the important thing, the content; it's the feelings conveyed in the novel.
RW: I just thought that was interesting how, for whatever reason, there's a hook for writers in that book. I think it's because of the extreme simplicity --
DF: Well, I don't want to be indelicate, but though Hank was a decent novelist, he basically emulated my father and he couldn't come close. He couldn't come close to depicting those emotions that my father depicted in Ask the Dust.
RW: He dedicated at least one book to your dad, so I guess he paid his debt a little bit.
DF: Oh yeah.
RW: What I think is really interesting is this notion of the L.A. writer. One thing I've noticed in interviews with you is that I keep reading the same interview: it's always the post-Bukowski tough-guy L.A.-novelist thing. Is there any validity to this notion? What is L.A. writing? Do you fit into it if there is such a beast, or is it all just kind of a post-Bukowskian invention? Because everything I read lately seems to have something to do with Bukowski --
DF: [Interrupting] I don't know, Rob. I don't know if we could define the L.A. writer because nobody is from L.A. They all come here and are all cynicized by this vacuous dream that is Los Angeles. We are all consumed by smog and heat and freeway shootings ... so people from the Midwest or from the east are influenced; they think about Bukowski living in east Hollywood in a busted out apartment and drinking Budweiser, and my father ... It's poor, struggling, and passionate that I think qualifies the L.A. writer. I don't know if I'm that ... cuz I spend my ... Chump Change was written about Los Angeles, but Spinning Off Tall Buildings was written about New York --
RW: [Interrupting] That's one of the things I wanted to ask you about, it's one of the reasons I brought up the subject. Chump Change and Mooch are very L.A. books, and it kind of surprised me that Spinning Off Tall Buildings is very New York -- because people tend to transplant their background wherever they go. There is less of that in your situation than any book I've ever read.
DF: Less of ? --
RW: [Interrupting] Less of that transplant. I mean, this guy [Bruno Dante, the protagonist of all three novels] is obviously not a fish in water but he doesn't give off the L.A. vibe running through New York either.
DF: Yeah. It's interesting because New York had a profound influence on me, much more than Los Angeles. You really have to survive on the street in New York. You don't drive in New York, you're on the street. You're in subways, you're interacting with people, you're belly to belly with people all day long -- you're a pedestrian, so you have to contend with the city. In Los Angeles we've got our metal box and our stereo and our you know, our Glock, and we can contend with the people on the freeway. That's how Angelinos socialize: we socialize on the freeway by giving each other the finger. That's where we meet and greet our fellow Californians, on the freeway. In New York the soot just gets into your bloodstream, you can't help it. So I was very affected by that. I was affected by New York the way my father was affected by Los Angeles.
RW: Why did you come back to LA?
DF: Because somebody offered me a job running a limousine service. I was a chauffer after I was a taxi driver in New York for years. Then I did those plays as I was driving a cab. I was in a movie theater one night and I got drunk and I lost my hack license; it was just big enough to fit in the back pocket of a pair of Levis and it fell out somewhere in this porno movie I was at, and I just couldn't get, I just couldn't get enough ... couldn't go down to sign the papers to get another one -- I couldn't do it! And I kept driving and they'd say, "Where's your hack license?" So I'd just give them an excuse and I did it for a year and a half. I just couldn't get the license renewed -- I hated it so much! I hated the people who ran the union, they were assholes, and I just had contempt for them and I argued with them and we had these union discussions and I thought they were just fucking the cab drivers. It was real exploitation and the people in the union had all the power and were asking for these fucking dues, a hundred dollars a month from cab drivers who didn't make much money anyway. I was just furious about it. And then this guy said well, one of the dispatchers said I had a business partner who has a limousine company why don't you go apply to work with him and I did. And two years later he wanted me to go [to L.A.] because I had no life, because I was living in this apartment, this rubble infested awful, horrible ... in New York. I took this apartment -- you know how people love brick walls, bare brick walls? Well, I bared a wall that was really an exterior wall but it had another building adjoining, but that building was torn down, so in winter time its fucking fifteen, twenty degrees in January in New York, and I took all the plaster off this wall and it was like freezing and I could never get the apartment warm. I was having such a problem with booze I could never seal it. I needed to get sealer and paint this wall and I wouldn't do it and so I was living in this freezing apartment for ... so a guy offered me a job as a chauffer and I had my answer, I was never home anyway. I slept in the only room, I slept in the kitchen, where the bathtub was because it was the warmest room in the apartment. And I slept there and drove this limo and I had this rubber suit they had you could just stand it up; no natural fabric could ever come close to this fucking thing. And so I could wear it and take a sponge and clean it. And so I drove a limo seventy, eighty hours a week. And the guy thought I was psycho ... Actually he thought I was a great chauffer because I was always available. And he offered me this partnership to come back to L.A. and open the limousine company and I did.
RW: And you ended up staying?
DF: Yeah. I ended up staying, but after two years my alcoholism was really bad and I could no longer hold it together and I let him buy me out.
RW: But why did you stay here? You could have gone back to New York after that, or somewhere else --
DF: [Interrupting] New York is too tough a town, too tough. The weather is hard, spending time on the street ... You can always sleep on somebody's couch in L.A. You can always glom a hamburger from somebody. If you know when the fast food joints are offering one of those dollar hamburger deals you can always eat. It's just a lot easier in L.A. My mother was here too, and I figured I could take advantage her from time to time, tap her for some money. So that's what I did.
DAN FANTE is the acclaimed author of the controversial novels Chump Change, Mooch, and Spitting off Tall Buildings. He has also written an influential book of poetry, A gin-pissing-raw-meat-dual-carburator-V8-son-of-a-bitch from Los Angeles. His most-recent effort is a book of short stories entitled Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Streets (published in the U.K. under the title Corksucker). Burning Shore Press brought Dan Fante's play Don Giovanni, in the spring of 2006, and will be publishing The Boiler Room, in the fall/winter of 2007. Dan lives in Arizona with his wife Ayrin and his young son Michelangelo Giovanni. He can be contacted through his website: www.danfante.net
ROB WOODARD is the author of the novels Heaping Stones (Burning Shore Press, 2005) and What Love Is (to be published by Burning Shore Press in the summer of 2007). He is currently working on a book of poetry entitled King Of Long Beach. He lives in Long Beach, California. Contact:
Copyright (c) by Dan Fante and Rob Woodard
All Photographs by Michelle Murufas
Special thanks to Kiley Zahn for transcribing this interview.