“Somehow Italy was as I imagined in terms of climate and scenery, but I found the people simply gorgeous, courteous, and refined. Even the lowest peasant in Italy is somehow born to a culture and degree of civilized living that we don’t know.” John Fante, Letter to Carey McWilliams, January 15, 1958
“I just found out something about the region of Abruzzi: the wolves of this area, when the head of the pack dies, they all return to the spot where he lived, so, in the same way, I return to the land of my father,” writer Dan Fante concludes while answering to someone who has asked him about the relationship he has with his distant Italian roots. We are in Pescasseroli, a village in the green heart of the National Park of Abruzzi, in Italy, in a packed room of the Civic Hall. This is the second day of an event that many local literary and cultural associations worked hard for months to plan and put together and conceived as a meeting between Italian writer Dacia Maraini and American colleague Dan Fante. If you are wondering what’s Abruzzo, well, it’s a region in the centre of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast of the country and if you wondering why the two writers are here, well, it’s because Dacia Maraini spends part of her summer holidays in Pescasseroli and Dan Fante is the son of writer and screenwriter John Fante, whose father Nick, born in 1878, emigrated from the tiny abruzzese village of Torricella Peligna at the end of the 1890s to find his luck in the States, that big country where every dream becomes true. Down here, John Fante is respected and beloved, like another Italo-Amrican writer, Pietro Di Donato, born in Hoboken from abruzzese parents from Taranta Peligna and author of the anti-American-dream novel Christ in Concrete.
“Release me from this bondage. Put me in a box and send me back to Torricella Peligna!” John Fante, 1933 Was A Bad Year
Dan Fante arrives a couple of days before the scheduled event in Pescara after a long, long journey that implied catching airplanes, boarding trains and riding buses, no wonder he’s exhausted. Still, he is so patient and endures the torture of the usual interview with a local newspaper, indulges in the pleasure of a visit to the MediaMuseum, the local museum of cinema to see the tiny section dedicated to his father, and finally he is allowed to move on and go to Torricella Peligna, the village his ancestors left, a place he’s already visited last year, the tiny town that he amazingly calls in a wonderful way: HOME.
“She was lonely, her roots dangling in an alien land. She had not wanted to come to America, but my grandfather had given her no choice. There had been poverty in Abruzzi too, but it was a sweeter poverty that everyone shared like bread passed around. Death was shared too, and grief, and good times, and the village of Torricella Peligna was like a single human being.” John Fante, 1933 Was A Bad Year
The sun shines on the archaeological site of Juvanum, near Torricella Peligna, in Montenerodomo. Here the Romans built a theatre and a temple, but the first day of this event in honour of Dacia Maraini and Dan Fante hasn’t got the characteristics of any play from Plautus, nor of a pagan rite. Today, we’re here to celebrate something really special, writing and traditions. The inhabitants of the surrounding villages are all sitting on the ancient steps, stones and stones, thousands of year old stones. I figure out that you might even have a flashback and see your ancestors only closing your eyes, touching the stones and leaving your mind free from the constrictions of the modern age. People from Torricella eagerly listen to whom they came to consider as a special friend, Dan, who explains how he considers writing, “The beginning of writing for me was a gift from my father and this gift came not from reading what he wrote, but from the feeling he had for words, and that feeling came from his father, Nick Fante. Indeed we come from a tradition of story tellers and that tradition began in Torricella Peligna. So, I have this gift from my father and his father that I’m privileged to share and bring back to Torricella Peligna. The passion that I inherited from my father, the love for words and poetry is the most precious gift I can give, because for a writer, and I think Dacia Maraini would agree with me, the most important thing is to reach out into your heart and into your mind and we want to touch you in a way that gives you an experience of yourself. What began in a room in Los Angeles, in a very small room with a type writer eleven years ago, with only the ghost of my father, I bring it back to you today.” The sun caresses his words and the wind transports them on the peaks of one of the most beautiful mountains here, the Majella, kissing the forehead of what we call “the Sleeping Beauty,” the shape of a giant sleeping woman formed by the peaks of a chain of mountains.
“I tell you I have a deep affection for paper and all that it has meant in my life. The sheer possibilities of a sheet of plain white paper as you put it under the platen of a typewriter is something to think about. You never know what words will march across that blank sheet. You can never be sure. That sense of doubt, and hope, and worry, translate themselves across the whiteness and you see it for what it is worth – usually bad. But when you have a lot of it beside you, you can throw away the bad stuff and slip another sheet into the machine, and there it is again. I like that. I used to hoard clean white paper like a miser. I used to sit in my room in Los Angeles and thumb it with my hands and think about the millions of words all of that paper would hold. And yet, I never wrote that many words. But the dream was there, coming out of the lovely white paper.” John Fante, Letter to Keith Baker, October 13, 1940
The Juvanum theatre is truly wonderful, the people here are hospitable, the atmosphere is friendly, but retains something of the formality. It’s not as relaxed as this morning, when Dan spoke to a group of young people who were shooting a documentary about his father John. Sitting around him, like interested disciples ready to hear their master and interact with him, a group of young people is listening to Dan who is talking about his gift of “story telling”: “It’s too bad because of television and the year 2000 and media that people don’t just tell stories anymore because my father could tell stories that went on for half an hour. I’ll tell you a wonderful story about my father – he had a friend who was a screenwriter, who wrote a very important film, They Drive By Night. He used to be a trucker and, oh, it’s a terrible story,” he interrupts his tale and laughs. Then he starts again, “In Los Angeles, they have a hill called the grapevine, and when it’s very hot and you drive a truck from Los Angeles over this hot hill, it’s 110 degrees. This man, my father’s friend, drove a refrigerator car with ice and every time he would tell the story that his truck broke down and the ice melted, he cried. My father would make him tell this story because he cried every time and it went on for half an hour and there was more ice every time and it was a wonderful story. In American, the English word for ‘storyteller’ is ‘racconteur’, but people don’t do it anymore. My father could talk for half an hour on end, he would be like a monologue for a great actor and he spoke beautiful English, using a beautiful language and he made you laugh and cry. He was a wonderful storyteller and this gift comes from Abruzzi. The winter here is four or five months, in the wintertime, in Torricella Peligna there’s nothing to do if you’re a stonemason except drink ‘vino’ and play cards, OK? That’s it: no television, a little sex, that’s it, so that’s what you do with your friends, you tell stories. That’s what they did, they were not literate, they weren’t readers but they loved telling stories like the one about Uncle Mingo and the bandits. Where do you think that story comes from? It comes from a bar up here on the main street in Torricella!”
“Brave man, my Uncle Mingo. He was an Andrilli, your Grandma’s brother. They hang him right there in Abruzzi. The carabinieri… Two bullets in his shoulder. They hang him anyway. His wife standing there, crying. Sixty-one years ago. I seen it myself. Coletta Andrilli, pretty woman.” John Fante, Full of Life
We are standing in front of Nick Fante’s house, an ancient house. Nobody lives here anymore and the three floors are abandoned to evil action of the meteorological agents, to the harsh wintery snow or to the warm and boiling summerish sun. Still, the stones of the walls seems to do their job and resist. In the house, three story high, divided in cowshed, kitchen and bedroom, everything is left as it were: there’s still some hay in the manger, while a large basket and a few rusted rakes and other tools are scattered around. Funnily enough, there is also a key hid at the top of the kitchen door, a long and heavy key, one of those that you don’t see anymore, but it can’t open the door since rust, the leprosy of time, spread of it like an infectious virus. Dan is standing near the door, while the previous Mayor of Torricella, Davide Piccoli, who has become our personal tourist guide, explains us all the functions of the oven, that lump that comes out of the wall resembling a cumbersome cyst next to the kitchen door. Apparently, it was used in summer from the outside, while in winter, the hole opened outside was closed with chalk, and the oven was used from the inside of the house. It mustn’t have been difficult as Nicola was a stonemason.
“He hated the snow. He was a bricklayer, and the snow froze the mortar between the brick he laid… When he was a boy in Italy, in Abruzzi, he hated the snow too. No sunshine, no work. ” John Fante, Wait Until Spring, Bandini
Undoubtedly, we are in front of the right place for letting old memories go and to remember John. In front of the camera, Dan starts talking about which things belonging to the Italian culture his father passed on to his children, “Probably, the sense of loyalty and, obviously, the food and the religious culture, but also he had great pride in Italians. The Italian people were his people and he was very strange in a certain way because when he wrote movies, all the people who were his screenwriter friends were Italians, all the directors and screenwriters, his best friends were Italians, so, in the end, I think he gave us a real pride in this culture.” Yet, Dan never hides the fact that he often clashed with his father’s ego, “My father was an artist and having the temperament of an artist, he was a very difficult man, he was always pissed off at something,” he comments, “He had two moods slightly pissed off or very pissed off, that’s the way he was, that was his personality and he wasn’t an easy person to get along with at all. Because of that we had a difficult relationship when I was young, when I was growing up. He was very patriarchal, he was very macho Italian. You didn’t bust his balls, there was one way, his way and that was the only way it was going to be.” Neither were any good the relationship between his father and American society, “My father was a poor man, he came from a very poor family and life was a struggle for him. He was the son of a stonemason and an alcoholic, since my grandfather was an alcoholic. So it was very important for him to do well, hence during all his life, he was torn between the idea of being an artist and a writer and making money. It was very important for him to make money and have a good life. In that sense he was very American, but he appreciated living and he had a wonderful life. People think about my father as this guy who was destroyed by the movie business and some of this is true, but what’s really true is that he used them in the way they used him: he played golf everyday, he played poker with his paesani every night, he partied, he used to go to Las Vegas, he had a wonderful life, but the price was his art, the price was he didn’t write novels when he was writing movies. ”
“I notice one thing immediately about your letters; they are flawless. My old man don’t make any mistakes in punctuation, spelling, grammar, nothing. Your letters read like they were from the inside pages of chapter six of the novel you didn’t publish. You write good stuff. It flows almost flawlessly from your stubby hands…But my old man isn’t a boy anymore. And it isn’t 1938. He doesn’t write any books. He writes that shit I see that comes out of the skin mill. How come Dad? What gives?” Dan Fante, Letter to John Fante, September 23 1965
Under a beating sun, Dan reveals the contrasts between his father and the society that surrounded him, “He was very critical of his own class, the fact that he was trapped in a social class where he had to work, where he had a family, where he had to have literary aspirations. There were all these rules that he had to abide by, but he would have been rebellious in Spain, in Italy or France or America, no matter where he was, he would have bitched about it. He had great compassion for the poor because he was poor, because his family was poor, because Torricella Peligna was poor, because he came from poverty. When the Italians came to America, they were exploited for their labour they were uneducated and they were kept at a low level, so he was angry about that and he was angry for any other race. I don’t think this was a political act, I think it was just anger, because he wasn’t a communist, he had friends who were communists while HL Mencken, his publisher, was a very right wing guy. But he didn’t side with either one, he always kept himself independent. When he saw a poor man suffer, like the Filipinos suffered, like the Italians suffered, when he saw people from other cultures, other races come to America and being exploited, he would feel anger and compassion at the exploitation. Because of the time he wrote, he couldn’t talk about alcoholism, he couldn’t talk about his father who had a problem as a drinker, he had great compassion because of the poverty of his mother and of his family, but because of the time, he had to kind of idealise his family like in Wait Until Spring Bandini, where he painted a pretty picture of his family, in truth they were very poor. That’s a social statement for me rather than a political one. My father used writing as a release, as an escape from his poverty, as a way to get out, he had a very interesting duality, he was very proud of his culture, but he didn’t want to be type cast, he didn’t want to be a bricklayer or a fisherman or work on the docks, because of his education he aspired to be something different. The thing about America which is so wonderfu, is that you can be anything in the States. He was Italian and his skin was a little darker, but he passed as some kind of mainstream American and he knew that he could have been anything he wanted, he didn’t want to be stuck in a box of any kind. He wanted to be a baseball player, he was a magnificent baseball player, if he could have been a baseball player, to hell with writing, he would have played baseball: he wanted to be Joe Di Maggio!”
“Some day I’ll tell you all about this trip, about the miserable plight of the Italian writer, of the preposterous worship by Italians of anything on celluloid.” John Fante, Letter to Carey McWilliams, January 15, 1958
Italians really worship the glittering Hollywood world, the tinsel town where our fancy often places John Fante and his family as having an incredible glamorous life, being John sooooo famous, “My father wasn’t Famous,” Dan explains, “he was famous after he died. When I was a boy, he was a guy writing movies in Hollywood, it wasn’t like today, when there is this fantasy and when you say that somebody writes movies in Hollywood you go ‘Oh my God!’. My father was just a guy working at the studios who hated it and because he couldn’t write novels, because he needed money, he had to write more movies. So, in a sense, he was trapped, but he was not a celebrity and all his books were out of print when I was a little boy, until I was fifteen or twenty years old. The only glamorous memory I have of that time is that, every once in a while, he brought a beautiful woman to the house, a movie actress, to meet with her. “My father had terrible relationships with movie people. For instance Orson Welles, he hated him and they had similar personalities, but my father wrote a picture for Orson Welles in 1940, It’s All True, when Welles was very famous. He wrote the whole screenplay, but then Orson Welles went to South America and got himself drunk and peed on a parade from a balcony and they arrested him and they never made the movie and my father was furious about that. And then another time there was a very famous Hollywood movie called The Cat People. My father got mad at Val Lewton, who did film noir, one time on the scene and punched him in the head for something, he said something at my father, so my father punched him.” Dan falls silent again, as if he were relapsing into his father’s past, the past of his family, then he concludes, “My father was always at war with his life, you know the myth of Sisiphus, you know the Greek legend? Well, my father was always pushing the rock uphill, during his whole life and I found out that you have to get out of the way of the rock. If you get out of the way of the rock you just walk up the hill.”
“Thank God my father had the good sense to leave Torricella Peligna! Times were bad, to be sure, with the depression going full strength, but what a glorious future lay ahead for those touched with fame,” John Fante, 1933 Was A Bad Year
“I think that there’s a similarity between my father John, Dacia Maraini and me,” Dan Fante says to the people collected in Pescasseroli. “The instinct for survival against the art of not surviving, against the art of not surviving at all, and how the human being reacts to that. The thing in common I think between the three writers is to place the character in the novel in a place of desperation. I’m very interested to see what the character will be able to do to react to an inconceivable situation when it occurs. I think the gift from the writer, from the artist, to the people who receive the art is the survival of the emotion that we can all survive. Myself as a writer, I want to contact the spirit in you that is part of that character and give it to you and give my sense of hope that through desperation we can survive and I think that this thing is also in Dacia Maraini’s work. It’s a kind of mission, a kind of gift you get, the ability to communicate that.” And Dan is right since the desperation is the only thing that puts together the three writers: John Fante singing the desperation of poor people or of Arturo Bandini, the man with the dream of writing, as desperate as Knut Hamsun’s hero in Hunger and as rebellious as any youngster; Dan writing about desperate people as well, in a daily language, vivid, sparkling and brilliant, whereas Dacia Maraini’s novels, being narrated from a feminist point of view, denounce abuses and violence. Unfortunately, her ways of denouncing them, instead of making me feel disgusted at the violent acts narrated, make me want to turn into a proper perverted person and become worth of being recorded in Krafft-Ebing’s Psycopathia Sexualis. But that’s another story, and talking about perversions… “I’d say you are a sensitive perverted writer,” Rita says to Dan, concluding a debate that started in front of Adamo’s Bar, in Torricella, one night in which the local people decided to take the piss out of Dan asking about the “dirty bits” in his novels and laughing about the infamous incident on the plane, recorded at the beginning of his novel Chump Change. Dan replies that he travels always with three cases, two for his clothes and one for sadomasochist tools. More laughs and jokes follow, more Italian humour explodes around. During the event, Dan gained many a comparison, someone mentioned Charles Baudelaire, Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jack Kerouac (we discover only later that Dan can not even stand the Beat writers), authors who wrote about people living at the borders, outsiders and outcasts, people who were thought of being too disrespectful to their society to be even remembered by an encrusted literary establishment. Tonight nobody gives a fuck about comparisons, we’re just having some fun and sharing some jokes, we’re not taking ourselves seriously as you do, if you’re Italian. Tonight there isn’t any space for meditation.
“If Eliot and Stevens are our major meditative poets, (John) Fante is our major meditative novelist,” Jay Martin, quoted in Full of Life: a Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper
When I ask Dan about the “meditative issue” and his father, we are sitting on a bench in front of the Hotel Capè, what became Dan’s headquarters in Torricella. At the hotel, the family who owns the place treats Dan as their relative and not as a mere tourist looking for some rest in these mountains. There’s not a single leaf moving around us and it looks like the perfect place to “meditate.” Dan starts, “First of all, the question about ‘meditative’ writing is that the latter is such an oblique term that I can’t respond to it, or rather, I can only respond to it by saying, my father was ‘meditative’ in the sense of discussing his heredity and his family, I would guess and I’m just making an assumption that that’s what the critic who said that is referring to. But I don’t really understand the term and I think it’s a nebulous term,” he concludes once for all. Dan has at present two books published, Chump Change, the story of Bruno Dante who gets out of detox and goes to pay a visit to his father, a famous screenwriter, who is dying at the hospital. The book was published in 1996 in France as Les Anges N’ont Rien Dans les Poches (Pavillons), in 1998 in the States (Sun Dog Press), in 1999 in Great Britain (Rebel Inc) and Italy with the title Angeli A Pezzi (Marcos Y Marcos). His latest novel is Mooch, out this autumn in Great Britain (Rebel Inc), translated in Italian as Agganci and published last June. Mooch is the proper sequel to Chump Change. Dan needed three years to write this novel, compressing three years of his life in six months. The plot narrates the story of Bruno Dante who after his father’s death tries to behave like a good boy, and finds a job in telemarketing, but life still behaves like a proper bitch with him and he keeps on meeting on his path an old enemy of his, alcohol and the occasional bad woman. As Dan explains his readers, its title is a slang word for, “any person on the other end of the phone, when you are selling something. That person is a ‘mooch’, is a sucker. The idea of the Italian title of the novel, Agganci, is ‘hook’, to catch somebody.” Dan’s novels have been translated in other languages and translation must be a very important issue for him, since it is sometimes difficult to render his vivaciously ebullient words. “Translation is a big concern for me: I met my French translator, who translates also Charles Bukowski and the Italian translator for this book, Matteo Sammartino, as well. I didn’t get a chance to check the translation before it was published and after it was published I had a check from several friends and I can say that it’s a fine translation, it’s very good. If you see the early work of John Fante published in Italy, for instance the books published twenty or twenty-five years ago, a couple of the translations were just terrible, I mean it just wasn’t the flavour of the writer and I think that was a concession to a kind of a classical format of Italian literature of thirty or forty years ago and that’s not true now. Francesco Durante is a beautiful translator of my father’s works.” Indeed, an old translation of John Fante’s Ask the Dust, by Italian novelist Elio Vittorini, was entitled, Il Cammino nella Polvere (Walking in the Dust) and the style was bombastic and archaic, nothing like John’s stuff at all. Being translated in different countries also means that Dan has finally found his readers and his fame, “It’s a very interesting situation for me. I’m more popular as a writer in Europe than I am in America. In America, for people who write autobiographical fiction, first person narrative, it’s almost impossible to get published. Talking about feelings and issues is not particularly important in American literature today, it is an entertainment culture.” I wonder if the fact that he was John Fante’s son helped him to get published – “Honestly, when I wrote Chump Change I hoped it would help and, in fact, it didn’t and it probably worked against me, because he was never popular, it was never easy for him to get into print. So, I had an expectation that it might help me, but it didn’t. My books are fiction but they’re based on incidents that happened in my life. For instance, Chump Change is really fifteen years worth of life condensed into three weeks, so in a sense the incidents are based on things that happened or didn’t, but there was something based on reality and lots of things based on fiction.” So his books are life condensed in less than 200 pages, but is his main character, Bruno Dante a grown-up version of Arturo Bandini? “That’s a good question. No, I don’t think so, the character is so different than Arturo Bandini. He might have been an evolution somehow, but it certainly was very important to me to have my own voice to say what I wanted to say.”
“My name is Bruno Dante and what I’m writing about here is what happened.” Dan Fante, Chump Change.
Single words and short sentences characterise Dan’s style. Relentless they follow on the white page, running like a car speeding on a highway. During the second day of the event, in Pescasseroli, Dan claimed, “As Franz Kafka said, ‘A novel should have the same effect as a blow to the head, if it’s any good.’ What I want to do with my novels is to get this far from your face (he raises his tight fist to less than an inch from his face) and talk to you. And I want to tell you how I think and I want to change the way you think, I want to share my experience with you, so that the possibility of it changing your life is there, is creative in that experience. When I can’t do that anymore I’ll go back to gin and tonic.” If it goes on in this way, surely it will pass a lot of time before he’ll go back to gin and tonic. Probably, he’ll never go back, as a matter of fact he has stopped drinking and the issue alcohol was also revealed while shooting a documentary: “There’s five generations of alcoholics in my family: it killed my brother, my grandfather drank, my father drank and stopped because he had diabetes, but he would drank alcoholically, his grandfather drank as well, it comes all the way back to Torricella Peligna. It’s a terrible curse of broken families and mothers that were dispossessed. My grandmother had a terrible time with my grandfather because he was an alcoholic and he was mean and it was very difficult, because whatever money he earned, he spent in gambling or in a bar, so there was no money for the family, so it had a profound effect, alcohol is a genetic disorder. A hundred years ago, if you were a diabetic, they didn’t known what it was, what diabetes was, but they said you had sugar and you had a problem, so it’s inherited, it’s passed on from generation to generation. When I was drinking alcoholically, I didn’t know that I had a disease, I just drank too much everyday. Don’t believe to those who say that alcohol helps writing, you know what? It’s bullshit, Hemingway wrote in the morning and then he got drunk at noon and drank for the rest of the day. I don’t know any writer, Charles Bukowski included, who wrote anything that wasn’t shit while he was drunk. You just can’t do it, I tried it, believe me, I tried and it can’t be done, you have to be sober and you have to be in possession of your faculties. Imagine eating chocolate all day long, everyday till two o’clock in the afternoon: what happens is your bloodstream is full of sugar, and it comes out of your system and then you’re angry and upset and emotional, so that’s what alcohol does. With writers who are drinkers that’s what happens, that’s why what they write is so depressing sometimes, for example Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, on and on, their work was depressing because they had this problem.” On his right arm, Dan has a tattoo with his brother’s name and Mooch is dedicated to Nicholas, his brother, who died of alcoholism in 1997.
“In a few hours it would be midnight and I would have gone a full day without a drink. And one day could mean two. If I stayed odd the booze, I knew I’d be able to write again. I started the Dart and headed north up the Coast Highway. There was a blueness to the ocean I had never noticed before.” Dan Fante, Chump Change
When I ask Dan if he got to writing as a sort of catharsis or whatever, he starts with a joke, “No, well, I’ve been writing since I was five – that was a lie!” he laughs. But then becomes serious again, searches in his memory, and looks for the truth, “No, the answer to your question is, I was drunk from about 1975 to about 1987 and then I stopped drinking and it occurred to me that I wasn’t crazy anymore and I actually could sit in a room by myself and that’s when I begin to write. I was pretty much mad from my life, from alcohol and from just these demons that I had, it really wasn’t a concern of mine to write at all, I mean it was like a fantasy, like people, kids in college say I will be a writer, I will be Baudelaire some day, I will be John Fante some day. I had a fantasy about, but I never put it in any kind of application until I was forty, until I was in my mid-forties, forty-four, forty-five. I had two models, one was Hubert Selby Junior, his Last Exit to Brooklyn really was enormously inspiring and motivating for me as a writer. And then my earliest recognition of somebody who made me want to be a writer was when I was twelve and I saw Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It really turned me, it just spun my head around and I just said, ‘I wanna do that, I wanna write those words, I wanna be like that.’ But if we’re not talking about theatre, I think I have to say that my strongest influence was Hubert Selby Junior, that would be my favourite author and favourite book.” Dan thinks that literature today can really influence the reader, is he scared about his audience being shocked by what he writes? “Yes, I’m always scared about that and yet what I want to say is more important than my concern about what the reader would think. My thought is, the evolution of the novel in terms of its impact on contemporary society. You and I have talked about the relevance of Henry James or Anton Chekhov or Fyodor Dostoevsky or John Fante in terms of what’s relevant today, and I think that I wouldn’t be writing except that I really want to influence a contemporary audience and I really want to involve the reader, I’m less interested in telling a fine story than I am about involving the reader in the process of their own self-discovery, that’s why I write, it’s for self-discovery. I think novels have come to the point where they can really affect people in a contemporary sense, in an immediate sense.” One day, while talking over our lunch, Dan said that he often meets young people that tell him: “Ask the Dust changed my life.” Actually, when Dan said that, almost laughing, I pretended I was heavily distracted so that my impulsive mouth would shut up and not revel that when I was younger I used to have a personal diary called Mr Hackmuth, like Arturo Bandini’s editor: the fact that my name’s initials were the same as Fante’s scoundrel, being a further reason to use what I perceived as a glorious name. There, I said it. Dear oh dear, man, your father ruined us young people… “Dear Mother, and Dear Hackmuth, the great editor – they got most of my mail. Old Hackmuth with his scowl and his hair parted in the middle, great Hackmuth with a pen like a sword, his picture was on my wall autographed with his signature that looked Chinese. Hya Hackmuth, I used to say, Jesus how you can write! Then the lean days came, and Hackmuth got big letters from me. My God, Mr Hackmuth, something’s wrong with me: the old zip is gone and I can’t write anymore. Do you think, Mr Hackmuth, that the climate here has anything to do with it? Please advise. Do you think, Mr Hackmuth, that I write as well as William Faulkner? Please advise. Do you think, Mr Hackmuth, that sex has anything to do with it, because, because, and I told Hackmuth everything.” John Fante, Ask the Dust. Dan is really convinced, and he’s right, that his father’s works are still actual today. Do you want me to prove it? Well, John’s books have been all reprinted in Italy and are enjoying a good spell of success, while Rebel Inc, imprint of Edinburgh based Canongate books, apart from publishing Dan’s novels, is at present reprinting in the UK John Fante’s novels. John King, acclaimed author of the football trilogy The Football Factory, Headhunters and England Away and author of the latest brilliant punk novel, Human Punk, has written the introduction to John’s The Road to Los Angeles, claiming that the book is “American literature at its best, ignoring the rules, full of diversity and imagination. It isn’t labelled with a college-boy Beat tag either, but belongs to the more gritty writing of Bukowski, Woody Guthrie, Hubert Selby Jnr. It captures the soul of its subject matter, the world of the second-generation Italian who loves America but is seen as a second class citizen, a dago.” Do you still want more proofs of his actuality? Dan points it out for you, “If you read Ask The Dust today and you remove the price of coffee at 5 cents, as in America they’re now at $1.50, you would think it was written yesterday, you would think it was written last week, that’s how good and how current it is. My father had a terrible luck with his work, but now it appeals to young people because it’s good work, if somebody wrote something 200 years ago and it was brilliant, and you read it today, it would appeal too, it’s the quality of it, it’s just good writing, you know. I recently read a collection of stories by Jack London and that’s what I mean about good writing. Jack London died I don’t know, eighty, ninety years ago and he died at 37 years old. And you pick up his stuff today and it’s just as good as it was. It’s so real.” I mention him The Iron Heel adding that London perceived before what was going to happen later in the world, and Dan states, “Yes, the guy is completely contemporary and that’s what I mean about good literature. And there’s also an Italian writer that I like, his name is Marco Vichi and his book is called Donna Donna and he’s very very good.” While shooting a documentary, Dan started talking about his father’s writing and his own writing technique. “Because he wrote about his family, my father would always say when somebody asked him about his writing, ‘It’s fiction,’ he wouldn’t say anything more. The truth is his characters were idealised versions of himself and his family. He would take a character and then give it dimensions that weren’t real, he would add colour to the character. My father’s style and mine are very similar but the content is very different. My father wanted to tell stories about himself, that people could identify with. My purpose is very different: I wanna tell stories that change people, I wanna tell stories that upset people and I want people to be passionate. My father wanted to write the stories that were in his heart, so we have a different purpose, that doesn’t make one better than the other. Some of the things he wrote, the older he got, the better his writing was, it was beautiful, it was just automatic, it was spontaneous and beautiful, it was like poetry, it was like prose poetry, it was the most beautiful thing. My father is my inspiration. Writing for my father was like being a priest, it was like a religious experience, it was the most important experience. A writer was the most important person in the world, as important as a priest, being a writer was almost like a religious call. He had a tremendous reverence for words and for people who wrote. He’s really with me. I really have to be very careful about the way I write and I can’t abuse it, I can’t just put the words on a page and think it’s gonna be clever or something, no, it has to be good work. That’s my father words talking to me ‘Don’t write shit Dan, write good stuff. If you’re going to sit there and write and spend two hours writing, write something which is good.’ It’s like building a house, when you have a foreman, he’s like a foreman, (he laughs) he’s like standing over me, measuring for me, measuring the angles and saying no, this is off, get over it. There was a famous pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, when he died he was 91 years old and he played in concerts until he was over ninety and someone asked him, ‘My God, you must practice a lot,’ and he said, ‘Not so much, only eight hours a day for the last 86 years.’ In other words, if you want to be the best at something, you have to give your heart to it and that’s the best thing about my father. Like he played baseball, like he played golf, like he played gambling, it was always for everything and that’s the way, if you’re an artist, if you’re a writer you play for everything, you put your heart in it and you must be the best, that’s what he taught me. If I’m going to be a writer and artist to be the best artist and not shit. I think we all have talents, but we have to develop them. I think God gives everybody the ability to be special. One of our journeys in living is to find that thing that makes us special that’s what changes the world and when you find that part of you that is special, life becomes a dream, it becomes a wonderful adventure and everyday becomes a pleasure and it’s not work, but a joy. Well, I always thought I would have got laid more if I was a successful writer, it hasn’t turned out in that way!” Dan concludes. But then thinks it over and continues, “Well, actually it has, it’s better! But no, you find something to do that it’s really your gift and everything just seems to change in favour of doing that gift. I had two business once and I was very successful in marketing, I was a salesman and I was very successful at managing 50, 60, 100 people to go out and sell things, but I was a miserable person making a lot of money. All of a sudden in two years I lost everything, I had this big house, a big fast Porsche and I was the king of Venice California. Suddenly, it was all done and I kept wondering, ‘Why, come one God, tell me what the hell is going on here, I’m trying to be a good boy, you know I’m not drinking everyday and I’m not calling my coke dealer every twenty minutes, how come that all is being destroyed around me?’ And I went through two years of complete destruction, it was awful, just madness, because everything was gone. I mean, I lost everything. I was living in my mother’s house and she was giving me fifty dollars a week for gasoline, and I wondered why. And then I started to write and it all changed, all of a sudden, the money didn’t matter, the fact that I was broke didn’t matter, I just knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I don’t care about what they write in the United States, I write what I want to write. Years ago my father wrote a novel that was called, The Brotherhood of the Grape and I read it and I said to him, how can you write a book like this, there’s no references, it’s not commercial, there’s no large breasted women, there is no gun swinging and he said to me ‘I write what I write and if they like it they like it, if they don’t they don’t.’ And I never forgot that.” Hence he would never stop writing if somebody came to him offering an incredible amount of money to abandon the writer’s trade, would he? “Well, my first question would be how much?” he jokes. “And my second… well, no, probably no, it’s just something I have to do, it’s what I do: just assume that taking my hand off is taking my keyboard away from me.” Writing doesn’t scare this man who seems to be totally committed to the writer’s trade, after all he wrote two novels, two plays and a screenplay. “A writer has a voice, when he discovers his voice, he can discover it in different aspects. I am attracted to theatre and poetry and the novel format simply because it’s something that I can do. But I told my father when he was alive that he should have been a playwrite, because he wrote brilliant dialogues and, interestingly enough, he had no aspirations for the theatre and I’ve never understood it. He considered himself a novelist and then a screenwriter for money.” If Dan’s ever scared of something, he’s scared about what I would call a supernatural mentor, his father’s ghost who apparently controls him. He says that his father’s ghost stands behind him when he writes, a very spooky thing, indeed. Why do I always end up in such a company? “It all began after my father died. I began to be aware that he was around me and I went to a psychic person, I went to a medium and this person said you father is very near you. After my father died, I would read something in a book of his and then I would look and it was like he was speaking to me, it was as if I was getting messages from him and I began to develop this idea that he was with me, around me all the time, like in support of what I was doing. It’s just truthful for me, I feel his presence, especially here and when I’m writing and I know that he’s here. And I have a very interesting story about it. My father’s publisher was looking for material, for more books, this was about fifteen years ago. I went to a psychic just for fun, you know, she was some lady in a bedroom in a house in the San Fernando valley and I thought OK, for 25 bucks, I’ll do it, whatever. I sat with this woman and she said, ‘Your father is talking to you.’ And I said ‘OK, what’s he’s saying?’ and she said ‘he’s telling you to go in his files to find something, a manuscript in black covers, he wants you to give it to the publisher’. And I thought ‘Right. Sure.’ So I went into his files, I found something in black covers and sure enough it was 1933 Was A Bad Year, it was one of his best novels and I took it to the publisher and they published it. “So, it’s been like that, there have been so many incidents that I can’t now believe that it’s not true, that he’s with me all the time. When I was a boy we didn’t get along and he didn’t encourage me to write. When I got older and he saw I had some talent for writing, then we would talk about writing together and towards the end of his life he was very encouraging for my writing, but I didn’t start to write until I was forty and the reason is because I was drunk every day, I couldn’t think, so I stopped drinking and then I began to write. My work is very difficult to publish in America, they are just like with my father. For example, they didn’t want to publish 1933 Was A Bad Year, it was sent to thirty or forty publishers and nobody was interested in it, because it was autobiographical fiction, it’s in first person narrator, it’s a story about himself, it was the story of my father in literature, so he couldn’t get his work published and it was a wonderful work, so it’s the same with me. My books go very well in Europe, in Great Britain, France or Italy, they get wonderful reviews, but in America it takes three years and more, then they’ll publish one of my books. Writing isn’t that hard for me, everybody has the ability, you have to turn the force on it everyday and get the rust out, and when the rust is out, the water just comes out everyday. The trick is not to stop writing, to always keep writing something, I think it’s an ability like exercise, if you were a runner you would have to run everyday , while if you’re a writer you have to write. People, mostly students, talk to me about the fact that they want to be a writer and they’re pondering their novel, but they think they have to have more life experience first and they have to go to Mexico, you know, you don’t have to go anywhere, you have to go home sitting in a chair and put a brick on your foot and then you start writing. That’s how it works.” OH-OH, shit, I think he’s referring to me as a lesson for a personal theory I told him this morning during our breakfast. As usual, I pretend I’m heavily distracted by something on the pavement next to where I’m sitting. Is Dan sounding a bit like St.Augustine and his motto “Noli te foras ire” when he encouraged people not to get lost in the world but to look at their hearts to grasp the truth in life? Is this man preaching some good confessional writing in the Jesuit fashion? Fuck, probably he’s just preaching good writing, hence to write about you know best, about what surrounds you.
“He said, ‘You read a lot. Did you ever try writing a book?’ That did it. From then on I wanted to be a writer. ‘I’m writing a book right now,’ I said. He wanted to know what kind of book. I said, ‘My prose is not for sale. I write for posterity.’ He said, ‘I didn’t know that. What do you write? Stories? Or plain fiction?’ ‘Both, I’m ambidextrous.’” John Fante, The Road to Los Angeles
Writing, writing, writing. But there’s writing and writing. You can be a novelist, you can write for the theatre and for the movies. Dan, for example, has written two plays, one entitled Boiler Room, that received the nomination to the Theatre LA Ovation Award in the Writing Of A World Premiere Category, and was reviewed as “Ferociously profane” by the Los Angeles Times, and another one, Don Giovanni, which is about his father, will soon be staged in Los Angeles and was kindly donated to Torricella Peligna, this means that it will hopefully be translated as soon as possible and taken to the stage in Italy as well. “We’ve got to make a distinction between a play and a screenplay,” Dan points out. “Because writing for the theatre is not writing for film. Probably a chimpanzee with a banana hanging in front of him could write for the movies, that may be a slight exaggeration, but I think there is a minimum amount of skill. I mean to write a good screenplay for a movie is really an achievement, but I think the real skill in theatre is remember it’s all dialogue, so you must evolve your story through characters speaking, so it represents a marvellous challenge to the creative process, to have your plot unearth through dialogue and through exposition. It’s a form in which it’s all exposition, it’s all dialogue, your plot is revealed through dialogue, so it’s a very challenging but really fun. I really love writing plays, they just jump out of me and dialogue jumps out of me, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but that’s what editing is about, so I like it. The novel is a ruminative exercise that takes years and when you’re writing a novel you’re writing it day and night in your mind for all the time you’re writing it. So, for three years you’re kind of obsessed about the plot, all your spare time is spent figuring resolutions to a situation or adding a plot change or an evolution of a plot, so the novel is a far more challenging format than any of the others for me.”
“Screenwriting was easier and brought more bread, a one- dimensional kind of scribbling asking no more of the writer than that he keep his people in motion. The formula was always the same: fightin’ and fuckin’. When you finished you gave it to other people who tore it to pieces trying to put it on film. But when you undertook a novel, the responsibility was awesome. Not only were you the writer but the star and all the characters, as well as director, producer and cameraman. If your screenplay didn’t come off you could blame a lot of people, from the director down. But if your novel bombed, you suffered alone.” John Fante, My Dog Stupid
The latest novelty in Dan’s life is that he’s writing a screenplay for Chump Change that will soon become a movie, directed by Ralph Hemecker of The X-Files and Millennium fame, the same person who is co-writing the sceenplay. “The guy who bought the rights is directing Chump Change. It’s funny how fate works. When we sat down to write it, the guy who is directing it said to me, ‘This is a dream for a writer to have a director sitting next to you.’ We started going through the book scene by scene by scene and we were blocking it out for a screenplay and he said, ‘Gee, let’s just take the writing from the book, let’s just take this scene and do a narration here and take the whole thing.’ And we realised the whole thing is coming directly from the book. So the screenplay it’s writing on itself, the book is like a screenplay, you just have to put in there the visual scenes. When I first heard of him I thought, ‘Oh shit, a TV director, oh shit, I’m scared.’ And you know, I’ve seen his stuff and it’s brilliant, really good, so we just started the project and the guy is the perfect guy to do it. I wouldn’t have anybody else doing it.” Let’s hope Chump Change will soon hit our screens, then. Dan also tells us that he would like the Italian premiere of the movie to take place in Torricella, that would be really an honour for the town and for the whole region. So, let’s hope that his movie won’t be kissed by what he calls “The Fante Curse,” the fact that lots of directors had the ideas of shooting a movie from John’s works, but then nothing happened. “Yes, it’s the Fante curse,” he reiterates. “Fortunately, it’s his curse and not my curse. They have four or five of his books with the best director and the best filmmaker in Hollywood and they own them, but they can’t make them as movies, one silly thing happens after another silly thing. So you have Peter Faulk who is richer than God and John Turturro, these two guys together can’t get the money together to make a goddamn movie. I don’t know why, I’m sure they will make it, the point is that’s the thing about my father’s stuff, there’s something that doesn’t get done until the time is right. I don’t know why but when he died he had only four books in print and now he has twelve, so they found everything he had, but it’s now his time and I don’t know why it wasn’t his time thirty of forty years ago and now I’m sure there will be a time when his movie will come out.” When somebody asks Dan if he’s got a particular movie he likes, he replies “I think I like good stories, so it’s difficult to say because they’re not in favour of good stories in Hollywood anymore… I’m just trying to think of something I enjoyed… I liked Three Kings, it’s a good screenplay, it was the madness of war in conjunction with greed and the sense of humour of the greed and the war and the horror and the sense of humour repeating itself. It was very well written, it was a very well written screenplay.” “I was decomposing from within, like this preposterous town. L.A. was the right place for me at all. I belonged here with the killers of my father: the mind-fucking twenty-two-year-old movie producers and distribution gurus who’d dictated the course of his life. I was a true son of L.A.” Dan Fante, Chump Change. Future plans? Oh this guy’s got many: he will probably do some kind of collaboration with friend and poet Billy Childish, his plays are hopefully going to hit the stage in the States and in Italy, his movie is in the works, he wrote a piece of writing that an Italian band, Timoria, will put into music, and, among the other things, he has also written a collection of poems, one of them is of course dedicated to Torricella Peligna. Obviously he’s also got a new novel in his folder since, “Before I wrote Mooch, I wrote another novel which is from time before, but my publisher read the manuscript for this and he felt it like it followed Chump Change, so he published it first. Besides, I might write a follow up to Mooch. I used to drive a taxi in New York, so I’m thinking about writing a novel about a taxi driver and then it might be the proper sequel to Mooch.”
“We are all as well as can be expected for a family living in a tree house on the mouth of an active volcano. Danny found himself a Jewish bride in New York and I think is properly shackled in the prison of some Bronx apartment. He is driving a cab. I can’t imagine a more loathsome job, but it must be that somewhere in my genes there was a strain that drove donkeys on Abruzzian trails, and now that the donkey is being retired one moves on to taxi cabs.” John Fante, Letter to Carey McWilliams, October 27 1965
I don’t think that John Fante ever imagined that his son would have come back here to Italy and found such a wonderful place and such fame. Will Dan ever write a story about Bruno Dante coming to Torricella and finding long lost relatives? Imagine Bruno living on these mountains, for example, and volunteering to help the local kids to extinguish a fire that suddenly breaks on the Majella. Actually, a few days ago the local inhabitants really had to give a hand to put out a fire spreading nearby. Sadly, it wasn’t a piece of fiction and no tragicomic hero as Bruno Dante was around to help. Nobody knows for sure if he’ll give us a tale based in Abruzzi, though he told the people gathered in Juvanum. “My grandfather on cold nights with his paesani would drink wine and tell stories and he brought this to America and on cold night with my father and his sons he would talk about Torricella Peligna and the history of it. So I think that if I were writing on this place it would be the evolution of my family and the return to Torricella Peligna.” During his staying here Dan has met thousands of people, rambled around the tiny streets of the village and listened to the stories of the Germans bombing the place during the war. He’s toured the region, met the local authorities, had a few readings in bookshops, been harassed by the questions and signed tons of books, above all, he’s had some great fun with the people he met, who opened their houses as if they were welcoming a proper long lost relative. I reckon he has enough experience now to write about this place. And if his character, Bruno Dante will ever come here, then we’ll be glad to meet him, with our history, our traditions, our stubbornness, our irony and our sense of hospitality.
Special thanks to
- Dan Fante for his patience: man, I never thought you could stand me for six whole days
- The Associazione Culturale ‘John Fante’ (Cultural Association ‘John Fante’) in Torricella Peligna for the impeccable organisation of the whole thing, and in particular Chairman Pietro Ottobrini for indulging in our needs
- Davide Piccoli and his lovely family for showing us around
- Nicola and Federica Di Sangro for being terrifically friendly
- All the people of Torricella who collaborated in making this thing possible – luv u always
- Last but not least a huge THANKS goes to the staff of the Hotel Capè in Torricella Peligna: thanks for treating us as part of your great and lovely family – you’re the best!