Novelist Dan Fante has paid his dues; he has overcome alcoholism, scores of crummy jobs, and the desperate fate accorded so many sons of famous fathers. But after nearly 20 years of writing fiction, 2009 is shaping up to be a great year for Dan. His new novel 86’d will be published by Harper Perennial on September 22, 2009, and his three previous Bruno Dante novels will be rereleased on December 1 of the same year. Dan began his first book, Chump Change, in the early nineties, wrote and rewrote until one draft grew to over 400 pages, and was subsequently edited rigorously to its published size. The novel was then rejected by scores of American publishers over months of submissions, finally accepted by a French press, and then translated and published in France before Sun Dog Press was the first to publish Chump Change in the United States.
Fans of feel-good simplicity be warned: Dan’s fiction is not escapist and decidedly not for the faint of heart. As food critic and TV personality Anthony Bourdain notes, “The doomed son of a doomed father, Bruno careens perilously through life, always on the verge of that last irredeemable fuck-up. It’s breathtaking writing and deliciously excruciating, like watching a crack-smoking circus knife thrower — you just KNOW something awful will happen.” For more on John and Dan Fante, father and son, look for Dan’s forthcoming article in Malibu Magazine, “The Fante Family: 58 Years in Malibu,” as well as the book-length memoir he is completing as we read. But for now, check out the interview below:
Portrait of Dan Fante by Nicolas Guerbe
AK: When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?
DF: I used to write poems while I was a cabbie in New York City. I didn’t actually decide; I did it to kill time. I threw almost everything away, but that was the beginning.
AK: When did you first identify as a writer?
DF: When I finished my novel Chump Change. Writing it kicked my ass. I should say re-writing it. I knew when I was done that I was a writer, or completely nuts. Take your pick.
AK: Could you describe your writing habits? For example, are you the disciplined type who drinks exactly 20 ounces of strong coffee and then punches out five pages each weekday morning? Or, do you tend to go “balls out” on writing binges, pulling a 24/7 the way Bruno Dante goes on a bender?
DF: Nah. I’m not exacting. But I do write every day. One page, six days a week. I still can’t write a novel or finish a book but the pages eventually mount up and whoops, in a year or so, there’s a new book.
AK: One of my favorite scenes from Chump Change is when Bruno Dante finds a rare copy of one his father’s books at a used bookstore; at the time, he is short on both cash and plastic in good standing, but Bruno catches a break when the clerk accepts what he can pay. Did you consider the oddity of purchasing one’s father and/or not being able to afford the father’s work?
DF: There are a couple of unusual incidents in that novel. The one you mention is one. The other is Bruno going into a convenience store and getting pissed off at the clerk then buying hundreds of dollars worth of junk just to get even. I like having my characters do stuff like that.
AK: Although Bruno’s world is dominated by motels, bars, and places to buy booze, are there bookstores and libraries you have nostalgia for? Have any of your favorites disappeared? Do you still frequent bookstores?
DF: I love bookstores. Used bookstores and indie bookstores. My favorite indie store is Skylight Books on Vermont in L.A. I plug them whenever I can. I plug all indie booksellers whenever I can.
AK: Mooch offers some real ambivalence over AA and 12-step programs in general. Eddy Kammegian, the boss of Orbit Computer Products, seems to satirize how some sober people turn AA into a religious cult or even a repressive government. With Bruno’s difficulty staying sober throughout the novel, you might also be revealing the folly of a legal system mandating attendance at AA meetings, which are of course intended for people who voluntarily recognize their drinking problem and seek to change their lives. Could you comment on your feelings for AA and the 12 steps, and to what extent you see value in the program?
DF: AA only saved my life and my ass. I’m sober quite a while now. Without AA there’d be no Bruno Dante. No books. But having said that, a guy has to find his own way in recovery. There’s a lot of misinformation and recovery-speak around these days. We can’t confuse AA with that 90 percent drip-dry snot. That’s a business. Those jokers line their pockets on the misguided hope of others. That ain’t AA. But know this: AA works, and it works real good.
AK: In Spitting Off Tall Buildings, Bruno rides the subway all day long at one point and describes a moment when the train passes by Yankee Stadium and from the car, he can glimpse home plate, “Where Ruth and Dimaggio and Mantle and Yogi Berra and Reggie slammed the shit out of that pill.” I’m not sure if you were intending symbolism here or not, but to me, that moment connotes how brief and fragile our connection to any fame or heroism will be in this life. It reminds me of Andy Warhol’s 15 seconds of fame, only here Bruno barely catches a glimpse of the fame of others. I know you may not be one for intellectualization (bs-ing?), but please comment on what that scene means to you.
DF: My father, John Fante, died and THEN got famous. He wrote novels because he was an artist and he had to write. Only after he died did anyone really notice his work. I’ve spent almost 18 years writing books and plays and poetry. Until a couple of years ago my gross proceeds from my writing averaged out to be somewhere around $1.80 an hour. This year I have five books coming out. Four with Harper Perennial. I don’t write for the money. I write because I am a writer and I love it. If I get lucky and make some money then, well, I deserve it. I’ve paid the piper. So much for fame.
AK: 86’d, the fourth Bruno Dante novel, is due out in October, 2009. I’m wondering if it surprised you that you returned to his character in a fourth novel. What would you like readers to know about this book?
DF: I dunno what to say here. I liked writing it. It jumped from my fingers like it HAD to be written. A fast novel, perhaps eight months in the writing in total. An artist is only a vehicle for his work, never the source. 86′d is about the fakery of Hollywood and status and the incredibly lame reverence Americans seem to have for fame and success.
AK: Are you writing new novels and plays? What’s in the literary future for Dan Fante?
DF: I never stop writing. Writing saved my sanity. Quite literally. The more a writer writes the more fluid he becomes. It’s a bit like running marathons. You keep improving as you push yourself. I’m working on a John Fante — Dan Fante memoir now. Writing a memoir is a real challenge because it is far different than a novel or a play. Most memoirs are linear and bore the reader to death. The challenge is to not be boring. I’ll shoot myself if I’m ever boring on paper. Or maybe take a big sip of Drano.
To learn more about the photography of Nicolas Guerbe visit his website: http://www.nicolasguerbe.com/