By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Millard Kaufman is wary of the attention his debut novel, Bowl of Cherries, might receive. “I don’t want people to think this is the work of some 90-year-old freak,” he says in a voice that’s strong and sturdy. The fact that Kaufman — a screenwriter from Hollywood’s studio-system era who wrote the flat-out classic Bad Day at Black Rock, as well as Raintree County, Never So Few and others — has taken his first stab at fiction in his ninth decade is fairly newsworthy. But Bowl of Cherries is more than a senior moment; it’s a loopy wonder of a novel, a mordantly funny picaresque that sends its protagonist, an egghead 14-year-old named Judd Breslau, on a journey from the suburbs of Baltimore to the fraught region of Assama in Iraq, a place that has cornered the market on cement made from human crap. Breslau is looking for an elusive golden girl, the daughter of an armchair scholar named Phillips Chatterton who thinks the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids with sound waves, but first he has to learn the secret of the magic cement. If all this sounds improbably whacked out, it is — but Kaufman’s rapier-sharp prose and keen instinct for finding the absurd in everyday life makes this a social satire of the first order.
L.A. WEEKLY:So you were a major player during the golden age of the studio era.
MILLARD KAUFMAN: There’s a golden age in everyone’s life. It means that you were young once. But working for the studios was no picnic. It was a matter of survival. You did what you had to do or you were canned. I was lucky, because I was under contract to MGM for 13 years.
How did you get such a nice long-term gig?
I was hired because Dore Schary, the head of the studio, was fascinated by the Marines, and I had been in the Marine Corps. I had never written a movie before — I had been a reporter at the Daily News in New York — but they needed a training film written. I would have gone back to New York, but I had malaria and dengue fever from the Pacific, and I thought the sunshine would help.
Two weeks later, Schary wasn’t sure about me. My agent, ever loyal to me, told him, “Look, try him out for two weeks. If it doesn’t work out, you can hire a real writer.” Well, I outlasted Schary, as it turned out. He was fired before my time at MGM was up.
Had you ever written fiction prior to Bowl of Cherries?
I had never written a novel until last year. I wouldn’t have done it if the circumstances hadn’t existed in which it became increasingly difficult for a person to write a picture if that person was over, say, 40 years of age.
When was the last time you wrote a feature?
I think I’m the oldest person in the Writers Guild to write a script. I was 86 at the time. It was for Ridley Scott’s son, who’s a director. We didn’t see eye to eye, and it came to nothing. I had had a long run, but I realized that I needed something to do in order to keep me out of trouble. So I thought I’d write a novel.
How does fiction writing differ from scriptwriting for you?
I found it enjoyable, but, I don’t know if it’s my age or what, I’d just go over and over sections looking for the apposite word. I guess I had this exalted view of fiction writing, that it was a higher art, but it’s really just like anything else — you sit your ass down and you write the goddamn thing.
Some reviews have pointed out that all of the adults in your book suffer from hubris and arrogance disguised as self-delusional good will — a nod perhaps to the current administration’s policy in Iraq?
People are bumblers. The president is a bumbler. I don’t have much respect for him, but they all have problems. Clinton did a pretty good job, but he was full of shit too. The Iraqi thing — I didn’t want this book to be a war novel, but since the beginning of recorded time, which is about 6,500 years or so, we’ve never had peace in the world. There’s always a goddamn flare-up somewhere. I couldn’t have ignored that, but I kept it in the background. I just think I’ve hit on two resonant ideas. One is the son searching for the father who’s abandoned him. The other is the unattainable woman who suddenly becomes attainable.
And what about Grady’s obsession with learning the secret of turning human excrement into building material? Where did that come from?
Well, it seems to me that we as a human race have gone through a qualitative change when we stopped being nomads and moved to cities. Nomads could crap anywhere and it wasn’t a problem. Suddenly, in cities, crap became a big waste issue. I just thought, well, what if shit became a hot commodity, something that could be used for the greater good? Plus, there are a lot of good rhymes for shit.