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.
It’s remarkable how well you nailed that sardonic, flip tone of your teenage protagonist.
A number of friends have told me that they need a dictionary to read the book, but this kid in the novel is a goofball, a precocious kid, and he would do things like that — use big words that no one understands. People are telling me that I have a distinctive writing voice, and I’m thinking, Christ, I’ve never thought of it before!
This book is full of historical digressions. How did you do your research?
All of the research was from Britannica. It’s like a movie feature — you put the stats together and make a story out of it! Also, I’m a very good liar.
Do you use the Internet?
No, you have the Internet. I don’t go near the goddamn thing. It’s gonna bite me or something.
It’s a tad ironic that McSweeney’s, the quintessential hipster imprint, is publishing a book by a nonagenarian. How did that come about?
My agent, Doris Falsey, died before she could send it out, and believe me, it’s not easy to get an agent when you’re 89 years old, regardless of what you’ve done. So I turned to Nina Wiener at Taschen, who had edited a screenwriting book I had written, and she got it to an editor at McSweeney’s named Eli Horowitz, and he bought the book. Nina handled everything. I don’t know about all the contract stuff.
Rumor has it that you worked with O.J. Simpson on a film.
O.J. was a very charming, shrewd and smart kid. We were working on a film together in Canada, and O.J. had asked the director, Terence Young, if he could skip out for a day to shoot a commercial. Well, O.J. took Terence’s car without telling him. When O.J. came back, Terence was waiting for him, and O.J. said, “Well, I figured if anyone could get another car on this set, it would be the director.” He knew what he could get away with. But what do I know? I liked him! O.J. and my daughter Amy goofed around on the set for three weeks, and I thought he was terrific! I guess I’m a poor judge of character.
You were a front for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo after he was blacklisted for the film Gun Crazy. How did that work out?
Trumbo had just gotten out of jail, and we shared an agent, George Willner. One day, George told me, “Dalton Trumbo has an opportunity to write a script, but I need to know right now if you could lend your name to it.” I mean, this could land me in jail, and my agent’s telling me it’s now or never. But I did it, and no one ever knew. Maybe it was a bad picture, that’s why no one cared!
What fiction do you admire?
I still read Gatsby every year, and Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. When I was in junior high school, my English teacher assigned Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond. I started reading it and I was enthralled. I guess it was an unconscious influence on me, ’cause it has a lot of characters, and the story jumps all over the goddamn place. I like crazy stories. But my favorite novel is Bleak House. Dickens to me is the greatest writer of prose in the English language.
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Were you ever affected by the blacklist?
When I was doing Bad Day at Black Rock, they came after Dore and me. Dore, because he wouldn’t fire anyone who was accused of being Red, and so they pressured him. They got to me because I had passed around a letter to a bunch of writers that was addressed to Darryl Zanuck. We were requesting that he revert the rights to a book back to the writer, Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, because they were never going to make the picture, and someone in England was willing to do it. The book was never pulled out of Fox, though. They just dumped it. But I was in deep water; they published my name in Red Channels.
They had said my father, Fred Kaufman, was a known commie who orchestrated a railroad strike. Well, there was, as it turned out, a Fred Kaufman who led a strike — but it was the Pullman porters’ strike. That Fred Kaufman was an African-American!
BOWL OF CHERRIES | By MILLARD KAUFMAN | McSweeney’s Books | 326 pages | $22 hardcover