Dan Fante, Confronting His Demons On The Page Novelist and playwright Dan Fante writes about alcoholism, drug addiction and failed attempts at literary success — all of which he has experienced himself. He discusses the process of reliving his past on paper.
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Dan Fante, Confronting His Demons On The Page

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Dan Fante, Confronting His Demons On The Page

Dan Fante, Confronting His Demons On The Page

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Door-to-door salesman, taxi driver, telemarketer, private eye, hotel night manager, chauffeur - those are just some of the jobs my guest, Dan Fante, held before becoming a writer. But probably the more germane fact is that he didn't think of himself as a writer until after spending many years as a drunk, years he describes as train wrecks with off-the-wall, winner-take-all relationships.

Fante is the son of writer John Fante, who's best known for his 1939 novel "Ask the Dust," a novel set in L.A. during the Depression. The book was rescued from obscurity when the writer Charles Bukowski discovered it, helped get it republished in 1980 and wrote the introduction, in which he described John Fante as his god. John died in 1983. Now, Dan Fante is in his 60s, sober, with several novels of his own revolving around his alter ego, Bruno Dante, a character who has held many of the jobs his creator, Dan Fante, has but has not yet achieved sobriety.

In Fante's new novel, "86'd," Bruno has left his telemarketing job to work for a limo service while trying to deal with his demons. Dan Fante, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a short reading from the second chapter of your novel, "86'd."

Mr. DAN FANTE (Author, "86'd"): I have no idea why I am crazy and angry and edged out most of the time, and why alcohol and painkiller pills and Xanax-type stuff are the only things that help to keep me remotely calm. I have no idea why I experience my life as pointless and screwed up. And I know that most people don't pour a cup of bourbon into their milk and oatmeal in the morning. That's just how it is.

GROSS: Well, thank you for reading that. You know, I'm thinking, you've been sober for years now, right?

Mr. FANTE: I've been sober - I'll be sober 23 years in December.

GROSS: Congratulations.

Mr. FANTE: Thanks.

GROSS: So it must be pretty weird to be sober after a long time and then immerse yourself in writing about somebody who's not…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …to always be going back to that place.

Mr. FANTE: It's an interesting question, yeah.

GROSS: How does it feel to always go back to the place of needing alcohol and needing pills and taking too much of both, and getting really sick and getting into constant trouble?

Mr. FANTE: Well, Kafka said a good novel should be like a blow to the head. And that's - you know, there's something I'm trying to say. There's something I'm trying to say about the humanity of this character, and it's not yet been exhausted. So I go there, and I can feel him because that's who I used to be.

GROSS: If you think of alcohol and pills as self-medication, what conditions were you medicating for before you got sober?

Mr. FANTE: Oh, my mind. I had - and I'm not sure why. I had the mental part of alcoholism as well as the physical addiction. And the mental part is this kind of obsessive, ruminative mind that just - I even named it. I named the voice in my head. I called him Jimmy, and he would just judge, judge everything I did and judge your driving and what you were wearing and the brand of cigarettes you smoked. It was always, there was always this voice in my head.

GROSS: Your character has that voice, too, your character in your novel.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah.

GROSS: So did drugs and alcohol silence the voice or…

Mr. FANTE: Oh sure. They silence it while you're doing the drugs and the alcohol, and then there's the Mr. Hyde part of that character that's released in action. You don't hear the voice anymore, but you become the character.

So you know, jail and, you know, fights and car wrecks and all this stuff that people like me go through when they have a, you know, a jones for alcohol and cocaine or whatever they're using, is when I'm - that stuff is inhabiting me, I'm not the same guy. I'm - you know, without that stuff, I'm not violent, and I'm not angry, at least not now. In those days, when I was sober, then the voice would really scream. The voice is the worst after a night of drinking.

GROSS: Have you ever been to like, a psychiatrist or psychologist about that, like seriously?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Well, let me say it to you this way, Terry. I've been - I did 14 years of therapy. I was rolfed, rebirthed and did Reichian therapy, and that's just the R's.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what helped?

Mr. FANTE: I did a lot of self-help because I thought self-help would fix it. Self-help don't do it, you know.

GROSS: What helped?

Mr. FANTE: There's a spiritual program in the 12 steps of recovery that saved my butt, you know. I just, I had to give up, you know. Sober, I got beat down enough that my - I had to just surrender, just keep giving up the thoughts and keep asking for help. And you do that long enough, you know, you do that for five or 10 years, and your life begins to change, and that's - for some people, it doesn't take five or 10 years.

I had what I call a vital spiritual experience when I was about - after a suicide attempt. When I was about four and a half years sober, I was in a monastery with some guys on a 12-step retreat, and I started weeping, and I'm not a weeper. And I cried and had snot running down my face for about two hours, and I didn't know what was wrong with me. And when I got up, everything was different. The colors were different, everything was different. And I felt this amazing sense of love, just profound sense of well-being, and that's never left me. That was 18 years ago.

GROSS: You have a poem that relates to this spiritual feeling that you're discussing. It's called "Asking." And at the back of your novel, "86'd," there's the equivalent of bonus tracks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: That's right.

GROSS: There's, you know, various short pieces that you've written, and a few poems. And I'm going to ask you to read "Asking."

Mr. FANTE: "Asking." For years, I thought that talking to the gods was an exercise done privately, under unforgiving, distant stars, ridiculous unrequited prayer evoked by staring at old, cold books with mean, small print. Then I discovered that just ain't it at all. God can be found in the thank-you voice of a guy at the counter in the supermarket or the quietness of a stranger's parking-lot smile or the rattle of weeds across a dry, summer Mohave or watching my unfettered fingers jump, jump, jumping across the computer keys, deep in the middle of typing three hours' worth of unscrubbed truth. God for me turned out to be a conscious choice, a self-evoked experience, just like love.

GROSS: I really like that idea at the end, of God for you being a conscious choice and that love for you being a conscious choice. That sounds like you had neither God nor love in your life for a long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Well, I had a lot of sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: With all kinds of - I probably had sex with everything except a 1987 Ford pickup, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: But no, it's a choice, and it comes by consciously going there, by consciously asking and seeking that experience, and it begins to happen, you know?

GROSS: In your novel, the character starts writing as a result of rehab. In rehab, he has to fill out a questionnaire, and the questionnaire has questions like: When you look back on your life, what memories are still uncomfortable and painful? What incidents make you feel dirty? And what about yourself do you experience as inadequate?

Did you have to answer questions like that in rehab, and did that inspire you to sit down and start writing, yeah?

Mr. FANTE: No, it inspired me to hate 12-step programs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: No, the - I stumbled on a guy who had many years of sobriety and recovery, and he gave me this format of writing what's called an inventory in the 12 steps, the fourth step. And his form of inventory was to write the story of my life an hour a day for 12 consecutive days at exactly the same time every morning and not to look back. And when I was done, to call him and read it to him. And so I called him, and I said Ken(ph), I want to read this fourth step to you. And he said: Well, how long are you sober, kid? And I said well, I'm sober, you know, a year this time, but I've been sober three out of the five years, you know. And he said - long pause on the other end of the phone. He said, you know, that's good in baseball. Call somebody else. And then he hung up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: But what had happened to me, Terry, from that, and I didn't know it - I'm working on a memoir now about myself and my father, and I'm just at this part of the memoir. What happened from that, I had 31 typed-written pages, single-spaced. And it occurred to me a couple of years later that I couldn't write a novel, but I might be able to write a page a day from that exercise. And you know, I'm working on my 10th book right now. So I don't write books. I write pages.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Fante. His new novel is called "86'd." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're joining us, my guest is Dan Fante, and his new novel is called "86'd." How would you describe your father's writing and the impact, if any, it had on you as a writer in terms of like, the themes that he would write about, the stories that he would write about?

Mr. FANTE: Well, it had an enormous impact stylistically, but my father was a victim of the quote, modern, unquote, literary canon. So I'm a postmodern writer. My father could not say the things that I say. And toward the end of his life when he could, in the late '70s, when he was dictating his last book to my mother - he was blind - he could have been more graphic, and he wasn't.

So he wrote primarily about his family and about his own experience with his family and about his dog and - but - so our themes are different, I think, except for "Ask the Dust." I mean, there's a similarity in "Ask the Dust" to my work, but I think he was trapped in a literary canon of 1931, you know?

GROSS: Whereas you're writing very graphically about drugs and sex and not so - I mean, I don't want to give the wrong idea. It's not pornographic or anything. But…

Mr. FANTE: No, it's true.

GROSS: OK. Right, but I mean, you're writing very much from someone who's really made a mess of his life.

Mr. FANTE: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I don't think - you know, my dad became a successful Hollywood writer when he was quite young - 22, 23 - and for the rest of his life was seduced back into screenwriting rather than do what he was -what his sensibility - he was born to be a novelist. He was born to be a storyteller but you know, he just couldn't refuse half a million bucks a year, you know, or the equivalent of that, you know.

GROSS: That's what he was getting for being a script doctor?

Mr. FANTE: Oh God, he - his first paycheck, the guy walked in - now we're talking about 1932 or '33 - and the man walked in and handed him a check for $250, which was the equivalent of maybe $3,000 or $4,000 for a week's work today. And he got up and went back, he opened his pay envelope and walked back to the guy and said, you made a mistake. You put a zero on the end of the 25.


Mr. FANTE: So, he couldn't believe - so in 1932, if you made $250 for a short story, and you did it every six months, you could live on that. My father was making that every week in the movie business.

GROSS: So you went from a pretty prosperous home to basically living in the gutter for a while.

Mr. FANTE: Well, although - yes, I mean, I grew up in Malibu, but Malibu wasn't Malibu when I grew up there. It was, you know, a beach town. Now it's got the, you know, the $70,000-a-month recovery resorts and palazzos overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was just a big, windswept plateau when I lived there. But to call us prosperous, we were prosperous when he was working, you know, I guess.

GROSS: Now, you held many jobs during the period when you were drunk and using pills and other drugs, and one of those jobs was chauffeur.

Mr. FANTE: Yes.

GROSS: And the character in your new novel, "86'd," is a chauffeur in L.A., and I'd like you to read a paragraph in which your character describes what that's like.

Mr. FANTE: OK. Working in the limo business in L.A. is a bizarre way to make a buck, like licking up dog poop for God. The clientele for DaveCo(ph) in Los Angeles was mostly made up of night freaks and zombies: rich, cranked-out movie producers; spoiled, rock-star punks; gangster rappers with their black Glocks tucked into their belts of their pants; alky ex-actors with too many DUIs; and a gazillion wannabe high-rollers - human beings who exhibit the most unpleasant personality characteristics common to L.A., too much ego and way too much money.

GROSS: So is that your experience of what it was like to be a limo driver?

Mr. FANTE: Oh yeah, yeah. No, I drove when I was - I drove Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr. I drove Elton John. I drove John Lennon when he was alive.


Mr. FANTE: I - you know, we had, you know, it was - we had quite a clientele in those days.

GROSS: So when you were driving for all these rock stars, were you sober then? Not that they were necessarily sober, but they'd probably want their driver to be sober.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, it - I had a - I knew early on, when I was driving a cab in the '60s, early '70s, that I couldn't drink and drive. I knew it because I just - because my inclination is once I take a drink, I don't stop. I have to keep going. So I just wouldn't do it while I worked. Now, that held true until I got to California years later and owned the joint with a partner, and then all bets were off. Then I started having, you know, I started getting arrested more and had some problems.

GROSS: Now, you've written about all the odd jobs that you've had over the years before you became a professional writer: Most of my adult life had been spent being one kind of pitchman or another. I've always found myself gravitating toward the jive and shuck - selling. This is strange to say because by nature, I don't like people, and I'm a loner. So what kinds of things did you sell over the years?

Mr. FANTE: Oh, God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Well, I mean, my best gig was, I was a telemarketer. I sold - you know, when I lost the limo business and hit bottom and was homeless there for a while, I bumped into a guy who was a recovering heroin addict. And he had a phone room - and this was in the early '80s - and I began to sell computer supplies at the beginning of the blossoming of the computer-supply industry. And I made - oh geez - think my best month, I was averaging about 25 grand a month.


Mr. FANTE: And that was in the, you know, the middle '80s. And then I just, you know, I had a house at the beach and a sports car and an aerobics-teacher girlfriend. They all got relocated, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you mean?

Mr. FANTE: When I took that first drink, things changed.

GROSS: Oh, I got it, I got it.

Mr. FANTE: And that was the end of my career in the - but I had about a three-, four-year run in that industry where I did very well, and then - but that bottoming out - what happened was - it's very interesting - I couldn't lie to people anymore. I got sober after, and I just couldn't lie to people anymore on the phone, just couldn't do it. So, you know, I wound up homeless again, living in the back bedroom of my mother's house, with her giving me 50 bucks a week for gas for her seven-cylinder Chrysler New Yorker that was 10 years old. And I just started walking to meetings, and I didn't know what to do. So I started to write. That's when I started to write.

GROSS: Dan Fante will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "86'd." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dan Fante, who's written a series of novels about his alter ego, Bruno Dante, who lives the life Dan Fante once lived - drunk and holding down jobs that used his skill as a pitchman, like telemarketing and carnival barker.

In the new novel "86'd," Bruno has another job that Dan Fante used to have, driving a limo. Dan Fante is now writing a memoir about his late father, John Fante, who was a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his 1939 book "Ask the Dust," set in L.A. during the Depression. It was republished in 1980 at the urging of writer Charles Bukowski, who described John Fante as "my god."

I'm wondering if you have any passages from your father's work that you could quote for us that stand out in your mind and would give our listeners a sense of his writing.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, there's two. The first one that I brought with me because it -people often ask...

GROSS: Oh, I'm glad you did that. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: Yeah. People often ask me why I write, and so I had this quote from Kerouac - Jack Kerouac on my wall and I'll read it now.

I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand, because they are the same as me that far down.

GROSS: Yeah, that's great.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah. That's why I write.

GROSS: And do you any passages from your father's books that stand out in your mind?

Mr. FANTE: I have, you know, I have something - I brought "Ask the Dust" with me, and this is this wonderful quote from the first two or three pages of John Fante's "Ask the Dust."

"Los Angeles"...

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. FANTE: Sorry - makes me cry.


Mr. FANTE: "Los Angeles, give me some of you. Los Angeles, come to me the way I come to you, my feet over your streets. You pretty town, I loved you so much. You sad flower in the sand, you pretty town."

GROSS: Obviously, it's very emotional for you to read that. From reading your own writing, the sense I get is that you and your father were pretty alienated from each other when you were young, and it was only later in life that you really got to...

Mr. FANTE: That's true. Yeah.

GROSS: ...got to know each other well?

Mr. FANTE: No. I think got to accept one another, probably.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. FANTE: So it was - we started out tolerating each - disliking each other and tolerating each other. And then toward the end of his life, when I started to write, I once wrote a poem for a guy in upstate New York and - to dedicate his home. This guy was a very wealthy - I was a limo driver at the time in New York City - and very wealthy designer. And he took this 200-year-old farmhouse and completely redid it - gutted it and completely redid it.

And - so I wrote a poem to dedicate the house. And the guy went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he had a calligrapher inscribe it on parchment, and then he had it pressed between two pieces of glass to last 500 years. And I went back to California and read the poem to my father and he paid me - I was probably 38 years old - he paid me the first compliment he'd ever paid me in writing. He looked at me after he read it and he said, I couldn't have written that. So we went up from there.

GROSS: Wow, first compliment at age 38?

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, I guess. He was not a - you know, my father was a very patriarchal - from an Italian-American background. He's a tough guy, you know, and he had to, you know, his father was an abusive drunk and so, you know, I just - my father was an artist. He was just not connected to the planet and the only thing that connected him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: ...were his two moods: One was angry and the other was angrier, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you kind of studied with a great mentor in terms of your anger?

Mr. FANTE: Yeah. Yeah. No - as I'm, you know, a Picasso at a typewriter, you know? You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: And a son of a bitch to live with, you know?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. He had diabetes and toward the end of his life he had a series of amputations? Tell me if I'm wrong, I think it was his toes, then his feet, then his legs?

Mr. FANTE: Awful. Yeah. Oh, it was...

GROSS: And he was blind at the end.

Mr. FANTE: Just - yeah. It was pretty...

GROSS: What was left of him spiritually? Like at his emotional core, what was left with him as his body kept getting diminished?

Mr. FANTE: Well, you know, after - I mean, he was traumatized by these thin-lipped surgeons in Santa Monica, wearing bow ties and with two golf club bags in the trunk of their car. And they just kept hacking his body parts off, you know? And rather than take the whole leg, they'd take a couple of toes, three months later they take a few more, then they take the foot at the ankle. Then when that didn't - then when that became gangrenous, then they'd go above the knee. So he had that - double the ones I've just talked about for each leg. And so he had that many surgeries and it was, you know, it was hideous. It was just a kind of a living dismemberment.

And then as a bonus, after those surgeries, he got glaucoma and went blind in about 10 days, so he had a rough time. And - but during that time, after he went blind, an amazing thing happened. He was in the hospital and incoherent and we thought he was going to die, and he got a call - phone call from a screenwriter - a director-screenwriter named Robert Towne. Robert Towne had had a film option on "Ask the Dust," at that time for 20 years. And...

GROSS: Let me just say, Robert Towne's probably best known for writing the screenplay for "Chinatown."

Mr. FANTE: Correct. So Towne - the phone range in my father's hospital room and I picked it up, and it was Robert Towne. And I said Pop, it's Robert Towne, and he immediately became coherent and for the rest of his life he was - but if it was business, if it was about his work, he was on the money. And then blind, a double amputee, he dictated his last book to my mother, word for word, while I sat there occasionally and listened - word for word, never paused. And he would do a page or two a day and in two months, he'd dictated it and it was brilliant stuff - brilliant stuff.

GROSS: Where were you in your life when your father died?

Mr. FANTE: I was sober for - I was sober and working in telemarketing. And I remember a year and a half before, I went to a Christmas dinner at my parents' house and my father had just gone blind. And I brought the wine, and I finished off about a gallon of a good Rosé - good supermarket Rosé - and I told him he deserved to be blind and he was a rotten, old son of a bitch. And that night, I got one of my DUIs, and I tried to kill myself in the Malibu jail at night.

And - but when my father actually died, I was sitting next to him; I had been sober a year so, and I was holding his hand. And we had made our peace, you know? We loved each other.

GROSS: So what do you have of his now that you cherish most and just in terms of original manuscripts or, you know, other personal possessions that mean the most to you of his?

Mr. FANTE: Do you know, it's extraordinary, but when I wrote my first novel - I was quite insane and suicidal when I wrote my novel "Chump Change," and it reads like it. I was at the - living in my mother's back bedroom with her, as I mentioned, giving me gas money. And I went out to the garage one day and I found his typewriter - an old Smith Corona portable that was all dusty. And then I found half a ream of yellow, legal, typing paper. It was the same paper he wrote his last novel on when he could see and type. I wrote my first novel on his typewriter, using his typewriter paper.

GROSS: In the acknowledgments of your new novel "86'd," you thanked Bettye LaVette, the great...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...the great soul singer...

Mr. FANTE: You betcha.

GROSS: ...you say for changing your life with a single blues song.

Mr. FANTE: Absolutely.

GROSS: I'd love to know what that song is - and how it changed your life.

Mr. FANTE: She sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama: It's been a long time coming' but a change is going to come and...

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. FANTE: ...boy - that was it for me. Little Richard did the same thing when I was 12 years old. When I heard Little Richard sing "Lucille," I said that's -that man is not of this planet. There's something completely mad and transcendent about that guy. And he's still the same. He's just - the spirit -there's something that's beyond the voice that's - there's something that connects viscerally to those two people.

GROSS: I guess you weren't thinking of political change when you heard that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: I was thinking of Bettye LaVette and how she can - man, she can lay it down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FANTE: Oh, my pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me on and talking about my stuff and my book and my father's work. It's a great pleasure for me.

GROSS: Can I just ask you one more thing?

Mr. FANTE: Sure.

GROSS: It feels like your emotions are very like, some of your emotions are very much on the surface - very close to the surface is what I mean...

Mr. FANTE: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...and that you get in touch with your emotions. And I'm wondering, during the period when you were kind of deadening things with alcohol and drugs, were you as given to being emotional then, or did you...

Mr. FANTE: Never.

GROSS: Were you killing that off?

Mr. FANTE: I'm sure I didn't cry for 25 years. Sure of it. Not - and even death and bad stuff - divorces, jail - I didn't shed a tear for 25 years. Not when, you know, when there's nothing between me and who I am. When all that peanut butter is gone, you - you know, it's pretty easy to demonstrate emotion.

GROSS: Right. OK. Well, thank you again. Good luck with the book and thanks a lot.

Mr. FANTE: Terry, thank you.

GROSS: Dan Fante is the author of the new novel "86'th."

(Soundbite of song, "A Change is Gonna Come")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE (Soul singer): (Singing) I was born by the river in a little bitty old tent. But oh, just like that river I've been running ever since.

It's been a long, long, a long time coming, but I always believed that a change was gonna come.

GROSS: Coming up, we listen back to an interview with Unitarian minister Forrest Church, recorded last year when he knew he was dying of cancer. Church died last Thursday at the age of 61.

This is FRESH AIR.

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