An Interview with Bruce Jay Friedman
I got turned on to Bruce Jay Friedman a few years ago when a novelist friend referred to him as “one of the lost writers of the ’70s” and recommended his novel About Harry Towns, about divorce and cocaine. I loved the spare, mordant style, and quickly devoured his novel A Mother’s Kisses (about a mother who accompanies her son to college). Later I read Stern, his first novel, while struggling with my third, and told my husband that there was no point finishing it because I would never be as good as Friedman.
Stern (1962) is about a man who comes undone when he learns that his neighbor may have referred to his wife as a “kike” and also may have noticed that she wasn’t wearing underwear. Friedman has published five other novels, five collections of short stories, three plays, and several works of nonfiction, including Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos. His latest story collection, Three Balconies, has just been published by Biblioasis.
His short story “A Change of Plan” was adapted by Neil Simon and Elaine May into the movie The Heartbreak Kid. He wrote Doctor Detroit, Stir Crazy, and Splash, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Steve Martin film The Lonely Guy was based on Friedman’s book.
Friedman suggested we meet at the Century Club, a private club for men and women in the arts and letters on West Forty-third Street that is surrounded by an aura of secrecy. I arrived at six o’clock on a chilly spring night, fifteen minutes early. There was a board on one side of the entryway with all the members’ names—J. Galassi, W. Zinsser, and J. Feiffer were a few that I recognized—and colored pegs indicating whether the members were in. A few minutes later Friedman arrived, wearing a tweed coat and hat, strongly built and dapper. “Are you early or am I late?” he asked in a melodious, lightly Bronx-accented voice, putting his hand on my arm. He took me upstairs and we talked in the library over wine, and then in the dining room over clams, veal, and lamb, until we were the last guests to leave the club.
I. “BED WETTERS SAY, ‘NICE HORSEY.’”
THE BELIEVER: Your characters suffer from a heightened self-consciousness. They see the way others act and want to be like them but can’t. Do you feel self-conscious?
BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN: Like any other young person that didn’t have a trust fund and came from the Bronx, I did. It has waned somewhat.
BLVR: Did you grow more confident when you became successful as a writer?
BJF: A writer is never successful.
BLVR: I was going to ask you about that, about money and success.
BJF: I could use a little of both, actually. I was rich for a while, when I had all that screenwriting money. I was living alone and didn’t know what to do with it. But now I’ve paid for that a little bit, like that English soccer player who said, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
BLVR: You’ve said that you spend literary money and Hollywood money in different ways.
BJF: A check for ten dollars a page from the Antioch Review had to be treated very carefully. You’d spend it to listen to Mozart or get a subscription to the New York Review of Books, whereas a check for a couple hundred grand for a script—well, that’s play money, that’s a joke.
BLVR: In the ’60s, if a novelist made money in Hollywood, was it seen as selling out?
BJF: There were girls in the Village who refused to roll around with you if you sold your book to Hollywood. I fell into that way of thinking. The gods were Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald to me, that was what you aspired to be—
BLVR: But they all worked in Hollywood.
BJF: That’s true, but everyone denies working in Hollywood. I never met a writer who didn’t have secret screenplays he was trying to get produced. There’s a truly celebrated writer who always scolded me about Hollywood: “Why are you wasting your time? How could you do that?” Then I met a Czech director who said, “Are you crazy? I was locked up in a room with him for six months trying to crack a screenplay.” Bellow and Malamud probably tried to get screenplays produced.
I started to get pretty good at screenwriting but what I didn’t like is that it’s the only form where the work is being shot down as you’re writing. You could be writing the shooting script for All About Eve and it would be just a first draft.
BLVR: How did The Heartbreak Kid come about?
BJF: I was living in Great Neck with my first wife. She had just read a story in the Reader’s Digest and she said, “I think this is terrific.” I said, “You think you liked it but you didn’t really like it because the author wasn’t playing fair and the ending didn’t grow indigenously from what the reader knows. Sit here and I’ll show you what I mean,” because I always had a dozen stories percolating in the back of my head. I still do.
I went upstairs to the attic and wrote “A Change of Plan.” I came down and she was fast asleep. I sent it to [my agent] Candida Donadio and Esquire bought it within thirty-six hours. The second it was published I got film offers. It was two hours’ work and out of that came the first movie—I haven’t watched the remake— and now Neil Simon is working on a musical-comedy version. It could be an opera before we’re finished.
There is so much luck involved in getting something made in Hollywood—like with Stir Crazy. Richard Pryor owed the producer a favor because she had bailed him out when he was struggling. She had the idea to do a movie about a prison rodeo in Texas. They approached me and I said, “Why not?” but I was so snobbish that it was a nuisance. “I’m a novelist, don’t bother me with this.” Then I get a call from the head of Columbia Pictures saying there’s an empty lot at the studio and they need to put something on it.
I saw something happen at a bank where they had people lining up to make deposits and two people were putting on a little show while you were standing on line, entertaining. That became them dressing up and having a bank robbery, which landed them in prison. All of a sudden it comes together.
BLVR: Do you have any Richard Pryor stories?
BJF: When I went out to the set the one time I visited, he was a wonderful person. They have the artificial bull and Gene Wilder is about to get on it and Gene says, “Nice horsey.” That’s something that I would never in a million years write. Bed wetters say, “Nice horsey.” And they had brought in somebody to pump up the dialogue so I was a little offended. If I were going to write a story about that whole experience I would call it “Nice Horsey.” I was starting to leave. Richard saw what was going on in my head and said, “I never met a writer like you: take the money, don’t take any shit. I have fifty in cash. I believe I’ll do the same.” Sure enough, he disappeared for three days soon after that.
We walked out together, and on the way to his trailer, he said, “You ever get high?” Joking, I said, “Once, in the spring of ’63.” Then I said, “Here’s why Jews don’t become junkies: a Jew has to have fresh orange juice in the morning, has to read the New York Times, and has to get eight hours of sleep. Ergo, no junkie.” We went into his trailer and there were all kinds of pipes and African things with wicks. Soon after that is when he blew himself up.
It’s terrifying when I think of how close I’ve come to being busted, to getting shot. It’s a miracle I’m sitting here. It’s a miracle anybody my age is sitting here.
II. “DARK TRIANGLE”
BLVR: From 1954 to 1966 you worked at the Magazine Management Company, editing Men, Male, True Action, and Man’s World. What kind of stories did you publish?
BJF: They were adventure stories with the thinnest layer of sex. The strongest phrase we were allowed to use was dark triangle. When a woman showed up in a negligee it was a “dark triangle.” It was pretty hot, actually. The publisher thought nympho was a good word so we used that a lot: “The G.I. King of Nympho Island.” There were a few pictures of women, not even in bikinis, but bathing suits, and a lot of war stories about Anzio and all the famous battles. When we ran out of battles I told Mario Puzo, who was one of my writers at the time, to make some up. I’d say, “It wasn’t Anzio but a few cities over. Nobody knows about it.”
I was annoyed by this James Frey story and I had forgotten what we used to do. There was a story about a Jewish prisoner and a Nazi commandant, and the stock photos we had bought to illustrate it didn’t look right. The Jewish guy looked like a Nazi and the reverse. I said, “Just switch them.” It was a little bit like reality television. The stories were sort of true.
Once in a while we would take a few liberties and somebody would bring a lawsuit. We ran a story about a Canadian who had died in the wilderness, but we had him involved with nymphos. It turned out the guy was alive and a chaplain in Canada. We were afraid he would sue. So I called a Toronto newspaper and we found out he had gone off to hunt bears and was believed to have died. We were relieved.
BLVR: How were you able to write Stern while working a nine-to-five job?
BJF: I had a two-hour commute to Long Island each way and I used the time on the train. My kids remember seeing me slumped over the table in the morning when they got up to go to school. Somehow you make use of the time when you have very little of it.
BLVR: Was Stern the first novel you wrote?
BJF: No, I had written one novel that Candida, to her dying day, said she would get published. It was about a Martha Stewart–type character that went to different air-force bases buoying up the spirits of wives of airforce officers. She would say, “Don’t worry about preparing wonderful hors d’oeuvres. You are your own hors d’oeuvre.” That was the title, You Are Your Own Hors d’Oeuvre. It got a few rejections and I lost confidence in it. But I learned how to write a novel from doing it badly. It was awful, working for four years to get it finished, like pushing a stone up a hill. Back then, if you hadn’t published a book by thirty it was all over.
As my thirtieth birthday was approaching, I had a very brief nervous breakdown, like Stern. I wasn’t allowed to have a real nervous breakdown, because I had kids and a mortgage. But in that period I wrote four stories of a different kind. They weren’t science fiction but they were fantasy stories of a kind I never tried before. I sent them to Candida and she called back and said she’d sold all four of them to Playboy. I got a check for around six thousand dollars. The best thing about the experience was that I had passed thirty and hadn’t even noticed it. I bought a baby-blue MG with the money. All of a sudden I was OK.
BLVR: How did Stern get published?
BJF: When Candida read Stern—she later denied this— she said, “You have written a very ugly book.” That cost me a week of sleep. I was really ill over that. A week later she called and said, “There’s one person I know who might respond to this book. His name is Robert Gottlieb.” She sent it to him and he bought it but there was this long period, like the Sitzkrieg—after Hitler invaded Poland, and France and Germany were officially at war with Hitler but nothing happened—when my manuscript was accepted but it was unofficial.
Bob Gottlieb was the best editor I ever had. He would say, “Do something here.” He was always right. Or he’d say, “You didn’t write that,” about this one line in Stern. I knew exactly what he meant.
BLVR: What was it?
BJF: This is so embarrassing. In a dramatic moment, it said, “Stern reeled as he had never reeled before.” That’s promotional copy. He was absolutely dead-on.
BLVR: Did he change anything else?
BJF: The book ended another way initially and Robert found it disagreeable. I still think I was right. Stern and his son are on a Ferris wheel and Stern climbs down, leaving his child at the top, goes back to his own mother, and gets into bed. Bob didn’t want anything bad to happen to a child—it was a personal thing for him—and I changed it.
He edited six or seven of my novels. In The Dick I had an extended section that really didn’t need to be in the book. Bob called it the “flying down to Rio” section. You’re not quite ready to end the book so you fly people down to Rio. It really stuck with me.
BLVR: How did you get started as a fiction writer?
BJF: I had an experience in the air force that I didn’t know how to deal with so I wrote a story about it called “The Man They Threw Out of Jets.” I sent it to the New Yorker. A guy named Hollis Alpert was charged with what they called unsolicited manuscripts, the slush pile. His job was to pull two stories a month out of the mass of material and work with those two writers. I got pulled out, along with a writer named John Sack, who went on and had a decent career.
Hollis Alpert read the story and said, “We can’t publish this. What else do you have?” In my mother’s kitchen I wrote another story, “Wonderful Golden Rule Days” and they bought it. “The Man They Threw Out of Jets” was subsequently published in the Antioch Review. I never published in the AR again until fifty years later to the day. Some impulse told me to send a story to them and a woman pulled me out of the slush pile, again.
BLVR: Christopher Buckley wrote that your stories, “with their whammo endings, tend to divide into two kinds: the first leave you whispering, ‘Wow’; the second go whistling over your head like an artillery round and leave you muttering, ‘Huh.’” Do you know the ending of a short story when you sit down to write it?
BJF: I learned not to begin a story until I knew the approximate last line, if not the actual last line. That has saved me a few times over the years. To me a story is like a bow and arrow. It has to go straight to the target and hit it in the center. There are a couple occasions when I really didn’t know where I was going, like in “Black Angels,” where the story bailed me out and the ending revealed itself to me. In a novel I don’t think it’s quite required.
III. “I CANNOT READ A PEDESTRIAN SENTENCE.”
BLVR: Stern drew comparisons to Nathanael West, Hieronymus Bosch, and Marc Chagall. Who were your influences when you started writing?
BJF: When I was in the air force, I had a commanding officer named George B. Leonard, who later became a major counterculture figure on the West Coast. He gave me three books to read: Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe, From Here to Eternity by James Jones, and Catcher in the Rye. I read the books in close to one weekend and it was my only epiphany: a Jewish guy can have an epiphany. I thought, Wouldn’t it be wonderful to try something like that? This was particularly true with Catcher in the Rye. I had an image of literature as being something I simply couldn’t do, having to do with life and the cosmos and the universe and the rolling hills of South Carolina. When I read Salinger it was the first time I thought, This is my world, I could try something like that.
I was influenced by radio—I listened to a lot of radio, there was no television—and the street. The way young people admire rock stars, I had a thing about writers. When a writer came to school when I was a kid I wasn’t even listening to him. I wanted to see the way he smoked.
Someone reviewing one of my early books said, “Obviously Mr. Friedman has been influenced by Céline.” I had never read Céline but then I read Céline and they were right, meaning you could be influenced by someone whose influence is so widespread that you get influenced without reading it.
Later I started to get influenced only insofar as I enjoyed someone, like Evelyn Waugh. He’s written some novels that I can actually prove were perfect, like Decline and Fall.
I read The Day of the Locust for the first time recently. I really loved it, except there’s a lot of unnecessary “he said” and “she said” where you don’t know who the speaker is. It could have used a good edit. It wouldn’t have lost any literary value.
I’m really, really touchy about this, maybe more so than others, but I cannot read a pedestrian sentence.
BLVR: What’s an example of a pedestrian sentence?
BJF: I like to know what’s going on and what pop culture is once in a while, so I read The Da Vinci Code. I was reading along and I came to a sentence where the hero is in a hotel room and he dons a bathrobe. There’s no particular reason but I said, “OK, let him don a bathrobe.” It was like a king donning his raiment. Then twenty pages later he dons another bathrobe. I said, “If he dons one more fucking bathrobe I’m out of here.”
BLVR: In the late ’60s you had a hit play Off Broadway called Scuba Duba, about a man who goes on vacation with his wife to the south of France only to have her run off with a black scuba diver. How did you get interested in playwriting?
BJF: One thing I am proud of is that I’ve been able to have things work out as a novelist and a playwright and even in Hollywood. There’s always that “they.” They say, “OK, you’ve written a short story but you can’t write a novel.” Then you write a novel. “Terrific, but you can’t write for the theater.” And you write for the theater and it works out. After Scuba Duba was a hit I was in the locker room at Vic Tanny’s gym, naked, and this guy said, “I haven’t seen your name on the big screen.”
I did have some background in theater to the extent that I had seen a lot as a kid. My aunt worked for the Shuberts in the box office. From the time I was five years old whenever they had a flop that was going to close I would be rushed down to see it, so I learned what terrible plays were like.
BLVR: There is an absurdist sensibility in your play and I wonder if you saw anything that influenced you.
BJF: I don’t know if I saw this play before or after but there was a play called Outward Bound by Sutton Vane— great name, the guy’s real name was probably Ginsburg— and it really haunted me. It was about some people that were on a steamer, a vacation cruise, and they realize that they’re dead. In 1962 I went to see Arthur Kopit’s play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad—and I was really taken with it. Ionesco was being shown and Beckett and Edward Albee. It was upside-down theater. It didn’t have a formal structure. I thought, I ought to try something like that. At that time in my life everything I touched worked out.
BLVR: Then what happened?
BJF: The first time I had a ten-car collision was when I got a lousy review in the Times. The review troubled me. It was written in a personal way and I was upset by it. It was written by Anatole Broyard at a time when we didn’t know he was black. The book was The Dick and I’m writing about a Chicago homicide bureau, which is racist from the second you walk in. So the implication was that I was racist. I resented that. It really was wounding. He had been a big fan of mine, sought me out, and had invited me down to the Village to have dinner and meet Ralph Ellison. Ellison, I still remember, irritatingly kept calling me “Mr. Stern” throughout the evening.
Broyard was one of those guys who had published one short story, about his father. Called “What the Cystoscope Said.” It got some attention and would seem to be the beginning of a big career as a writer. The night I came to dinner Broyard showed me his desk. It was the most beautiful desk I’d ever seen, with the finest bookshelves, all neatly organized. He said, “This is my in-box, and this is my out-box,” but I knew no books would be written there.
IV. “CAN I WASH SOME GLASSES?”
BLVR: There are certain writers who don’t want to admit that any of their fiction comes from life, because they worry that the admission would denigrate their craft. Do you feel that way?
BJF: I know exactly what you’re saying, because there’s a feeling very often by the questioner that if all you’re doing is reporting on your life that’s a lesser achievement. My answer is: “Try it.” If I were to describe what my actual days are like it would put everybody to sleep.
I think all writing is autobiographical. If you write about Venus and Mars it’s your view of Venus and Mars. But to me the great fun is “Write what you don’t know.” That’s more exciting.
BLVR: Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer? Do you find the question irritating?
BJF: I’m not so easily irritated, but I’m not sure how to deal with it. I wrote one play that dealt with Jewish issues, called Have You Spoken to Any Jews Lately? In my new collection there’s a story about a guy who moves to the country and he’s on the alert for anti-Semitism and he can’t find any. He feels deprived. What’s the point of being a Jew? So he creates some.
BLVR: Your new collection has some stories that seem influenced by I. B. Singer. I wonder if your stories are getting more Jewish as you get older.
BJF: Lately I’ve been flooded with memories of old Yiddish expressions from my childhood. It’s wonderful. Hitler would have been more successful if he’d attacked the language rather than the Jews. The language is so powerful. When Hitler told von Manstein his plan about invading the Soviet Union and opening up a two-front war, if von Manstein had said, “This is a farshtunkeneh plan,” he could have called off the whole thing.
BLVR: Your novel A Mother’s Kisses, about an overbearing Jewish mother, came out five years before Portnoy’s Complaint. Did you ever feel competitive with Roth?
BJF: Not at that time. I admired him tremendously. I’m sure it’s provable that there was a similarity between the two mothers but I simply didn’t feel any connection. The rule with me is if I’m happy with the work I’m doing I admire everyone else and wish everyone well. When my work is going poorly, that’s when I get envious and resentful.
BLVR: Did you know Philip Roth?
BJF: I met him a few times. In the early ’60s Mademoiselle magazine did a feature—a wonderful idea—in which they paired up new writers with Swedish models. There were different teams and I was on one with Norman Podhoretz, Jack Richardson, who became a lifelong friend, and George Plimpton. I got to chatting with George. I had a bumpy marriage, I was living out there in the suburbs, and I thought, I could use a new friend.
He invited me to a party. So I show up to his party and apparently I was early and his house was empty. I called up to him, “This is Bruce. You remember, Mademoiselle. Can I help out? Can I wash some glasses?” He said, “Oh no no no, dear boy, don’t worry about a thing.” So I walked around the block, came back, and suddenly the entire WeStern world walked through his door: Jules Feiffer, Jacqueline Onassis, Truman Capote. Philip Roth was there that night, I believe Norman Mailer was there. I said, “This is some friend.” I knew Philip Roth’s stories in the New Yorker but to actually meet him, and Jules Feiffer? I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to these people.
V. “YOU CAN GET THE WHOLE STORY IN FIVE MINUTES IF YOU’RE GOOD.”
BLVR: Did you invent the phrase black humor?
BJF: All that meant was that someone approached me from New American Library and said, “How about doing this anthology?” It was a way to pick up five grand and read some people I had never heard of: Thomas Pynchon, Nabokov, a fellow that belongs to this club named Charles Simmons. I wrote an introduction about black humor, which was published everywhere. For some reason that idea caught fire. They started teaching college courses on black humor.
BLVR: You’ve written so well about shrinks. In your story “Mr. Prinzo’s Breakthrough” Prinzo murders his shrink’s wife to test his shrink’s contention that he’s there to help his patient any way he can. Have you had any luck with therapy?
BJF: At one point I had my first writer’s block so I went to see an ancient Viennese guy, who I think had studied at Freud’s knee. He was a hundred years old. I told him, “I had a flamboyant mother, a reserved father.” He stopped me after five minutes and said, “OK, Mr. Friedman, you are obviously bipolar. You’re not crazy bipolar but you’re in a decent range and I would advise you to take some medication for that.” Then he puts his arm around me and says, “I wouldn’t concern myself too much because art wouldn’t exist without you manic depressives.” I said, “Wait a minute. I started out bipolar a few minutes ago and now you’ve promoted me to manic depressive?”
Joe Heller got a big kick out of that—I told him the story—but what he fastened on was the fact that the guy knew the whole story after five minutes. You can get the whole story in five minutes if you’re good.
BLVR: It seems half the people in therapy complain because their parents overestimated them and the other half complain because their parents underestimated them. Which is worse?
BJF: In the case of my mother, it was both. In some ways I could do no wrong, but when I called her after she had seen Scuba Duba and it got a rave review in the Times I said, “Ma, what did you think?” She said, “I could not take my eyes off that boy,” meaning Jerry Orbach. I said, “He wasn’t reading the phone book.”
VI. ON NOT GOING TO JAPAN
BLVR: Can you describe a typical day?
BJF: It’s to put off writing as long as possible. I walk the dog. There’s the laundry. There’s the garbage. I have to read three newspapers in the morning. I’m a news junkie. I can work my way up to noon, one o’clock before I have to face this. Then I work. I was reading an interview with Alice Munro. I like her stories. One thing she said I really responded to, about the need to work every day. If she doesn’t, god forbid, and misses a day, she’s really impossible to be with and irritable. I’m the same way.
BLVR: Do you go on the Internet?
BJF: Most of the time at the computer I’m staring at it in wonder of all the time it could have saved me. I wrote this book called Tokyo Woes about a guy who goes to Japan. I had never been to Japan. My wife was pregnant and I thought I’d wait till we delivered the baby and then go to Japan. I started to write it and I had a little cottage near the house where I worked and it was filled from floor to ceiling with books about Japan, Japanese culture, and Japanese art. All that stuff would have been available with two clicks and it would have enriched the book.
BLVR: Didn’t you wind up publishing it without having gone to Japan?
BJF: I figured I could get the character over Mount Fuji, which I had read a lot about. I knew what a Japanese apartment would look like, so I could get him into an apartment. Before I knew it I was finished with the book, never having gone to Japan. There were a lot of reviews and there wasn’t a soul who guessed that I had never been to Japan, including Michiko Kakutani. Later a magazine found out that I had written a whole book about Japan and never been there, and they sent me. I thought my version was more accurate.
BLVR: What are you working on now?
BJF: With God’s help, as we say in our religion, I should have a draft of a novel in a month or so if life doesn’t over-interfere. I’ve never written a multi-viewpoint book. One of the viewpoints is a woman’s, but in this work that I’m struggling with it’s the easiest part. I’m having trouble writing about the male.