Ninety is an unusual age to embark upon a second career, but that’s just what Oscar-nominated screenwriter and co-creator of Mr. McGoo is doing. McSweeney’s will publish Kaufman’s debut novel, Bowl of Cherries, a madcap comic tale that follows the life of Yale Dropout Judd Breslau as he makes his way between such far-flung places as a porn studio in New York city and a jail cell in war-torn Iraq. He talked with PW about the differences between the film and book industry (one discourages the use of typewriters as weapons), the best writer in the English language, and America’s current state of affairs.
It’s very rare to become a debut novelist at 90. How did you come to write the book and why the switch from films to fiction?
There is a thing in pictures that I’m sure you’re aware of: there’s a tendency to favor young people, which is fine. It’s been that way as long as I’ve been in this business, and I’ve been in this business since WWII. There’s a certain understandable favoritism pointing toward young people, because essentially pictures, particularly the way they’ve been going for the last half century, are directed toward young people. I felt that I’d like to try something else, and despite the fact that I am 90—and as a matter of fact I was 88 when I started.
Do you feel like the book world is less young-people-centric? Is it less pressured?
I find it difficult to write. The written word is not easy to do well, but when I got into the novel, I found out that I could more or less proceed pretty well, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Is the writing process very different?
I have a tendency to write dialogue without much of a strain. I find narration or description or anything else more difficult than dialogue.
Having lived through almost all of the last century’s wars, and seeing, and writing about, this one, do you feel like we’ve learned anything useful?
One of the things I find disturbing is that from the beginning, so far as I am aware, there’s never been a year of peace, and so it is today. It seemed rather preposterous to do any story without at least a background of this sort of thing.
McSweeney’s is generally associated with a young, hipster audience. How has it been working with them?
One of the surprises is that people who are aware of this seem to think that my book is a tremendous variation from the sort of thing one expects from McSweeney’s. As Fred my son said, “Here I am, this old geezer writing for this young progressive organization.”
What would you say are some books that have been important influences on the writing of Bowl of Cherries?
I would like to write like Charles Dickens, and I think he’s about the best in the English language. In the 20th century, I’m a large admirer or Fitzgerald. There are a couple of things I reread every year: one is Gatsby, the other is The Maltese Falcon.
You’ve worked for a long time in the film industry. How does the book biz seem different?
Never in my dealings with Eli Horowitz, my editor at McSweeney’s, did he more than suggest a minor change, and it was always up to me. The attitude for most people in the hierarchy out here is, if a studio or a producer or a director, or anyone else buys a book, he is in a position to dictate what he wants to come out of that for a picture. For example, I was working for a guy once who asked me to change a scene, and I said “I already tried it that way and I don’t think it’ll work.” I tried it again, it didn’t work. I came in the next day, showed him what I had written, and said “it doesn’t work.” He said, “goddamnit, do it my way or I’ll have Jack”—who was his chauffer and bodyguard—“break your arm” And I threw the typewriter at him—or I pretended I threw it at him; I looked at him but threw it at the other end of the couch from where he was sitting. But that kind of thing is preposterous in terms of publishing. Nobody would break my arm.