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The Fortunate Mr. Kaufman

Millard Kaufman just published his first novel. He's 90 years old, and says he wrote it to stay out of trouble.

By Dale Keiger
Art by Joe Ciardiello

When Johns Hopkins Magazine last spoke to Millard Kaufman, A&S '39, he had just published Plots and Characters: A Screenwriter on Screenwriting, drawing on 50 years of experience in Hollywood. Kaufman was the co-creator of Mr. Magoo, plus a two-time Academy Award nominee for screenplays (one of them for the acclaimed Bad Day at Black Rock). A funny, profane, self-deprecating raconteur, he was also 82 years old. So we did not anticipate talking with him again eight years later to mark publication of his first novel, Bowl of Cherries (McSweeney's, 2007). Bowl of Cherries is the comic death-row testament of a 14-year-old erstwhile PhD student named Judd Breslau, who improbably finds himself awaiting execution by ganching in Iraq. Ganching involves being flung from a significant height onto sharpened stakes, and that may not sound like comedic material, but Kaufman's book, from first page to last, carries the risk of rendering the reader helpless due to giggling fits. His publisher notes that the novel "is packed with renegade Egyptologists, libidinous ranch hands, excrement speculators, and grenade-toting Israelis," and that summary makes no mention of the experiments in levitation by tuba or Judd's encounter with the girl of his dreams in a New York porn studio. Johns Hopkins Magazine called Kaufman at his home in southern California, where he had so much fun writing his first novel, he's at work on a second one.

First, how did you find your way to Johns Hopkins University?
I had been a merchant seaman [for two years after high school]. I'd been all over Europe and the West Coast, and I loved it to the degree that I thought unless I got the hell out, I'd be doing this all my life, and I thought that would be a rather unnatural life. So I decided to go to college on the money I'd earned. I applied to Hopkins, Harvard, and I forget where the other place was. I told the master of the ship about it, and he didn't believe I'd been anywhere near a school. But he let me off the ship in Boston. We'd had a fire [while in port in England] and it had delayed us three weeks. So when I went to Harvard, they told me they would take me, but not this year because school had already started. I went down to Baltimore thinking I'd get into Hopkins, and they told me the same thing. I was visiting a friend in Washington and didn't know what to do, so I went to the University of Maryland and they gobbled me up. In those days Maryland would take anybody. The following year [1936] I transferred to Hopkins.

What did you study?
English literature. That was the only thing I could get a passing grade in. I had all As in English literature, all Bs in history, and damned near flunked everything else. I paid little or no interest to any other part of academics. I managed to violate a school rule in which an undergraduate had to take courses in science. I wasn't interested and I was lousy at it. I was hardly an academic, except possibly in literature. One thing that school offered was an opportunity to do a hell of a lot of reading, which I thought was wonderful. I loved Hopkins.

After Hopkins, you headed to New York and became a copyboy at the Daily News. Did you intend to become a reporter?
Yeah. I loved it when I finally became a reporter, and I did that up until the war, when I enlisted in the Marine Corps.

What did you love about it?
I don't know, I was kind of nosy. I liked to mind other people's business, and I liked to have a reason to do it that wouldn't get the hell kicked out of me. Also I liked the speed of a city room. And thirdly, I liked sitting down at a typewriter and writing a story. I still like that.

After the war, you decided to stay in California?
I thought I'd go back [to New York] and become a reporter again after the war. But during the war I got malaria and dengue [fever] and I didn't want to face that New York City climate, summer or winter. So we [he and his wife, Lorraine] decided to stay on the West Coast.

How'd you find your way into screenwriting?
I remember when I was in the sixth grade there was something called vocational guidance. I remember the teacher asking us what we'd like to do when we grew up, and I had written down "being a screenwriter." Where I got that I don't know. Later, when I was a seaman, out of nowhere in Portland, Oregon, the master of the ship gave everybody three bucks to go ashore, get a hotel, get something to eat, and come back the following morning, because the ship was going to be fumigated. So I took the three bucks and went to an all-night movie. I saw a phenomenal picture called The Informer, written by Dudley Nichols. I just sat there all night and saw it and saw it again and saw it again until early the next morning when I had to report back to the ship. I remember having a fleeting thought as I left the theater, that this is something I'd like to do the rest of my life — write stuff like this.
   I was very fortunate in that [getting hired] had nothing to do with my ability to write. Dore Schary, who was head of MGM at that time, had a thing about Marines. He hired me simply on the fact that I had been in the Marine Corps and in combat. My agent, who was far from a loyal man, told me that Dore, two weeks after hiring me, had had his doubts. But my agent said, "Why don't you give him a couple of weeks, then you can fire him and get a real writer?" I was at MGM for about 12 or 13 years. I was very fortunate. The first picture I wrote won an Academy nomination, so I was kind of in business. The picture was Take the High Ground!, about Marines in boot camp, which for reasons too long to repeat became a picture about an Army boot camp.

What was the experience like as a writer working for the studios in those days?
Well, it's always fun to write. As you know, the great majority of people, particularly from the East, who come out here are hypercritical of Hollywood. I personally enjoy it. I think a great majority of the people who are so critical are people who weren't successful. I was fortunate in being successful without trying too hard. Maybe that had something to do with it.

How much of what you wrote actually ended up on the screen?
What happens in pictures is usually you follow a batting average not unlike a ballplayer. If you get one script on screen out of three tries, that's pretty good. I was fortunate enough to do even better than that. The studio thought it was rather unusual for a guy to get an Oscar nomination the first time out, so they made a deal with me which I accepted because it involved a lot of money but was a pain in the ass. There are a great majority of movies that teeter on the edge of being made or being dumped, and sometimes it's a difficult decision whether a given piece is going to turn out to be something that's worthwhile. So they brought me in when they had things like that, and a lot of what I did was rewrite a lot of this stuff to get it on screen.

Was it creatively satisfying?
I guess the answer is yes, because I didn't spend much time worrying about creativity or writing the great American novel or being famous. I just found it great to be a writer, and rather rare to be a successful writer, because it's not easy. You write and write and write and here I am, for Christ's sake, 90 years old.

You'd read a lot of novels at Hopkins as an English major, and continued to read them afterwards. When did it first occur to you to write one yourself?
Not until about two or three years ago, when I decided to try to write this one. What I had was a constancy of jobs writing pictures, or touching pictures up, or messing around in the picture business. It never occurred to me that maybe I ought to break away from that and sit down and try something else. Years ago, when Somerset Maugham talked at UCLA, some kid shot his hand up and said, "How do you write a novel?" And without hesitation, Maugham said, "Well, there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are." And I thought later, If nobody knows how to write a novel, why the hell can't I write one? So I sat down and wrote [Bowl of Cherries].

You told Michael Silverblatt, the host of public radio station KCRW's Bookworm, that your first inclination was to write poetry.
Yeah, but I can't write poetry. Jesus, I was working on a picture in London once, and for reasons I don't remember, I kept walking past a church that fascinated me, and I decided to write a poem about that church. I wrote a sonnet and sent it to The New Yorker and got one hell of a fast rejection. That was the end of my writing poetry.

But what got you started on a novel?
Well, you know, even late in life, I do have certain responsibilities toward my wife and family, and though my idea of sheer heaven would be to have a terribly rich father and sit on my ass and do nothing, I have responsibilities. I can't just sit around too long. Sooner or later I have to come back to doing something I can do and get paid for it.

Did you have a model in mind while writing Bowl of Cherries?
I must have thousands of books in this house, but in what I laughingly call my study I have four books by themselves. I love those four books and I constantly reread them. The one I like the most is Dickens' Bleak House, possibly the most brilliant novel written in the English language. The second is the greatest book written in the 20th century in America, The Great Gatsby. Then, I read a book called West with the Night [Beryl Markham]. The other one I like, that knocks me out all the time no matter how often I read it, is Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons' book.
   But no, the only thing I thought of as a model was, wouldn't it be nice if I could turn out even a modest approximation of Tender Is the Night or Bleak House or something really good? You know, nobody tries to do something bad. They succeed at it, but they don't try.

"Despite what Hemingway said, instead of using short simple words, I like to use the apposite word, no matter how fat or big or ugly it is, if it gets me where I want to go," says Millard Kaufman. Did you start with a scene, or a line, or a line of dialogue?
I actually started with a sentence still in the book: "If you look closely at a detailed map of Iraq" — something like that. ["If you look closely at a detailed map of Iraq, you'll find somewhere to the south, between the western shelf and the equally monotonous eastern plain, the province of Assama, a flat depression in the shape of a chicken."] I just went on and on from there and wrote about twice as much as appears in the book today, most of which I took out because I was just rambling. I think I had a vague story in mind, which is basically the story of the book. But as you know, as a writer, somehow or other you narrow things down and you just do it. It came relatively easy for me. I liked the idea of writing a narrative, rather than a screenplay that's primarily dialogue.
   I like to make things up. People have asked me how many times I've been in Iraq and stuff like that. I've never been in Iraq! And I don't intend to go there. I made a lot of it up, including inventing cities and that sort of thing, which I find kind of fun. I don't know what I'm doing talking about "fun" when I'm 90 years old, but I do.

Judd Breslau, your protagonist, has a supporting cast that's a real collection of loons and misfits and oddballs.
This is the way I like to write. I go as far out as I can, then I read it and think about it, and then I ask myself, Is this going too far? If it is, I pull back a little, until I get what I want. I like things wild and crazy and freaky, and I find that's what most people are, despite the fact that they pretend to be infinitely more serious.

Part of what you seem to be doing is having great fun with the language, employing words like "chalcedonic" and "nepenthe" and "ithyphallic."
I tried to figure out what kind of language a 14-year-old very bright kid would use, and I think he would use these outrageously big, silly words to prove, unconsciously, to the reader how smart he was. That was part of what I did. The other part is it comes kind of natural to me. Despite what Hemingway said, instead of using short simple words, I like to use the apposite word, no matter how fat or big or ugly it is, if it gets me where I want to go.

You've said that the dialogue came easy, but the rest was hard. Did the dialogue come easy because of your screenwriting experience?
Yeah. But all good writing, and that includes screenplays, is hard. Bad writing is easy. Writers are willing to settle for less and fool themselves. The hardest thing for me to do, in terms of writing, is not to write. Sometimes when I finish something, I think, Oh boy, I can take some time off. And I swear that after about 10 minutes I'm ready to go to work again.

How do you think Bowl of Cherries turned out?
I like it. I like it. Could it be better? Anything could be better. I'm sure there are things that Ben Jonson wrote and he looked at it later and said, "Who the hell wrote this?" I think Bowl of Cherries is a pretty good book.

And apparently you came out of the experience interested in doing it again?
It might surprise you if I said that at 90 I can still get into trouble. So the safest thing for me to do is sit in a quiet room by myself and work on another book.

What kind of trouble would you get into?
God knows I don't want to advertise that. But if you pick up the back page of a paper some day and find out I'm in terrible trouble, you'll say, "Jesus, he told me."

You've been treated in the popular media as something of a novelty, the nonagenarian who just published his first novel. Are you tired of that?
Not as long as the fucking thing sells.

Dale Keiger is Johns Hopkins Magazine's associate editor.

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