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Publisher's Weekly, April 1, 1983, p. 64-65
Howard Fast Speaks on a Half Century of Writing
Howard Fast has been a published novelist for 50 years. He finds this hard to believe himself and says he would never have dreamed it had been that long had not someone at Houghton Mifflin, his current publisher, "ferreted it out."
Having done so, however, the publisher made quite an occasion out of the anniversary: New York executive editor Nan Talese lent her lavish Manhattan townhouse for a crowded party, HM chief executive officer Harold Miller and editor-in-chief Austin Olney flew down specially from Boston, there was a presentation (of the original cover art for The Immigrants), kind and sentimental words were spoken and a grand time was had by all. And throughout the festivities, Fast – a gentle, self-effacing person who seems for all the world like an elderly English professor at a small college – remained the soul of low-key modesty.
The quietness of the man is at odds with the often bloody and hectic atmosphere of some of his novels – Spartacus and Freedom Road, for instance, two of his great early hits – and the unswerving devotion to leftist causes that made him for a time in the 1950s a pariah of the publishing world. But, as he notes gently, "It's impossible to think of myself without being against things like intolerance and injustice.'' In recent years he has also turned to Buddhism as "the only nonexclusionary religion on earth, and therefore the only one I feel at ease with."
It is hardly a surprise that Fast is not the model of a contemporary author in terms of self-promotion. "I hate to travel and push my own books.'' he says. A relaxed two-hour chat with PW, however, was something else again – and proved to be a remarkable overview, from an unusual perspective, of half a century of publishing history.
Fast published his first novel, a forgotten work called Two Valleys, in 1933 with Dial. A second followed, and for his third, Place in the City, he went to Harcourt, where "I found my first real publisher, Sam Sloan, a man who became my dearest friend, counselor, adviser and father figure.'' Sloan shortly left to help found Duell, Sloan and Pearce, and Fast went for a time to Simon & Schuster. As he tells it, "They gave me a $1000 advance for my wife and me to go out and live on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, where I wrote The Last Frontier. But when they read it, they wanted their money back.'' He took it to Sloan at his new firm, rewrote it for him and stayed with the firm until Sloan died in 1944.
The Last Frontier turned out to be Fast's first book "with some kind of sales and fame. In those days it took only about 25,000 copies to make a bestseller."
Fast's next three books were The Unvanquished, Citizen Tom Paine and Freedom Road – books on which a whole generation of radicals was brought up (although it is a cautionary note that when Grove Press recently wanted to reissue Citizen Tom Paine in paperback, it couldn't find a copy to print from and had to ask Fast for his own). Freedom Road was the big bestseller. According to Fast, ''Some have estimated that it's the most widely printed and read book of the 20th century, and there's a bibliography that records editions in 82 languages."
After that, says Fast, ''I was deeply involved in the war, first in the Office of War Information, then reporting the fighting for Coronet and Esquire." With the war over and Sloan dead, a difficult period began for Fast. His unwavering left-wing point of view brought him increasingly into conflict with the Cold War mentality developing in the country – and to add to his troubles, his publishers, he says, "got greedy." For his next book, The American, a 100,000-copy printing was ordered, a quantity almost unheard-of then, ''and over half of them came back." Then he wrote Clarkton, ''a real left-wing novel, rather tendentious, but with some good ideas, and that was a disaster."
Angus Cameron, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown, asked Fast to join them. He did a book of stories, Departure, My Glorious Brothers and The Proud and the Free there before McCarthyism caught up with him, and he was jailed for three months for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on his political beliefs. When he came out, he wrote Spartacus, "and Angus got very excited with it, saying it was the most significant historical novel he'd ever read. But Hoover sent his FBI agents up to Boston to warn Little, Brown not to publish it. As I heard it, there was a board meeting about it, Angus insisted he wanted to publish and was forced to resign."
At this point Fast became an untouchable within publishing. ''So I decided to do Spartacus myself. I knew people in the trade, and I got a designer and a jacket artist, took an office, found a printer in Brooklyn, and we put it out. We distributed by direct mail at first, then Citadel agreed to distribute to the trade. We sold almost 50,000 copies in hardcover at $3 apiece."
Further self-publishing was not so profitable: Fast got out another three books, then went bankrupt – "proving, I guess, that a writer who publishes himself is a horse's ass.'' But at this point his career took another odd turn. He wrote a detective story called Sylvia and, because he was still a "nonperson" in publishing terms, sent it to Doubleday under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham. It did well, became, says Fast, a very bad movie, but launched Cunningham, under which name Fast has for years written a series of novels for Delacorte starring a Zen Buddhist detective in Beverly Hills. One of life's many ironies, for him, is that although ''critics can't stand my mainline books, maybe because they sell so well, they love Cunningham. Even the New Yorker has reviewed him, and they've never reviewed me."
As the political atmosphere lightened, Fast found publishers again, including Crown, Morrow and Doubleday – and wrote what he still feels to be his best books, April Morning and The Hessian. "They're both extraordinary enough to make me wonder how I could ever have written them. They're not the sort of books you can plan to write, and if they happen, you're very fortunate. Twice in a lifetime is more than any writer can expect."
Fast seemed almost to have disappeared from the writing scene for a while in the early 1970s. He became deeply interested in Buddhism, wrote The Art of Zen Meditation, a little handbook that he says proudly has sold about 10,000 copies, and a book of Zen stories published with a small California press. Then, once again, his life took a new swerve. "My agent Paul Reynolds retired, and my son Jonathan and my daughter-in-law, Erica Jong, who knew a lot about publishing, took me to Sterling Lord." He in turn took Fast to Houghton Mifflin – "and for the first time since Sam Sloan I was reminded of what publishing used to be.''
He decided that "no one in America had ever written a huge, detailed novel about a woman's life in this century, and I decided I'd do it. But first I had to give her some antecedents, and before I paused for breath I'd written 600 pages." The result was The Immigrants and a triumphant return to the bestseller list for Fast. It was followed by Second Generation, The Establishment and The Legacy. Max, his current novel about the movie industry, was an interruption, but now Fast is working on the last volume of his planned five-novel saga. He's finding it harder going, "because I bring Barbara's story right into the present time, and maybe I don't really understand the present time." It's promised for next October.
Fast is resigned rather than bitter about the fact that critics today don't take his work seriously. "I think I function in the direct tradition of the early American novel, as a storyteller rather than a philosopher or a teacher; so I'm resented by the school of criticism that rejects storytelling as superficial and looks on the novel as basically an examination of the interior life. They automatically see something like The Legacy as a soap opera, anything that traces a family over a period of time. . . . That's their way of categorizing things, preventing real thought. They don't choose to examine how well you tell a story, and that's what I'm interested in."
In many ways his current position is much like that of Irwin Shaw, and when PW points this out, Fast is delighted. "Exactly! Irwin has been around almost as long as I have, and he's got the same problem with the critics. But to me he's writing better than ever.''
Fast has by no means given up his leftist convictions: ''I still take part in demonstrations and protests, and there's a lot to protest today. And I do a column for my local paper in Greenwich, Connecticut, mostly against the Bomb. Not long ago,'' he adds with great satisfaction, "the paper got an indignant letter saying: 'Don't you know your columnist is the son of Howard Fast, the Communist, and don't you think it rubs off on him, having a father like that?'"
Fast finds that as he ages, ''The writing becomes easier mentally, but tougher physically. My eyes are going, my back is going." A word processor to ease the pain? "I'd need too much energy to figure it out." So he struggles on. And is, finally, philosophical. "I've had a good long run. I've survived, and there were times I never thought I would. And now, when I'm a bestseller again, my kids tell me: 'Dad, you've been recycled. It's all going to work out.' And I believe it will."