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The Library
Vol. 1, No. 1, Premier Issue
October 1973
page 1

Author Interview

HOWARD FAST

Howard Fast enjoys a most unusual situation as a famous author although he modestly asserts that he is not alone in this situation. Mr. Fast is not only widely read by a diverse audience, but is genuinely scholarly in his approach toward writing, achieving a rare kind of popular quality.

His most famous volume among the many books he has written over the years is SPARTICUS «sic» which was adapted into what may have been the most expensive Hollywood extravaganza of its time, and Mr. Fast believes the book to be one of his finest.

However, within Publishing Circles, it is recognized that his flair for retelling American History brought about his most significant work CITIZEN TOM PAINE.

Blacklisted during The McCarthy Era, Mr. Fast has always had strong convictions, but is refreshingly calm in his approach toward solutions to the problems which trouble him.

A most sought after author since his first best seller more than a generation ago, Mr. Fast believes that after all past literary triumphs he continues to learn and improve, stating that his last book published, THE HESSIANS «sic» to be released in paperback soon, is his best.

The Library:   You published your first book at the age of nineteen.
Fast:  Yes.
The Library:  Had you written another book before, or was that your first?
Fast:  No, I'd written a great deal before then. I had written a half dozen books, none of which were published.
The Library:  Were they ever submitted to publishers?
Fast:  Yes.
The Library:  Were any of those other books that you had written before, in your opinion, as good as the book that was chosen to be published?
Fast:  No.
The Library:  So then you felt that you had improved.
Fast:  Well, Yes! Writing is a thing that has to be learned. And you either improve or you stay where you are. Some writers stay where they ere, others improve.
The Library:  How old were you when you wrote your first book?
Fast:  About seventeen.
The Library:  So then you wrote half a dozen books in two years?
Fast:  Um Hm.
The Library:  Were you in college at the time?
Fast:  No I wasn't. I was working at the time.
The Library:  What kind of work did you do?
Fast:  All sorts of odd jobs. I did construction work. I worked as a shipping clerk. I worked as a packer. I worked as any number of things during those years.
The Library:  As an unknown author, how did you manage to attract the attention of the publishers?
Fast:  I got to a literary agent.
The Library:  Really?
Fast:  Yes, I knew about literary agents.
The Library:  How did you happen to know at such a young age?
Fast:  Well, I knew a great deal at the time. I came from a home where books were highly regarded. I read books. I knew a writer or two, so I had my means of information.
The Library:  Do you enjoy dealing through literary agents?
Fast:  It's not a question of whether you enjoy. There is no way for a working writer to operate today except through a literary agent.
The Library:  But a man of your reputation could possibly...
Fast:  If you don't have a literary agent, you're put in a very difficult positon «sic» of bargaining, something which a third party can do much better for you.
The Library:  So you prefer this arrangement?
Fast:  Oh Yes! Yes indeed.
The Library:  Do these agents consult you?
Fast:  Yes, they consult you on every move.
The Library:  Can you recall the name of your first published book?
Fast:  It was called TWO VALLEYS, a fairly long novel.
The Library:  Looking back, are you proud of it?
Fast:  Well, I don't look upon books as a question of being proud of them or not proud of them. This was a book which was, I think, at my level of development a very good book. It's not the kind of a book one writes today. But that was more than thirty years ago.
The Library:  Was there a particular reason why you wrote that book rather than the others which were not published?
Fast:  There's always a particular reason why someone writes every book. It's been too long since then for me to go into it.
The Library:  How many books have you written since then?
Fast:  I don't know, forty or fifty.
The Library:  That's remarkable!
Fast:  No, that's a long time. It's not remarkable. I've been at it all my life.
The Library:  Was your first published volume a financial success?
Fast:  No.
The Library:  Not at all?
Fast:  No, but that was during The Depression, and very few books were financial successes.
The Library:  GONE WITH THE WIND was.
Fast:  Yes, GONE WITH THE WIND was a financial success, but still very few were.
The Library:  When did you have your first financial success?
Fast:  In 1939. The book was called THE LAST FRONTIER and that was the first best seller I ever had.
The Library:  It must have been a big thrill for you.
Fast:  It was.
The Library:  1939. How old were you at the time?
Fast:  In '39 I was about twenty-five.
The Library:  After a best seller, naturally you must have been in great demand. How were the Movies attracted to best selling books at that time?
Fast:  Well the Movies always like to buy best sellers.
The Library:  Did they buy yours?
Fast:  They bought it, but the movie was never made. That happens very often.
The Library:  In 1939 the paperback industry was just about getting underway, wasn't it?
Fast:  It wasn't really in existence until after World War II. Paperbacks were begun by Phillip Van Doren Stern, I think, during the war.
The Library:  There were stories about the soldiers using them as toilet paper overseas.
Fast:  Well the G.I.'s I met never used them for toilet paper. They read them avidly. Those books were very precious during World War II.
The Library:  After your first success it must have been easier to select a subject and you must have acquired a great deal of power. At this time, did you begin to espouse any personal points of view in your writing that had not been there before, or were they always there?
Fast:  You can't write without a personal point of view, and power was not anything I was interested in. So this was never a question. The only question with me was how to write what I wanted to write and how to do it well.
The Library:  Is there any particularly writer that you admired at one time or that you do at this tune?
Fast:  A great many. Too many to list.
The Library:  Any in particular of inspiration at any particular time?
Fast:  Again, it's a question of twenty or thirty writers. It would make no sense for me to list them. A great many writers have influenced me.
The Library:  How is it that you began to write about American History as much as you did?
Fast:  I was very interested in it. That's the only answer you can give.
The Library:  There must have been a great deal of research required for the books that you wrote because they were very accurate historically'?
Fast:  That's right, but research isn't hard. Just a matter of time and patience.
The Library:  After having a couple of best sellers you probably had the finance to spend the time.
Fast:  Well, I never had the finance to spend the time. I spent the time because it was something I wanted to do. You must understand that the writer works differently. He doesn't depend on getting rich and then writing. He writes because he wants to write or because he has to write. And the question of whether he is successful, financially successful, or successful in other ways is something that either follows or doesn't follow.
The Library:  But isn't it gratifying to know that the Public likes to read what you write?
Fast:  It always is.
The Library:  Wasn't this in your mind while you were doing any book that you wrote?
Fast:  Yes, but it's not the factor that makes you write. Everyone wants recognition of some sort or another.
The Library:  Do you always write for yourself? For example, when the Movie people or Television people ask you to do something specific?
Fast:  No, I only write for myself, The only things I do for film are my own books and I've done a great many of them.
The Library:  How about Television?
Fast:  I've done films from my own books for television. I've done plays for television.
The Library:  Original?
Fast:  Original. I have never adapted anyone else's work yet. I would, but I've never had the opportunity.
The Library:  Hasn't anyone ever asked you?
Fast:  Yes, but in the cases where I was asked I didn't admire the work, so I didn't do it.
The Library:  Are you working on anything at this time?
Fast:  Always. I have recently completed a book of short stories which was just released.
The Library:  What is the name of your new collection?
Fast:  A TOUCH OF INFINITY.
The Library:  Is there a particular theme that you choose when compiling a collection of short stories?
Fast:  In this case, fantasy and Science Fiction, my third book of such stories.
The Library:  There was a time when writers flocked to Paris, and then there was an exodus to Africa for writers to prove something by baging «sic» an animal of some kind. Do you believe that this has become the modern case for Science Fiction?
Fast:  Not really. And Science Fiction is, in reality, tales of our times.
The Library:  It is traditionally true in Publishing, that publishers don't like to do collections of short stories because they lose money? In a review of Bernard Malamud's collection REMBRANDT'S HAT from The New York Times Book Review, the reviewer suggests that "some short stories are nothing more than dwarf novels. One gets the impression from them that the author didn't have enough time or patience to work things out..." Do you agree with these remarks?
Fast:  Concerning the reviewer's statements, they are partially true but it depends on the circumstances. A writer may not want to expand on a story even if it has the potential of becoming a novel. Regarding the other remark about Publishing, I think Malamud's book will do extremely well for the publisher, and no publisher has ever lost any money on any collection of mine.
The Library:  Do you think that the Movies can improve on a book?
Fast:  Yes, sometimes — but rarely.
The Library:  Were you satisfied with SPARTICUS «sic» as a movie?
Fast:  I was not.
The Library:  Were you satisfied with Kirk Douglas' performance?
Fast:  Suffice to say that I was not particularly happy with the treatment of SPARTICUS «sic» .
The Library:  Do you find that better movies are made with the assistance of lavish budgets?
Fast:  No. In fact, sometimes it causes just the opposite effect.
The Library:  Writing a book by yourself you have total, Godlike, control over the situations, the human brings, the environment ... talk about Science Fiction. When a movie company takes hold of it and you have little or no control, is it frightening?
Fast:  No, I think most writers feel frustrated, that's all.
The Library:  Then why do you do it?
Fast:  Why are things turned into movies?
The Library:  Why do you allow your property to become a movie?
Fast:  Well, for many reasons. First of all Film is a fascinating medium. Secondly there is money in it, a great deal of money in it. And thirdly, you get a tremendous audience compared to what a writer gets in a book.
The Library:  Is it certain that a movie will encourage people to read the book?
Fast:  Why sure! It works both ways. A paperback publisher will always pay more for a book that's been sold to the Movies. He figures it's going to increase his readership tremendously.
The Library:  Do you find writing a screenplay a great deal different froth writing a novel?
Fast:  It's different. It's not too different, but it's different. Any play is quite unlike writing a novel.
The Library:  Do you find that you can develop a character better in a novel than you can a screenplay?
Fast:  This all depends on how the film is made. A movie company is composed of producers, directors, actors, and other people who contribute to the ultimate product. There are things you can do in a novel that you can't do in a screenplay; and there are things that you can do in a screenplay that you can't do in a novel.
The Library:  There was a period in this country's history when there were people chasing other people which Constitutionally shouldn't have occurred. Evidentally, «sic» you were one of the hunted. Do you feel that they had any justification whatsoever?
Fast:  When a powerful govenrment «sic» does something they don't need justification.
The Library:  Within several of your books, it has been said that you were one of the very few historians who were able to, without waving the flag, take an objective look at American History. However, it has also been said that by doing so, you inadvertantly «sic» — and some individuals charged that you did this with malice of aforethought — maligned the United States by accurately revealing some rather unsavory periods of this country's history.
Fast:  It's not a question of maligning. I wrote a number of books about parts of our history that were not known.
The Library:  Would you name some of them?
Fast:  Well, I wrote the story of the Indians many years before BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE in my book THE LAST FRONTIER. I told the story of The American Revolution in a different way than it had ever been told before. This is not maligning anyone. I simply brought out facts which were not brought out before.
The Library:  These people who in fact blacklisted you, how did they go about doing this? How did they prevent you from continuing to do what you were doing?
Fast:  No one prevented me.
The Library:  Perhaps no one prevented you from writing it, but from what was understood at the time, you were prevented from having it published.
Fast:  Well, there were a few years in the 1940's, the late 1940's and the early 1950's when there was a great deal of fear in America.
The Library:  Do you mean The Red Scare?
Fast:  The McCarthy Period, the so-called McCarthy Period. And a great many writers could write nothing that they wanted to do in that period. And when they dared to write it, the books were not published.
The Library:  Do you believe that a country ought to have the power that this one Constitutionally has during a war to suspend habeas corpus and possibly detain and harass writers who, in the Government's opinion, may cause damage to the war effort?
Fast:  NO! I don't believe that at all! I don't believe that any writer ever endangered the United States! The United States is far more endangered in such periods by black marketeers, by dishonest manufacturers; by people who make faulty war supplies. There's a whole list of people who are far more dangerous to a country at war than a writer is.
The Library:  These people who attacked you, who tried to prevent you from writing, did they have any justification whatsoever from their point of view? What do you think was their motivation?
Fast:  Well, you have to read the whole history of The McCarthy Era. Their justification, a person's own justification is always that he is doing what is necessary.
The Library:  But isn't that just their outward justification? Many black-listed people and their sympathizers believe that the Congressmen who were involved at that time were simply attempting, quite successfully, to bring attention to themselves among a body containing more than five hundred members.
Fast:  Well, that's part of it. Every Congressman wants to bring attention to himself. That's part of it. Part of it is stupidity, part of it fear.
The Library:  What were they afraid of? You?
Fast:  People are always afraid of the written word. Ignorant people are always afraid of the written word.
The Library:  Getting back to your expertise as an historian, there are various people such as David Halberstam who have written books recently such as THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST which are amazing in their detail. Without living in the White House daily, how can a Halberstam actually compile intimate conversations and facial expressions? How do you go about this?
Fast:  Halberstam probably went home and wrote down what he had heard.
The Library:  Then he must have lived at the Executive Mansion every day of his life while John Kennedy was there.
Fast:  Well, he used other documents. He used the recollections of other people.
The Library:  How do you go about it, such as writing a book about Thomas Paine where you don't have personal contact?
Fast:  Well obviously I can't remember what he said, so I make it up.
The Library:  You do?
Fast:  Well of course you do! You make up what seems to be a reasonable thing for him to have said.
The Library:  Do you ever write about real people in the modern era and lightly disguise them, their appearance in any way?
Fast:  I think that every writer does that to a degree.
The Library:  Deliberately?
Fast:  On occasion, on occasion. But it's never the person because the moment you disguise him you change the person. Even David Halberstam can never get the precise color of the person he is writing about.
The Library:  Do you believe that this kind of improvised preciseness leads the Public to believe that a book like Halberstam's is just not true?
Fast:  Well, the substance of the book is true, some of the words were changed a bit, but the substance was true.
The Library:  So you're saying that History is never really as accurate as the actual occurrence?
Fast:  Well the actual occurrence is not accurate either. Because if you read The New York Times, which I consider a magnificent newspaper, you have no knowledge of what goes on behind the closed doors of power. You know only what they say to reporters or what a reporter hears.
The Library:  Do you find that investigative reporters are manipulated by various sources of information such as Congressmen, Senators, Presidents, for their particular purposes giving the journalist in return a scoop so to speak?
Fast:  Well, this may be true, but at the same time the journalist uses the Senator or Congressman, and at the same time there are different journalists. There are some who are brightter «sic» than others, more perceptive than others; some who are more honest, who have more integrity. You can not generalize about journalists.
The Library:  In light of what you have just said, this diversity among journalists, do you feel that Journalism is as good a protective element in this society as we imagine it to be, or is it necessary at all?
Fast:  I think it's one of the most necessary things in a society. Without journalism, people who are in power can do anything they please. There would be no way of knowing, no way the people could know.
The Library:  But you believe that powerful governments do it anyway.
Fast:  Well, they do it within limits, and sometimes it backfires. Journalism is the essence of a Free Society. And without it, there can be no Free Society. Yet I must add that a Free Press, the only guarantee of a free society, goes far beyond newspapers. It must apply to all the media, T.V., Books, Film, Theatre, Music. In fact, you might say that the level of a civilization can be judged by its attitude toward the written word.


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