rebecca mead | the literary life – first at ninety

24 10 2007



Millard Kaufman in the 1950’s

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No. 123| October 23, 2007

On Writing a 1st Novel (and when)

THE LITERARY LIFE – First at Ninety

Millard Kaufman, a debut novelist whose book “Bowl of Cherries” comes out this month, has been de­scribed by his publisher, McSweeneys, as quite possibly “the best extant epic-comedic writer of his generation.” This is high praise, and would be higher still were it not for the fact that there are few, if any, epic-comedic writers extant it from Kaufman’s generation. Kaufman, who turned ninety in March, is seventy-six years older than the hero of “Cherries,” who, through a number of compelling, if implausible, twists of fate, winds up in prison in the fictional southern Iraqi town of Coproliabad, so named for its specialization in turning human excrement into a kind of cheap, durable concrete.

“People seem to me to have a number of basic problems, and one of them is, What do you do with human waste?” Kaufman said the other day. “So I thought, What would happen if somebody took this stuff and did something positive with it?” The novel, which is equal parts “Catcher in the Rye” and “Die Hard,” is likely to offend Iraqis to the same degree that the work of Sacha Baron Cohen offends natives of Kazakhstan. “It seemed to me there was a lot of public interest in Iraq, which is why I set it there, but it could have been set in Oswego, New York, where I have also never been,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman grew up in Baltimore. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he moved to New York and became a copyboy at the Daily News for thirteen dollars and seventy cents a week. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the Marines, with whom he participated in the campaign to win Guadalcanal and landed at Guam and Okinawa. “I weighed a hundred and e eighty-two pounds when I went over- seas, and when my wife met me afterward she didn’t recognize me—I weighed a hundred and twenty-eight,” Kaufman said. “I had dengue fever and malaria, and I didn’t really feel like I could spend the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter in New York anymore.”

He moved to California, where he took up screenwriting, winning an Oscar nomination in 1953 for a movie called, “Take the High Ground.” (He was nom­inated again two years later, for “Bad t Day at Black Rock.”) He lent his name to Dalton Trumbo, who had been black-listed, for a movie called “Gun Crazy.” “The only time I ever met him was at a meeting of the Writers Guild,” Kaufman said. ‘It was such a bore, and I left and went into a bar at the hotel, and Trumbo was there. We met because some guy was standing between us who was fairly drunk, and he said, ‘What’s all that noise?’ One of us said, ‘It’s a writers’ meeting.’ He said, ‘What do they write?’ and we said, ‘Movies.’ He looked aghast and said, ‘You mean they write that stuff?'” Kaufman’s most enduring con­tribution to entertainment, at least thus far in his career, is as co-creator of Mr. Magoo, whom he modelled in part on an uncle. “That is what we thought the character was based on until, twenty years later, we were accused of being nasty about people with bad eyesight,” he said.

Kaufman began the novel after his most recent screenplay, which he under­took at the age of eighty-six, came to nothing. His alliance with McSweeneys was a product of circumstance. “My lit­erary agent, who was younger than me, had died suddenly, and I had nobody,” Kaufman said. He is now writing a sec­ond novel. “Years ago, I was working in Italy, and Charlie Chaplin and his fam­ily came from Switzerland,” he recalled. “We were at a beach north of Rome, and it was a very foggy day and the beach was lousy. At about three o’clock it cleared up, and Chaplin said, Tm going back to the hotel. Unless I write every day, I don’t feel I deserve my dinner.’ That made an impression on me.”

Kaufman writes longhand and has a secretary type up his work. “The only promise to myself that I have ever kept was no more typewriters,” he said. “I hate the damn thing.” (When it was suggested to Kaufman that he might want to check his Amazon ratings after “Bowl of Cherries” comes out, he said that he wasn’t sure what Amazon ratings were.)

None of Kaufman’s friends have read the book, not even the members of his lunch dub, which meets weekly at Ham­burger Hamlet and includes Christopher Knopf, the seventy-nine-year-old former president of the Writers Guild, and Ar­thur Hiller, the eighty-three-year-old former president of the Academy. Kauf­man is the oldest member of the group. “Everybody I know is dead by ninety,” he said, “and I don’t think I can dig them up for lunch.”

Rebecca Mead

from THE NEW YORKER September 17, 2007




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