(Originally appeared in Radar on Sept. 10, 2007)
Raymond Chandler was 51 when he published his first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t get around to writing a book until age 65. And Frank McCourt was 66 the year Angela’s Ashes became a bestseller. But in the late-bloomer category, Millard Kaufman has them all beat by a mile. The 90-year-old’s debut novel, Bowl of Cherries(McSweeney’s), hits bookstores October 1st. Kaufman, a WWII vet who fought in Guam and Okinawa, didn’t quite come out of nowhere: he’s a two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter—for Take the High Ground! (1953) andBad Day at Black Rock (1955)—author of the anecdotal screenwriting textPlots and Characters (1999), and the co-creator, in 1949, of Mr. Magoo. His first foray into prose fiction is a picaresque comic novel spanning contemporary America, with a lengthy narrative nod to the Iraq war, on which he has some strong opinions. He spoke with Radar about his life in Hollywood, the whippersnappers at Dave Eggers’s publishing house, and why he uses the word “asswipe.”
RADAR: Why did it take you so long to write a novel?
KAUFMAN: I’ve been kind of busy making a living writing screenplays. It really never occurred to me that I should be doing anything else. Writing is tough, but writing screenplays came to me relatively easy.
You have a pretty eloquent prose style, and it would seem like you’ve been writing prose your entire life.
Thank you. The only prose I’ve written my whole life was when I worked in the newspaper business before WWII. After WWII, I came back and I had malaria and a lot of other things, and I didn’t want to come back to New York because of the climate. So I thought I’d get a job at a paper out here [California], and I thought what the hell, as long as I’m here, in San Francisco, I’ll go down to LA and see what this business of writing pictures is about. Dory Schary, head of MGM at the time, was too old himself to enter the war, but he had this thing—he loved marines, and I was in the Marine Corps. So he took me on spec, and he said to my agent, “Can this kid write?” My agent said try it, he’ll give you something about the war. It was a picture called “Take the High Ground!,” and I got an Academy nomination for writing, so I was kind of in business.
Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo credited you on a screenplay of his.
I didn’t know him, but we had the same agent. Trumbo had just gotten out of jail and had the opportunity to take a job, but he needed somebody to front for him. He asked if I might do that. I said I would talk it over with my wife. My agent said, “Well, you know, we’re kind of in a hurry.” I said, “In that case, go fuck yourself, because I could land in a jail, I have a wife, two kids, and two dogs, and I want to think this over.” We decided I should do it. The name of the picture I can’t remember [Gun Crazy,1950]—I never even read the screenplay. It got not good reviews.
Did you receive any money from it?
No. It benefited my conscience. It’s a peculiar thing to go off and spend three years in which—I hope this doesn’t sound highfalutin—you’re getting your ass shot off and you think you’re fighting fascism, and then you return to your democratic country and find that a form of fascism has broken out here. Which I did my best to resist, and this was one of the ways.
Bowl of Cherries is not a war novel per se, but part of it is set in an Iraqi prison. What made you want to write about Iraq now?
There’s so many young kids getting killed, which disturbs me, because I remember people getting killed very close to me in the war I was in. On D-Day, on Guam, there was a young guy who was a friend of mine, a locomotive engineer, a very nice young man. We were talking quietly, waiting to go our respective locations, and some sergeant comes along and says to this other guy that there’s a commanding officer wanting to see him. So he goes off, and five minutes later the sergeant comes back and says that the guy had been killed by mortar fire. It’s certainly something you think about every once in a while.
Are you still in touch with anybody from the Marine Corps?
For a long while, yeah. It was an exchange of Christmas cards, that kind of thing. Then it kind of thinned out, and now most of these guys, as far as I know, are very dead right now.
The novel advocates a non-interventionist role in Iraq. If it were up to you, would you withdraw the troops immediately?
Absolutely. Get the hell out of there.
Your book indicts our celebrity-obsessed culture. Is that something you’ve always felt, or do you find it’s gotten worse in recent years?
As far as I know, it’s always been like this. I was around a lot of stars that I’d always been slightly dubious about. Some of them became very close, good friends.
Monty Clift, a lot of them. They were nice people.
You have a youthful sensibility in the book, and use a lot of slang, like “asswipe.” How have you kept current with the lingo of younger generations?
This was thought to be a deviation from the way I speak and act. I’ve always been like that. I didn’t realize I was talking “youth-speak” or anything like that in the voice of the book. This is the way I am. What seems to surprise people is that I am this way and I’m ninety years old. And I can’t help that, either.
Let’s talk about legendarily myopic cartoon character Mr. Magoo, whom you co-created.
I did it with a guy named John Hubley, a wonderful animation director. Magoo was based on my uncle, who didn’t wear glasses, but he had this subjectivity in which he adamantly refused to see any interpretation of anything except his own. It came about by my saying to John, “Why don’t we do something about”—I described the character. [Ed.: Hubley has claimed Magoo is based on his uncle.] At that time, all animated cartoons were seen in a feature picture and ran about six minutes. And they were full of what used to be called “hurt time” in which you had some protagonist bumped all over the screen by his antagonist, like Bugs Bunny and whoever the hell was beating the hell out of him. And at the end he would triumph. It was just a series of one guy ganging up one another and hurting him. So I said to John one day, “We’ve got six minutes—we can do a story, cartoon or not.” And along came Magoo…Where are you calling from?
My son [Frederick Kaufman] is in New York. He’s a hell of a good writer, you ought to talk to him. He has a book coming out in February. It’s about eating habits. It’s called “A Short History of the American Stomach.”
Any chance of a father-son book tour?
Somebody at McSweeney’s was talking about getting us together, but I’m in no condition to go on a national tour.
Speaking of which, why did you send the book to McSweeney’s?
I didn’t know anything about them. My agent had died about a month earlier. A friend of mine who’s an editor read the book and gave it to a friend of hers, who gave it to McSweeney’s. My son, who’s a hell of a good writer, told me how hot and how good McSweeney’s was. I didn’t know a goddamn thing about them. They’re a very competent outfit, especially in my interactions with my editor there, Eli Horowitz.
Do you ever read the McSweeney’s web site?
I don’t know anything about web sites. I bought a computer about a year ago, I still don’t know how to use it, it scares the hell out of me.