Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bruce Jay Friedman: New York Times Style

Yesterday an interview with Bruce Jay Friedman was featured in the New York Times Style Magazine. Here's the full text.

If there is an advantage to being an underappreciated novelist, it might be that when you get around to writing a memoir, the anecdotes of your life have not already been trotted out ad infinitum by book reviewers the world over. Such is the case with Bruce Jay Friedman, whose memoir, “Lucky Bruce,” will be published next month. On the strength of his early novels — “Stern” (1962), “A Mother’s Kisses” (1964) and “About Harry Towns” (1974) — Friedman was a literary star, frequently mentioned alongside Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. He hung out at Elaine’s; edited for legendary Magazine Management pulp journals, where he hired Mario Puzo onto the staff of True Action; and, later, moonlighted as a screenwriter (“Stir Crazy,” “Splash”), rubbing shoulders with Warren Beatty and Richard Pryor. Yet Friedman has always remained somewhat under the radar. In “Lucky Bruce,” readers get fresh, amusing stories from Friedman’s life in letters — the time he provoked Norman Mailer into a fistfight by mussing his hair at a party, say, or was hired to write a script and introduced to his new secretary, a between-marriages Natalie Wood. The Moment caught up with Friedman, now 81, at one of his favorite Chinese restaurants in Manhattan, Chin Chin, to talk about his latest book.

The title “Lucky Bruce” suggests your success was perhaps accidental. Is that how you see it?

It’s meant as an homage to “Lucky Jim.” But in a funny way it was like invoking the displeasure of the gods, because after decades of being a robust guy, I had a knee replacement and here I am limping around. I should be out on a tennis court. My original title was “A Reasonably Good Life.” I should have hung in with that but I didn’t have enough nerve. But that’s what it’s been.

The book focuses largely on your writing life. Where’s the heavy emotional excavation found in so many memoirs these days?

Something about the fiction I was writing required that you just lay your insides out hot and smoking on the table. I didn’t feel I was going to get into that part of my life in this memoir. I stuck with the development of the writing. In my case, magically I came up with a story and sold it at a very young age to The New Yorker. I wrote a novel and that worked out well. I wrote a couple of them. I got interested in theater. Then I got interested in film. And I had some achievement in each of these areas, and of course I met everybody. So I thought maybe this story is worth telling.

Even when you tackle darker material, it often comes across as funny. Do you consider yourself a humorist?

I’m supposed to be a funny guy, but I’ve never written a joke. It’s sort of an attitude. Also, I think the most powerful effect comes when the emotion is beating up against the surface rather than thrown in your face. There’s an Evelyn Waugh novel, “A Handful of Dust,” and the most emotional moment in the book is when the boy falls off a horse and gets trampled and dies. But it’s buried in the middle of a paragraph. If Dickens or Tolstoy wrote a dying scene, they would record every tear.

The book also relates your Hollywood adventures. Early on, at least, you embraced the West Coast.

I loved the characters and the action and the tennis and the pretty girls. I felt very free there, maybe for the first time. What could be bad about it? Except for the writing, which is absurd. It’s the only literary form, if you want to call it literature, where it’s being attacked as you write it. No matter what you wrote, it would be sent back by the studio.

It’s said that writers co-exist uneasily, but you’ve had friendships with several literary lions, among them Mario Puzo and Joseph Heller.

Mario was the most quotable guy I ever met, and one of the dangers of writing a book like this is when you introduce him, he’s like a certain spice in a food — he can easily take over. I had such admiration for Heller’s writing, but he took a lot of work. He would smoke out your weak spots, and he knew how to get me. I had written this piece about cocaine. I was hardly a cokehead. Like everybody else, I tried it, I enjoyed it and then I stopped. But any place I showed up with a roomful of people, he’d say, “Well, he’s probably got a bagful of coke with him.” Or if some pretty girl came over: “Well, he gives her coke. Why else would she be there?”

What advice do you give young writers?

I picked up this line somewhere: I say, “Every word you write should be put on trial as if for its life.” I really do believe that.

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