Bruce Jay Friedman

[NOVELIST/SCREENWRITER/PLAYWRIGHT]

“WHEN A WRITER CAME TO SCHOOL WHEN I WAS A KID I WASN’T EVEN LISTENING TO HIM. I WANTED TO SEE THE WAY HE SMOKED.”
Why Jews don’t become junkies:
They have to have fresh orange juice in the morning
They have to read the New York Times
They have to get eight hours of sleep

I got turned on to Bruce Jay Friedman a few years ago when a novelist friend referred to him as “one of the lost writers of the ’70s” and recommended his novel About Harry Towns, about divorce and cocaine. I loved the spare, mordant style, and quickly devoured his novel A Mother’s Kisses (about a mother who accompanies her son to college). Later I read Stern, his first novel, while struggling with my third, and told my husband that there was no point finishing it because I would never be as good as Friedman.

Stern (1962) is about a man who comes undone when he learns that his neighbor may have referred to his wife as a “kike” and also may have noticed that she wasn’t wearing underwear. Friedman has published five other novels, five collections of short stories, three plays, and several works of nonfiction, including Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos. His latest story collection, Three Balconies, has just been published by Biblioasis.

His short story “A Change of Plan” was adapted by Neil Simon and Elaine May into the movie The Heartbreak Kid. He wrote Doctor Detroit, Stir Crazy, and Splash, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Steve Martin film The Lonely Guy was based on Friedman’s book.

Friedman suggested we meet at the Century Club, a private club for men and women in the arts and letters on West Forty-third Street that is surrounded by an aura of secrecy. I arrived at six o’clock on a chilly spring night, fifteen minutes early. There was a board on one side of the entryway with all the members’ names—J. Galassi, W. Zinsser, and J. Feiffer were a few that I recognized—and colored pegs indicating whether the members were in. A few minutes later Friedman arrived, wearing a tweed coat and hat, strongly built and dapper. “Are you early or am I late?” he asked in a melodious, lightly Bronx-accented voice, putting his hand on my arm. He took me upstairs and we talked in the library over wine, and then in the dining room over clams, veal, and lamb, until we were the last guests to leave the club.

—Amy Sohn

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THE BELIEVER: Stern drew comparisons to Nathanael West, Hieronymus Bosch, and Marc Chagall. Who were your influences when you started writing?

BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN: When I was in the air force, I had a commanding officer named George B. Leonard, who later became a major counterculture figure on the West Coast. He gave me three books to read: Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe, From Here to Eternity by James Jones, and Catcher in the Rye. I read the books in close to one weekend and it was my only epiphany: a Jewish guy can have an epiphany. I thought, Wouldn’t it be wonderful to try something like that? This was particularly true with Catcher in the Rye. I had an image of literature as being something I simply couldn’t do, having to do with life and the cosmos and the universe and the rolling hills of South Carolina. When I read Salinger it was the first time I thought, This is my world, I could try something like that.

I was influenced by radio—I listened to a lot of radio, there was no television—and the street. The way young people admire rock stars, I had a thing about writers. When a writer came to school when I was a kid I wasn’t even listening to him. I wanted to see the way he smoked.

Someone reviewing one of my early books said, “Obviously Mr. Friedman has been influenced by Céline.” I had never read Céline but then I read Céline and they were right, meaning you could be influenced by someone whose influence is so widespread that you get influenced without reading it.

Later I started to get influenced only insofar as I enjoyed someone, like Evelyn Waugh. He’s written some novels that I can actually prove were perfect, like Decline and Fall.

I read The Day of the Locust for the first time recently. I really loved it, except there’s a lot of unnecessary “he said” and “she said” where you don’t know who the speaker is. It could have used a good edit. It wouldn’t have lost any literary value.

I’m really, really touchy about this, maybe more so than others, but I cannot read a pedestrian sentence.

BLVR: What’s an example of a pedestrian sentence?

BJF: I like to know what’s going on and what pop culture is once in a while, so I read The Da Vinci Code. I was reading along and I came to a sentence where the hero is in a hotel room and he dons a bathrobe. There’s no particular reason but I said, “OK, let him don a bathrobe.” It was like a king donning his raiment. Then twenty pages later he dons another bathrobe. I said, “If he dons one more fucking bathrobe I’m out of here.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Amy Sohn is the author of the novels Run Catch Kiss and My Old Man. She has written for New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Nation. Her third novel will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2009. She grew up in Brooklyn and lives there today.

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