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COLUMN FIFTY-FIVE, JANUARY 1, 2001
(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)


(Photo by Brenda Saunders )

THE SHAKESPEARE SQUADRON
(PART 8):
NELSON ALGREN AND WILLIAM SAROYAN

Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren lives in an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago.  Street noises--cars, sirens, people arguing--and radio stations fill the air.  His apartment building smells of cooking food.  

Q:      I liked A Walk on the Wild Side and The Man with the Golden Arm.  In Conversations with Nelson Algren, you said that after what Hollywood did to those two books, you vowed to yourself that you would not let that happen again.  Would not (1) let yourself be screwed on the money, and (2) give up artistic control of the material.

          You said that Hollywood wouldn't buy a book under those conditions, and if Hollywood wouldn't buy it, New York wouldn't publish it.  Hollywood was where the money was.

          You said it used to be when a writer "went Hollywood" he had sold out, but now, if you write what New York wants you've sold out.  New York is Hollywood.

A:      I won't say those were original insights.  But nobody was saying them, in print.  At the time.

Q:      You said you wanted to write a big book, line by line, but that you had lost your innocence.  You couldn't bring yourself to write a book, to spend several years working on a book, you could not sell.  When you got done.

          I was struck by that because I was in a similar position.  Trying to hang on to my innocence.

          Without letting the city mice have their way with me.

          I found that the way you were writing about it, the subject itself, was more important than a big book, written line by line, and the kind of piecemeal collections of occasional writing hung together by theme, and outlook, and spoke to me in a way that the novels of Norman Mailer, James Jones, and William Styron did not.  Still less the novels of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, or Ralph Ellison.

A:      Thank you.  It's nice to know you got through.

Q:      What I want to know about a writer, first and foremost, is where he got the time to write.  What did he have to do to get the time to write.

          You were the tin-penny whistle of American letters, living a lonely, bachelor's existence and writing or lecturing for whoever would have you.  A free lance.  And you wrote about literary critics, fellow writers, agents and editors and publishers--the business side of a life in letters--in a way I hadn't read anybody write except in posthumous collections of letters.  And not very often there.  Movie moguls.  Hugh Hefner.

          It was inspiring.

A:      Thank you.

Q:      I put things like Conversations with Nelson Algren in my stack.

          Here and there, like raisins in a bread pudding.

A:      I know.  We've been watching you with interest up here.  ##

 William Saroyan

William Saroyan lived in a big city hotel.  He took taxicabs to cabarets.  Cosmos was never able to find him.  He had always just left.  Or not yet arrived.

Here comes, there goes William Saroyan.

One of the things he said was that the miracle doesn't happen when we become self-supporting as a writer.  It happens when we become a writer at all.  ##

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