Monday, December 4, 1995
Local, South Jersey section, p. S01
At Age 81, Howard Fast is Writing His Best Stuff:
With a New Novel, He Tackles "The Mystery of Being Jewish"
By Nicole Pensiero, Inquirer Correspondent
It was nearly 65 years ago when teenager Howard Fast published his first book. Now, with more than 85 novels, plays and stories published since then - among them Spartacus and The Immigrants - an apologetic Fast, 81, may be forgiven if he can't quickly recall every one.
But Fast shows no sign of slowing down. He recently wrote yet another novel, The Bridge Builder's Story, which he says "in its way is my best work yet."
Yesterday, the author enthralled an audience of more than 200 at the Jewish Community Center of Southern New Jersey with a spirited discussion of his career. Ten of his books have been turned into films. Along the way, he spent three months in prison in 1950 for refusing to "name names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
"I knew when I was a child of 11 or 12 that my purpose in life when I grew up would to be to write books," Fast said in a telephone interview last week from his Connecticut home. "My education came out of books; my love of language came from books."
On the surface, the new novel would seem to have little in common with Fast's own life, yet he said it is very much based on his own experience of seeing his wife of 57 years, Bette, die of cancer little more than a year ago.
The Bridge Builder's Story tells of the grueling emotional journey of a well-to-do Protestant engineering student, Scott Waring, who experiences a devastating loss when he and his wife are arrested while honeymooning in Berlin in 1939. Wrongly accused of conspiring to assassinate Hitler, Waring is forced to gaze through a one-way mirror as SS thugs beat his wife, who is then killed. With the help of a Jewish madam, Waring manages to escape his captors, only to return to New York devastated and guilt-ridden.
For the character of Scott Waring - as for Fast as his wife was dying - the ultimate challenge became how to build a new life in the face of an overwhelming loss.
"During the last seven months of my wife's life, I never left her side," Fast recalled. "That's when I began working on The Bridge Builder's Story. The sole question for me at that time was whether I could survive without her; how I could say goodbye to someone I had loved so deeply for nearly 60 years."
Even more, Fast said, the new novel allowed him to address other important issues, including the Holocaust and "the whole mystery of the meaning of being Jewish."
"What holds us together as a people is a book ... the Bible," Fast told the audience Sunday. "As Jews, we have something very singular and precious."
In a discussion sprinkled with anecdotes and humor, Fast described his experience as a writer for the Voice of America during World War II and how that radio work had led to friendships with actors - whose names he still will not name - who introduced him to communism. He eventually left the Communist Party, but not before he was imprisoned and blacklisted in both the publishing world and Hollywood. (Unable to find a publisher for Spartacus in 1951, Fast published the epic himself; several other books in the 1950s were written under pseudonyms.) Fast broke from the Communist Party in 1956 and expressed his disillusionment with its ideology in the 1957 novel The Naked God.
"I grew up very poor, and I saw first-hand the injustices the poor suffer," Fast said yesterday. "That was what drew me to those concepts (of communism and socialism). But now communism is dead. I do believe, however, that socialism will continue and will grow stronger."
Fast says the publishing industry has become driven by potential sales - "it's the junior partner of Hollywood these days" - but he believes that it remains his duty "as a writer to teach."
"I don't have to write for money anymore," he said in the interview. "I write because I love to write and because, hopefully, my stories can touch people."
Fast told the audience yesterday, "Unfortunately, the essence of story-telling has been lost" in much of today's writing. But he still strives to write stories "that shock the reader into a new awareness."
Fast was asked in the interview if he would take to his typewriter again for even another book?
"You can't say," he said. "I'm not a prolific writer, I'm a constant writer. Writing is simply what I do, so if I'm not doing it, I'm not fulfilling my role."
Late yesterday, one member of the audience asked Fast if The Bridge Builder's Story had helped him define that "mystery of being Jewish" he had referred to earlier.
"I answer that in the last 10 pages of the book," Fast said with a smile. "You wouldn't want me to spoil that surprise, would you?"
Fast's presentation was part of the Jewish Community Center's Sixth Annual Festival of Arts, Books and Culture, which runs through Dec. 19...