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Spartacus: An Interview with Howard Fast

Transcript of June 28, 2000 AncientSites chat session
discussion with Mr. Fast

Moderator: Welcome to the AncientSites chat interview with Howard Fast, author of "Spartacus" and many other novels, including the recently published "Greenwich." Mr. Fast will be answering questions from AncientSites members this morning.

Moderator: Hello and welcome, Mr. Fast! We're delighted to have you speak to our ancient history community!

Howard Fast: Good morning to all of you from an old and grizzled writer!

Question: Mr. Fast, I'd love to know how you were originally drawn to "Spartacus."

Howard Fast: Well, that could be a long story or a short one. I'll pick the short version. I was imprisoned for contempt of Congress for refusing to "name names" to the House Un-American Affairs Committee. This set me to thinking a great deal about prison, and when I was released, I began a very intense study of ancient slavery and imprisonment, particularly with a set of books (rare books today) called "The Ancient Lowly." [Cyrenus Osborne Ward, Charles H. Kerr & Company, Chicago. 1888. 2 vols.] In these books, extensive information on the Spartacus revolt was available. I've always been interested in ancient history and ancient Rome, having dutifully read various histories of ancient Rome. I also had a smattering of Latin and a friend who taught Latin.

And then I set out to write the story of Spartacus. "Spartacus" was not an easy or simple book to write, but I got it written, and I felt that it was one of my best efforts. I sent it to my publisher (then Little, Brown), but acting on the advice of J. Edgar Hoover, they rejected it, as did seven other leading publishers.

This was at a time when there were very few publishers, compared with today, so I decided to publish the book myself. I was assisted by all sorts of people. I knew a man who did printing for a big bindery in Brooklyn. I knew Ben Clark, a brilliant book designer, and I knew the wonderful painter Charles White, who agreed to do the cover.

So I went ahead and published "Spartacus" myself, sinking a lot of money into it, but having at least a few hundred people who were willing to pay for the book in advance. I put it out in hardcover, and it sold 45,000 copies. In paperback, it has sold millions — I'm not sure how many millions. I suppose the film "Gladiator" (which I have not yet seen) recently perked up its sales again.

Then Kirk Douglas stepped into the picture and offered to do the film with Stanley Kubrick directing. Stanley and I became very close, and we worked on the film for months. Kirk Douglas asked me to give the film credit to Dalton Trumbo and he said if we could do that we'd break the Blacklist.

And to this day — that was some forty years ago — "Spartacus" is still being shown both in theatres and on television!

Question: What was it specifically about the story of "Spartacus" that interested you?

Howard Fast: All my life I have always been intensely interested in the struggles of the poor and of working people against their oppressors. And the fact that Spartacus put together an army of slaves that almost destroyed Rome intrigued me — his name seemed to me symbolic of all the revolts of that kind through history. And of course, the name survives today.

Question: In general, Rome and the Romans are painted in a harsh light in "Spartacus." What's your sense of Rome?

Howard Fast: It was the first massive and successful organization of the civilized world into a coherent group. I think that in a few hundred years from now, history may take the same very dim view of us (the Americans), because, like Rome, we have fought senseless wars and we have done some terrible things to other nations. We are currently destroying Iraq and we're responsible for the deaths of thousands of children there, for instance. And we justify all our sins, just as the Romans did. As with Rome, and Great Britain a hundred years ago, we are now more or less the rulers of the world. So it's both ancient history and contemporary history. "Spartacus" is a long time back chronologically, but not so far back in the humanitarian sense.

Question: Can you tell us more about the collaboration with Stanley Kubrick and the process of turning your book into a movie?

Howard Fast: This is something of a long story... They had started shooting the movie from Dalton Trumbo's script and they had about an hour and forty minutes of disconnected and chaotic film. While they had all this film, they had no "movie" and no story — just pieces of film really. At that point, Kirk Douglas telephoned me from Hollywood and begged me to come out there and work with Kubrick.

So I went to Hollywood with my family and wrote, I believe, twenty-seven scenes after I'd watched what Stanley Kubrick had already shot. Together with him, I must have watched that footage at least twenty times. When I'd finished these twenty-seven scenes, we added them to the screenplay. Of course, all the scenes had to be acted and filmed. We then edited them in with the footage they already had. Not an easy job!

After we'd finished shooting those scenes, Kubrick and I worked out a final plan and the end of the film, and Kubrick went to Spain, where he shot the massive army scenes showing the final defeat of Spartacus. I myself did not go to Spain with him for this. So that, putting it very briefly, is more or less the story. Mostly "less," because it was an agonizing process. And Kirk Douglas was not the easiest man in the world to work with.

Question: Kubrick was reported to be a perfectionist and sometimes hard to work with as a result; how did you find working with him?

Howard Fast: Well, we were both fairly young at that point (of course, poor Stanley has passed away now)... He was a brilliant, wonderful young man. He and I never really had a bit of discord. We agreed on every scene and we worked well together. I remember him with great affection.

Question: Mr. Fast — not to change the focus from "Spartacus" — but I just read that your granddaughter, Molly Jong Fast, published her first novel, "Normal Girl," at age 21. Were you at all instrumental in that process? Also, what advice would you give aspiring writers worldwide?

Howard Fast: This was not an easy thing for Molly. I read the book, and it was very painful for me to read because, without sparing herself or her mother, she tells the story of her descent into — and climb out of — a life of drugs and liquor. I think in a way it's an almost historic document and one of great importance. I think it's very well written as well.

Question: Your most recent novel, "Greenwich," is worlds away from "Spartacus". Could you tell us a bit about it?

Howard Fast: Yes, I do want to talk a bit about my new book, "Greenwich," that was published a month ago. Usually my latest book is the one I have the most affection for, but I really think that this is one of the best things I've written. Whether it will be my last book or not, I can't say. At my age, you don't plan the future much. : )

"Greenwich" is really not worlds away from "Spartacus." If you took the two books and read them both, you'd find that every good and every evil in "Spartacus" is touched upon in "Greenwich." I've published about 82 books at this point and I like to think that all of them are connected. I've always written about man's inhumanity to man.

Of course, Greenwich is probably the wealthiest town in America today, after Beverly Hills. I live in a little corner of it called Old Greenwich, which, strangely enough, is a place of small houses and tiny lawns. Old Greenwich is sort of a throwback to what a town in Connecticut was like, say, fifty, sixty, or a hundred years ago. That's one of the reasons why I love living here.

I have been very fortunate in still being able to write and to get around so I hope to be here for a few more years and to write a good deal more.

Question: I think that you once wrote about "Spartacus" that "I like this best of all my books." Would you still say that?

Howard Fast: I think "Spartacus" is the best book I've written in some ways. Perhaps the one I've loved best is "Freedom Road," which sold about 20 million copies worldwide. But as I said, the youngest child is always the favorite, and "Greenwich" has a quality that sums up some of my thinking, some of my philosophy. And to me, it's a very important book.

Question: Mr. Fast, where can we find your books?

Howard Fast: "Greenwich" should be in most bookstores now. At least twenty of my books are still in print. And even if you can't afford the price of a book, libraries buy them heavily. You can usually find them there.

Question: Any plans for future novels or writings? Do you think that might ever write another novel set in ancient Rome?

Howard Fast: I've been thinking for some time now about a people's history of the American Revolution. I still think it's one of the most elusive bits of our history, although we don't teach history very well or care to remember much of it. I hope to write another novel set in ancient Rome. In fact, I look forward to it, but who knows?

Moderator: Well I guess it's time for us to draw things to a close. Many thanks for spending some time with us, Mr. Fast!

Howard Fast: I'm deeply flattered and very pleased that there are so many people still interested in my work. I thank them. I think a writer must thank all of his readers. You never see them or speak to them, but it's bread thrown on the water that comes back.

Moderator: Thank you again, Mr Fast! And thanks to all who attended.

Moderator: A transcript of this interview will be posted online. And you can find out more about "Spartacus" and Howard Fast at the AncientSites "Spartacus" page. You can also read Mr. Fast's article "Spartacus & the Blacklist" there. "Spartacus" is published by iBooks.

Moderator: Again, our thanks to all — it was really a great honor for us to have a writer like Mr. Fast online with us! We're all very grateful to him.

Chat Event with "Spartacus" Author Howard Fast

Wed. June 28 @11 AM (ET) The transcript of this interview is now online!

AncientSites is very pleased to host Howard Fast, the author of the novel Spartacus, in a live chat session interview on Wed. June 28 at 11 AM (ET) in the main Rome Chat Room. Born in 1914, Mr. Fast has had a remarkable writing career spanning sixty-seven years, beginning in 1933 with his first published novel, Two Valleys.

Described as "one of the most prolific American writers of the 20th century," Mr. Fast is the author of nearly a hundred published works, and his novels have sold close to eighty million copies worldwide. He has written historical novels, mystery novels, non-fiction, children's literature, short stories, plays, and poetry, as well as articles, essays, and pamphlets under both his own name and the pseudonym E.V. Cunningham. His most recent novel, Greenwich, was published in April, 2000.

In addition to his his best-selling Lavette family sagas — beginning with The Immigrants and concluding with An Independent Woman — he is well known for his works of historical fiction, several dealing with the American Revolution: Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, April Morning, and The Last Frontier.

But Spartacus is the novel of Mr. Fast's that will probably be most familiar to AncientSites members. The novel has been published in nearly one hundred editions worldwide in 56 languages and was the basis for the classic movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, and Jean Simmons.

Don't miss this opportunity to hear a legendary American writer as he discusses his works and answers questions from AncientSites members!

You can also post your questions now on a special discussion board for the Moderator if you think you may not be able to attend the live event.

Howard Fast