Manhattan, June-August, 1987, p. 61-64
His first novel was published in 1933, when he was 19. Since then he has published over 50 works, including 'Freedom Road,' one of the most widely printed and read novels of the 20th century, with editions in 82 languages, and by 1952 alone, more than 20 million copies in print. More best-sellers: his recent series of novels on the fictional Lavette family of San Francisco have also topped the lists.
Howard also has a history of championing left-wing views, and during the McCarthy witch-hunt era, he was jailed for three months for contempt of Congress because he refused to testify on his political beliefs.
When he came out, he wrote an historical novel. His publisher, Little Brown, was enthusiastic about releasing it, but pressure from the government forced them to reject the book. Then, despite his previous successes, no other publisher would talk to him. Fast was blacklisted.
Undaunted, he published it himself. The book – 'Spartacus' – became a huge success, as did the movie version starring Kirk Douglas.
Now 'Citizen Tom Paine,' Howard's play on the Revolutionary hero, is being brought to the stage. Richard Thomas is the lead, and the director is Jim Syms. The play opened in Philadelphia and then moved to the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Howard also has written a new novel, 'The Dinner Parry.' Recently published by Houghton Mifflin, it concerns the church and synagogue related sanctuary movement to shelter those fleeing Central America's death squads. The book, which is set in Washington, hit the bestseller lists shortly after publication.
We meet in the Fifth Avenue home Howard shares with Bette, his wife of 49 years.
When did you become interested in writing?
Howard: I began to write when I was 12 years old. Somehow it took me 10 years to learn how. My first book was published by the Dial Press in 1933.
Why did you want to write when you were 12?
Howard: You have to imagine the world without TV, and where radio was new and present only in wealthy or middle class homes. The focus of the life of any kid – whether he was middle-class, working class, high-brow, or low-brow – was the New York Public Library. Writers were our heroes.
It's hard to imagine, in today's TV world, but the public library shaped the minds of that generation. Kids spent endless hours in the library.
Did they actually sit and read and do homework?
Howard: And take the books home too! You could lose yourself in the books. If you take the library's circulation from 1924 to 1940 and compare it to the circulation today, my guess is that it was at least 100 times greater then.
Much of your writing focuses on people who try to change their world, like Tom Paine and Spartacus.
Howard: Changing it – in terms of making it better or winning some freedom. But many of the changes we see now – like the collapse of public education and the high illiteracy rate – in a country which, in my childhood, had a near 90% literacy rate, is incredible. These are not changes that hold out hope.
Today this country is enormously focused on a single goal: the manufacturing of weapons of death. I never fully understood that until I went to Washington to speak at a book luncheon. The man who met me at the airport told me he was an armament salesmen. I asked him who he sold arms for. 'I work for the Pentagon,' he said.
I learned that the Pentagon is the largest purveyor of arms in the world. We sell arms to every two bit dictator.
We always hear of the Pentagon pleading for money to make guns, not to sell them. This man I met sold millions of dollars worth of weapons. I asked him where he sells them. He said, 'South America, Central America, Honduras, Guatemala, The Middle East.' Well, the things we used to value so much in America, all the high beliefs, slip away. We are a vast gun factory. But as long as the Cold War exists, Americans will give Washington money for guns. The armament makers win. The people lose.
Men like Tome Paine spoke out for a world of governments serving people.
Howard: Tom Paine was a Quaker. He believed that if you could do away with the kings of Europe who ruled his world, you also could do away with war and hunger. Then you could create a new world.
When he came to America he was 36 years old. In his eyes, America was the final upward step for mankind: a society that could proclaim itself just and equalitarian, and he laid out the blueprint for what was to be the United States.
How did he help bring it about?
Howard: He began by editing the Pennsylvania Magazine in 1774, creating a position for independence – through articles, songs, and essays. They all were directed toward the same theme: 'We can build a wonderful country of our own. We do not have to be a possession of the British.'
Finally he put these ideas together in the book 'Common Sense.' It was created for an extraordinary society. Our 13 colonies had a population of three million people – and they were 95% literate!
Why was literacy so high?
Howard: Most of the Colonists were Protestant and the Bible was the center, the bulwark of their religion.
The Bible became the literary core of every Protestant family – and to read the Bible, you had to be literate. As they worshipped God, they revered literacy.
The American Colonists were also unique in that they were spread across a vast landscape. They couldn't live as the peasants in Europe had lived – without written communication. So reading letters and writing letters became the cement that connected the colonies. They became one of the most literate societies of all time.
It was into this society that Tom Paine introduced 'Common Sense,' a blueprint of the kind of country the United States was to be. What happened to this little book of about 80 pages was unique in publishing in this country. It was read by almost every literate adult in the United States, and probably as many as 90,000 copies were eventually printed! In a country of three million people, that was extraordinary.
Passed around from hand to hand, the book crystallized the thinking of America. Based on this book, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Paine hated slavery, and it might have ended there at the beginning, but the moment passed and the cotton gin was invented.
Why did that invention change the situation –
Howard: Landowners in colonial times did not base their wealth on cotton. Raising cotton was not profitable. Too hard to separate out the seeds. That's why they turned to tobacco. You don't need slaves to raise tobacco. The wealth of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and their companions came from tobacco farms.
But when Whitney invented the cotton gin, Southern farmers and landowners became plantation owners. Cotton became a cash crop – and that changed history.
The time of the Revolution was a moment in history. Just that – a moment. It gave us our country and the Constitution, the most remarkable document of the century.
Do you want theatregoers to walk out with some message?
Howard: I don't think that is important. I want the theatregoer to be riveted to what's on stage. You can't expect people to pay $30 or $40 to be preached to if they can pay $30 or $40 to be entertained. That was my first goal. I said to myself, 'If I can't entertain, then I should throw away my typewriter!'
But we did three weeks in Philadelphia and every performance was sold out. Then we did seven weeks at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. – a very large theatre – and we had a tremendous audience response. In the Fall, we hope for New York.
A best-selling author today goes on talk shows, endorses products, and makes videos. What happened to Paine?
Howard: The glory faded. There was a deep class difference between him and the gentlemen who made up the Continental Congress.
In the first act of the play, Tom Paine helps create the Revolution, and in the second act, the country he helped create passes him by. He goes to France, and participates in the French Revolution.
Tom Paine is one of the important men in modern history. His 'Rights of Man' and 'The Age of Reason' are two of the most astonishing books we have.
You also have written a new book.
Howard: 'The Dinner Party.' It came out of my involvement in the Sanctuary court cases.
What are the Sanctuary cases?
Howard: A government action against over 300 churches and synagogues which have set up a sort of underground railroad. They accept refugees fleeing the murder squads of El Salvador and find safe places for them in the United States and then pass them through to Canada, as the underground railroad did with escaped slaves before the Civil War.
How did they identify these churches and temples?
Howard: They threatened a particular refugee with immediate return to El Salvador and death unless he cooperated. Then they wired him, sent him into a church in Arizona, and taped the sermon. Using the tapes as evidence, they sentenced a Protestant Minister and his wife, two Catholic nuns, and two others to prison for five years.
One of the founding principles of our country is the separation of church and state.
Howard: It's as old as religion itself. When you're in a church, you have sanctuary. The Bible is filled with cases of this kind. Taking a refugee and confronting him with the threat of death to compel him to become a spy – and then sending him to a church to record a sermon – this has no precedent in American history. It is an act so raw as to be unbelievable.
When this happened, I felt I had to write something about it. Thus 'The Dinner Party,' which is a novel hung on the Sanctuary case. It's about one day in the life of a United States Senator who feels deeply about this issue, that it is a stain on the honor of the United States. He invites several very highly-placed politicians to a dinner party to find some way to rectify what happened in Arizona.
Happening in one day – instead of years – the book is different from most of my previous ones, but I think it comes off.
In the book, the guests are high-ranking members of the administration.
Howard: Yes. They are prototypes. One is Secretary of State, the other is Assistant Secretary for Central America. This is essentially a book about the time of Reagan and the social destruction he wrought in America.
It goes beyond his refusing food to the hungry, his denying help to our educational system, his willing neglect of our infrastructure, even his dealings with Iran, the arms for hostages deal. It is his presentation of himself as a man who doesn't know the difference between truth or falsehood.
He also displays his profound ignorance when it serves his purpose. There is a mountain of evidence to prove that the Contras are cold-blooded murderers of women and children. Yet he compares them to George Washington and the men who made America. I have never heard a more damning slander of America – and from the mouth of its president!
The administration in the book is not concerned with the sanctuary issue.
Howard: In real life there also is total indifference. Few people know the story of Sanctuary.
Do your books follow a formula?
Howard: No. Storytelling is an art. and if you can combine the art with a perspective on life and an observation based on the world around you – then you've got it.
What is the art of storytelling?
Howard: Those questions are impossible to answer. We had a woman working for us who was totally uneducated, but she had impeccable taste. She could not put two colors together and have them clash. Where did it come from? You can't analyze it critically, though there are many critics who examine it mechanically. They profess analysis, but of course, they can't produce the work.
You see a girl walking down the street and you say, 'My God, she's beautiful.' You don't say it's because her nose is so many millimeters from her check. Some things can't be explained.
You also talk about combining storytelling with a perspective on life.
Howard: To me the greatest novel I know is 'War and Peace,' not only because Tolstoy was a superb, instinctive storyteller, but because he had the perspective of a man of great compassion. In his book, he speaks of Napoleon as a murderer, a soulless monster, which spells out Tolstoy's philosophy of war and peace.
Perspective is everything. Where you sit. What you think. What you see. That determines all that happens.
As your career was moving along you became a champion of the leftist point of view.
Howard: This is my personal position, so it resides in whatever I write.
Back in the 50's that wasn't a popular position.
Howard: It is never a popular position. You know the wonderful Gilbert and Sullivan song, 'but I often think it comical, that every boy and every girl that's born into this world alive, is either a little liberal or else a little conservative.' You must ask yourself Why does it work that way?'
To put it on the simplest level, if there is a pothole on the street – why must people fight for five years to get it fixed? Why must we fight for better schools? We have to fight for everything positive that exists in our lives, while the negative comes so easily. We don't have to fight for stupid, murderous wars. The government provides that willingly.
But why should this be? Why should we have to fight the President of the United States for simple things that people need – food, environment, clean air, decent housing, etc?
And so this position, this 'left and right thing' goes on and on. Maybe because government is essentially a bad thing. Who knows? Yet there is no way to run a society without a government.
Some people believe that a degree of corruption and ineptitude in government is inevitable.
Howard: These things are rooted in human nature. I once asked a very smart doctor why so many heart attacks occur when men are shoveling snow. He gave me an interesting answer. He thinks that in our evolutionary development this particular motion was never required, so we never developed the facility to do it well – and that may be the answer to your question. The government of one by another is something people do badly.
During the 50's you were blacklisted because of your views.
Howard: The blacklist began in '48 or '49 and lasted for 10 years. It was a terrible time.
Thousands of teachers were driven out of their schools, and the reputations of hundreds of writers, actors, and artists were ruined. It was a time of terror and revenge. Fear permeated the nation. No evidence was required. Once you were marked red, people were afraid to talk to you. They walked past you on the street and pretended they did not see you, because they were afraid someone would see them greet you and inform on them.
The stress must have been enormous.
Howard: Some people survived, some were destroyed. There were many heart attacks, many suicides, and hundreds of careers ruined.
There also were many accounts of what happened.
Howard: There was a great deal written about it at the time. But today it's mostly forgotten. We have no respect for history.
When did you first get involved with Buddhism?
Howard: About 30 years ago. It's probably the best way I know for a human being to live in today's world.
How would you describe Buddhism in your own life?
Howard: When you practice Buddhism, you practice meditation, and certain things happen to you which you cannot easily explain. Change takes place in your body, and in your entire point of view. Changes take place in your life.
How did your life change?
Howard: There is an old Zen story: A Buddhist is asked, 'How do you differ from other people?' The Buddhist replies, 'Other people look upon their skin as something that separates them from others. As a Buddhist, I look upon my skin as something that connects me with others.' That requires great change.
What is now different in your life?
Howard: Everything. You have greater compassion and understanding. You become less intrigued with yourself.
We're in a stage now in American society where the mask, the image you create to cover your real self, is of the utmost importance. It becomes the measure of the man. The Buddhist tries to forget the image, destroy it and be what he deeply and essentially is.
You wrote a series of five novels beginning with The Immigrants which itself sold over three million copies. Was it your first series?
Howard: It's the only one I ever wrote. The idea started with a film producer who said, 'Why don't you write something about the history of California?'
I thought about it a great deal, and decided my main character would be a woman born the same year I was born. The first book tells the story of her father and grandfather. Then I took her from 1914 up to 1982.
Where do you leave her at the end of the series?
Howard: On the last page, I left her organizing the San Francisco branch of a nuclear freeze demonstration – like the one we had several years ago, when a million people gathered in Central Park.
So even as the story closes, she is still with us, still speaking out. She is 68 years old, wiser and more compassionate than ever. If I live, I'll tell her story over the next ten years.