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The Standard Times 8-24-97

The word ... and Howard Fast

At 82, prolific author still has stories to tell

Photo By Amy Selwyn, Associated Press writer

"In the beginning, there was the word. And the word was God," intones octogenarian writer Howard Fast.
"I'm not sure what that means exactly," Mr. Fast says, laughing. But the prolific author is sure that the word -- specifically the written word -- is of paramount importance to his life.
Howard Fast is a storyteller. His 85 books include "April Morning" and "Freedom Road," both almost required reading in high schools around the country. Mr. Fast also authored "Spartacus," later an award-winning film starring Kirk Douglas. He's won an Emmy, a National Jewish Book Award and the Schomburg Award for Race Relations.
He also was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for Communist party membership and has emerged not only a working writer, but with best sellers to boot.
Today, at 82, Mr. Fast is promoting a new book, "An Independent Woman." It is the sixth and final chapter in his "Immigrants" series, a collection of books Mr. Fast began writing 23 years ago. He talked about his work and life in an interview at his Old Greenwich, Conn., home.
"When I began an outline in 1974," says Mr. Fast, "my wife Bette and I drove up to San Francisco and went into the Napa Valley. I got the idea of writing a book about a woman, with San Francisco and Napa as the two locales. I thought about these two families, tracing their relationship. And I began the book."
Mr. Fast found the story of Barbara Lavette, his politically minded heroine, taking on a life of its own. "At the end of the first 600 pages," he recalls, "Barbara was only 18 years old. I told my publisher it would have to take 3,000 pages, and he was very upset. Because in the '70s, you couldn't sell a book that size. You couldn't charge $30 for a book. So, he said to me, 'We'll print this. You go on.' I went on. And on. And on -- and produced five books."
Those five books, "The Immigrants," "Second Generation," "The Establishment," "The Legacy" and "The Immigrants' Daughter" sold 9 million copies, according to Mr. Fast. "That's how I can afford a house like this. It all came from Barbara."
The author smiles, waving his hand to indicate the elegant living room, the baby grand piano and the glass doors leading to a terraced property overlooking a golf course. "Barbara was good to me."
And Howard Fast was good to his character, as well, giving her strength, intelligence and dignity. "All my life, I wanted to write a good, full book about a woman. Because I love women. The great tragedy of our times is that most men don't like women very much. It's a very sad thing because they're missing so much of life."
Mr. Fast clearly loves women. Barbara was inspired by his wife, Bette Fast, an artist whose work decorates the Fast home, and "An Independent Woman" is dedicated to Bette. It is a book Mr. Fast never planned to write. For it is a tribute and a bittersweet goodbye to the woman who shared his life for 57 years and who succumbed to cancer nearly three years ago.
"I was rather determined to let the story end with the fifth book. But then my wife died. She was so very much the model for this woman. I had been through the hideous experience of knowing my wife was dying. I decided to go through and finish the book -- through Barbara's cancer." Mr. Fast pauses. "I wrote it to get the grief out of my system."
Mr. Fast says it was extremely difficult to write the chapters dealing with Barbara's illness. Even discussing it, the author remains emotionally raw. Yet, as he quickly explains, he had strong support in the person of Mimi Denis, an attractive investment banker from New Orleans whom Mr. Fast met shortly after his wife's death. He credits Ms. Denis with renewing his sense of hope and his will to live.
The two appear well-suited, and each is proud of the other's accomplishments. Ms. Denis likes to share details Mr. Fast seems shy to reveal. For example, Ms. Denis says, Mr. Fast actually wrote 13 complete books before even graduating from high school. The 14th, entitled "Two Valleys," was published in 1933, when the young writer was only 18 years old.
Encouraged, Mr. Fast picks up the thread. "I was working in a factory, and I got up at 6 o'clock in the morning to write." He settles back in his chair and lights one of his beloved cigars. "Yes, I suppose I always wanted to be a writer."
Mr. Fast is tickled and genuinely surprised by his success. The grandson of Ukrainian immigrants, he grew up in poverty in New York City. His mother died when Mr. Fast was only 8 years old, leaving a mostly unemployed husband and three small children. It was rough going, says Mr. Fast. "But, it was cool to be poor during those years. Everyone you knew was poor. The thought of becoming rich was simply not there."
He quickly adds, however, that the struggle of the immigrant experience made a lasting impression on him. Howard Fast came to value human life through the hardships he experienced as a child, and that sentiment permeates both his writing and his philosophies.
"I am a pacifist," he says forcefully. "I do not believe there is ever justification for killing another human being. I believe the worst thing we suffer from is man's inhumanity to man, and with man I include woman. It strikes me how put upon women are. They are asked to rear a child, nurse the child, feed the child. Then the government -- any government -- has the right to put the child to death by sending it into war."
Clearly, Howard Fast has more to say. So could there be another book in the making? Mr. Fast says no. Probably not. Well, actually ...
Howard Fast finally admits it: he's got seven pages of a new book and, not surprisingly, it's about a woman.
Pointing to Ms. Denis, Mr. Fast says, "I am attempting to write about that young lady and myself. This might be fictionalized to the extent that only our neighbors would know."
Ms. Denis laughs. She says Mr. Fast's idea of fictionalizing is fibbing on the age issue. "What I love," she says, "is that in the first seven pages that he's set up, it's a 47-year-old woman and a 78-year-old man. I asked Howard, '78?' And he said, 'Nobody would believe 82!"'
Drawing lightly on his cigar, the author looks out over the flowerpots and sculptures that decorate his property.
"My life," he says, "is related to a sheet of paper." Then, only half-joking, Mr. Fast smiles and adds, "If I hadn't been able to become a good writer, I'd have been a bad writer."

Photo by The Associated Press
Author Howard Fast poses at his writing desk in his Old Greenwich, Conn., home. He is promoting "An Independent Woman," the sixth and final chapter in his "Immigrants" series.
The Detroit News version, entitled "Howard Fast's own 'Independent Woman' gives him inspiration" was slightly abridged.