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Literary scholar helps preserve seminal LA writer John Fante's archives

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UCLA announced recently that it's purchased the archives of seminal Los Angeles writer John Fante. Scholars believe the documents shed light on an important mid-20th century novelist and his times. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez toured the archives with the Cal State Long Beach professor who was largely responsible for pairing them with UCLA.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne says that without John Fante's 1939 novel, Ask The Dust, his film would have been very different.

Robert Towne: I was doing research for Chinatown, at least what became Chinatown, and I was looking for something that was written in the time period that would reflect, at least as near as my memory could tell, an accurate and well-observed view of the City of the Angels in the 1930s.

Guzman-Lopez: By the time Chinatown hit movie screens 35 years ago, Fante's fame had faded. Towne praised the novelist in media interviews to expose more people to Fante's forceful, street-level prose inspired by working class Angelinos.

One such review in the Los Angeles Times piqued Stephen Cooper's interest. Cooper was a recent UCLA graduate living in a hot plate apartment east of La Brea, and feeding a burning desire to become a writer.

Stephen Cooper: I tracked down this novel at a wonderful old secondhand bookstore that no longer exists, Needham Books on Westwood Boulevard. And took it home and read it, and was just enthralled.

Guzman-Lopez: Cooper couldn't get enough. He says that reading Fante taught him how to be a writer. He went on to earn a master's degree in creative writing and a doctorate in English, and he promised colleagues he'd write the first biography of John Fante.

Cooper did – a 400-page tome titled Full of Life. Fante's widow gave him full access to four crammed filing cabinets at her Point Dume home. Nine years after Full of Life's first publication, Cooper surveys some of those neatly arrayed documents in a dimly-lit basement reading room at UCLA's Charles Young Research Library. It's the papers' new home.

Cooper: I see the box with the original manuscript of The Road to Los Angeles, the first novel that Fante really completed writing. I see two scripts that he wrote for Orson Welles back in the very early 1940s.

Guzman-Lopez: Also preserved: 240 letters that reveal intimate and mundane details about Fante's life.

Cooper: Dear Mother, this is 1932. I leave here tomorrow for Compton, a town 15 miles to the southeast where I am going to meet a man in charge of a cooperative unemployment bureau which is grown to the extent that it feeds and clothes 100,000 people in Los Angeles County. This is in heart of the depression, and he's just scrambling for any work at all, at this point.

Guzman-Lopez: These were the years, his early twenties, when Fante paved the road to his writing career. His burning passion is evident in his letters to H.L. Mencken, one of the most famous American newspaper columnists of the early 20th century.

Cooper: In one letter Fante asks the great man's advice. "Is it right," Fante asks, "to write so hard that in one 30-day period I had finished 150,000 words and lost 30 pounds?" And Mencken writes back, "No, that's a little extreme. Scale back, give yourself a break now and then."

Guzman-Lopez: Editor's marks fill thousands of manuscript pages. They reveal the creative process in ways that modern-day computer files cannot. The archive, 23 linear feet, also includes dozens of television and film scripts, bills, and a lock of Fante's hair. And the typewriter Fante biographer Cooper describes as big, stout, and heavy.

Cooper: I suspect if you go through all the photos you'll see him at this or that desk hunched over this machine.
Guzman-Lopez: What do you think of when you see this typewriter?
Cooper: Well, all the work and all the soul that went through it, all the frustration, the occasional triumphs.

Guzman-Lopez: His voice thickens with emotion as he recognizes that the resting place for Fante's archives played a big part in his own writing career 35 years ago. Stephen Cooper, then 24 years old, came here after he read Ask The Dust and set out to find any available biographical material on John Fante.

Cooper: I found John Fante's address and I wrote him a letter, and he wrote me back. A brief letter. But at the end he said, "Writing is horrible, the profession of writing is horrible, but writing is a great joy. I wish you all the luck in the world."

Guzman-Lopez: Time's eating away at the edges of Fante's papers. Cooper feels lucky to have helped place them in an institution that'll take care of the documents and ensure that future literary scholars and fans won't forget the words and ideas they contain.